Surprising Things Happen When You Watch 6 Fast and Furious Films in a Row

The early movies run together in a blur of shiny metal, but in recent years, director Justin Lin has polished the franchise into something inventive and genuinely thrilling.
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We all have our cultural blindspots. Some people have never seen a single Star Wars film. Others couldn't tell you the difference between Doctor McCoy and Mr. Scott, or what makes a hobbit distinct from a dwarf. Even among film critics, we who attempt to see and educate ourselves on as many far-flung corners of the cinematic universe as humanly possible, there are (sometimes embarrassing) gaps.

Me? When this week started, I'd never seen any films in the now-hexalogy that is The Fast and the Furious, the series that has grown from humble beginnings as a movie about muscle-bound muscle-car racers into a hugely successful and well-known action franchise. Well-known, but not to me. That situation has been rectified, though: In one punishing, 12-hour stretch, I caught up on over a decade of speed, fury, hulking pecs, and piercing blue eyes.

Seeing these six films in what was essentially a single sitting (I did need to leave the house, much to my couch's relief, to see the most recent installment) left me feeling like I'd spent half a day inhaling exhaust fumes. But I'm not going to blame the Fast/Furious series for that. It's entirely possible that my inability to focus on something so simple as a game of Words With Friends afterwards could have happened after any six movies watched end to end. I shouldn't have been surprised that I passed out on the couch immediately after returning from the screening of Fast & Furious 6 and didn't wake until dawn, bleary-eyed and head spinning.

The marathon did offer up some actual surprises, not least of which was how quickly most of those 12 hours passed.

Say what you want about The Fast and the Furious movies. Call them big, dumb, loud, ridiculously implausible, distractingly melodramatic, and annoyingly repetitive. I won't disagree with any of that. If I had to watch one more overwrought Vin Diesel scene featuring his Dom Toretto growling, sad-eyed and solemn, about the importance of family, I might have disowned my own just out of spite. But after speeding through these films with the fast-burning intensity of a nitrous-infused engine, I can now understand the appeal of this series, which has made $1.5 billion so far and shows no signs of slowing down. Not only that, I'll likely turn out eagerly for the next installment.

That's not to say these are masterpieces. The 2001 debut, The Fast and the Furious, is a pretty generic action flick: a fine enough diversion, but hardly the sort of thing one would expect to spawn a long-running dynasty. The sequel, 2 Fast 2 Furious, already made it seem like the series had reached a dead end, having packed in more neon lights and drug-dealing swagger than every Miami Vice script combined. It's practically unwatchable.

I can pinpoint the exact moment near the start of the third film, Tokyo Drift, when my thoughts began to do some drifting of their own, wondering if this whole endeavor might have been ill-advised. One character throws a baseball at a car's rear window, and despite it leaving a nice round hole in the glass and obviously going into the car, the next shot shows the ball landing on the pavement next to the car. If the filmmakers have given up caring about such basic continuity only a few minutes into the third installment in the series, the rest of this day was going to be really long.

As it turned out, the third film is just self-consciously silly, gleefully ripping off the Karate Kid but subbing driving skills for martial arts. It features none of the cast of the previous films in anything other than a cameo, and to some extent feels like a desperate attempt to switch things up in a franchise already running on empty. But by the end, it's not so bad, really: We do get a welcome break from the ceaselessly steely gaze of series regular Paul Walker, and Tokyo Drift finally boasts a director, in Justin Lin, with the knack for inventive car sequences that a series about street racing deserves.

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Ian Buckwalter is a freelance film writer based in Washington, D.C. He contributes regularly to NPR, Washingtonian, and DCist.

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