Of all the things that we accept in the Fast and Furious movie series—a car leaping from one skyscraper to another, characters catching other characters in mid-air while driving at impossible speeds, and unexpected resurrections—it’s notable that what we don’t quite laugh off is forgiveness.
Eight movies into a planned 10-movie cycle, it’s become clear that the brain trust behind the Fast films is committed to a very peculiar trope: villains never stay villains and everyone is good deep down. It’s one thing to see Agent Hobbs go from a clueless law enforcement antagonist to a full-fledged family member. Being a cop makes a character a good guy in most cinematic circumstances anyway. It’s quite another when Deckard Shaw, the man who murdered Han in cold blood in Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift is welcomed to the barbecue. Shaw didn’t just blow up Han’s car, he also blew up the Toretto home in Los Angeles’s Echo Park neighborhood. If someone exploded my house, I’d ask for them to pick up the tab, or at least replace my Blu-Ray collection.
But that’s just how Dom Toretto rolls, isn’t it? Display even a hint of a moral compass, no matter how rigid it might be, and you can have any beer you want, as long as it’s a Corona (though the Fate of the Furious party seemed to be sponsored by Budweiser). What do you have to do to be labeled a proper monster these days? Skin a newborn puppy? Express an affection for Japanese import automobiles? Wear a white tank top after Labor Day?
This might be the most subversive aspect of the Fast and Furious movies, even more so than the commitment to a multicultural cast or its predilection for wrecking major cities without repercussions. Every day of our lives, our neighbors become more and more stringent and stubborn in their thinking. Say the wrong thing on Facebook and your high school classmate might accuse you of treason. Don’t disrespect the office of the president, don’t malign the good name of the police department, and don’t you dare call anyone racist, because, after all, racism ended around the same month that blue eye-shadow went out of fashion in the 1960s. Everything and everyone is so polarized and eager for a scrape that simply getting out of bed has become an ordeal akin to escaping the killing room in a Saw movie.
Not so in Vin Diesel’s eight-film, ever-shifting morality play. Letty was a good person, then a dead person, then a bad person, and then a good and very not dead person in the span of three movies. Dom could betray his team, cause havoc throughout the globe, then be forgiven after a couple days. Finding out Deckard Shaw was a decorated soldier allowed Dom to disregard his murder spree in Furious 7. At this rate, Charlize Theron’s Cipher will be grilling tofu dogs with Tej and Roman by Furious 10.
Few of us bat an eye over this stuff. Who even remembers two years ago, when Shaw was the next worst thing to the Devil himself? Technically, this all happened five movies ago, though we didn’t realize he was responsible until the producers deemed it necessary to tie up the convoluted timeline of the series and kill Han again in the sixth film. Shaw saved a baby, after all. That goes a long way for Dom, and for me, to be honest. Dom’s baby served the same purpose as John Wick’s dog — a pure innocent that transcends any previous wrongdoings by the characters connected to it. How can you not sympathize with a dead canine or a helpless infant? You’d have to be a real sociopath to not care — the kind of person who’d blow up a guy’s house or murder his good friend who’s just trying to make a living in Tokyo.
Divorced of the shaky movie logic that defines the Fast and Furious saga (which, it should be said, I love with the passion of a thousand suns, despite what you might think) it makes sense to keep actors like Jason Statham and Dwayne Johnson around, even if their mere presence threatens Vin Diesel’s iron-fisted control over the franchise. Have as many people around who can throw karate kicks or look menacing in the driver’s seat of a Lamborghini as possible, especially with the gaping hole left by the absence of the late Paul Walker. Like the neverending drama of a professional wrestling storyline, the more a character turns from good to bad or bad to good, the better. It keeps everything fresh, while maintaining a continuity that appeals to the modern, hyper-vigilant audience.
It just happens to run counter to our attitudes about each other, on both sides of the ever-widening cultural divide. A single transgression labels you an enemy. A public statement or action can also give you the street cred of an ally. We love to label each other, as it makes life more manageable. This is why there’s an element of Star Wars fandom that rejects the idea of the third way and an alternative to the neverending Force war presented in the first trailer for The Last Jedi. Good versus evil narratives allow audiences to project their own biases onto the protagonists and antagonists.
The clear dichotomies between light and dark allow for a catharsis — a psychic enema that purges your moral frustrations through fantasy storytelling. Star Wars appealed to the audiences of the late 1970s partially because it offered a narrative that drew a line between the righteous and the malicious in an era where the established order was breaking down thanks to the civil rights movement, Watergate, and Vietnam.
Today, that order is far from a shambles. Rather, it seems more and more ossified. Regardless of where you fall on the political or cultural spectrum, your opposite is your enemy — whether that’s justified or not. Compromise or empathy is the dirtiest word. We’re girded for battle, whether it’s based on demographic divisions or nation-state rivalries. It’s a terrifying place to be, which is why the Fast and Furious movies are so fascinating. They explicitly defy the idea that your enemy is always your enemy. You can break bread with anyone, as long as you can identify their shared humanity. In 2017, that’s a revolutionary statement.
The goal of Dom’s family long ago ceased to be winning races or making money. Now, it’s about cultivating respect. The opening sequence of the film established Dom’s unwavering belief in respect and his generosity of spirit. He could have walked away with Raldo’s car after the race through Havana, but he didn’t, because he valued the relationship over the object. Raldo eventually helps Dom escape Cipher’s control and creates the opportunity for the third act’s endgame scenario. Initially, this attitude might seem antithetical (or just plain ludicrous in the case of the Shaw brothers) but it’s what separates Dom from countless action heroes of the past. Revenge is less important than peace. Anyone can be redeemed if you take the time to understand them. The one thing we all can relate to is family. The Fast and Furious films remain relevant because they embrace an ideal that is anathema to 21st-century mores, but might be the only way forward for humanity: a short memory and a big heart.