The Spectacular, Mindless Pleasures of the Fast and Furious Franchise
Seven films in, the appeal of the series's high-octane escapism is stronger than ever.
To say that the Fast & Furious movies are about something, anything, is probably to miss the point of them. At their best, these vessels for “vehicular warfare,” to quote one character, are gloriously silly escapist fare, devoid of rationality or commentary. But for a summary of the now-seven-picture franchise (totaling a collective 821 minutes), look no further than the final sequence of 2013's Fast & Furious 6. In the scene, the good guys’ harpoons ground an armored jumbo jet, which explodes and shoots a speeding car, piloted by the series’ ostensible star Vin Diesel, from its nose and into the fist-bumping promised land of the denouement.
Faster, bigger, louder, and yes, more furious—the F&F movies have, from their 2001 inception, been steadily building to an ever-grander set piece, and to Furious 7, out Friday. The new, reportedly $250-million film completes what has been a steady escalation of the franchise from macho B-movie to blockbuster tentpole. But, even as their Skittle-bright shells have become more and more polished, the F&F movies remain as free of deep meaning as Lucky Charms are of nutrition, while staying just as magically delicious.
Going back, you can almost hear the pitch for the first installment, 2001’s The Fast and the Furious directed by Rob Cohen: It’s Point Break set in the neon-lit drag-racing culture of Los Angeles. A baby-faced Paul Walker played the Keanu Reeves role as an aggressively earnest fed sent undercover to solve a series of mobile heists possibly perpetrated by the don of this gear-head underworld, Diesel’s samurai-solemn mechanic Dominic Toretto. The movie is all but unwatchable now, partly because of its utter lack of humor, but mostly because it seems to take Diesel seriously as a screen presence. The races and chases, though, always the main event, turned audiences on enough to merit a sequel. And 2003’s 2 Fast 2 Furious, directed by John Singleton (sans Diesel), doubled down on the Skittles aesthetic, taking Walker into Bad Boys buddy-comedy territory with the ludicrously silly Tyrese Gibson—as well as the actually funny Chris “Ludacris” Bridges.
The largely nocturnal third film in the franchise, Fast & Furious: Tokyo Drift, functions in retrospect as the tear-down phase for the entire property. None of the original stars took the trip to Japan (save Diesel, who makes a brief cameo before the end credits). But the director Justin Lin—who to that point had only made the high-school crime drama Better Luck Tomorrow and the James Franco Navy picture Annapolis—made the most sense of the built-in video-game structuring, and created a more cohesive, believable car culture. Getting the whole gang (Diesel, Walker, Jordana Brewster, and Michelle Rodriquez) back together for the fourth film in 2009, again directed by Lin, felt like a proper reboot, and justified the back-to-basics title Fast & Furious.
Under Lin, what was always good about the movies—the races and the films' handling of race—got exponentially better with every installment. But what had always been problem spots for the franchise remained so. After joking in the first film that she would give anything to be in a world where she didn’t just cook and clean for the boys, Brewster’s Mia is essentially remanded to the kitchen and then the nursery for the rest of the series. Future Wonder Woman Gal Gadot’s greatest contribution in her three appearances, before she died for the man she loved, was to secure the hand print of a bad guy by allowing him to grab her bikini-clad butt. And Rodriguez’s apparent death in the fourth film—the catalyst for the entire plot—takes place offscreen. Even when she returns, amnesic, in Fast & Furious 6, she remains little more than a modern-day Daisy Duke. At one point in that movie, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, returning as the federal cop, Hobbs, who he debuted in Fast Five, addresses his colleague, played by the former MMA and Haywire star Gina Carano, as “woman”—as in, “Woman! Let the man do the work.” His torture of a prisoner for intelligence the moment before is similarly treated with boys will be boys shrugs.
But, dubious machismo aside, things start to improve notably with the fourth film, as the franchise latches on to the roots of what makes it appealing. The characters, mercifully, begin to take themselves a bit less seriously, making way for more shiny things moving at high speed. Even the word “characters” may be overstating it, as all the cartoonish dialogue, when not plainly expository, is just an opportunity for these archetypes to trumpet their worldviews. Diesel, still insufferable, will spout for anyone within mumbling distance his family-first mantra, and then break his sacred code at the first opportunity (his ditching of Rodriguez’s Letty when things get hot is what prompts the actions that lead to her apparent death).
In fact, for all the time the characters spend talking about their codes and ethics, the most interesting moral statement in these movies is never overtly mentioned. In every film at least one of the principles crosses the line of the law to do what is “right”: Walker’s dutiful cop lets Toretto go free; Toretto helps the cops bring in a drug dealer; The Rock later sides with the outlaw drivers to affect revenge, and then employs them as colleagues. It's not a world in which the law doesn’t matter, or is only faintly felt: Quite the opposite. But these films believe that great men (always men), be they heroes or villains, will cross hermetic boundaries in pursuit of their beliefs. Standing at the Mexican-American border in the fourth film, Walker’s O’Conner says to Diesel’s Toretto, “This is where my jurisdiction ends.” Into the wilderness, outside the law and his jurisdiction, he will go—if only to stage a great chase sequence through the drug dealer’s tunnels beneath the Sonoran desert.
Lin had fun hitting the corners of Chris Morgan’s campy Fast & Furious script, navigating what's essentially a live-action Hot Wheels movie. The big race scene in the film plays like an actual video game, and even the apparently obligatory half-naked-girls-gyrating-around-cars-in-slow-mo sequence is so over-the-top as to be a satire of itself. With 2011’s Fast Five, still the best in the series, the producers apparently realized they had a little mini-Marvel supergroup thing going on, and brought back Tyrese, Luda, and Sung Kang, who played Han in Tokyo Drift. But it's the addition of The Rock that makes the movie and the franchise cohere, his self-possession and cartoonish charm filling the screen time between chase sequences. In typical Furious fashion, the best part of the movie is the chase led by two black Dodge Chargers pulling an elevator-sized bank vault through the city. This sequence, along with the Spain-set freeway chase with the tank in 6, are probably the best crash-em-up scenes ever made.
Which is why these films are so fantastically fun to watch—they deliver precisely what they promise. No less, no more. Fast movies are the Murphy’s law of automotive stunts: Anything that can happen on four wheels will happen before the credits roll. And yet it’s impossible to think of them even as fantasies, to imagine that the viewer is picturing himself in the driver’s seat of the stunt car, pulling the impossible heist. Toretto’s team, their lifestyle, and exploits aren't about wish fulfillment. They're all about the machines and what those machines symbolize. Like they did in the great road movies of the 60s and 70s (Bullitt, Gone in 60 Seconds), the vehicles in the Furious world offer an escape from humble human limitations, from society, from sanity. And, in the case of Furious 7, from gravity.
Even without the director, Lin—who's off working on other projects, including True Detective's second season—Furious 7 more than accepts the terms set by its predecessors, willing itself higher, faster, louder, more furious still. Merging two of the series’ most successful plotlines—do this one last job and get your life back, and bring down this one titanic bad guy before he gets you first—director James Wan (Saw, Insidious) veers into Pierce Brosnan-era Bond ridiculousness, parachuting cars from planes and launching them from one skyscraper to another.
At one point, before Walker’s death, the studio seemed to be considering at least three more Furious movies and a spin-off for The Rock’s Hobbs. Where that stands today is unclear. But with the crazed excitement for this installment (and projected box office), it’s difficult to imagine that the series won't continue on. The algorithm, anyway, is set: Add Diesel. Overstuff with testosterone and outlandish stunts. Vacuum for any shred of meaning or good sense. Push saturation to Candy Apple. Then hit the accelerator.