The Series Project: Fast & Furious (Part 2)
Both this week's and last week's installments of The Series Project are humbly dedicated to Paul Walker (1973 – 2013), a charming screen presence and a pretty good guy.
The Fast & Furious movies, starting with the fourth part (this week, we'll be talking about the fourth, fifth, and sixth films in the series) we are finally cutting to the heart of the matter. Starting with the fourth film, and perhaps continuing indefinitely (if that seventh film ever gets made), the Fast & Furious movies have moved away from the illegal street racing conceits and turned into proper high-octane spy movies. It is with the fourth movie that we'll finally reunite the characters, and start to concern ourselves more heavily with international criminals.
The series had gone down this road before in 2 Fast 2 Furious, but the final three films are all much much bigger. Indeed, I feel that the Fast & Furious franchise didn't really crest until Fast Five, right when it looked like everything had run out of steam. If the current arc of the series is to be trusted, the eventual seventh film will be the biggest and most crowded yet. I don't think I've ever seen a film series do this; start small, stumble for a few sequels, and then get on track around part five, growing and becoming more and more spectacular as time passes. Indeed, there's no reason the Fast & Furious franchise cannot continue indefinitely, becoming a regular summer staple. Yes, series co-star Paul Walker died in a car crash just a short while ago, but there's no reason we can't change focus.
Indeed, the characters – while appealing – are not really the main draw of the Fast & Furious movies. The series' main appeal has more to do with implausible action and awesome car chases than anything. It helps that we have a multi-culti crew of wise-cracking car racers to keep us grounded, but changes in the roster would not necessarily effect the overall impact of the series. Heck, Tokyo Drift was fun, and that only had a cameo to link it to the other films.
So I wholeheartedly support the continuation of these movies. Let's see how big they can get. Paul Walker would have wanted it that way.
Sadly, the first film to elevate it was also the worst film in the series. It also has the most frustrating title in the series.
Fast & Furious (dir. Justin Lin, 2009)
The phrase “fast and furious” (whose etymology I cannot discover) was eschewed in the title of the original film to be The Fast and the Furious, implying a stronger expression of those two qualities. Speed and fury. Now we're just going back. I suspect that Fast & Furious might have been intended to be the final film in the series, putting a button on the characters we remember from the first chapter, and sort of drawing everything together.
Fast & Furious catches us up with Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel), agent Brian O'Connor (Paul Walker) now a proper Fed, Dom's tough-as-nails girlfriend Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), and his sister Mia (Jordana Brewster). Dom is still robbing trucks with his high-speed cars, and Brian is called in to stop him. The bulk of the film's first act will be devoted to reunions and resentment; Dom and Mia still hate O'Connor for running out on them all those years ago. I have to give the filmmakers credit: they made sure the plot details were all carefully tied in with the original, even if you had forgotten them as a fan of the series.
I wish that the screenwriters had spent more time on the story. Fast & Furious is a mess. I was watching the film very carefully, and I couldn't really hash out the plot for you. My B-Movies Podcast co-host William Bibbiani has seen the film twice, and even he couldn't suss out the details. There is so much going on, so many references to The Fast and the Furious, so many new characters, so many double-crosses, that you can't keep anything clear. What's more, Letty dies in this film (!), only it's off-camera (!!). We only see her death when Dom goes to the scene of the car crash that killed her and – merely by looking at the skid marks on the road – manages to recreate the entire scene in his mind. Dom, I guess, has a psychic connection to cars.
Brian is asked to re-infiltrate Dom's gang, partly to bust Dom, but mostly to enlist Dom's help in busting a mysterious unseen drug kingpin named Braga who has been smuggling drugs using his own team of fast car experts… I think. Letty was killed because she had already been involved with the Feds before the start of the movie, and was working undercover with the bad guys to clear Dom's name. Or something. Also, there's a mysterious international agent of some kind – I think she may be Interpol – who begins developing a regard for Dom. Her name is Gisele (Gal Gadot), and she'll appear in future films.
Oh yes, and Han (Sung Kang) who died in Tokyo Drift, appears in this film near the beginning. He mentions that he wants to retire to Tokyo. This means Fast & Furious is a prequel to the third film. Seeing as Han will appear in the fifth and sixth films as well, we've really started to muck with the series chronology.
Fast & Furious ends with a baffling and unclear chase through a series of secret race car tunnels that lead form Mexico to America. That's either really awesome or totally stupid. I say it falls somewhere in between. The entire film can be summed up by this chase scene. Fast & Furious feels like a sloppy stop-gap between the low-concept car racing conceits of the earlier films and the high-concept spy nonsense of the later ones. It's easily the worst film in the series.
But it set things up for the best one, so I can't complain too much.