Why? Though I met Vin Diesel one time and he was friendly enough, I was never a huge fan of the guy onscreen. And I never much liked his pal, Paul Walker.
The real appeal of these movies is down to the cars, and it always has been. And though I’ve enjoyed car-chase classics Gumball Rally, Cannonball Run, Two-Lane Blacktop, Vanishing Point and Death Race 2000 when I was a kid, I just never saw the appeal with these new car movies.
For the sake of full disclosure, I did see the first one, The Fast and the Furious, when it opened. I remember thinking to myself, damn, I like watching muscle cars, fast cars, and exotics, but all we have here are a bunch of “tuners”.
I get why they’re big; there’s an industry fed by mostly young men who can customize the engines of their otherwise inexpensive, factory compacts to get a high-performance machine. But having lived in Toronto where these overcompensating bros and their little cars were a big part of the neighbourhood, it limited their muffler-free appeal on screen.
So the movie didn’t grab me.
After six movies, audiences are grabbed. This thing just keeps getting faster, louder, and bigger. And who am I to argue with success? I figured I’d wade in, maybe I’d find something here I could recommend.
Let’s go chronologically, shall we?
The Fast and the Furious (2001)
Directed by Rob Cohen, From a magazine article by Ken Li, Written by Gary Scott Thompson, Erik Bergquist and David Ayer.
Hot Car: 1970 Dodge Charger
Revisiting the b-movie that started it all, I remembered why I’d forgotten it. Basically Point Break with cars, Walker plays Brian, the undercover cop infiltrating Dominic Toretto’s (Diesel) street racing gang in Los Angeles to figure out if they’re moonlighting as electronics thieves. (Sorry for the spoiler, but they totally are.) To complicate matters, Brian falls for Dom’s sister, Mia (Jordana Brewster).
The Point Break comparison isn’t really fair because while the machismo of the Kathryn Bigelow film is very much on display here, Walker has a fraction of the charisma of a Keanu Reeves or a Patrick Swayze. It doesn’t help that his character arc proves nothing except that he’s a terrible cop.
But I underestimated Diesel. Upon a second viewing, he really owns the movie with his performance chops, intensity and distinctive growl. “I live my life a quarter mile at a time.” It’s a good line.
Why Dom even puts up with Brian is a bit of a mystery—even though Brian saves him from the cops in the first act. The too-sweet bromance makes you want to yell at Dom, “Dude, he’s playin’ you!”
In their final scene together I half expected them to make out… their chemistry is more palpable than either man and their romantic interests. That said, the braggadocio extends to Dom’s tough girlfriend, Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), who has great, snarly presence but not enough screentime. I think the movie uses Walker as a wish-fulfillment for any pasty white guy who wanted to feel part of a cool street gang.
The street racing scenes have some bite—and solid use of nighttime LA locations—but director Cohen has a habit of geeking out on the CGI, taking us inside the cars’ pumping pistons, which all makes it look like an out-of-date edition of Forza Motorsport. More than a decade later, the cars seem trashier than ever, and compounding that, the daytime scenes are also way overlit, making the movie look like a ’70s TV cop show.
But I get why it was a hit. The plot—which feels like a western, really—is compelling, the action scenes and suspense are well-handled with a pumping soundtrack (heavy on the hip hop). And a passel of different characters get to shine—Chad Lindberg as Jesse and Matt Schulze as Vince, both part of Dom’s crew, have strong scenes. All part of a great representation from a multiethnic cast.
And there’s at least one stellar driving stunt. Maybe two.
2 Fast 2 Furious (2003)
Directed by John Singleton
Written by Gary Scott Thompson, Michael Brandt and Derek Haas
Hot Car: 1970 Dodge Hemi Challenger
The biggest thing in the debit column for this sequel? No Diesel. And expecting Walker to the carry the picture is just a mistake—even while adding the charisma of Tyrese Gibson.
Even if he had anything going on behind his pretty blue eyes, neither Walker nor the script seems to know why his Brian helped Dom escape at the end of the last one. The half-assed explanation of lingering guilt around his buddy’s incarceration doesn’t ring true at all. There was some serious homoeroticism going on there. Brian is the most closeted action hero I’ve seen in ages—emphasized by all those close-ups of gear-shifting.
In this movie Brian is now also an outlaw, making money on the underground street racing circuit, this time in Miami. But the cops catch up and force him to infiltrate the operation of a gangster named Verone (plasticky Cole Hauser) as a pro wheelman. Brian insists on bringing an old pal, Roman Pearce (Gibson), in on it. Why the cops agree doesn’t make any sense.
You know what else doesn’t make any sense? The cops already have someone undercover in Verone’s organization: Monica Fuentes (Eva Mendes). What are these chuckleheads going to accomplish that she won’t?
It’s a mistake to expect anything like logic in this picture. Making matters worse, Boyz N The Hood director Singleton, who has never quite reclaimed his debut’s electricity, overedits the actual racing scenes, cutting between gear shifting, intense faces, and the cars on the road so fast it all feels like anime. A chance to stage a car jump stunt in the third act, something that could’ve topped what they did in the James Bond pictures The Man With The Golden Gun or Live And Let Die, is bungled in favour of something that’s painfully, obviously faked.
On the plus side, there are more muscle cars in play slathered in custom paintwork. And Ludacris is a fine addition to the cast. But that’s a pretty slim list of pluses.
The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006)
Directed by Justin Lin
Written by Chris Morgan
Hot Car: Mazda RX7 Vielside (when in Rome…)
This was a surprise, how good it is.
The third entry in this franchise is apparently set in the future, which is a clever bit of retroactive narrative assigning since the key character of Han (Sung Kang)—who meets some fairly terminal difficulty here—appears in the next three films, only to head to Tokyo at the end of the sixth film. That closes the loop nicely. But there’s not much in the actual running time (or collection of very 2006-looking vehicles) to indicate it’s set in some future era.
But that’s beside the point: on its own Tokyo Drift is a nice, self-contained-teen-coming-of-age-street-racing movie. It’s pretty graceful in its genre collusions, with the added bonus of having been shot, at least partly, on location in Tokyo.
What does it share with the rest of the franchise? The women in the picture are either wallpaper, draped over gleaming fenders, or commodities, to be won by the men in contests of fuel-injected steel. That’s getting really boring. But otherwise, with the talented Lin at the helm, the street racing scenes are strong and the drama is diverting enough for the genre.
Sean (Lucas Black) is a 17-year-old bad boy (well, he’s really a nice boy who gets into trouble now and again) whose single mother has been moving him from town to town every time he screws up, usually while street racing. This time he’s going to juvie unless his military man father takes him in. Problem is, dad lives in Tokyo. But off Sean goes, enrolling in a Japanese school even though he’s got no grasp of the language. Saving graces in class appear in the form of a fast-talking pal, Twinkie (Bow Wow) and the inevitable romantic interest, Neela (Nathalie Kelly).
For a second there this movie looked like it was going to be a teen Lost In Translation, something grittier and more real than what it turns out to be. That’s not to say it doesn’t hit the easier targets it also aims for, but briefly its ambitions feel broader.
Of course, Neela has a possessive Japanese boyfriend, DK (Brian Tee), who works for his Yakuza uncle and street races. Turns out there’s a technique that all the local speedsters know, called “drifting,” and it’s something Sean needs to learn how to do. Fortunately, DK’s business partner Han sees promise in the kid, and mentors him in the drift.
More racing follows and, as I said, the Tokyo-set stuff is especially fun. A third-act race down a mountain is so obviously in the Hollywood Hills it dilutes some of the local flavour of the film, but there’s still a lot of culture clash stuff to enjoy here.
At some point, someone at Universal must have considered that this movie franchise might turn out to be an anthology, different characters across the planet engaged in illegal racing. That might have been a good call, and something to consider down the road. But since they managed to get the original cast together again, on to #4….
Fast & Furious (2009)
Directed by Justin Lin, Written by Chris Morgan, from characters by Gary Scott Thompson
Hot Car: 1970 Chevrolet Chevelle SS
The gang’s all back together in this, the moodiest entry in the franchise and helmed again Lin, who’d take it with this cast to its current heights. But first he has to get us to care for these characters again.
He does it by bringing them all back to Los Angeles, though we start in the Dominican Republic. Dom and his crew, including Letty and Han (I guess we’re to assume this his first appearance chronologically in this series) are still doing what they do best, ripping off trucks while at high speed on the highway. (Why they just don’t hotwire these vehicles while they’re standing still somewhere is never a question that gets asked in this series, so I won’t start now.)
Dom’s still a wanted man and he’s starting to feel like the heat is coming down, so he bails on Letty, only hearing later on that she was murdered in Los Angeles by a gangster.
From there, Dom is out for revenge. It’s a good motivator. The big surprise is that even though Brian has clearly shown himself to be hopeless at law enforcement he’s now working for the FBI, trying to track down this gangster who’s responsible for Letty’s death, a guy named Braga (the great John Ortiz) and his right-hand-man Fenix (Laz Alonzo). Handily, Braga’s looking to employ drivers, so Brian and Dom try out. Cue more gear-shifting, driving fast through populated areas, and poorly articulated criminal plans.
In this one we get a lot more plot and a lot more talking. It’s not a bad thing: Lin seems to have used Michael Mann’s Heat as inspiration, trying for a real crime drama along with the requisite high-speed race scenes. Brian and Dom’s bromance continues, and finally we get a reasonable excuse for why Brian let Dom go at the end of the first movie—respect, yo. It isn’t truth—that was pure man-on-man love, baby—but it’s the most plausible excuse we’ve heard in this macho world.
Mia is back, and there’s a new cast hottie, Gisele (Gal Gadot), but in a franchise where, so far anyway, the women are always somewhere down the list of men’s priorities after cars, speed, money, a code, and brotherhood, Fast & Furious treats its female cast particularly poorly in this one. And Mia and Brian’s romance is unconvincing.
The action sequences are good, and Lin manages to maintain, if not further, the series’ automotive thrill ride. A race through subterranean mines is a bit too CGI-ed for my liking, but I did enjoy how Dom opens windows by shattering them with his elbow, and gets cars to flip by shooting their tires with his shotgun.
Fast Five (2011)
Directed by Justin Lin, Written by Chris Morgan from characters by Gary Scott Thompson
Hot Car: 2010 Dodge Challenger
Dom is going to prison for a long time, but not if Brian and Mia have anything to do with it. In a spectacular (though wildly improbable, how does that prison transfer bus actually flip?) breakout, Dom is set free and everyone’s on the run.
For some reason they choose Brazil to hide out from the US authorities, and while waiting for Dom to show up, Brian and Mia busy themselves with a job, one organized by Dom’s old buddy Vince (Matt Schulze, from the first movie if anyone can remember that far back) along with some big names in the Rio de Janeiro underworld.
The plan is to steal a few hot cars off a train, including a De Tomaso Pantera, a customized 1960s Corvette, and a Ford GT40. (They’re all gorgeous.) However, right in the middle of the heist the Brazilians get all freaked out and people start to die, including two American DEA agents. Of course, Dom and his crew are blamed for their deaths, and attract the attention of US uber-agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), a dude with a franchise in arm butter who knows how to get the job done.
Before we go any further, I want to say that Lin has upped his game as an action director in a big way.
The train heist is so much fun. The combination of stunts and action is perfectly shot and executed, evoking a high-octane version of any number of western action sequences. And while I’ve regularly given Walker a hard time in these movies, I recognize he does have the physical gifts to be believable in this kind of scene.
So, after Brian and Mia are captured by the Brazilian baddies, then escape, they figure out the car in question holds a computer chip with details to where Reyes (Joaquim de Almeida), the king of local crime, stashes his cash. Of course they hatch a plan to take it from him, while his goons and the US tough guys descend on Rio’s favelas looking for Dom and his cronies.
This cues a number of great chase sequences (one over the neighbourhood rooftops is pretty impressive) and then a second and third act which is all about planning and executing the theft of Reyes $100 million from a downtown police station, a plan that includes bringing in other skilled operators, many of whom will be familiar to fans of the series.
Fast Five, while being frequently ridiculous, delivers big thrills. Lin is a poet of action set-pieces, coordinating car chases, smash-ups and explosions like he was born behind the steering wheel holding a fistful of dynamite. He gives the locations in Rio plenty of love with a series of gorgeous helicopter establishing shots combined with a frankly astonishing safe-dragging conclusion, the likes of which I’ve never seen before.
And because Brian and Dom’s skills as drivers have long been established, when they set out to procure faster cars for their heist, we don’t even see the race, only the machines they win. That’s some clever narrative economy right there.
One of the (perhaps unintentional) pleasures is the continued thread of machismo. No one backs down from anything, the pumped and perspiring biceps of The Rock competing with the thick neck of Diesel for fleshy prominence. And, for the first time, the women in the picture actually have something to do besides wait for the men to splash all over the road. It’s late in coming, but better than never.
Why the F&F films maintain such an international cache is easy to see at this point. This is a very ethnically diverse combination of characters speaking English, Portuguese and Spanish. It’s like an international Oceans 11—sans all the silk shirts. And this entry is far and away the best of the series to date.
So… how does the sixth edition move?
Fast & Furious 6 (2013)
Directed by Justin Lin, Written by Chris Morgan, from characters by Gary Scott Thompson
Hot Car: 1971 Jensen Interceptor
Really well, thanks very much.
This franchise has earned the right to wear its numbers proudly. The fourth might have simply been Fast & Furious, but right now this gas-guzzling series is on top of the world, and Lin has brought it here. The sheer verve of the last film means audiences are primed for thrills and self-aware laughs in almost equal measure. All I know is this sixth edition upshifted and drafted right past any of my critical faculties to provide the best time I’ve had at the movies this blockbuster season. It’s ridiculous but it’s really, really fun.
Picking up where the fifth film left off, we find the crew enjoying their hard-stolen gajillions all over the world. Gibson’s Roman Pearce has become something of the go-to funny guy in this crowd, as we’re reminded by his private jet, which has “It’s Roman, Bitches” written on the tail.
Brian and Mia are welcoming their first child while living in the Canary Islands, and Dom is a neighbour. Hobbs shows up—alongside a new ass-kicking colleague, Riley (Haywire‘s Gina Carano)—looking for help against an international terrorist named Shaw (Luke Evans) who’s stealing high tech weaponry from the military. It also seems that Shaw’s got Letty working for him, even though she’s supposed to be dead.
That gets the team back together. There’s a lot of talk about family this time out, a theme that’s laid on a bit thick, especially when you consider these people are from all over, drawn together by their love of money and speed. But then, everything is a bit thick in this series. You’ve got to just go with it if you want to enjoy yourself.
For instance, it would be easy to pick apart the moment in the first act where, congregating in London, our criminal thrillriders follow Hobbs and his men to a spot where they know Shaw is hiding out. They know where he is! But they send in a chump in to make sure Shaw’s on the premises. He’s wired the whole place to blow. If he knew they were coming, why didn’t Shaw just leave and blow it remotely? Because there’d be no opportunity for a ridiculous chase sequence right through London’s west end—and I say ridiculous because have you ever driven in London?
Shaw easily escapes our crew, whose fancy new BMWs are disabled using some kind of electronic scrambler. (That means Ludacris’ Tej has to source some “American muscle,” cars that have the performance but lack the modern electronics. Nice that this time out there are so few tuners and many more classics.)
The film’s huge budget is ever evident, from the multiple London and Spanish locations. If Fast Five was an Oceans 11-style heist, this is the series’ take on James Bond—with more laughs. When Hobbs calls Tej, his iPhone tells him it’s “Samoan Thor”. And there’s a great gag about baby oil. Of course, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson can handle being the butt of a few jokes. Could he be more pumped up? Could his neck be any wider? He’s a giant among men, like Schwarzenegger in 1982.
Speaking of giants, it’s great to see Danish bodybuilder-turned-actor Kim Kold (so good in last year’s Teddy Bear) and Joannes Taslim from The Raid: Redemption, both as part of Shaw’s crew. And I love Carano. She has two outstanding fight sequences with Rodriguez. I hope she gets more work in these kinds of movies.
My least favourite bit of the movie, and frankly, all the movies in this series, is the inevitable, gratuitous women-in-bikinis-cars-revving-sequence as the racers gather for a late-night contest. It’s so cheesy, like it’s out of 20-year-old Vanilla Ice video.
An unexpected sweetness is found in the relationship between Han and Gisele—there’s a great moment in the third act where she saves his bacon. I dug their connection.
And I have to say, Walker has gotten much better. There’s not a lot of emotional complexity, but he’s somehow found a bit of onscreen weight with a few extra lines in his face. He gets his own jaw-droppingly silly little plot corner with a trip back to the States and 24 hours in a State pen, facing off against Braga (the villain from the fourth movie) one more time.
As usual, this is really Diesel’s picture. I love how still he is when he delivers his many one liners in that gravelly baritone.
After a startlingly outrageous highway stunt, the final chase involving gigantic Russian cargo plane on what must be the longest runway ever built—they drive at high speed for a good 15 minutes—is just so much fun. Silly, but fun.
And don’t bolt when the first set of credits come up or you’ll miss a preview of Fast & Furious 7 providing the delicious appearance of the next, very recognizable, villain, along with Han’s final disposition.
Los Bandoleros (2009)
Written and directed by Vin Diesel
Here’s a delightful short film that bridges the original The Fast and the Furious with the fourth movie, Fast & Furious. If this series is really about Dom Toretto and his extended family, then this is essential viewing (a lot more than 2 Fast 2 Furious, that’s for damn sure).
In it, Diesel elucidates his character’s Robin Hood-esque heart, setting up the fuel job at the beginning of Fast & Furious (#4) and the timeline for Han (he mentions he’s never been to Asia, which explains that Tokyo Drift is still sometime in the future), plus he gets to the romantic core of Dom and Letty’s relationship.
Plus, it’s full of lovely, even poetic moments of local colour, and without a single car chase. Who knew Diesel had this kind of talent behind the camera? He should do more of this stuff.