Speeding Through The Fast & The Furious

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The impending release of "Fast & Furious 6" has brought with it something previously unknown to the franchise: anticipation. Eager anticipation. Some might say GIDDY anticipation. What was once the rock-bottom, butt-of-countless-jokes Hollywood franchise starring two has-been leading-men experiments and a revolving door of cast permutations has now become not even a guilty pleasure but a flat-out pleasure? I knew "Fast Five" had been well-received, but this still felt sudden.

But I was coming from a place of ignorance. Or snobbery. Or something. I had yet to see ANY of the five "Fast" films, ever. And so with questions swirling in my head about what I had been missing all this time, I decided to embark upon a one-weekend catchup session. Find out what I'd been missing all this time. See if I could get into that "Furious 6" frame of mind (read our review of "Furious 6" here).

THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS (2001)

For as much as this franchise-launching film is all about baiting the MTV crowd (young stars! fast cars! quick cuts!), the original "The Fast and the Furious" felt like a throwback in so many ways. There were the "Lethal Weapon" tropes to be found within the cop story of officer Brian O'Connor (Paul Walker), who has been sent on an undercover mission in infiltrate the road-racing world of Dom (Vin Diesel). Particularly the dynamic of the station house (complete with irritable African-American chief), but also back with Dom's crew. You get Vince the hothead (Matt Shulze), Letty the tough chick (Michelle Rodriguez), and Jesse the kind-hearted tech geek with a heart of gold (Chad Lindberg). I felt like tapping Rob Cohen on the shoulder and telling him it was cool, I could finish the movie from here.

I need to start things off on an extremely shallow level, so bear with me, but watching 2001 Paul Walker was like watching a comet. A fleeting moment in time that will likely never be seen again, but while he lasted, he was objectively dreamy. For like a year and a half there he had the most beautiful face in Hollywood. And like that ... it's gone. Walker's not ugly anymore, but whatever glimmer of star quality he once had is probably never coming back.

Some of the dialogue in this thing is not only clunkly but needlessly clunky. And somehow all focused on weird product placement. Why does Vince have to menace Brian by telling him to go to Fatburger where he can "get [him]self a double cheese with fries for $2.95, faggot!"? What's up with Dom offering Brian "any brew you want, as long as it's a Corona"?

It feels almost unimaginative to read homoerotic subtext into the relationship between Dom and Brian. That being said, MY are there some appreciative glances between those two! Jordana Brewster is doing her level best to evince this Demi Moore quality while playing the Good Girl, but she just can't compete in this one.

Even with all these clichéd elements, it's easy to see why this movie struck enough of a chord with audiences to grind out what has become a six-picture-strong franchise (and counting). Vin Diesel is indescribable. I don't mean that as a synonym for "unbelievable." I mean he defies description. He's low-key to the point of not existing, you have no idea why anybody would care what this guy does, and then all of a sudden his life is in danger and you're all, "DOM! NO!"

All told, this isn't a great movie. It's got fun elements, I was onboard with Dom and Brian and their fraught bond, and the racing scenes are undeniably compelling. You're dodging failed catch phrases ("I live my life a quarter-mile at a time" is clearly intended to be their "I feel the need, the need for speed") and some of the worst nu-metal the early '00s had to offer, but you end up with this shot of Michelle Rodriguez, so that's something at least.

Fast One Rodriguez

2 FAST 2 FURIOUS (2003)

If "The Fast and the Furious" was a dumb good time, "2 Fast" was a steep descent into irredeemable garbage. Trading in Vin Diesel for Tyrese Gibson, dusty/dirty L.A. for gaudy neon Miami, and a likeable (if clichéd) "family of outlaws" story for a more straight-up undercover-cop flick, everything about this second movie comes across as worse for wear. Well, okay, that's not 100% true. Trading Ja Rule for Ludacris is a huuuuge upgrade, if only for the afro.

Fast Two Luda

So, to start with, flipping the badass role onto Walker for this one is ... let's leave it at "dubious." Though between all the references to Chino and Barstow, I did begin to wonder if he was secretly Ryan Atwood from "The O.C." adapted for film. Equally dubious, charismatically speaking, is Tyrese as Roman. I think here's where Vin Diesel's secret worth comes into play. As quiet-storm as Dom is, Roman is equally yappy. He wears out his welcome fast, and when he returns in "Fast Five," he hasn't simmered down any. He's loud, bitchy, complainy, and generally a total waste. Oh, and he's one of those friends who is ALWAYS on your case about not paying him enough attention. I don't know why Brian hangs out with him.

Oh, maybe because Brian is crazy now? It's not really reflected in the film's plot or anything. But already by 2003, those angel-faced good looks of Paul Walkers are beginning to harden into something unsettling. Or maybe I'm just misreading the scene where he races down a Miami straightaway while staring a hole through Evan Mendes's face.

2 Fast 2 Furious Paul Walker

The third bad decision here is Cole Hauser as the big drug dealer. There was seriously NO ONE else they could have cast? Hauser can credibly play dicks and he can credibly play dangerous men, but as a Miami kingpin who's #1 on the Feds' most-wanted list? No. He can't even get properly menacing while doing that rat-and-bucket torture that they did on "Game of Thrones" last year. And since the movie ditched most of its racing aspects in order to focus on the far-less-interesting undercover-thugs aspect, we have to deal with Hauser a lot.

Bright spots? Well, Luda, as I said. At one point, an ejector-seat is utilized, and who doesn't like that? Plus, there comes a point when a car starts racing a boat, and I was reminded of that scene in "Adaptation" when Donald Kaufman pitches an action set piece where a car would race a horse. Like, technology vs. horse.

Still, though, everything seems off pace, the acting is atrocious (Walker is exponentially worse here, and it's not like he was Sir Laurence Olivier in the original), and neither the comedy nor the action is any good. No wonder this almost killed the franchise.

THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS: TOKYO DRIFT (2006)

Tokyo Drift Lucas Black

After the unmitigated disaster of "2 Fast 2 Furious," it's no surprise that they went for a complete overhaul with the third installment, and up until the very last seconds of the movie, there is utterly no connection between this film and the previous two (save for Han). Well, except for the fact that Lucas Black has perfected the exact same sideways stare as his predecessors.

If the first F&F film was a family-of-crooks film and the second was an '80s undercover-cop flick, "Tokyo Drift" is a classic fish-out-of-water high school tale. Instead of car-racing, they could be skateboarders or surfers or rugby players. The point is that Lucas Black is enough of a screwup that he gets sent to Japan to live with his indifferent uncle and left to fend for himself among a whole bunch of Tokyo teens ... and somehow Bow Wow. Bow Wow, by the way, ranks somewhere above Ja Rule but below Ludacris on the rapper-turned-F&F-actor scale. On the "supreme confidence at all times for no discernible reason" scale, however, he is off the charts.

The most relevant of the lineup changes for "Tokyo Drift" was, of course, Justin Lin as the new director. Along with Lin came what were arguably the series' best racing scenes, inventively filmed bursts of energy that utilized the lack of open stretches of road in Tokyo to its idiosyncratic advantage. He also brought along both actor Sung Kang and his character, Han, from his buzzy indie breakthrough "Better Off Tomorrow." Han is an instantly likeable character -- certainly much more compelling than Black's generically bratty Sean. Han gets killed as the action reaches its climax, which is a super bummer, because Han is the best, but even that has a silver lining because FINALLY all these crazy reckless car stunts have resulted in a significant casualty. All this action is useless if it doesn't have consequence, and now it does. As the series goes on, Han's death -- and Dom's cameo at the end, where he reveals that Han was a member of his crew before he came to Tokyo -- will become more and more integral both for the series timeline and for the stakes of the films.

Unfortunately, there's a giant black hole at the center of the film, which is that there is no possible way to care about Sean, an unlikeable smirk-monster who gives no indication as to why we should follow his little quest for acceptance. All the bells and whistles around him look great, it's just the center that doesn't hold. Still, it's probably the best of the three films so far.

FAST & FURIOUS (2009)

The first 20 minutes of "Fast & Furious" made me so, so hopeful. Without any fanfare or narrative hoop-jumping, Dom and Letty are back and pulling off jobs in the Dominican Republic with a new crew (a crew that includes Han from "Tokyo Drift," so we know this takes place between movies 2 and 3). The road heist is a thrilling, spectacular set piece, better than any single scene in the three previous movies. It felt like Justin Lin was finally putting his stamp on the series, and I was finally going to see this big turnaround in quality (or at least enjoyment) that I'd kept hearing happened once Lin took over the series.

Then, the rest of the movie happened. The job is finished, Han leaves for Tokyo (and his ultimate demise, which is a bummer), and Letty ends up dying offscreen in a car crash that sets the whole plot into motion. In truth, Michelle Rodriguez had to go make "Avatar" and thus couldn't be onboard for the full movie, but using Letty's death as a catalyst for the whole film means we have to suddenly see Dom and Letty as this love for the ages, complete with softly-plucked guitar music. Dom ends up sneaking back into the States, where Brian O'Conner is all grown up and working for the Eff Bee Eye, along with the ever-infuriating Shea Whigham, the ever-charming Liza Lapira, and one of those hulking cousins from "Breaking Bad."

The entire rest of the movie, after that wonderful opening, bogs itself down with the ins and outs of Dom and Brian trying to infiltrate a drug cartel so they can get to the guy who killed Letty. Jordana Brewster is back as Dom's sister Mia, looking even more lost amid the proceedings. Her romance with Brian has always been the definition of perfunctory, so watching the movie go through the groaning mechanics of reuniting them is a bit painful. Besides, Brian still only has eyes for Dom, and it's time we all stopped denying it.

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There's a pretty great death scene during the climactic action extravanganza at the end, and the final scene finally breaks Brian free of the tedious bonds of The Law, so that's all a positive development, but I can't say this wasn't a huge letdown of a movie. Still waiting to get on the "Fast & Furious" wavelength.

FAST FIVE

Now THAT is more like it! Just as I was beginning to think that I was just not cut out for the "Fast & Furious" lifestyle, Lin finally pulls everything together, as if the whole thing was a cake that just needed the correct amount of time to fully become itself. Once again, we get a huge set piece to kick things of -- picking up right where the last film left off, with Brian and Mia taking down Dom's prison transport. How, you ask? By crashing the fuck out of that bus, flipping it about a dozen times, and then having the balls to tell us that not only does Dom walk away unharmed, but that NO ONE was killed. By this:

The rest of the film heads down to Rio, where blah blah blah, plot mechanics say that they have to pull off a job that puts them in the crosshairs of not only the local cartel kingpin as well as the American D.E.A., the latter of which is how we get Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson into the story. The Rock is pretty much a walking example of everything that Hollywood wanted Vin Diesel to become, so watching them both on a collision course towards each other is a thrilling bit of meta commentary in and of itself.

So we get a train heist, already doubling the number of giant action spectacles from the previous film, and once Dom and Brian end up in the crosshairs of the cartel and the Feds, it comes time to pull off One Big Job, and that's when the masterstroke happens: they bring back everybody who's ever been connected to them, from all four previous movies. That includes everyone from awesome Han (still alive, which...we'll get to that in a second) to awful Roman. Also, Ludacris! Who is suddenly an expert in cracking safes? Sure!

FAST FIVE crew

The most surprising great thing about "Fast Five" is that they truly sell the notion of Dom's crew being a family. Mia finds out she's pregnant with Brian's baby, then all the old crew shows up and everybody intermingles, and everybody hunkers down together to pull off the job. It's one of those awesomely old-fashioned situations where everybody in the crew has a talent that they bring to the table. Luda is suddenly the tech guy; Gisele takes a cue from Jenna Maroney and uses her sexuality; Roman uses his big mouth and powers of superior complaining. Roman is such a piece of work. From the moment that he and Luda greet each other, like two embittered old queens throwing shade, Roman once again asserts himself as a chore and a half. "This just went from Mission Impossible to Mission In-Freaking-Sanity." Shut up, Roman.

"Fast Five" keeps on moving along, taking care to give us the mid-movie moments that the previous films did not provide. Like the entire city of Rio suddenly backing up Dom's gang against the D.E.A. Hey, I've seen "City of God"; I know this is how Rio rolls. It's at this point that I realize that these films -- at their best, which is to say, "Fast Five" -- resemble non-dance version of the "Step Up" movies. If you know me at all, you know that is the HIGHEST possible compliment.

The climactic chase scene is both awesome (crashing through the streets of Rio de Janeiro, dragging a bank vault behind them!) and likely impossible according to the laws of physics. Also problematic from a sociopolitical perspective (the citizens of Rio probably cannot afford all this infrastructure damage). But it's a hell of a great time. Sure, we're back to scores of consequence-free action where cars and not people are the victims, but it's an in-for-a-penny, in-for-a-pound situation with these movies. And THEN! The post-credits tag! Letty's alive! Eva Mendes is somehow the Nick Fury of the F&F universe! With one movie, I am 100% all in for the entire franchise. How in the world did this happen?