With the tragic death of Paul Walker there have been the inevitable voices snarking about the Fast & Furious movies. There are people out there who dismiss the films, who look askance at them and anyone who defends them. These are people who can't appreciate the simplest pleasures in life, and I know because I was once one of them.
In 2011, with Fast Five looming, I decided to finally jump into the series which I had been steadily ignoring for a decade. I had written the films off, and was familiar with them in the way you're familiar with the stuff that plays on TV while you're busy doing something else. But with the release of Fast Five I wanted to get up to speed, and so I watched the whole series and wrote about each film. I was shocked to learn that right from the start I liked them.
Let's be clear about something: these movies were not great films. They have been maturing into surprisingly great blockbusters, but the only Fast film I'd hold up as a movie on its own terms is The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift. But the other movies (except Fast & Furious) are undeniably fun and energetic and silly in just the right ways. Best of all, they're dumb in a totally non-ironic way. There's no tongue in cheek bullshit happening here, it's all just movies that are trying really hard to entertain.
The franchise reminds me of the Harry Potter films, in that the last few are undoubtably the best, but they become the best by building on the not-so-great first movies. You could jump in with Fast Five, one of the best movies released in 2011, but it wouldn't be the same without immersing yourself in the strange and diverse family built up in the previous four films. Each of those films (well, three of them) have their own immense pleasures, and when taken as a whole they are actually incredible. 2 Fast 2 Furious is a movie that took me a couple of viewings to really get in tune with, and once I did - aided also by Fast Five - I began to see the absolute lunkheaded brilliance on display.
That sense of building a family is why Walker's death is hitting fans of the franchise hard; whether or not we thought Walker was the best thing in these movies (and looking back at my old reviews I did not always feel that way), he was a member of the family.
Here's my journey through the Fast & Furious films. Hopefully those of you who have never given them a chance will reconsider your position. I don't know what will happen with this franchise moving forward, but over the course of the series Fast & Furious has become perhaps the best original movie franchise going. It's been an extraordinary thing to witness, and you can still experience it this late in the game just by starting at the beginning.
The Fast and The Furious
Some movies are knowingly stupid. They wink at the audience, reveling in the absurdity, the silly characters, the moronic plot points. Everybody’s in on it.
The Fast and the Furious is not one of those movies.
In fact it’s possible that The Fast and the Furious is one of the most earnestly stupid movies ever made.
2 Fast 2 Furious
Claims of homoeroticism directed at action films - especially buddy action films - are nothing new. There’s a fine line between depicting romance and intense friendship in the movies, and sometimes that line can be humorously blurred. Usually the line is there, though, and any homoerotic reading is ultimately foiled by the text of the film.
That is not the case with 2 Fast 2 Furious, a film that reads like the writers were trying to sneak the gayest movie ever into America’s multiplexes.
The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift
There’s no doubt that Tokyo Drift is the best of the F&F franchise, and the only one that feels like a ‘real’ film. It’s also completely disconnected from the rest of the series right up until Vin Diesel shows up in the final moments; in that way it’s kind of the Halloween III: Season of the Witch of racing films. But so much better. I don’t have any reservations in saying that this is an excellent example of the teen sports genre, and that it’s got some of the best racing action I’ve seen in a late period movie.
Fast & Furious
Remember at the end of Easy Rider when Wyatt says, ‘We blew it?’ He was looking into the future and talking about Fast & Furious.
This is a terrible movie, with few of the pleasures that made the original films such good times. Fast & Furious goes beyond being just terrible and reaches into some kind of uber-serious moroseness that’s chastising you for having a good time. This time around everybody involved wants to let you know how serious they are, how much ice is in their veins, and how these characters are rugged and tough and hurting inside. It’s like Neal Mortiz woke up and decided he wanted to make a Michael Mann version of Fast & Furious, but since he’s Neal Moritz and not a great cinematic talent he ended up with a heaping piece of shit.
I won’t lie - I loved this movie. Morgan and Lin know what they’re making, and they don’t repeat the mistakes of Fast & Furious. They keep it light, fun and well-paced. They up the ante in just the right way with Hobbes while using the franchise’s best assets - its secondary characters - to keep things buoyant. And Lin and his second unit have crafted the greatest action scenes in the franchise’s history - as well as some of the best big screen action I’ve seen in years. This is what a summer movie should be - knowingly silly, fun, light, thrilling, packed with real stunts and not-so-subtle gayness. And best of all you never have to turn your brain off - half the fun is laughing along with the audacious goofiness of the whole thing.
Fast & Furious 6
Furious 6 is full of fan service - there are a ton of callbacks to previous films, some so deep that my audience seemed to totally miss them - but that fan service always works in the context of the story being told. And Lin understands the one service fans of this franchise really want: these characters being themselves and bouncing around in crazy, over the top action sequences. And he gives the fans that and then some.