Erik Jaccard is 2 fast for y’all!

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2 Fast 2 Furious

Dir. John Singleton

The story of how I encountered 2 Fast 2 Furious is also, in part, the story of how I came to watch The Fast and the Furious (a story told in some detail in my June, 2011 re-view of that film for Ten Years Ago). As will become clear throughout, it is by this point nearly impossible for me to separate how my perception of the sequel has changed over time from both how I originally formed a connection with the original, also how the way we see the former seems to have shifted and evolved along with the ongoing expansion of the franchise (which is going on its 7th installment, due Summer 2014). Following my recent viewing of Justin Lin’sFurious 6, I inevitably found myself trying to place the new film amongst its Fast predecessors using a ranking scheme that I quickly realized was sloppy and inconsistent (for the curious, I ranked the films 4, 5 , 1, 6, 2 , 3). I found myself attempting to evaluate each of the films both as one-off creations capable of standing alone, but also as pieces in the larger linked chain we now know comprises the Fast films. But there’s something not entirely fair about this, something which assumes all the films were made under the same conditions, with the same resources, and in line with the same vision. Of course, this is far from the truth, and in many ways the more recent films seem relatively successful as stand-alone productions precisely because they grasp their own role in the larger process.

While films 2 and 3 seem conceived as ‘riffs’ on the same hypermasculine arena of street racing subculture as the original, the franchise reboot initiated by 2009’s Fast and Furious was clearly intended to develop a more significant narrative vision (I realize how ironic this is, considering the ‘original’ was a remake) and to branch out into a sprawling pattern of crime-drama hybrids with a global reach. This has granted them both more internal narrative coherence (they know where they’re going and why) and more flexibility (bigger budgets mean multiple locations, longer, more elaborate sequences, an expanded main cast, etc.).  Finally, because they are tracking the growth of a stable set of characters, the later films allow for a maturity the earlier ones cannot provide precisely because they’re structured as snapshots of youth ‘scenes’ (the L.A. scene, the Miami scene, the Tokyo scene). Therefore, it’s difficult to really compare the second and third films, which develop tangential paranarratives outside the main story, with their successors, which are themselves driving that main story. And unless all we’re concerned about here are cars—and this might be true for some—what really matters is the story. As I go on to explain later, this might not be quite as absurd as some would initially think.

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How was it then?

The short and slightly more objective answer to this question is: underwhelming, if mindlessly fun. I would say that it actually improves in certain respects on the street racing sequences in the first film, which are here longer and more complex, though occasionally more absurd (a quality we have come to expect from the newer films). The choice of locale—Miami—seems inherently flashier, brasher, and blingier somehow, a fact that plays against director Singleton’s finesse in dealing with the grimy L.A. environs that form the backdrop to his two most notable urban dramas (Boyz n the Hood and Baby Boy). As we have also come to learn from Fast Five and Furious 6, both Tyrese Gibson’s Roman Pierce and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges’ Tej Parker are the series’ two most loveable and amusing characters and their presence here brings an adolescent playfulness to the film that the original sacrifices to the seriousness of its larger family drama (more on that in a bit). However, the film’s attempt at major crime drama ultimately falls flat, despite Cole Hauser’s repeated attempts at injecting believable menace into his Venezuelan-American faux-Tony Montana character, the film’s big baddie, Carter Verone. Eva Mendes’ Agent Monica Fuentes is two-dimensional and seems intended mostly to provide both vague romantic interest for Brian and sexy starlet eye candy for the film’s intended male audience. Finally, if we didn’t already know it in 2003, 2 Fast 2 Furious only confirms that Paul Walker simply can’t hold up a film all by himself. He’s a poor man’s Keanu Reeves at best, and even old Keanu needs explosions, absurd plots (If you slow down, this bus will explode!), or the Wachowski brothers (excuse me, Wachowski sister and brother) in order to carry a film. Walker is here because it’s his character and he was, at this point anyway, the remaining salable face. It’s hard to blame the casting choice, but it didn’t make the film any better then (or now).

However, there is a second and more subjective reason for why I found 2 Fast so exasperating in 2003. But you have to go all the way back to my June of 2011 re-view of Rob Cohen’s 2001 remake of The Fast and the Furious to understand my initial reaction to its sequel. As strong as my irrational love for the original was (and is), I had also always treated that affection with a considerable dollop of irony, consciously considering it nothing more than a guilty pleasure, something my ‘serious’ film-watching self would never ‘really’ watch, even as I continued to return to it. Through these many guilty returns, I had eventually managed to take the film seriously, even if only as an act of absurdity. What my first viewing of 2 Fast 2 Furious lacked, then, was that original guilt, the deep desire to watch something not because it’s great, but because it has managed to wedge its way into your life somehow (as I relate in that first re-view, the repeated viewings which led to my fascination with The Fast and the Furious occurred largely by accident).  My viewing was a second order concern, almost obligatory: I watched it because I’d watched the first one so many damn times. Therefore, coming in the wake of my overwhelming, near lunatic crush on all thingsFast 1, and coming to it with preconceived notions about the inherent mediocrity of sequels, it’s not surprising that I found 2 Fast underwhelming. It would have been hard not to, considering that I approached it with a big ol’ bag of ridicule close to hand, ready to lambaste it for all the things it did wrong and determined to deny it any successes. If, as I argue below, 2 Fast 2 Furious actually seems better now because its successor films have developed a new context in which to understand what it’s doing, it suffered in 2003 for the opposite reason. With only the original to which it could be compared, and not all that much in the way of originality (or personality, for that matter), it was natural that it read like both a bad sequeland a bad stand-alone production.

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How is it now?

Dare I say better? I’m almost tempted to say it’s quite a bit better, not because the film itself has aged gracefully as a one-off creation, but because the second ‘trilogy’ has provided a new framework for understanding how 2 Fast 2 Furious creates a meaningful link in a longer chain of purposeful narrative, and specifically character, development.  What is perhaps most interesting about the first three Fast films is just how dramatically the expansion of the franchise from 2009 onwards has altered the way we see them now. In light of Fast and Furious (2009), Fast Five (2011), and Furious 6 (2013), it’s very difficult to watch either of the first three films as stand-alone pieces, knowing as we do that the characters they develop now have a more significant bearing on the ‘second trilogy.’

In order to really get at what makes 2 Fast tick on anything beyond a superficial level, you to suspend at least two specific default prejudices: First, that it’s merely a sequel to the first film, and second, that it is primarily an action film, and that, therefore, what happens in and around the chases, races, and swaggering, victorious chest-bumping is merely narrative filler designed to keep us moving toward the next adrenaline-fueled sequence or the next tense scene with whatever generic bad guy the script has devised. The first prejudice, which works at a more comprehensive, holistic level, keeps us from understanding the sequel on its own terms primarily because we end up reading it as an inferior copy of its predecessor. The second prejudice is even more influential in that it allows the brashest and most obvious aspects of a film, not to mention the way it’s marketed (as an adrenaline-rush thrill-kick action ride extravaganza!), to cloud our perception of the narrative actually being constructed. Both of these result in part from inherent difficulties with genre; in establishing expectations of what X kind of movie does (or should do), genre films set us up for disappointment when newer iterations don’t (and likely can’t) measure up to foundational originals. They also, as in the case of movies like 2 Fast 2 Furious, train us to read in a certain ways, which is to say they train us to privilege thrills and to marginalize narrative. It’s hard to blame us for this last issue because, as we all know, most action films actively privilege spectacle (more crashes, bigger and better explosions, amazing stunts, huzzah!) over story. I should point out that I’m not claiming there’s anything inherently wrong with this, only that it ties us to singular interpretations and shuts out other, potentially interesting things we might say.

Before I get into that, let’s deal with the plot: 2 Fast takes up right where the original left off, following disgraced former undercover cop Brian O’Connor (Paul Walker) from L.A. (where, at the end of The Fast and the Furious, he chooses the familial loyalty of Vin Diesel’s Dominic Toretto over life as a cop) to Miami, where the new narrative primarily takes shape. An extended featurette, included in the DVD extras, serves as narrative exposition for Brian’s cross-country run from the law, linking the two films together and further establishing Brian’s own street racing cred independent of Vin Diesel’s Dominic Toretto, to whom the former always plays a distinct second fiddle. In Miami Brian naturally picks up with the local street racing scene, captained by the flamboyant Tej Parker (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges). Captured by the police after a street race, Brian is conscripted by the FBI into helping them take down a local drug lord (a heavily made up Cole Hauser) with the help of an undercover U.S. customs agent (Eva Mendes). Dissatisfied with any of the partners the FBI can offer, Brian convinces the bosses to bring in his boyhood pal Roman Pierce (Tyrese Gibson), a smart-talking, fast-driving California playboy with whom Brian shares both childhood intimacy and recent bad blood. The long and short of the rest of this is that Brian and Roman ultimately help take down Verone (who, surprisingly, does not die, but has yet to reappear) and clear their records, setting the stage for the resumption of the series in 2009’s Fast and Furious.

Now, having taken the time to relate this all to you, I want to drop an axiom that might seem obvious, but which really needs to be reiterated. In films like this, plot is nothing, while narrative is everything. Yes, plot is necessary in a purely functional way, because without it we would have some kind of avant-garde experiment in how to produce a narrative from nothing but car races, chases, and crashes (which, to my mind, would look a combination of J.G. Ballard’s Crash and his later The Atrocity Exhibition). So I’m not saying we don’t need a plot; hardly. What I’m saying is that in films like 2 Fast 2 Furious the plot is usually the least interesting thing you can pay attention to, mostly because whatever story is on offer is merely another version of the same tale that’s already been told a hundred times before. As I mention above, this is how genres work. And in your typical action flick what actually happens or why is often not as important as how it happens. In the case of Fast 2, it goes something like this: Man on the run joins new group; man on the run establishes self in new group; man on the run gets tied up with the law (as men on the run tend to do); man on the run cuts deal with the law: help the law take down an actual bad guy and the law will erase his former wrongdoings; man on the run recruits former confederate who now loathes him because of some past incident, but who ultimately joins hero quest anyway (what else is a sidekick to do?); new pairing (man on the run + buddy) work to take down actual bad guy, on the way getting involved with beautiful lady; buddies foil baddies through skill and their own buddiness, saving the day, and even tricking the law into getting more than originally bargained for out of the deal; everyone but actual bad guy gets right with the world; the end. Stripped down to its essentials, we can see how easy it can be to ignore this unimaginative form of stock storytelling. It’s mundane, repetitive, clichéd. It begs ridicule for even attempting to take itself seriously as an object worthy of our interest. However, if we read the film in terms of the larger narrative arc of which it has come to form only a part, it becomes, if not interesting, than at least more interesting than the banal framework sketched above would suggest. In fact, if we look at this way, and not as a failed attempt to recreate what the first film had to offer, it becomes much easier to appreciate its presentation of a drama that essentially about brothers without fathers, and the various forms of social and familial belonging that both separate and link them.

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As I have argued, one of the more interesting ways of reading The Fast and the Furious is as a film about teenage alienation and the allure of street racing subculture as an alternate form of social belonging opposed to (but always working within) a dominant authority. This larger social shell encapsulates the micro-drama of the Toretto family, and of Brian’s ambiguous relationship to both the law (which offers a proxy familial stability he has never had) and to its criminal flipside, the underground street racing subculture within which Brian seeks a form of belonging and meaning the law cannot provide. However, lacking the Toretto mythos, 2 Fast 2 Furious ultimately makes for a nice transition from the first film’s narrative focus on father figures and their various outcast sons to a film about the alternate forms of sibling relationship that we are meant to read into Brian’s relationship with Gibsons’s Roman. And this is where Singleton, whose best work explores relationships between fatherless men, suddenly seems like a very apt choice to direct this installment. Read in light of this narrative trajectory, much of what we get here seems intended to flush out Brian as a character by shedding light on his aimless petty criminal past and on the contingent form of family he finds in brotherhood (with all the complications sibling relationships bring). Maybe this is all to say that one of the more interesting things I learned watching 2 Fast 2 Furious ten years later is that, while it presents a sequel in terms of chronological development (i.e. what ‘happens’ after the first film), it also offers us a narrative prequel, explaining the causes behind later decisions, mostly notably Brian’s decision to let Dominic Toretto escape at the end of the first film. This act of rebellion ultimately severs, if only temporarily, Brian’s ties to the legitimate world to which he has belonged as a cop, but to which it seems he has never felt any lasting allegiance.

There are likely some (all right, many) who would take issue with my attempt here to lend credence to a film (and a film franchise) that, when taken at its most superficial, is, as I put it in my previous review, mostly “an excuse to film fast cars careening around corners.” It’s easiest to read it as such and if that’s your take, I’d hardly blame you. But in coming back around on it this time I’m tempted to say that placing it in its proper context reveals that 2 Fast 2 Furious is less the 2nd worst Fast film and more the 5th best. Though it will likely never measure up as more than that, I feel pleased to have taken the time to put it more securely in its meaningful place.

Free-Floating Thoughts

  • I can probably count on one hand the number of time I’ve called somebody ‘bro,’ and I’ve definitely never used the derivation ‘brah,’ like, ever. But the way Tyrese says ‘Bruh!’ in this film made me chortle something fierce. You can check it out here, along with all the other bro-love appellations that get slung around. You can hate on it if you want, but in the name of verisimilitude, I’d say that this is a decently spot-on rendition of how a lot of ‘Bros’ actually talk.
  • When we first meet her, Devon Aoki’s Suki comes off as a cartoon character, inhabiting a sparkly pastel universe somewhere between the Powerpuff Girls and the Pussycat Dolls. She’s a veritable badass Barbie whose words sometimes make little to no sense. She also apparently leads a kind of Roller Derby meets street racing squad, which is cool (an all-female racing squad in a world full of boys and their toys), but which seems designed to be the brunt of someone’s joke, at least visually.
  • James Remar, who would later go on to play Dexter Morgan’s deceased father/mentor Harry in Dexter, was playing a Miami law enforcement type way back in 2003! This guy’s more of a tool though. Long live Harry!
  • I know she’s in the film primarily as objectified eye candy, but man, Eva Mendes  is smoking hot. And, for the ‘all types and sizes’ crowd, she’s hot while being curvy, something you could not say about, say, Gal Gadot’s Giselle in the later films.
  • For that matter, I love Prison Break’s Amaury Nolasco, here turning the stereotypical Latino bravado up to eleven. All of the Fast films feature a character like this, usually an ethnic stereotype, and always some jokester wannabe badass who exists exclusively to showcase the hero-talent of Dom or Brian.
  • So, the casting director is seeking a lead baddie to play Venezuelan-born antagonist Carter Verone and comes up with Cole Hauser, a certified whiter than white dude (see his ability to play ginger buddy to Matt Damon and Ben Affleck inGood Will Hunting). Not saying this can’t happen, and Hauser certainly brings intensity to the role, but was Antonio Banderas busy?  I mean, think of the money that could have been saved in hair dye and tanning cream.
  •  Luda’s afro is fucking legit. For that matter, Luda himself is fucking legit. I was, however, wondering about that stylish jumpsuit he’s got on in the earlier street racing scenes. What is that, garage chic?
  • Brian’s car snorts steam. Get it? Like a DRAGON.
  • While we’ve come to expect gratuitous shots of gears shifting and gas and brake pedals being furiously stomped on, Singleton brings an extra element of visual flair to what is normally stock-in-trade filmmaking, focusing (in one scene at least) on a dizzyingly edited shots of each driver’s eyes as they flash from road to rearview mirror and back. What this gives us as spectators is a chance to see the narrative advance and develop in terms of expressions registered only from the nose up. It’s an interesting way to go about it and one that actually manages to capture the fear bound up with the speed and adrenaline typical of these film.
  • When Mendes’s Agent Fuentes shows up at Brian’s boathouse bedroom to warn him of Verone’s impending plot to kill him, she looks like she’s just come from a freaking pool party. And it’s supposed to be, I don’t know, 9 am.
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