Erik Jaccard returns to 10ya with a triumphantly bizarre three-act review which we can only assume is the result of madness caused by too many viewings of The Fast and the Furious and too many summers spent in the Land of the Midnight Sun. We hope you enjoy reading his views on hypermasculinity, teen movie rebels, the Alaskan wilderness,  problems of multiculturalism, and imaginary conversations with fake people as much as we did.

The Fast and the Furious
Dir. Rob Cohen

Some Good Ol’ Fashioned Vigilante Mayhem: A Review in Three Acts

 

Act I:  In which the reviewer establishes a personal context for the subsequent review

I first watched The Fast and the Furious on DVD in the summer of 2002 when I was working as a kind of day-laborer/cabana boy on a gorgeous little humpbacked island in Resurrection Bay, Alaska.  It was my second summer working for the company and the work wasn’t hard.  Long sometimes, yeah, but in June the sun went down at midnight and came back up at two in one of the most beautiful places on earth (and in the most beautiful places on earth, it is always nice to see a sunrise).  But near the end of the summer the dusklight hours would slacken and recede back somewhere into the vicinity of 11, then 10, and, by September we would be heading inside by 9 pm. The work would tail off from its mid-July peaks, the visiting tour boats from the mainland arriving less, and with less passengers.  Our days would end earlier and the nights were longer.  Thankfully we had a generator, a crew cabin, a small television, and a DVD player.

At some point that summer an employee had returned from one of their weekly furloughs to the mainland with 3 DVDs: Moulin Rouge!, Bring it On, and The Fast and the Furious. For ten years I’ve been trying to decide what this selection means about that person (and I promise ‘that person’ wasn’t me), but I’ve settled for simply admitting that these are all movies I like and leaving it at that.  Well, I kind of hated The Fast and the Furious before I had even watched it, mostly because it looked like the muscly-meathead-mayhem movie I had at that point in my cinematic life told myself I ought to avoid (and really, the parallels with Kathryn Bigelow’s far superior Point Break were too obvious to engage without sarcasm).  But by the end of that summer, as the number of staff dwindled down from the teens into a handful of core folks — most of them men — I began to have a hard time getting people to want to watch a campy, hyperactive adaptation of La Bohème, nor did I fare any better at convincing the boys of the merits of Bring it On’s far too enjoyable teen flick-cheerleader parody.  So we watched The Fast and the Furious once, then again, and by the end of a roughly four week period I had probably watched it, say, a dozen times? [In hindsight I wonder if my cabinmates didn’t also get exasperated with my ability to watch it over and over.] And, like so many films too terrible to ignore, I came to love it for reasons I’d never have expected.

My initial impression of the film as an overly slick, hypersexualized excuse to show off cars, boobs, and attitude was pretty much right on, but I learned to enjoy ridiculing the screenplay and to adore the way most of the peripheral characters came off as cardboard cutouts of people.  The stilted dialogue, trying so hard to be hip, and at times utterly aimless, began to amuse me more and more until I found myself parroting it to my coworkers until they grew weary of me. I walked around telling people that “I need[ed] NOS” for no good reason (I was, after all, living on an island with no roads, cars, fiery decals or sputtering mufflers) and I distinctly remember playing Cribbage with the fellas one night and calling myself ‘Brian Earl Spilner’ (the undercover name of Paul Walker’s character in the film) on the score sheet.  I decided that main Asian gangster Johnny Tran’s sidekick-cousin Lance was sadly left out of the screenplay for the most part and I therefore began to think of what the film would look like from Lance’s perspective (and yes, this was a conscious reference to Tom Stoppard).

Now in the ‘real world’ this might sound pretty pathetic, but hear me out.  As I say above, I worked two June-September summers on the island, and I can tell you without hesitation that by the end of the summer, if not earlier, people tended to get…a little loopy.  I’d call it cabin fever if it didn’t occur in one of the most expansive outdoor venues I’ve ever known.  But while the place was undeniably gorgeous and for the most part very, very fun, it was also an island (and really it was a cove, as much of the island was separated from us by mountains, cliffs, or sheer rock faces jutting out into the sea) and somewhat dull.  We hiked, we floated and swam, we played games, and we skipped a LOT of rocks, but after five full days a week for three months with the same fifteen people (most of whom you didn’t know very well), patience waned, tempers occasionally flared, and minds wandered.  I’m also convinced it had something to do with the light.  Five days in Alaska in mid-Summer can feel like a month.  The days bleed into one another and the best ‘sense’ of rest you tend to get is of taking long naps in the course of the same neverending day.  I imagine the winter is similar, but worse.  While I didn’t start seeing Vin Diesel coming for me in my sleep, I nonetheless used The Fast and the Furious as a way to vent frustrations, act out feelings of absurdity, and otherwise simply be the clown that I am.  In sum, I watched it far more times than ever intended, under strange psychological conditions, and in a place that has always seemed to me a little like Rocky Mountain Seaside Neverland.  All of this conspired to drive me slightly crazy, but it also produced an appreciation for the film that has stubbornly refused to be shaken.

 

Act II: In which the reviewer attempts to take a patently absurd film seriously

How was it then?

To be honest, at first I found the film brainless, pointless, and slightly fun.  It was only after the repeated viewings mentioned above that I came to appreciate it for its finer qualities (many of which have to do with its being quite bad), and even these feelings of appreciation are difficult to separate from the ways my conception of the film has become indistinguishable from my nostalgia.  I would say that, when the dust settles for a split second, I found it a ‘bad’ film in a number of really positive ways, which allowed me to consistently re-view it (in order to look for more bad things and enjoy the ones I’d already found).  But it was always tied to that summer for me.  I didn’t go home and immediately purchase a copy (maybe I really was tired of it after all), and I watched it occasionally after that when I was bored, appreciating essentially the same moments I had when I was 23 and not really getting anywhere.

How has it aged?

If I have to be honest, I’d say that having the franchise expanded by four more films in the ensuing ten years has helped take the burden off of the original, as has the way the films’ production teams and director Justin Lin have tackled the significant task of developing the testosterone-fueled teenage thrill kick of the first (few) film(s) into a pair of recent productions that have comfortably, if somewhat glumly, embraced a post-street racing adulthood (by way of more conventional action-drama hybridization).  Knowing that there is some development of relationships between the primary characters in the later sequels, at least in the two most recent films, helps the first film feel less like a parade of commercialized juvenilia and more like a step in a longer process.  The problem with even thinking this, though, is that I’m consistently nagged by the thought that I shouldn’t even be trying to make something out of what might possibly be nothing more than a vehicle for selling speed, chrome, swagger, and sex to an 18-35 year-old (largely male) audience.  If that is the case, then I think the film has aged just fine.  Its focus on ‘underground’ street racing hasn’t aged any more than any other movie about a facet of ‘youth culture’ that can be strung within a recyclable plot structure and retold again and again.  The car chases are still pretty cool and at least introduced me to the fact that there are people out there who add nitrous oxide to their combustion systems to make their cars go all TURBO speed.

Yes, the movie is largely an excuse to film fast cars careening around corners, not to mention going REALLY fast in a straight line. (One of the things all the sequels improve on is this ¼ mile race angle, which is quite boring when you think about it.  In the later movies, the courses are winding, tortuous, and often studded with real-world obstacles.)  It’s similarly obvious that what remains of the film (and you’d be surprised at how much of a remainder that is) is not meant to be taken all too seriously, as it’s likely only meant to provide plot movement to push us onwards towards the next adrenaline rush.  But I’ve always been intrigued enough about the plot scraps that get left behind that I wondered what would happen if I gathered them up in my arms, threw them down somewhere beyond the explosions of exhaust and the grinding of gears, and tried to put some odd pieces together.  I came up with three main things and here they are:

First, we lose something if we let the background of the film (you know, all those things happening in and around the cars) take the backseat (pun intended) to the street racing angle, though that in itself, as a motif, is a good place to start.  Maybe it’s just that I’m older, but on re-viewing the film this time around I was startled at how often I noticed the film’s explicitly juvenile character.  This is not to say that it is immature — though that’s true — but rather that one of the prisms through which we can understand some of the latent tendencies of the film is the ‘teen movie’.  The street racing angle is undeniably adolescent and conjures up images of everything from Rebel Without a Cause to Grease and even the ‘tractor turkey’ scene in Footloose.  And in a lot of ways, this is simply another ‘teen’ movie, despite the twenty-something ages of its cast and the apparent attempt at ‘real’ danger, crime, and intrigue. [If you want a ‘teen’ movie that does real danger, crime, and intrigue in a much more interesting way, see Rian Johnson’s Brick.]  Vin Diesel’s Dominic is, as his sister Mia at one point recognizes, the very image of that rebellious guy in high school whose power, confidence, and gravity draw people in towards him.  He is — like James Dean and Kevin Bacon before him — the edgy flipside of the officially sanctioned figure of the successful athlete/quarterback/hunk, but combined with yet another teen movie archetype, the father figure to a gang of misfits, most of whom are actual or de facto orphans. His magnetic pull, so to speak, is the way he successfully shelters those who, like himself, have been cast aside by the ‘legitimate world’ the racing subculture is meant to stand as a foil to, or of which it is at least a grungy underside (more about this in a moment).  Even the film’s officially sanctioned authorities come off like principals and teachers monitoring and administering carefully contained chaos.  Likewise, the film’s central conflicts are discussed or staged much like teen rumbles or intra-underworld feuds, engaged in for unofficial reasons and hidden from the light of day. At the same time, this ‘authority’ that seems a silent backdrop to much of the social behavior in the film is surprisingly absent.  The only parents we hear of are Toretto’s, whose father was killed in a racing accident, setting in motion a chain of events which results in Dominic’s being banned from the track for life.  Like some of the more biting satires of teen life, then, the movie — at least when conceived of this way — forces kids into the roles normally occupied by adults precisely so that we can see not the absurdity of kids acting like adults, but actually the ways adults fail to mature, the ways that the legitimate world is administered and exclusive much like its teen preview.

Secondly, the not-so-subtle allusions to organized crime dramas lend the film some of its sillier moments, but also its most poignant ones.  The barbecue scene is trying really hard to capture Dominic’s Pater Familias vibe while infusing the whole scene with an aura of comfortable familiarity and goofishness (see Jesse’s ‘car prayer’) and the way that the ‘team’ (explicitly not a ‘gang’) defers to the ‘Don’ is silly to me in a way that the teen vibe discussed above is not.  However, the film’s most endearing moment (and one that has been echoed in too many films to mention, though most recently in The Departed) rescues some of the overtly insipid mob-movie metaphors.  Worried that in the course of his undercover work Brian might be starting to ‘go native’ (more on that in a moment), his immediate supervisor reminds him that “there are all kinds of family,” hoping to stave off what he obviously sees as Brian’s attraction to sense of social normality (and a father figure) the police force — and his supervisor — cannot ultimately provide.  We don’t know much about Brian’s background, so all I can do is speculate, but it seems to me that Brian’s relationship with the Torettos can (not saying should) be read as a kind of envy of the collective sense of identity afforded by illegitimacy and prejudice. I realize how paradoxical — even stupid — that sounds.  On the one hand, you take groups of people who seem to be victims of the system (Jesse is the prototypical character in the film), but on the other you argue that, in a certain way at least, those groups represent a kind of solidity and completeness — a cohesion — not available to everyone.  For the Torettos, at least, this cohesion results in part from their illegitimacy, their actual residence in a kind of underworld. Sure, they might make money selling groceries out of their little mom and pop market, or by doing oil changes and body work in their garage, but in this Brian is absolutely right — in order to participate in their counter culture and to be the king of the playground, Dom has to steal — or get a day job (he is a felon).

Lastly, and this is thing that really pisses me off, the racial characterizations in this film are unfuckingbelievable.  Watching the initial street race scene alone is a 1990s multiculturalist’s ‘let’s all just get along” wet dream.  When Brian pulls up, apparently the only ‘snowman’ in the place (and Brian is, and acts, far more like what you would conventionally assume a white, suburban kid would act), he is surrounded by Blacks on one side, Hispanics on another, Asians on yet another.  All of these groups seem to have a shit ton of money, which means that they either have really great day jobs (doubtful), rich parents (the stereotype would label the Asians this way — and the Asian gangster figure Johnny Tran’s family supports this), or are involved in some kind of criminal activity. They are grouped by their ‘culture’ — blacks listening to hip-hop, the whites listening to — shudder — Limp Bizkit (really?  Is that the best we can do?), and so on.  This multicolored menagerie is about as convincing as the cover of a liberal arts college catalog. This is not because ‘races’ inherently hate each other, or that people of a similar background don’t cluster together — obviously they do, for a number of reasons.  I have a problem with the way it’s presented here as precisely a way to sell ethnicity, to freeze it, to drain it of any type of actual social or historical content, and to hang it out to dry in the background.  That’s all.

Ok, I’ve overstayed my welcome.  Thanks for reading.  PS.  Stay for the credits.

Free-Floating Thoughts

  • The guy at the beginning simply tells the person who will rob that particular semi truck that it’s a “real money-load’, it’s in a truck with ‘Rodgers’ on the side and that ‘it’s comin’ your way…and don’t forget my share of the deal.” Considering the elusive bandits now have all of Southern California to comb in search of one particular truck (is it the ONLY truck with ‘Rodgers’ on the side?), I’d say his share of the deal ought to be pretty meager.
  • I don’t know that we ever get to hear precisely why the gang’s black marauder cars have eerie green lights emanating from under the chassis.  But hey, it’s gives the cars a cool night-rider/secret of the ooze kind of vibe.
  • Paul Walker’s floppy Hasselhoff haircut makes him look like Hansel with a racecar.  Look at the scene where Dom and Vince catch Brian sneaking around.  Walker looks like one of the guys out of Grease…no, Grease 2.
  • You can tell the corporate execs were thinking about how to cross-promote the music for the film under the banner of rrrrrrebellious ‘youth culture’.  The problem with this — aside from the fact that anything corporate execs are dealing with is almost surely no longer rebellious — is that almost all non-score music in this film is the worst kind of watered-down, generic version of its former self. There seems to have been explicit attention paid to genre, as bland Detroit Techno soundtracks racing scenes (Techno = speed/freedom!), while hip-hop and metal alternate in scenes where one might say there is a surfeit of attitude.
  • If these movies have taught me anything, it’s to watch all the way through the credits (cough!).
  • The fashion in the film seems similarly intended to signify the various classed and racialized components of what is — for all its ‘underground’ aspects — an extremely commercialized ‘scene’.  Just as you can go to Hot Topic and get your rebel on, I feel like there must be a street racing shop down at the mall where you can deck out in ‘official’ street racing gear.
  • So the Torettos own a garage and a ‘market and café’ in their residential L.A. neighborhood?  Is this supposed to be a legitimate front for the illegitimate activities at the center of the film?  Could it be more Godfathery?  Oh, and if you pause the scene when they first flash to the market, there is a ‘businessman’ character reading (his Wall Street Journal, obviously) at a table outside, while a jogger leans casually against the wall.  Apparently, Toretto’s is the new place for hip urban yuppies to get their latte and scone (maybe even while they get their oil changed).  And, very rudely, neither intervenes when Neanderthal Vince jumps pretty boy Brian outside. They obviously didn’t see Fight Club.
  • Lance Tran’s apprehension by the SWAT team is the most acrobatic clotheslining I’ve ever seen. At one point he even seems to go back beyond horizontal to a new kind of vertical.
  • Look for director Rob Cohen’s cameo as douchebag numero uno, another one of the film’s more gleefully dumb moments.  While taking Brian/Dominic’s new car for a spin, the two pull alongside a middle-aged guy in a sports car, seated next to some trophy blonde.  The exchange:
    Brian:  Nice car.  What’s the retail on one of those?

    Douchebag: More than you can afford, pal.  Ferrari.

    And there really is this terrible, lilting emphasis on the word ‘Ferrari’ that makes me cringe every single time.
  • It must have been so fun to be an extra during the first street racing scene. I mean, the extras were obviously recruited from shopping malls to play variously ethnicized or sexualized background props.  None of them seem particularly ‘underground’ or ‘outside the law,’ but then again this whole street racing thing is apparently run by minor criminals and rich kids.  I would have had to be one of the token ‘white’ dudes listening to Limp Bizkit outside my car, but I also would have gotten to go ‘Oooooh!’ every time Dominic makes fun of Brian after kicking his ass in the race and ‘Naaaaah’ every time he says something I’m meant to disagree with.
  • Cops drinking iced cappuccinos are fucking hard, man.  Hard.  Part cop, part barista!
  • Rick Yune is too fucking pretty to be an Asian Gangster.
  • Brian Earl Spilner?  It really is a serial killer name.

Roll Credits

Act III: In which the reviewer concocts a mock interview with random characters from the film using only film dialogue and his own intermittent commentary.

Characters:

Erik Jaccard (The Reviewer)

Leticia ‘Lettie’ Ortiz (Girlfriend to Vin Diesel’s Dominic Toretto and all around pouty-lipped badass)

Leon (If Toretto’s ‘team’ were a ship’s crew, Leon would be the Yeoman)

Edwin (Cocky racer and hip-hopper played in the film by Ja Rule)

Harry the Auto Shop Owner (Supplier of parts to Toretto and shelterer of undercover cop Paul Walker)

Capt./Lieutenant Muse (Bald cop who stands around, makes people iced cappuccinos, or taunts Paul Walker dim-wittedly)

Lance Tran (Cousin to central Asian gangster Johnny Tran, Lance mostly points weapons at people, though he can also be seen wearing a nifty pair of snakeskin pants and, at one point, he takes what might be the most impressive clotheslining I’ve ever seen)

FBI Agent Bilkins (FBI agent in charge of the joint FBI-LAPD task force charged with taking down Toretto’s misfit band of marauders)

[Lights up]

 

Erik sits mid-stage in a black leather chair.  To his left are Lettie, Edwin, and Lance Tran, to his right Agent Bilkins, Muse, and Leon.  Harry can be seen pacing behind, glancing nervously at the seated group.

Erik:  I’m sure you’re all wondering what you’re doing here together, seeing as none of you were asked to join the official press junket.  I have no good answ—

Edwin/Ja: Let’s Go! Menagé!

[Edwin looks over at Lettie]

Lettie: Yeah, whatever.

Leon: He tryin’ to get in Mia’s pants dawg!

Erik: Edwin, that is most definitely not why we’re here.  Leon, Mia is not even here.  Besides, Edwin is clearly staring at…Lance.

Leon: I like his haircut.

Lance: Vrooom!

[Lettie glares over her sunglasses at Edwin]

Lettie: You want ass, why don’t you hit Hollywood Boulevard.  You want an adrenaline rush, it’ll be two large.  Right here, right now.  What’s it gonna be?

Erik: An adrenaline what?  Let’s keep the prostitution to the dressing rooms at the very least.

Muse: I don’t blame you, I’d get off on her surveillance photos, too, buddy.

Edwin: Menagé!

Erik:  Wait, now nobody’s getting on or off.  Edwin, just sit back down.  You’re about as likely to get girl-girl action here as you would as a Dwarf extra on Lord of the Rings.

Edwin: Fuck you, then!!! [Sits down, resumes starting at Lance Tran]

Lance: Gnah!

Erik: Let’s just take our time and we can sort this out. Does Lance only speak gibberish?

Agent Bilkins: You want time, buy the magazine.  We don’t have time.

Erik: We’re out of time?

Leon: Oh come on, man, we were just about to get along!

Erik:  No, no, my people are telling me that we’ve still got plenty of time left.  Now, I’ve got a question for you, Edwin. As one of the drivers to race against Dominic Toretto and Brian O’Connor, and as one who apparently does not use nitrous oxide to boost the speed of his car, I just have to ask: why would you ever bet a giant rolled up bundle of money on a race with someone you know uses NOS?  I mean, no one in this movie wins without NOS unless they’re driving Old Man Toretto’s 1970 Dodge Charger with that big fucking engine thing sticking out of the hood.

Lance: It’s an amazing machine.

Erik: Indeed.  Edwin?

Edwin: You see that?  He’s got enough NOS in there to blow himself up.

Erik: Right, so why race someone with all that extra speed?

Harry [to Edwin]: Amateurs don’t use nitrous oxide.  I seen you drive.  You got a heavy foot.  You’ll blow yourself to pieces.

Edwin: Edwin knows a thing or two, and one of the things Edwin know is, it’s not how you stand by your car, it’s how you race your car.  You’d better remember that.

Erik: And you’d better buy a big fucking tank of nitrous oxide.

Harry: [Muttering] …blow yourself to pieces…

[Harry, looking agitated, tries to sit down on Leon’s lap]

Leon: Road’s closed, pizza boy, find another way home!

[Harry walks around and sits on Lance’s lap]

Harry: I’m not that heavy…maybe 150…140.

Lance: Aw, 40 weight sounds nice.

[Lettie looks over at Lance and Harry]

Lettie: Mrowr!  I smell…[sniff sniff]..skanks!  Why don’t you girls just pack it up before I leave tread marks on your face.

Leon: Visualize the win!

[Erik, obviously annoyed with the distractions, turns to Agent Bilkins]

Erik: Agent Bilkins, tell me about the actual threat posed by the angry truckers in this film and let me see if I’ve got this right.  A roving band of night pirates in speedy Honda civics is robbing semi-trucks of their cargo loads of electronics and so forth. While one of your colleagues at one point makes a comment to the effect that these heists have put you and your division “in the political crosshairs,” it seems that your greatest concern is what these pissed off truckers will do if they are not assuaged by the long arm of the law.

Bilkins: What we have is…truckers arming themselves for some good old fashioned vigilante mayhem.

Erik:  Yes, exactly.  You make it sound like the Wild West.  Truckers, shotguns, chaos in the streets.

Ja Rule: Money Money Murdah!

Erik:  Ja, you have broken the fourth wall all to shit.  I had a very serious question to ask. You were only supposed to use dialogue from the film, not lyrics from the soundtrack.

Ja Rule: Money!  Murdah!

Ja Rule: It’s. Our. World!

Erik: No.  This is like Inside the Actors Studio and No Exit rolled into one.  I can’t work like this. There is a reason you guys are minor characters.  You. Are. Not. Talented.  Not like the leads.  The leads in this film are amazing.

Lettie: How bout you put your money where your mouth is?

Erik: What?

[Leon walks slowly over to Erik]

Erik: Leon…

Leon: C’mon, dawg.

Agent Bilkins:  I don’t care if you have to put a gun to someone’s head and blow your cover to smithereens.

[Erik sighs, takes off a mask.  Underneath he is actually Paul Walker. ]

Muse: I like realism!

Lance: Pull over!

Lettie: Son of a bitch!

Leon: Look who it is.  Old coyotes R us!

Paul Walker: Leon, you are literally a moron. How you were ever written as a character or cast as an actor is beyond me.

[Lights fade]

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