Thursday, May 23, 2013

Fast & Furious Six: Just How Did All Roads Lead to This?

We're one day away from the release of Fast & Furious Six, a movie I'm maybe more excited to see than any other this summer. How the hell did that happen?

I have always been a fan of 2001's The Fast and the Furious. It is a movie that is gloriously stupid, but owns its stupidity. It embraces practical stunts and driving at a time when everything was really making the switch to CGI. Its cast, made up mostly of actors with many qualities other than talent, sells the material like they believe in it 100%. It is the best kind of bad movie: the kind that is actually good.

It doesn't hurt that the first movie is basically just a remake of Point Break, swapping out street racing for surfing. As a huge fan of Point Break, I'm not going to suggest that The Fast and the Furious comes close to the greatness of Point Break, but borrowing its basic structure and its willingness to treat potentially silly material with sincerity was a smart choice. There is something compelling about finding your way into a subculture, especially when it's one as cloaked in faux-masculinity as surfing or street racing. These are men who claim to use their hobbies as an outlet -- a way of life -- but they're really just masks that are covering something else. For all the talk of being a "family," they can only relate to one another this way.
While none of the performances in the original film are traditionally "good," they work because the parts are cast well -- the actors effortlessly inhabit the roles they're asked to play. While the film represents the end of Vin Diesel, Interesting Character Actor and the beginning of Vin Diesel, One-Note Leading Man, he's well-suited to play the burly center of the group. He's the charismatic antihero, and it works. Paul Walker is an actor of limited range, but he has a kind of wide-eyed airheadedness that makes him effective as a guy who works his way into this world and is easily seduced by it. He has a great moment that tells us everything about him as a character, where he finishes a race that he LOST and comes out of his car grinning, saying "I almost had you, bro!" He's a guy who's tickled at the prospect of almost winning a race. He just likes being a part of it all. Michelle Rodriguez is very, very good at being Michelle Rodriguez.

The Fast and the Furious is good at being what it is: a solid B-movie, part '70s drive-in, part '90s action. How it launched one of the biggest franchises in Hollywood is almost impossible to understand, because there is nothing about the film that cries out for a sequel, much less five of them (and counting).

I was less enthused about its first sequel, 2003's 2 Fast 2 Furious, which replaces original director Rob Cohen (no loss) with John Singleton (no gain) and Vin Diesel with Tyrese Gibson. Seeing the movie on opening day, it felt like something that took much of what was dumb about the first film but little of what made it sincere. Turning an ensemble racing movie into a goofy buddy movie, 2 Fast is way sillier than its predecessor and doesn't keep a straight face. Walker and Tyrese run around Florida bickering, driving and trying not to get killed, and it's all ridiculous but kind of fun. Singleton makes the colors really pop and sets just about every scene in sun-drenched daylight, injecting more levity and humor into the proceedings than were found in the first film, but it all just feels kind of...dopey.
My estimation of 2 Fast has grown in subsequent years, though, perhaps because it is no longer just the sequel to a movie I liked but another entry in a franchise that reinvents itself with each new outing. Seeing it now, it's actually the clearest antecedent to the great Fast Five -- much of what Justin Lin did in the best and best-loved installment finds its origins in 2 Fast. It's more of an action movie than the first, making our heroes fugitives (essentially) who are trying to take down a big time bad guy played by Cole Hauser. Fast Five plays out a similar story on a much bigger scale; Singleton doesn't have Justin Lin's talent for staging action sequences, and the movie has a tough time resting solely on the shoulders of Paul Walker and Tyrese, but the movie works as a warm-up to what would become the best film in the series.

The key to enjoying 2 Fast 2 Furious is in the scene in which Cole Hauser's bad guy threatens a dirty copy (Mark Boone Junior) by putting a rat on his stomach, covers it with a bucket and then starts heating it up so that the rat will claw its way into the cop. It's a ridiculous scene -- the kind of thing that would have been right at home in a late '80s James Bond movie -- and calls attention to the fact that the movie recognizes its own lunacy. Much has been made of the film's homoeroticism (Walker and Tyrese sometimes act like spurned lovers still smarting from their failed relationship), but there's plenty to enjoy in the movie without trying to read in to any subtext. It's the kind of movie that walks around with a goofy grin on its face and you want to shake it and say "WHAT ARE YOU SMILING AT??" But then you watch it and you get it.

Not a lot of people liked 2 Fast 2 Furious (they still don't), so the series razed itself and started again from scratch for 2006's The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, creating a sequel in name only and returning the franchise to its roots in street racing. Lucas Black steps in for Paul Walker (there's a passing resemblance there) as a troubled kid who gets uprooted to live with his dad in Tokyo and quickly gets involved in the world of illegal street racing. He makes a friend/mentor in Han, which is important because it introduces Sung Kang into the Fast & Furious universe, and he's the best.

The most important contribution of Tokyo Drift, which exists mostly outside of the series' continuity (minus one terrible development that I keep hoping the series will cheat its way out of), is the addition of director Justin Lin, who would shepherd the series through the next four installments. After making a very small, well-received indie drama called Better Luck Tomorrow, Lin was in danger of landing in movie jail thanks to 2006's Annapolis. But Tokyo Drift changed the course of his career, eventually turning him into one of the most in-demand action directors working today. The movie is colorful and energetic, carrying over the same general sense of fun from 2 Fast. But it's also a pretty standard coming-of-age story that gets most of its mileage (sorry) from the prevailing notion that "cars are cool." There's a weightlessness to a lot of the driving in the film, and not just because it's about "drifting." Lin depends too heavily on computer generated effects and enhancements; it would get a lot worse in the next installment (before it gets better in Five), but there's enough of it here to be a disappointing distraction.
And while I would never accuse Lin or Tokyo Drift of being racist -- one of the franchise's best qualities is its casual diversity -- I've never been able to reconcile the fact that the movie takes place in Tokyo but centers on a white kid whose best friend is black and whose girlfriend (Nathalie Kelley) is Peruvian-Australian. Really? A movie that takes place in Tokyo and three of the main characters are non-Asian? It's something that bothers me every time I see the movie.

Tokyo Drift is considered by many to be the best film in the franchise, but that depends entirely on what one wants out of the series. A lot of fans like it for the cars and the racing, which Tokyo Drift delivers big time. This is the gearhead installment. I'm a much bigger fan of the direction that the movies have taken recently, morphing into heist films told as huge-scale action movies. There's not a lot that's horribly wrong with Tokyo Drift, but it's the entry that's the least for me.

The success of Tokyo Drift and the flagging career of Vin Diesel converged at the same point, so the original cast reunited for Fast & Furious in 2009. Not only does it have the worst title of any movie in the series (and one of them is called 2 Fast 2 Furious), it's also the worst movie in the series. Diesel had outgrown the franchise after the first movie made him a big star, but a series of box office disappointments brought him back to the family, along with original stars Paul Walker, Jordana Brewster and Michelle Rodriguez. What should be a fun homecoming -- a victory lap, if you will -- turns out to be a dour affair that bleeds away much of the series' appeal. Gone is the fun. Gone is the practical stuntwork and driving, instead replaced by CG cars and effects; one set piece involving a rolling oil tanker could have been impressive if the characters weren't just trying to outrun a cartoon.
I have to blame some of it the film's joylessness on Diesel, who seems to feel his character, Dominic Toretto, is a figure of Shakespearean import. While he was certainly a heavy in the original film, there was still some levity to him -- he talked instead of growled and was capable of being a real person. But Fast & Furious finds him a stoic sausage casing for reasons that go beyond the loss of his girlfriend. Yes, Part Four kills off Rodriguez's Letty in a totally unceremonious way (it doesn't even happen on screen), probably so she could go back to shooting Avatar. Now that Fast Five and Six have brought her back, it will go a long way towards making the plot point forgivable -- it's going to seem like something that was planned all along, when really it's just course-correction. Busting up the ensemble is the worst mistake an ensemble movie can make, so it's a good sign that Fast 6 Furious is trying to right that wrong. Of course, knowing what I know about the movie, it's just going to [re]introduce new wrongs.

Coming off the best in Fast & Furious is Paul Walker. I KNOW, RIGHT? Who saw that coming? But by the fourth movie, he had aged out of his "dude, brah" persona and into something more grown up. His arc, in which he has to atone for betraying Mia and once again succumb to the allure of the Diesel is maybe the only thing that works in the movie. He's also at the center of the only good action sequence in the movie -- a hyperkinetic foot chase that once again calls back to Point Break. Of course, it makes no goddamn sense that Walker is an FBI agent this time around. In the first movie he's a cop, but then gets fired for letting a wanted criminal go free. In the second movie, he's a disgraced former cop now basically working as a thief. So then the FBI hires him? Are they in the habit of hiring cops-turned-criminal? Don't worry, because by the end of the movie he's back to being an outlaw, which is where he spends the next two movies. In 6 Fast 6 Furious, he's demanding to get his record cleared. It's safe to say that Paul Walker has the longest journey of anyone in the series, and somehow has turned into one of its strongest assets.

By the time we get to Fast Five, the series has almost completely reinvented itself. It ingeniously pulls the threads of all the movies together -- even the otherwise unrelated 2 Fast 2 Furious and Tokyo Drift -- so that in addition to bringing back the original crew, this installment adds Tyrese Gibson and Sung Kang back into the mix. It's fun to spend time in the company of these characters not because they're particularly well developed, but because we've been with them so long. Fast Five also understands that they're most fun when they're able to bounce off one another -- the scenes with Paul Walker, Tyrese and Ludacris are enjoyable because everyone has a comfort and familiarity with one another. And while Vin Diesel never really gets in on the fun (because he is no longer capable of doing so), the film wisely adds Dwayne Johnson as its antagonist to give Dom a worthy adversary, physically speaking. Watching those two monsters smash into one another is one of the movie's many pleasures, even if there is no planet on which Dwayne Johnson doesn't turn Diesel into Riddick Pudding.

But the real greatness of Fast Five is that it takes a series that was once about racing cars and stealing DVD players into an Ocean's Eleven-style heist movie with a real emphasis on the "team" dynamic. Five was such a pleasant and satisfying surprise that it forced us all to reevaluate the entire series, as though each totally different movie was building towards Five. In reality, Five was just another installment of the constantly evolving franchise; it just happened to be the one where everything finally clicked into place. It is a total blast -- endearing enough to cast greater affection on the whole series. I like Fast Five enough that it makes me like all the Fast & Furious movies even more.
Like the Saw series, one of this franchise's best qualities is its slavish dedication to continuity and the way it tells one long story that keeps twisting and shifting the longer it goes on. When 2 Fast's Eva Mendes makes a cameo in the post-credits tag of Fast Five, I was genuinely excited -- not because I've been dying for Eva Mendes to reappear in any movie, but because I like that the series is still keeping tabs on the characters in its universe and that the actors are willing to come back even in a small capacity. I'm an easy mark for that kind of thing, and the Fast & Furious franchise delivers it time and again.

F6st & Furiou6 will be be Justin Lin's final entry into the franchise. He's leaving and will no doubt be handed the reins of some $200 million blockbuster or be asked to reboot the Terminator series (to which he has been attached for a few years), and in his place will be original Saw director James Wan. The similarities continue.

According to Vin Diesel, the series will continue. He claims to already know what the next three movies will be about. As long as they continue to be weird and different, as long as the series maintains its continuity and constant evolution, as long as cars are still dragging enormous vaults down busy freeways and launching themselves out of commercial airliner turbines, I will be there.

I will keep living my life a quarter mile at a time.


  1. Is it bad that I've never seen a single one of these movies? The world of street racing is just one that never really appealed to me. However, I, like you, am intrigued by the heist aspect of Fast Five, so maybe I'll check that and 6 out in the near future. The franchise seems to have gone in a neat direction.

    Also, Fast Five has Dwayne Johnson, which has got to be a good thing, right?

    1. I haven't seen any of them either, John. Someday I will, but not this weekend. :-)

    2. I haven't seen any of them either, but Patrick's enthusiasm has made me think I should.

  2. Great column Patrick! I am noticing too that I retroactively am enjoying the previous entries more as time goes on. I've grown to really love this series (and Mission Impossible too) because it's the kind of smaller scope action I like. More and more, I feel like an outsider to the big-budget franchises but the F&F movies are one's where I feel like part of the club.

    1. I think it has to do with lower stakes, too. If a Spider-Man movie isn't great, I'm kind of bummed out. But if a F&F movie isn't great, I'm all "Yeah, well, sure." And when one IS good it's a pleasant surprise, even though I've liked several of the movies. I should have learned by now.

  3. Did you know the "Fast and Furious" series almost went direct to video after the first two sequels? Interesting article (an argument in favor of audience testing basically) about how Universal kept the franchise alive by going the 'heist' route.

    1. Cool. Thanks for the link. Tokyo Drift feels kind of like a DTV movie in the way that Universal licenses franchise titles for unrelated sequels -- American Pie: Band Camp or Bring It On: All or Nothing, that sort of thing.

      Reading that article made me very depressed about the way executives talk about movies. It's the worst.

      For real, though, thanks for posting that.

  4. You know who's probably pissed? Lucas Black! I'm pretty sure that when he did "Tokyo Drift", he thought he would probably be a shoe-in to be in more sequels. Unfortunately, since "Tokyo Drift" was the least-grossing entry and it was decided to shake up the continuity that was set-up by it, he might never get a chance to come back.

    Also, maybe it was because Han was the best thing in "Tokyo Drift", but I thought of him as more of a main character than Bow Wow and Love Interest were.

    1. I keep wondering if they'll end up circling back to Lucas Black. If they keep up with the continuity (and I believe that Six catches us up to Tokyo Drift), I'll bet they do at some point.

      Han is definitely a main character. With him and the bad guy (D.K. for "Drift King," which is HILARIOUS), that's two main characters out of five who are Asian. Not a huge deal, but I don't really understand why Bow Wow and Love Interest couldn't have been Japanese as well.

  5. I never was a fan of these movies and wrote off the series after seeing parts of the second film.

    But "Fast Five" is so great, you're right, it made all the previous entries come together into a cohesive whole.

    "Fast Five" is the Avengers to the other films in the series. A series that was trying to find its way and now that it has, it's very exciting.

    Interesting that you bring up "Saw". James Wan will be making Fast 7.

  6. Like the movies but can't watch 2Fast because it was filmed in my home town and it brings back memories. They were the biggest pains in the ass...the crap the city did to help them film. Whole neighborhoods cut off by street closings. Miami Vice was easy to get along with by comparison.

    Vin Diesel's going back to the well with a Riddick movie as well. Karl Urban will co-star again - good news/bad news depending on how you felt about Chronicles.

  7. No, no, no no no!
    I fell for this one before (I don't remember how or why) and I promised myself never again after I sat down and watched all the Resident Evil films to "catch up" to the most recent one at the movies. That was terrible.
    I've never seen an FF movie before but this article outlines a guilty pleasure of mine, B Grade world building in retrospect (ie Hellraiser, Nightmare on Elm Street etc).
    Oh dear. I think I'm taking myself into it. :-(

  8. Back in February Amazon UK was selling the series box set for about $25 normal money and I asked Patrick if I should go for it. He said yes, it was almost worth it for the latest one alone. That set along with Cloud Atlas were some of the best "blind buys" (I hate stupid collector terms like that but it works) I've ever made.

    They are so much fucking fun! I used to turn my nose up at this franchise and almost pride myself in the fact I'd never seen any of them (so stupid, I know), now I'M planning to see 6666 6 6666666 on opening weekend!

    I don't have much to add to Patrick's assessment of the franchise because he pretty much nails em as I see them. Especially re Paul Walker. My first few minutes with that guy did not make me feel good about what was to come but his "wide-eyed airheadedness" quickly wormed its way into my heart.

    One minor difference I'd have with Patrick is that Tokyo Drift was my least favourite, but that may have been more about the lack of familiar characters I was just starting to like. Then, when I got to Fast & Furious, I was so glad to see them back I was more forgiving of its flaws and able to give scnes like the physics-defying oil tanker cartoon a pass.

    I'm not going to be able to watch them all again before this new one so I appreciate the recap - I'm pumped!

    Brad L. - dooo it....