Erik Jaccard, our resident expert on all things fast and furious, races against his former opinions through underground Mexican tunnels and comes out the other side realizing the faults of the franchise’s transitional, gravitas-heavy fourth film.
Fast & Furious (2009), Dir. Justin Lin
If you’ve followed me here for a while, you know that 18 years ago I had something of a transformative experience with The Fast and the Furious over the course of a summer month while working in Alaska. Since that time, my enthusiasm for the original film has dimmed somewhat, while at the same time I’ve become both permanently enthralled and exasperated by the franchise’s mutation into a Mission: Impossible-style parade of ridiculous, stunt-packed heroism. In 2019, I find myself happy that the films are still around, yet saddened by the fact that they now barely resemble what they once were. That is a confusing emotion in itself, given that the first few films were passably fun and absurd at best, and downright vacuous at worst. Our current offering, Justin Lin’s 2009 sequel-reboot Fast & Furious (don’t forget to subtract the articles!) confusingly contains all that is wonderful about the originals yet nothing that is wonderful about the originals. At the same time, it drops hints of the ludicrousness to come while never fully committing to the action genre. Put simply and casually, Fast & Furious (sometimes referred to below as Fast 4) is a film that is trying to figure stuff out, lodged as it is between the old and the new. Sometimes this works and oftentimes it doesn’t. However, if we needed to have this film in order to get to the sequels, I’m okay with that. That said, I’m not planning on re-watching it anytime soon.
It’s been a while since I went with the standard (by which I mean old) format for a Ten Years Ago re-view, so I’m going to return to the way we used to do things back in 2011. I do this in part because it suddenly feels fresh to me again, as I not having used this form for some time now. But I’m also going with the then/now organization because it’s formulaic and less troublesome, and I’ve got a lot of stuff to do tonight. So, here we go.
How was it then?
Back in 2009, I left the cinema calling Fast & Furious my favorite of the franchise, and I think this is because I found its willingness to embrace a more somber and dramatic depth refreshing. It is a strange installment, given how serious it is in tone and style. Many of its chase scenes are filmed at night and/or underground, giving the entire enterprise a very claustrophobic, suffocating feel. Moreover, given that it is the first in the extended series to feature the original cast of characters back together again, it is called upon to do more character work than either its predecessors or sequels, tearing down and rebuilding relationships so that the fun can continue. In this sense it is Janus-faced, looking forward and backward simultaneously in a mode I’m tempted to call elegiac rather than nostalgic. Gone is the silliness of the first few films; in its place is a newfound sense of gravitas and a sour awareness of the passing of time. One could see the film as a rare moment of quiet maturity in a franchise that quickly pivots between alternating visions of adolescent, action-packed absurdity. Indeed, I like this view, because it at least identifies that there is something different about this one, something quieter and tenser and more anxious. However, as I’ll explain before, I also now think that I was basically wrong in that initial estimation, and for a number of really good reasons.
How is it now?
This time around, with films 5-8 under my belt, it was clear to me that Fast & Furious sags under the weight of its place as transitional middle film in what is now a franchise of eight (with films nine and ten on the way in 2020 and 2021). Just as I have argued elsewhere that the ensuing films take the weight off the original, here I’d say that the continued development of the franchise continues to place more and more weight on Fast & Furious. With every passing sequel, Fast 4 seems more and more like a strange one-off trapped in a narrative no-man’s land between more fully formed cinematic visions. Moreover, if we’ve learned one thing from the spate of sequels in the last ten years, the Fast series is really meant to be fun. And Fast 4 is not fun. There’s no real verve to it, no buddy humor, no imaginative or exciting set pieces that haven’t already been done. Yes, there are hints of what’s to come and homages to what’s passed, but the real point here seems to be to do away with the conflicts and ruptures created in the first film and to start anew, as an entirely new type of film franchise. So, in short, I think I was wrong ten years ago. This film’s job is to be a finale, and also to be setup. It triages old wounds so it can move forward, but in doing so reduces itself to this function. Now, I’m fairly certain this had to happen, so I’m not really complaining, but ten years ago I mistook gravitas for depth, and reviewing that mistake has allowed me to see this film more clearly for what it is (and what it is not).
To start, I’d say that Fast & Furious is perhaps the least representative of all the Fast films insofar as it is called on perform a variety of functions simultaneously, none of which ever coalesce to form something new. As a film that is both a sequel and a reboot, Fast & Furious is burdened with, on the one hand, the pressure of negotiating between the earlier films’ smaller, more personal feel, and the later films’ cinematic bombast, and, on the other, the dual imperatives of tying up loose ends while also founding a new mythology for the continuation of the plot to follow. To my mind, this makes the film feel like it’s being pulled in multiple directions at once, and often to frustrating effect. I’ll deal with these problems one at a time.
First is the issue of scope and genre. The Fast and the Furious franchise can basically be divided into two parts and two genre identities. The franchise’s first three films—The Fast and the Furious (2001), 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003), and The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006)—basically repackage teen movie genre tropes, the first in particular drawing energy and inspiration from earlier B-movies such as Thunder Road. Their settings are generally contained to a city and racing scene, and their casts full of stereotypical, but flamboyant, local color. It’s also worth pointing out that, in these earlier films, we’re generally dealing with good old-fashioned mortals, men and women whose exploits seem cut from a more realistic cloth. If this makes the films feel small, it also grants them a sense of Aristotelian unity of character and place. Conversely, films 5 through 8—Fast Five (2011), Fast & Furious 6 (2013), Furious 7 (2015), and The Fate of the Furious (2017)—are straight-up summer action blockbusters, featuring ever more elaborate heist and chase scenes spread across an array of global locales. With these, our erstwhile street racers have become legitimate action heroes, with the daring, moxie, and know-how to escape any situation, no matter how contrived. At times, and particularly from Furious 7 onward, they seem almost superhuman, capable of surviving the most gruesome crashes and explosions with little more than a sideways smirk.
Watching it this time around, it was clear to me that Fast & Furious is notable precisely because it doesn’t fit comfortably into either of these categories. Its plot is definitely more self-contained than its successors, but it’s also the first film to expand beyond a single city (it begins in the Dominican Republic) and to introduce a larger cast of characters. Yet, even with characterization it seems to be redrawing boundaries established in the first film (Brian and his police superiors, Dom and his refashioned family). The car chases, too, are a mix of the death-defying real-world daredevilry featured in the later films and the more self-contained and singular street-racing adrenaline rushes of the earlier ones. Even the staging of the film’s central chases—which occur in an underground drug-smuggling tunnel straddling the US-Mexico border—seem emblematic of the film’s transitional status insofar as they play out as simultaneous street-race-battles between opposing forces, parroting the moral simplicity of the later films’ hero-villain dynamics. Trapped under the mountain of its own past, the franchise struggles to break free. This is also the film in which the characters begin to show signs of the superhero-like resilience which will animate their hero personas later on. Both Brian and Dom are beat or smashed repeatedly, with little or no damage, and Dom is here called on to identify crucial evidence at the scene of Lettie’s death like a crime scene investigator, even though his expertise is really only that he knows a lot about cars and how to drive them. I’m not saying he couldn’t have expertise in reading tire skid marks. Rather, what I found interesting is that, in this film, he was able to do what the plot needed to be done whether or not it made sense that he could. As older iterations of the characters fade, new ones emerge. In capable hands this pivot might seem more dynamic, but here it instead feels uneven and unfocused.
Similarly, Fast 4 is also called on to continue the franchise’s earlier dramas while also effectively rebooting them, which sometimes makes it feel like it’s being pulled in two directions. For example, many of the first film’s primary conflicts—most of which I covered in my 2011 review—are rehashed here. Formerly disgraced cop Brian O’Connor (Paul Walker) now works for the FBI tracking down big-time drug kingpins. Yet, despite his professional ascent and newfound authority, he is still effectively an outsider longing to claw his way back into the good graces of Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and his sister, Mia (Jordana Brewster), both of whose trust he betrayed in the first film. Even while on the run from the law, Toretto is still playing muscly, bad-ass poppa to a variety of other criminal outcasts and adrenaline junkies, somehow robbing and stealing with what often feels like a Robin Hood-esque sense of moral clarity. When his family is violated with the murder of his longtime romantic partner, Lettie (Michelle Rodriquez), Toretto’s deeply ingrained paternal loyalty kicks in, and he sets out to avenge her death. These two quests: O’Connor’s for redemption and Toretto’s for revenge, basically run on parallel tracks throughout Fast 4, pushing both men into closer and closer cooperation, until they’re finally forced to admit that their priorities and values align in such a way as to allow for the former to rejoin the team, and for the latter to move on from past trauma. Basically, it’s a family reunion—or maybe a 20-year high school reunion—with a lot of car chases thrown in to keep the target audience engaged.
On that note, I’d also say that it occurred to me this time that this is possibly the only Fast film where the car chases aren’t center stage. Sure, one could argue that the races aren’t the point in the original, or that the chases in 2 Fast 2 Furious don’t define the film, and they would have a point. But I would also argue that in these earlier films the races mark pivotal moments for characters and or plot. Those who have watched the more recent installments will recognize that, at this point, the car chases are the entire point, whatever drama is occurring between them being no more than recycled franchise clichés, one-liners, and soap-opera silliness. I mean, I didn’t buy a ticket to Furious 7 so I could find out whether things would work out on The Torettos, nor to witness how the filmmakers would deal with Walker’s untimely death. No, I bought that ticket so I could see Dom and Brian jump a car out of a skyscraper into another skyscraper (and then another skyscraper after that). However, in Fast 4 the races and chases seem obligatory, neither imaginatively conceived nor central to the plot. The first major race is a rehash of a similar race in 2 Fast 2 Furious, and many of the others seem to simply digress from the larger rapprochement we all know is coming when Dom and Brian make up and avenge Lettie.
If films 5-8 are about the team’s exploits and dramatic heroism within and beyond the law, this film is primarily about getting the band back together after an acrimonious breakup. When viewed this way, it’s hard to see it as more than that one impulse gratuitously stuffed with the usual Fast filler (male posturing, gyrating, scantily clad young women, a pulsing soundtrack, one-liners). It probably could have been an episode of VH1’s Behind the Music; just replace “music” with “tracks” or “skid marks” or “NOS” or “checkered flag.” At the end of the day, this reassessment hasn’t dulled my enthusiasm for the franchise, but it hasn’t fueled it either. Before writing, I thought I might end up feeling a bit bummed out, having had my initial assessment undercut by my own analysis. But really, I think part of me always realized that loving this particular installment is a bit of a stretch. It’s like those people who tell everyone publicly that they think Empire Strikes Back or The Prisoner of Azkaban is the best Star Wars or Harry Potter film. It sounds good when you say it and think it, but deep down you know what your heart is saying. And you know what my heart is saying?
[Reaches for the remote, turns on Fast Five, kicks back]
Fuck the drama. I want to watch Vin Diesel drag a bank safe around the streets of Rio.
— Erik Jaccard