The Fast and the Furious. 2 Fast 2 Furious. The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift. Fast & Furious. Fast Five. Fast & Furious 6. Furious 7. Has there ever been a more confounding or esoteric lineup of titles from a movie franchise? For crying out loud, I almost went cross-eyed typing all of that. Let’s start at the beginning: when the original film raced into theaters back in the summer of 2001, it struck box office gold, yet was met with a decidedly mixed critical response. Universal had an unqualified hit on their hands, but weren’t exactly sure what to do with it. What ended up happening to the series is actually pretty amazing to chart out: The Fast and the Furious kicked things off with a subpar throwback to 1950s greaser films before proceeding to nosedive into cheap, bottom of the barrel thrills (2 Fast 2 Furious and Tokyo Drift), until eventually regaining its footing (Fast & Furious) and then soaring high as blockbuster entertainment (Fast Five, Fast & Furious 6, Furious 7). Love it or hate it, there’s no denying The Fast and The Furious is the diesel engine that could, continually exceeding fan expectations, undergoing critical reassessment, and even surviving one unfortunate case of personal tragedy. This week sees the release of Furious 7, so I thought what better than to re-watch the entire series from start to finish and examine how it rises from the depths of mainstream garbage into something worthwhile. Could there have been a better use of my time? I have no idea what you’re talking about. All I can say is fasten your seat belts, check your mirrors, and activate your NOS canisters; it’s time to take a trip down memory lane. I promise it will all be over soon.
The first time I saw The Fast and the Furious I hated it. It was early 2011, and up until that point my relationship with the franchise was peripheral at best. I was never interested in the illegal street racing subject matter, and the general consensus close friends and favored film critics was that they were all terrible, so I didn’t make any effort to seek them out. That very same year I found myself managing a local movie theatre in my hometown, where hype for Fast Five was huge. When word got out I had not seen any of the other four pictures, I reluctantly agreed to borrow a DVD of the original film from an ecstatic co-worker, who proclaimed it to be the Rebel Without a Cause of our generation. Proceeding with caution, I sat down and watched the film, and the result was nothing short of a disaster. Hate may have been too strong a word, but I did not like the film at all, and not because I thought it was tremendously awful or poorly made, but rather, extremely idiotic and wholly monotonous. As far as I was concerned it was a poor man’s Point Break, only here the surfing, sky-diving, foot chases were replaced with garishly-painted race cars, women in skimpy clothing, and poor performances. You simply could not ask for two leads less compelling than Paul Walker and Vin Diesel. The former, playing FBI agent Brian O’Connor, is completely wooden and struggles to pass off his pretty boy looks for leading man charisma. He often makes Keanu look like Brando. The latter, as criminal Dominic Toretto, is saddled with a less emotive role, playing the part as a brick wall of muscle, delivering all of his lines as a series of grunts and mumbles. Also in the mix is Michelle Rodriguez (a typically awful actress, doing no better here) as Letty, Dom’s street smart girlfriend, and Jordana Brewster as Mia Toretto, Dom’s sister and love interest for Brian. The plot concerned something about a series of heists on delivery trucks containing DVD players, and Brian sent undercover to investigate Toretto’s gang and put a stop to the culprits. Nothing ever looked or sounded remotely fun or exciting as it should have been. Even at only 106 minutes long it was a very grueling and arduous experience to sit through, and the next day I returned the DVD to my co-worker and hoped to never see it again.
Revisiting the film now I found that my opinion has softened a bit, but that might be benefit of insight, knowing there is good to come. It’s still not very good, and I’d chalk it all up to director Rob Cohen. At the ripe old age of 52 when this film was released, Cohen nearly has a heart attack off camera trying to keep this film feeling “hip” and “fresh.” Action sequences are heavily edited (mostly to try to hide the cameos by stuntmen); the script is filled with completely inane bits of dialogue, including fortune cookie pieces of wisdom like “It don’t matter if you win by an inch or a mile; winning’s winning,” or “It’s not how you stand by your car, it’s how you race your car,” or my personal favorite, “I live my life a quarter mile at a time”; and there’s a pronounced male gaze that’s uncomfortable to watch at times, as Cohen’s camera often finds itself lingering on the fleshy parts of scantily clad women, all of whom are nameless and faceless characters offering nothing more than senseless titillation. The sad reality of it all is if one were to stack up The Fast and the Furious against Cohen’s recent oeuvre, with failures like Alex Cross or The Boy Next Door, then the feature is a triumph, as it’s evident the man can no longer produce anything competent with a loaded gun to his head.
Occasionally there will be a neat stunt that is pulled off with some panache, but driving a car under a 16 wheeler would look much more impressive had the Griswold family not already done it back in 1989. The most amusing aspect of the project is how horribly dated it is, from the soundtrack selections (Limp Bizkit!), to the flimsy computer generated-images (Cohen fetishizes the moving parts of a car engine with David Fincher-esque camera movements), and curious wardrobe choices (Matt Schulze wears a mesh tank top over his tank top). The most enduring franchises get things right on the first attempt (Alien, The Terminator) but The Fast and the Furious somehow elected to take the opposite route, leaving room for improvement almost immediately. All in all, this is a mixed bag of a film and an unlikely start to a Hollywood tent-pole franchise. Let’s see how the first sequel was handled…
After the success of the first picture, Universal saw the dollar signs and ordered up 2 Fast 2 Furious. Director Cohen and star Diesel jumped ship to pursue their own interests (and presumably, a bigger pay day) with xXx, leaving Walker to carry the picture alone, something he was clearly incapable of doing. Taking up directing duties is John Singleton, a man best (and only) known for Boyz n the Hood. A quick trip to IMDb reveals his career petered out faster than Cohen’s did, and with 2 Fast 2 Furious the evidence is all there. The plot (if you can call it that) plays out more like a glorified episode of “Miami Vice”, taking Brian O’Connor to Florida where he, yet again, engages in the illegal underground world of street racing. Here, the race scenes look like they have been airlifted out of classic episodes of “Speed Racer”, as Singleton’s camera zooms from car to car with a distinct cartoonish glaze that engorges the frame. The film is campy as all hell, and Walker is stuck with an even dopier script that finds him punctuating every other sentence with words like “bro” and “cuz.” He gets assistance from Tyrese Gibson as wise-cracking troublemaker Roman Pearce and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges as tech expert Tej, both of whom would later reprise their roles in the later installments. 2 Fast 2 Furious is a mess but it never takes itself quite as serious as the first film did, which made the ride a little smoother. No particular highlights here although I was quite fond of Brian and Roman launching a car off of the mainland into the main villain’s yacht, Dukes of Hazzard style. It’s overblown set-pieces like that which keep your finger off the snooze button. Let’s see if the next one fares any better…
This should have killed the series outright. A notorious black sheep, Tokyo Drift was the least pleasant viewing experience I’ve had so far. Hoping to bounce back from the critical lashings of 2 Fast 2 Furious, the series moves to Tokyo to give it a new flavor, hoping the exotic nightlife and glowing neon will act as an oil change for a stalling franchise. Paul Walker has been replaced with cheaper, Paul Walker lookalike Lucas Black, who is sporting a thick southern drawl and offering nothing of consequence to the series. We also have a new director, Justin Lin, who actually goes on to become the David Yates of the series, sticking around for three additional sequels beyond this one and restoring glory to the series. However, I don’t see that promise here, as Tokyo Drift has all the offerings of a DTV sequel: it’s cheap to make, there are no starts in it, and it makes an insane amount of money, much like those wretched American Pie sequels. Looking back on this film now, it often appears that Lin went to the Michael Bay School of Directing: stunts are deafening, performances are abysmal, and the misogyny is laid down thick (one female character is introduced with a gratuitous upskirt shot, and then proceeds to offer herself as the prize in the very first car race scene of the film). The only bright spot in Tokyo Drift is a cameo appearance by Vin Diesel at the very end, clearly a desperate attempt to tie everything together. This could have made for an excellent segue into the next film, but as we later learn (spoiler alert!) Tokyo Drift is actually set in the future, beyond the timeline of the upcoming films and leading into Furious 7. This effectively allowed the filmmakers to retrace their steps and perform some much needed maintenance on the series, which leads me to…
At this point in my retrospective things were looking pretty grim. I was at the halfway point and there had not been anything remotely exciting or watchable. Along comes Fast & Furious. By far the most critically reviled film of the series (sitting at a dismal 27% on Rotten Tomatoes), I actually found Fast & Furious to be the best film yet, and while far from actually being any good, it’s a step in the right direction for a series that has had its “check engine” light on since inception. Fast & Furious is most notable for reuniting the original four cast members (Walker, Diesel, Rodriguez & Brewster) on another adventure, under the tagline “New Model, Original Parts.” It’s a pretty apt summation too, as Fast & Furious is more of a rehash of the original with a grittier aesthetic. Again we find Brian and Dom on either side of the law, forming an uneasy alliance to stop a drug-smuggling baddie in downtown Los Angeles. That concept feels derivative at this point but there are signs of maturation in the performers that feels very welcome. However, the best thing about Fast & Furious is the stuntwork, opening with a solid tanker truck hijacking sequence that commences the film on a high note. There’s also an extended foot chase involving Brian and a hoodlum that must have made Paul Walker a shoo-in for the District B13 remake, Brick Mansions. Also on the plus side is the (apparent) murder of Letty, removing Rodriguez from the bulk of the proceedings altogether. Fast & Furious was definitely a step-up from its predecessors, and it even ended on a cliffhanger ending that takes you right into the opening of…
This is where everything clicked together. Shortly after seeing The Fast and the Furious for the first time (back in 2011) I was given the opportunity to attend an early screening of Fast Five, before any members of the general public had the chance to. I was hesitant at first, and had to be dragged in practically kicking and screaming, but when I sat down and watched Fast Five for the first time something unprecedented happened: I loved it. The franchise that had wronged me several months previous had made amends with me as a filmgoer, and I found myself constantly enthralled from beginning to end. It was a purely visceral experience that left me completely elated and craving for more.
So what went right? Well, the first brilliant decision was to ditch the street racing altogether and craft an Ocean’s Eleven-style heist film. Sure, Diesel and Walker don’t quite have the thespian range of Clooney or Pitt, but they don’t need to when they’re boosting cars off the sides of trains, gunning down mercenaries in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, or, in the best sequence of the series yet, attaching two cars to a ten-ton vault and then proceeding to drive it down the city streets, knocking out everything in its path. The fact that they even thought of this is remarkable in itself. Furthermore, at 130 minutes, Fast Five is nearly 25 minutes longer than the original Fast and the Furious, yet it felt like a leaner and meaner viewing experience, never letting its foot off the gas once. I left the theatre that day a delighted and changed man, eager to face anything else the series had to throw at me.
Seeing the film again several years later I’m happy to report it still holds up. Justin Lin shows impeccable confidence as an action director, displaying an amazing poker face as he embraces the stupidity the series is known for and transcends it into perfectly satisfying and sensational popcorn entertainment. The sight of Dom and Brian dragging that safe into the sides of cop cars, street lights, and coffee shops still puts a smile on my face, granting Fast Five the respect it deserves.
Another welcome addition to the series in this entry is Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as perpetually sweaty DSS Agent Hobbs. A no-nonsense, terrifying wrecking ball of a man, Johnson’s imposing big-screen presence works wonders here and proves to be a crucial asset in the film’s success. His extended fistfight with Vin Diesel is a highlight, observing two veiny men with high-protein diets beat the ever-loving pulp out of each other. Johnson doesn’t just steal the show; he hijacks it and drives off into the sunset with it. For a newcomer his performance is so finely in tune with the rest of this picture’s madness that I only wish they had introduced him to the series sooner. All this and more made me excited for the prospect of the next Fast and Furious film. Here’s hoping they surpass my exceedingly high expectations.
As much as I enjoyed Fast & Furious 6 I must say it does feel like a step backwards from Fast Five. The stunts are still top-notch and the energy is there, but the screenplay does take a tumble from time to time, particularly in the extended moments between action sequences. Tyrese Gibson, who returns as Roman from 2 Fast 2 Furious, has been promoted to comic relief, but the only jokes the production can really seem to muster up are how big his forehead is. Another scene finds Hobbs and Tej buying cars from an auctioneer before forcing the man to strip to his underwear for their own amusement. Ha ha? Perhaps the worst offender of the bunch finds Brian sent to prison in America to investigate why Rodriguez’s character Letty has seemingly returned from the dead, only now she has amnesia. That’s right, a wanted criminal and fugitive walks in and out of a highly secure prison with ease. I know this franchise doesn’t represent the pinnacle of intelligence, but after Fast Five there’s no excuse for this sort of nonsense.
All gripes aside Furious 6 is often quite fun and engaging, finding Lin out to make the stunts bigger and better than Fast Five. If that film was an Ocean’s Eleven heist film, then Furious 6 is his Avengers, complete with a villain hell-bent on world domination and characters performing superhuman acts of destruction, only to emerge from the carnage with nary a scratch on them (not to mention Hobbs is referred to as the “Hulk” and “Samoan Thor,” both times by Roman). Lin also had the brains to hire Gina Carano (Steven Soderberghs’ Haywire) and Joe Taslim (The Raid) to give the film some much-needed action credentials. There are fistfights, a chase sequence with a tank on a highway, and, in the most over-the top and bombastic sequence in the series yet, a take down of a jet plane on the world’s longest airport runaway that combines the thrills of all of the above. Furious 6 apes to be a bigger film than Fast Five, but I often thought it was walking in the latter’s shadow, eager to please those looking for more of the same. Luckily, Furious 6 bounces back with its ending, bringing everyone back together in Downtown Los Angeles and wrapping up the fates of others. The real treat is the post-credits stinger that introduces Jason Statham as the villain for Furious 7. Expectations have never been higher, and now that the film has finally been released let’s see how it all plays out…
And here we are. Suffice to say when the credits started rolling for Furious 6, expectations for Furious 7 could only be described as monumental. With the promise of Jason Statham as the lead villain, and the recruitment of Kurt Russell, MMA fighter Ronda Rousey, and Thai martial artist Tony Jaa (The Protector) in supporting roles, Furious 7 was hastened into production with the intent of being released nearly a year after Furious 6, which would have been the quickest turnaround time between installments yet. Universal was undoubtedly eager to rake in more profits and give fans everything they hoped for. Even I couldn’t deny I was excited to see what was next.
And then on November 30th, 2013, the unthinkable happened. Paul Walker, the ostensible star of the series, died in a tragic car accident, six months before the intended release of Furious 7.
Universal scrambled to figure out what to do next with the picture, as production was still incomplete. Ultimately, it was decided that filming would continue, utilizing Paul Walker’s brothers as stand-ins with his face CGI’d over their own. It was a risky gamble, and now that the film has been released, I am happy to report that the final product is a very fitting and sentimental farewell to Paul Walker. If only the rest of the film was good enough to support it.
(While I have done my best to eliminate any major spoilers below, the general outline of the plot is discussed. Please do not read any further if you wish to keep the film’s secrets safe)
Furious 7 (or, as it’s crudely stylized in the film, Furious Seven…yuck…), finds Dom nursing an amnesiac Letty, hoping to recuperate her memories through therapeutic sessions of illegal street racing. Brian, now father to a five year old boy, has settled down with Mia and is adjusting to the rigors of parenthood. All seems well, until trouble arrives in the form of Deckard Shaw (Statham), a black ops specialist looking to put a hurt on the crew that paralyzed his brother Owen (the villain from Furious 6). After putting Hobbs in a hospital (which sadly sidelines Johnson for most of the film), Shaw sets his sights on Dom and Brian, who get the band back together for another globe-trotting adventure, teaming up with government spook Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) to stop the mad man’s reign of terror.
Now, don’t get me wrong here, Furious 7 is not bad, it’s just disappointing. Adding Statham to the roster is the series’ most inspired casting decision since Johnson joined Fast Five. I’ve always found Statham to be a very appealing actor, with his growly line delivery and effortless physicality on display in everything he does. His dramatic range may be limited but when it comes to busting heads, nobody does it better. Had Furious 7 been a simple revenge mission featuring extended bouts of Dom and Shaw squaring off I would have been right at home. Unfortunately, this just wasn’t enough for new director James Wan (director of Insidious and Saw, yes those are his fault) and screenwriter Chris Morgan, who add a second villain to the mix that puts a damper on the entire proceedings. Alongside Shaw we have Jakande (Djimon Hounsou), a terrorist hunting for a powerful piece of technology called the “God’s Eye,” which allows the user to find anyone on the word with a high-tech GPS system. This brings in Russell’s character, and while I am always happy to see Russell appear in anything he’s hopelessly lost here, fighting to make an impression with his cocksure swagger in an over-crowded production. As mentioned previously, Jaa and Rousey enter the fray as formidable henchman for Jakande, but their natural skills are neutered by quick cuts and shaky cam. For a series that has been built out of excess, there is almost too much going on in Furious 7 to fully enjoy it.
Even with all of that nonsense, there’s still plenty to enjoy in Furious 7. A sequence of skydiving cars that leads into an assault on an armored convoy in the mountains is a particular highlight, showcasing Dom and crew’s penchant for teamwork and perfectly timed destruction. Another personal favorite finds Dom driving a Ferrari out of the window of a skyscraper in Abu Dhabi, several hundred stories high off the ground, into a neighboring skyscraper. Twice. And in the third act, Downtown Los Angeles is turned into a war zone, complete with crumbling parking structures, a flying assault drone, and Hobbs launching an ambulance off a bridge before running down the city streets with a mini-gun. As much as Furious 7 left me shaking my head, it never failed to make me smile.
Back to Paul Walker. Without giving anything away, Furious 7 is easily the most emotionally satisfying entry in the series. Walker appeared to have finished filming most of his scenes, or at the very least, the most important ones. One in particular finds Brian calling Mia and telling her that he may not make it out of his next mission alive. It’s an eerie scene that’s oddly prescient of his real life tragedy. Some scenes are more obviously done with the doubles, and yes, the CGI is noticeable, but it’s never intrusive. The film’s final sendoff is tasteful and respectfully done, wrapping up the character of Brian O’Connor and ending on a high note. If ever a Fast & Furious movie were to reduce an audience to tears, this would be it.
And that makes all seven. I was quite unsure what I’d be getting myself into when I started this project, but overall I found this to be a fascinating and exhausting experience, both physically and emotionally. As I ride off into the sunset, here are my final rankings of The Fast and the Furious films, from best to worst. It’s been swell:
1. Fast Five
2. Fast & Furious 6
3. Furious 7
4. Fast & Furious
5. The Fast and the Furious
6. 2 Fast 2 Furious
7. The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift