In an attempt to better diversify the content on this blog I’m introducing a new series of pieces I plan to write called “Crash Course.” I plan for this to be a rather casual series that will feature sporadically and will cover a wide range of topics. With each Crash Course article I’ll look at something that’s been a blind spot in my movie watching and examine a handful of movies related to said blindspot. Some of these articles will look at the works of a certain filmmaker, some will look at movies from a common franchise, and some will simply be looking at some films that all have a common theme.
In 2001 Universal Pictures released a modest action film about illegal street racing with what must have been rather modest expectations. The film, The Fast and the Furious, hit a chord with a generation of millennial teenagers and ended up being a major sleeper hit which spawned a franchise that inexplicably lives on to this day. I was thirteen years old when that original film came out and was thus right in its target-demographic, and consequently, I saw the film and quite enjoyed it. Of course my standards at that tender age were relatively low and at the time I wasn’t exactly aware of the fact that the movie was a fairly blatant ripoff of Kathryn Bigelow’s 1991 thriller Point Break. I don’t know that I’d like it if I saw it today, but my impression of it is still mostly positive. I did not, however, see any of the film’s sequels, partly because of their diminishing critical credibility and partly because my standards in cinema raised dramatically in the time between the release of the original film and the follow-ups. The final nail in the coffin likely came when I learned that the sequels was going to be title 2 Fast 2 Furious, and of course the joke I used to describe it was “2 Dumb 2 See” (it seemed less cheap and obvious at the time).
I had pretty much dismissed the whole series as a complete joke, but then something funny happened: the series seemed to make a big comeback in the public’s eye. The fourth installment made a big surprise splash at the box office and the fifth film actually got legitimately positive reviews. It seemed that the series had fully embraced its own ridiculousness and turned into a sort of intentionally over the top experience that harkened back to the likes of the immortal Bad Boys II. What finally convinced me to give the film another chance once and for all was the advertisement for the upcoming Fast & Furious 6 which aired during the Super Bowl and promised a freeway chase involving a tank and a car bursting out of the front of an airplane. That sounded like fun, and the explosion of enthusiasm across the internet that followed convinced me that I was missing out on something. And that is why I’m making the Fast & Furious franchise the subject of the first installment of my new series: Crash Course (car pun not intended).
2 Fast 2 Furious
The first sequel in the franchise was titled 2 Fast 2 Furious, which has to be one of the stupidest named ever given to a big budget Hollywood film. It’s the kind of name you give to a movie that you don’t expect anyone to take seriously for even a second, and that’s true of pretty much the entire film. Of course it sounds ridiculous to expect gritty realism from any film from this franchise, but this installment is way more over the top than the original. In fact it’s odd that this was the installment of the series that was directed by John Singleton, the formerly respectable director behind Boyz n the Hood, because this movie is way less cool and streetwise than the first film which was directed by a fifty year old white Jewish guy. Singleton doesn’t make the streets of Miami look anywhere near as interesting as Rob Cohen made South Central L.A. look in the first film, and Singleton’s depiction of the street racing sub-culture seems completely half-assed.
In fact there are only two actual street racing scenes in the film and both of them seem completely tacked on. The first one is the film’s opening scene which seems to take place over a half dozen city blocks, has a number of turns, and ends with common criminals somehow commandeering a lift bridge. It’s far removed from the relatively plausible quarter-mile drag races from the first film. The second such scene is a tag-team drag race which seems so gratuitous that I wouldn’t be surprised if I heard it was added during reshoots. In fact the film seems so disinterested in actual street racing that I kind of wish they hadn’t felt obligated to incorporate it into the film at all, because every time it gets incorporated into the film it feels extremely awkward.
The bulk of the film is a run-of-the-mill story of criminals going under-cover to take down a drug lord played by Cole Hauser. Hauser’s character is horribly generic Scarface wannabe who isn’t anywhere near as menacing as the Asian gang from the first film but to be fair, Hauser is by no means the only weak link in this cast. Vin Diesel, whose career was still rather promising at this point, did not come back for the sequel. As such the success fell squarely on the shoulders of Paul Walker, who was by no means capable of carrying a film on his own. He’s not a terrible actor exactly, and he was slightly more palatable than I remembered him being, but he doesn’t really have much of a distinctive personality either. The R&B singer Tyrese Gibson was brought in fill the film’s muscle-bound bald guy quota, and he had a certain charm of his own, but he couldn’t compare to the larger than life bravado that Diesel brought to the first film and he felt like kind of a second rate scab in comparison. It also doesn’t help that both of these characters are complete nothings. The first film’s “undercover cop who grows to like the people he’s investigating” story might have been clichéd, but at least there was something there for the actors to latch onto. Here they’ve really got nothing to work with.
As for the film’s all important action scenes… they’re alright I guess. Most of them are completely gratuitous and all of them are completely unbelievable, but at last there seemed to be some ambition behind them. The film’s stunt crew clearly wanted to top the scene from the first film where the car drove under the semi-truck so they filled the film with every kind of outlandish car stunt they could imagine with little regard to plausibility. The final chase scene is kind of interesting if only for the sheer number of cars in it and some of the other stunts are conceptually great even if they aren’t really executed believably. Overall, this is a lame-ass sequel that’s far removed from everything that worked moderately well in the original.
** out of Four
The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift
When the producers decided to name the second movie 2 Fast 2 Furious I’m sure they thought it was cool, clever, or maybe just campy fun, but either way I think it sort of backfired on them. It made the whole series seem like a big joke that wasn’t going to be around long. The series looked like it was so over that they couldn’t even bring back Paul Walker (a man who hasn’t had a single hit outside of this series) to come back for the third film. In fact, I strongly suspect that when they went into production on The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift they weren’t sure if what they were making would even be a theatrical release. It has all the usual trappings of a straight-to-DVD spin off from the total absence of original cast-members to the generic title to the fact that it’s got nothing whatsoever to do with the continuity of the previous films (aside from an out-of-nowhere cameo at the tail end).
If there’s anything particularly good to say about The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift it’s that it isn’t as over the top and stupid as 2 Fast 2 Furious and it actually has something to do with racing. In fact I’d barely call it an action movie. It’s more like a sports movie or something like 8 Mile except with the rap battles replaced by drift races. In fact it seemed like a pretty good idea to set the film in Tokyo and to focus on drift racing, which was certainly a visually interesting style of motorsport even if it was a rather short-lived trend. The problem is that everything about it feels cheap and second rate. Wikipedia tells me that this actually has a higher budget than both of the preceding films, but it certainly doesn’t show on screen, especially in its climactic race scene which is a poorly lit and edited slog down a mountain.
The producers also seemed to cut costs when casting the film, because there’s no other explanation for why they thought it was a good idea to build a film of this scale around Lucas Black, who is quite possibly the only actor on earth who’s noticeably more boring than Paul Walker. Black is supposedly playing a 17 year old delinquent, but he looks like a 30 year old Mormon and doesn’t do a lot to make you interested in his character’s fate. I’m not even sure why they thought it was a good idea to make this a story about a teenager in the first place, it seems to be a far cry from the cast cool twenty-somethings that populated the other films, but if they’re going to go that route they should at least cast someone who looks the part. The rest of the cast isn’t a lot better. You can tell that a series is going off course when the best token rapper you can get is Lil’ Bow Wow and Nathalie Kelly is a far cry from Michelle Rodriguez and Eva Mendes. Some of the Asain cast members like Sung Kang and Brian Tee hold up a little bit better, but still there’s a clear charisma drop between this film and the rest of series.
All in all I feel like between this and 2 Fast 2 Furious we’ve seen two separate examples of how not to make a TFATF sequel. One of them went way off the deep end into stupidity and the other felt like some kind of non-union scab version of the original. I’m not entirely sure which of these approaches I prefer. I suppose Tokyo Drift is a slightly better film but there was probably more potential to be found in 2 Fast 2 Furious’ approach, which seems closer to the insanity that I saw in the trailers for Fast Five and Fast & Furious 6. Still, these are both very sub-par sequels, there’s nothing about them that would have made me feel like this series would still be viable in 2013.
** out of Four
Fast & Furious
The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift is by far the lowest grossing film in the series, having only grossed a total of about $62 million domestically. That sounds like a decent chunk of cash but it’s well under the film’s $85 million budget and is significantly less than the $125 million+ grosses of its predecessors. It did do a little better in foreign markets, but all signs still pointed to this being a franchise on its last legs and I never thought I’d see another one made, much less another one become any sort of box office success. And yet, inexplicably, the series not only came back with a fourth installment but managed to outgross all of its predecessors in the process and completely resurrect the series.
How did this happen. Fast & Furious had the same director and budget of The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, the reviews were some of the series’ worst, and if anything the brand should have just seemed exceedingly dated in the three years it took to make the film. The only possible explanation for this return of interest is that this fourth installment reunited the first film’s cast (Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, and Michelle Rodriguez), and yet no one seemed to be all that interested in any of these guys outside of the Fast and Furious series, so that doesn’t entirely explain it either.
I suspect that a lot of the film’s success was rooted in some keen marketing ideas, especially the decision to release the film in early April instead of early June like the previous installments had been. This meant that the movie didn’t have as many like-minded films to compete against, and that’s important because how enjoyable one finds this movie has a lot to do with what your standards are. When compared to some of that year’s more accomplished action films like Avatar, Star Trek, Watchmen, Public Enemies, and District 9 this really isn’t all that impressive but in the less competitive world of the mid-spring box office I could see people starved for dumb fun flocking to this. And when judged as a sort of B-grade Hollywood movie there is fun to be had from Fast & Furious.
Most of the cars in the series up to this point have been modern Japanese imports that have been modified and “tricked out” both for cosmetic and performance purposes. These were apparently authentic to what was actually being driven by L.A. street racers, but by the end of all of the first three films (even the one set in Tokyo) the hero will have started driving a classic muscle car like a Dodge Charger, Chevy Camaro, or a Ford Mustang. In Fast & Furious they mostly drop the imports all together and dedicate most of their time to American cars from the late 60s and early 70s. I would like to think that this was done as a nod toward the ailing post-recession U.S. auto industry, but it’s more likely related to the fact that many of the film’s action scenes are out in the desert rather than on urban streets.
Another reason for the switch in auto-types is that this is the place where the series really stopped claiming to have much of anything whatsoever to do with the increasingly irrelevant world of illegal street racing. Instead, the producers decided to focus in on the fact that the main characters in the first film were cops and car thieves and role with that as the series’ overriding theme. In fact the silly, but mostly impressive opening action scene for example, is meant as a sort of bigger and crazier version of the truck hijacking scenes from that original film. From there we’re treated to a serviceable but bland action movie story about people going undercover to bust up a drug cartel. The movie is in many ways a direct sequel to the original film; there’s nothing here that contradicts the events of 2 Fast 2 Furious, but it isn’t talked about either, and there’s only a small nod towards The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (which supposedly takes place after the events of this film, but we’ll talk more about that later).
Director Justin Lin seems significantly more comfortable behind the camera here than he did in The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift and the film works better because of it. I can see why this is the film that set the series back on the right course and I do think it’s a better movie than 2 or three, but it’s also more forgettable. The story lacks a really juicy hook and most of the development between the characters just doesn’t amount to much. It’s a passable movie (which is more than I can say for some films in this series), but that’s about it.
*** out of four
I had some mild curiosity about whether or not the previous F&F movies were as bad as I thought they were, but what really made me interested in the series was this fifth installment and its surprisingly positive critical reception. On Rotten Tomatoes the previous films in the series scored 52%, 36%, 35%, and 27% respectively, but this one skyrocketed to an impressive 78%. It was like the opposite of the “jump the shark” phenomenon, it was an installment that brought a strange sort of respectability to the series as a whole and set it off in a new and stronger direction. That’s not to say that I was under the impression that this would be an artful new direction, rather, it seemed like it was now going to be a sort of grand and sublimely stupid spectacle and that’s more or less what I got.
A big part of the film’s success is that its budget jumped from $85 million to $125 million, and director Justin Lin manages to squeeze everything he can from that extra $40 million. Firstly, he finds a hip new location in Rio De Janeiro, which has become quite the hotspot for both action movies and video games. Secondly, he’s expended the cast significantly. All the major surviving players from Fast & Furious are back and they’ve also brought back Tyrese Gibson and Ludacris from 2 Fast 2 Furious and improved their characters significantly. On top of that, they’ve brought in The Rock to act as a cop trying to track the gang down. I don’t really love The Rock’s performance here but he provides an intimidating physical presence and brings a nice flair to the proceedings.
The other thing they’ve done to up the ante here is to make the action scenes and stunts even bigger and better than they were before. The world of street racing is little more than a distant memory here, instead this is built to be a sort of Ocean’s 11 style heist film, albeit with a lot of car chases. And oh, what car chases. The tone is set very well early on when Paul Walker takes part in an elaborate heist that involves removing sports cars from a cargo train and ends with him and Vin Diesel driving a car off a cliff. The film’s climax, which involves a bank vault chained to a pair of cars and results in massive property damage, is perhaps the grandest spectacle we’ve yet seen from the series. The film also isn’t shy about including action scenes which don’t involve cars, like shootouts and fist fights.
Just about every blockbuster that gets made by Hollywood tries to excuse its shortcomings by claiming to “just be dumb fun.” Fast Five is one of the few films to actually earn this label. It knows exactly what it is and then actually executes on that with both ambition and skill. It isn’t a film that’s content to simply be a juvenile car fantasy for fourteen year olds, instead it wants to be the greatest juvenile car fantasy for fourteen year olds ever made. It’s a little messy in the way it goes about doing this and not every element works, but it is as fun as it says it is and I enjoyed watching it quite a bit.
***1/2 out of Four