When I tell people I’m really into the Fast and the Furious movies, I usually get a bewildered look, followed by people asking if I mean that I’m into them ironically. When I inform people that I don’t really buy into liking things ironically, the baffled looks get even worse. Maybe this isn’t as true after Fast Five walked away with a whole boat-full of money in 2011, but I’ve been on board since Tokyo Drift and I’ve been waiting for a good excuse to talk about what I like about this most-unfairly-maligned and under-watched of modern cinematic franchises.
So welcome to Raging Rapidity, the season of Serious About Series where I get down on Vin Diesel and Paul Walker and the gang of street racers, cops, thieves, and other sundry ne’er-do-wells. This is not just to crack wise about how dumb Paul Walker is in general, but also to try to explain exactly why I’m so into this series and why I’ll be the first in line for Fast Six whenever it decides to come out this year.
Strap in, put on some sunglasses, and get ready to let those who are fast and those who are furious drift their way into your heart, one last job and one last quarter mile at a time.
Fast & Furious (2009)
Fast & Furious is the moment when the entirety of this franchise starts to come into focus. After three very different movies of varying qualities, they finally had resources to get everyone back together for a real sequel to the first movie. At the same time, Tokyo Drift is in many ways the epitome of teenage race movies. So trying to recapture the thunder of the youth culture in The Fast and the Furious would probably be impossible, which leaves them with very little: some characters that nobody was that fond of (at that point), a car theme, and a sense that things had to change.
Fast & Furious, then, strips out most of the racing in favor of a pretty straightforward crime story that is in some ways a bigger, more self-serious version of The Fast and the Furious. Paul Walker has graduated from goofy surfer cop to suit-toting FBI agent, and Dom goes off to Mexico to become a Robin Hood type, stealing gas and giving it to poor people, landing on federal Most Wanted lists for his variety of crimes and prison escapes. So when he disbands his entire crew (including a not-dead Han, cementing at least part of this movie as occurring pre-Tokyo Drift), it takes Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) dying while doing some sort of shady crime shit to get him back in the states and back on the radar of Paul Walker and the US government.
Dom tries to infiltrate the criminal organization that Letty was working for in order to discover who killed her, while Paul Walker goes undercover to try to bust the drug cartel, which brings both men together. Paul Walker still has a chip on his shoulder about Dom and Mia and letting them all get away years ago, and Dom is still pissed Paul Walker is a cop. It’s a bubbling cauldron of tension! Especially as both men end up kind of working together to try to bring down the cartel and find Letty’s killer. It’s here that the movie thrusts them into the partnership they never really had before.
This all does a great job of recontextualizing The Fast and the Furious as an action franchise first and a car franchise second. That’s great, because ultimately it wandered as far as it could go in the gearhead direction. That said, it’s not a fully comfortable shift, and the movie feels very uneven at times. The death that kicks off the plot is handled with a seriousness that seems out of place compared to Paul Walker and Dom glaring at each other and continually trying over and over to best each other in races. That tonal inconsistency goes to the rest of the movie, which juggles some haphazard CG set-pieces with a crime plot predicated on boring twists and turns, as well as a set of villains that are utterly forgettable. As plot-driven as these movies are, the hero characters are why we’re here, and Fast & Furious doesn’t seem to really understand that yet.
Which is to say that Fast & Furious just isn’t very good. It’s a solid setup for the movie to come, but it feels like a piece that exists only to cleave the future of the series out from the spectre of what came before. It’s an interesting gear shift (sad_trombone.wav) but it’s more a curiosity and a stepping stone into Fast Five than a great movie on its own. Of course, that’s really an appraisal made in the shadow of what is coming. At the time, when I saw this in a theater, I thought it was fine. Dumb, and way too much CG, but fine. It’s certainly not as bad as 2 Fast 2 Furious!
Most Unintentionally Funny Bullshit, Bro
So let’s talk about that CG. Does anyone remember The Wheelman? Probably not. It was a Midway-published video game for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 that came out in 2009 shortly before Midway went bankrupt. In it, you play as Vin Diesel (who produced the game), who takes on the role of some sort of driver for some criminals or something. I don’t quite remember the full details (who does?) but what I do remember is that the game had a dumb core mechanic: Vin Diesel could switch cars at any time by leaping out of the one he was into and taking over a nearby car, a move known in the game as Air Jacking.
Imagine my surprise, then, when in a moment of pure cross-media synergy that undoubtedly got some marketer paid handsomely, Vin Diesel at the very climax of the film is racing down the bad CG tunnels underneath the US-Mexico border. The car next to him is blocking him from taking the safe road, and his car is about to crash. He opens the door so that it gets torn off, he pulls close to his opponent, and then he leaps out of his car and into their open passenger side window! A real live action Air Jack ™! (Well sort of, since I’m pretty sure the only thing real in the shot is a leaping stunt man.)
I’m sure it sounded like a good idea at the time, when you had Vin Diesel starring in a movie and putting out a video game, but given the fact I had to just explain to you at length what The Wheelman was should tell you how useful that idea was. And the idea that you would co-opt your plot to shove in the extravagant bullshit of video game stunts makes the whole thing feel gross, especially given how much of a non-entity The Wheelman is. Fast & Furious, bafflingly, lives on in our hears.
I’m No Expert, But Cars Probably Don’t Do That
There’s a lot of weird car stuff in this movie, especially given that it has a weird reliance on CG crashes that the other Justin Lin-helmed movies do not. Be it a tumbling gas tanker that Vin Diesel narrowly drives under as it bounces down a mountain road, or the incredibly stupid aforementioned cave racing, the movie just relies too much on a spectacle that doesn’t feel real enough to sell as interesting.
The worst bit of car-based nonsense comes early on in the movie, though, when Dom first hears about Letty and insists that Mia take him to the crash site. He stands there, examining crash marks, and suddenly turns into a Forensic Jedi, capable of reading a bunch of old tire tracks and telling with absolute certainty not just how the crash happened, but how the people reacted once they got out of the cars. This is told through superimposed flashback, involving a scene with a ghost car literally driving through Vin Diesel as he pensively looks on in dismay.
I’m not sure where Dom got his magical CSI powers, but they seem to only exist in this one moment before disappearing into smoke, much like the phantom cars he sees.
The Slashfic Award for Best Homoerotic Moment (presented by Tumblr)
The truth is that anytime Vin Diesel and Paul Walker are in a movie they are going to spend a large amount of time making lovey eyes at each other. Yes, Han is in this movie, but he’s only in it for about two minutes and is totally eclipsed by the mental grudge-fucking Dom and Paul Walker give each other each time they share a scene together. They’ve had this rivalry going for eight years now, and suddenly Dom’s a federally wanted man and Paul Walker isn’t just a cop, he’s a federal agent. You can feel the tension.
It’s hard to pick exactly one moment when there are so many gems. The winner, then, has to be when Dom and Paul Walker head to a club to meet with the bad guy to get vetted for their drug-running jobs. As they sit there trading barbs with one another between the Big Bad while drinking beers, it becomes obvious that there’s more to their rivalry than friendly racing. Obviously they have A Sordid Past. So the Big Bad asks them “Hey, you guys know each other?” Paul Walker looks sheepish at being so obvious when he’s supposed to be a serious undercover cop, but replies “I used to date his sister.” Because that’s a much more convenient answer than trying to psychoanalyze the sexual tension between Dom and Paul Walker that has defined them.
Sadly, by the end of this movie Paul Walker runs off with Mia and cements his heterosexuality, leaving Dom abandoned by both of his true loves. Thankfully, there’s a new romance looming on the horizon for Dom. And it is the MOST …. electrifying homo-eroticism in action entertainment!
A Venn diagram was inevitable, right?