By Kyle G. King. This is RETROGRADING, where something something family.
THE FILMS: The Fast and the Furious (2001), 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003), The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006), Fast & Furious (2009), Fast Five (2011), Fast & Furious 6 (2013), Furious 7 (2015)
THE TIME: 2001-2015. After a decade and a half, The Fast and the Furious franchise continues to accelerate as a powerhouse of thrilling action.
RECOLLECTIONS: They’ve come a long way from drag racing on Hollywood Blvd. Dominic Toretto and crew have gone from criminals with hearts of gold (and feets of lead) to government-backed mercenaries who aren’t afraid to play dirty for their freedom. Driving fast with attitude and charisma has gotten them a long way from just racing for pink slips. Now they’re a bonafide crew of globe-trotting wrenches-for-hire — but they still have that west coast swagger.
As any reputable action franchise should, The Fast and the Furious has always been about raising the stakes and jacking up the stunts. There is a clear line between racing realism and action fantasy though, and while the first three films simply showcased muscle cars and semi-typical action set pieces, Fast & Furious (the fourth one) reunited Vin Diesel and Paul Walker to begin a new chapter of innovative high-speed chases, hand-to-hand fight sequences, and blockbuster-sized stunts.
Powersliding a muscle car between two flaming gas tankers; dragging a bank vault through downtown Rio with dual police cars; taking down tanks and mega-planes with naught but a speeding car; tossing automobiles out of planes… these ludicrous sequences elevated the later films of the F&F franchise from the previous “car goes fast” shtik of the original trilogy.
THE DIRECTORS: Cycling through directors from different countries and backgrounds helped the franchise retain a level of authenticity to its ethnically diverse cast, settings, and wide range of tone. As Rob Cohen began the series on the west coast, he introduced characters who valued not just speed, but loyalty and honor amongst themselves. When John Singleton took the reigns in the sequel 2 Fast 2 Furious, he took to Miami to show the playful side of Paul Walker and Tyrese Gibson as they drove backwards going 60 and launched bad guys out of hydraulic passenger seats. After Justin Lin took over in Tokyo Drift (he’s the franchise’s longest standing director, lasting four movies all the way to Fast & Furious 6) Lin, Vin, and Paul reinvigorated the franchise as the modern action extravaganza for which it has become famous.
That slow cruise towards auto-absurdity was vital to suspending the disbelief that came with Lin’s new vision for the franchise. The line between believable human characters, capable of loss and tragedy, behind the wheel of cars that could still operate after being shot to hell was a thin margin to drift on, but by the time Lin had arrived — and Walker and Diesel had returned — the story (and the moviegoing audience) were well-prepared for it.
When horror director James Wan stepped in for Furious 7, the action became even more bold and daring. Though, as a consequence, the drama became much more hollow. It’s difficult to tell where the blame might lie (or even if the blame is even worth casting) due to the tragic events that eclipsed the production of the film, but it’s clear that the movie had a giant Paul Walker-sized hole in it that took away a lot of its heart.
THE CAST: Though they pick up and drop off new members in every movie, Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Michelle Rodriguez, and Jordana Brewster remained the pillars of the series, upholding the most appearances and screen time. Tyrese Gibson and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges became comedic mainstays in the later films. Interestingly enough, Sung Kang jumped around the franchise’s timeline, starting in The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (it took place after Fast & Furious 6 chronologically — it’s confusing, I know), also appearing in Vin Diesel’s Los Bandoleros short film, as well as most of the later F&F movies.
Dwayne Johnson, Gal Gadot, Lucas Black, and Matt Schulze all have recurring roles in the revolving door that is this pseudo-familia. (That Dominic Toretto constantly refers to his team as some kind of makeshift family is the series’ most defining dramatic anchor.)
As ridiculous as it gets to see them come up with bigger and bolder things to do with their automobiles, there remains an ingenious popcorn munchability in watching what happens to all these characters. You don’t see the X-Men sit down to say grace together, or James Bond worry about his sister dating a guy with a name that “sounds like a serial killer.” Their humanity — however sparse and melodramatic it occasionally arrives — separates the characters of The Fast and the Furious as a team worth rooting for and, fortunately for this franchise, returning to.
NOSTALGIA-FEST OR REPRESSED NIGHTMARE? What makes The Fast and the Furious franchise fascinating is its unapologetic pride for its own history. Throughout the entirety of the series, there are constant call backs to other films; not just quick references or nods, but entire scenes that are shot specifically to pick up from previous movies. That unabashed love for its past, for its family, makes these movies enjoyable regardless of how ridiculous they’ve become (and yes, they’ve become really, really silly). Truly a car wreck you don’t want to look away from, The Fast and the Furious franchise is a pure guilty pleasure nostalgia-fest.
RETROGRADE: 7 out of 10