The Fast & the Furious franchise is nothing short of bizarre.
I mean, sure, it’s mostly straightforward. Fast cars. Exotic locations. Hot women. That’s about as surefire a formula as any for successful popcorn fun, but there’s something about this particular string of movies that strikes a nerve in a way that most other action franchises never seem to have done. After all, you don’t make it to six (soon to be seven) films in a theatrical franchise unless there’s something under the hood that sets you apart.
So what is that secret ingredient? It’s hard to put my finger on it, so I’m going to write about the five films we’ve gotten thus far in an attempt to figure it out.
THE FAST & THE FURIOUS (2001)
Ground zero. When I first saw this around the time it first hit theaters, I don’t think I ever would have guessed it would spawn what has essentially become one of the most popular action franchises of the last couple decades. It was considered (even by myself when I didn’t have very discerning taste in cinema) to essentially be disposable fluff. Fun and ridiculous, sure, but a film worthy of five sequels? Certainly not.
It definitely made an impact, though, as it hit at just the right time, culturally. The Tuner Culture had been alive and well on the West Coast for a while, but it had just started seeping into Middle America, as it was right around then that it seemed every kid with a few hundred dollars and a lead foot started putting a massive (read: unnecessary) spoiler and a coffee can-sized muffler on their dad’s Honda Civic. It’s sort of a chicken-or-the-egg scenario, though, similar to when Miami Vice hit television in the ’80s. Was art imitating life, or vice versa?
Either way, it seemed to give just the right boost to that particular craze and hit just the right nerve that this modestly-priced flick (it had a production budget of only $38 million) earned a cool $144 million domestically. Not bad for a movie coasting mostly on cultural zeitgeist and no real “name” stars. Vin Diesel had previously starred in a cult favorite (Pitch Black) and Paul Walker mostly had mostly floated around movies aimed at high schoolers with stuff like She’s All That and Varsity Blues.
My point is that it wasn’t necessarily the actors that made this Point Break rip-off so compelling. (And yes, it’s almost exactly a beat for beat retread of Point Break. The only real difference is that Dom and his crew don’t wear masks of ex-presidents as they pull off their heists.) It was the cars. Say what you will about Diesel or Walker’s acting (and there’s certainly a lot to criticize, especially in this movie), once they got behind the wheel of these exotic, tricked out machines, it didn’t matter. The cars became the stars, and Rob Cohen (garish though his direction could be at times) knew how to make them look good and unbelievably fast on the screen.
Outside the cars and off the streets, it really is Diesel who keeps this whole circus together. There’s a sincerity to the way he struts and snarls as Dom. He believes so fully in the reality of this character and his history and his ragtag family that you can’t help but roll right along with it. He may only be able to speak in a cadence that seems as though his words have to trudge through molasses just to escape his mouth (when he’s not yelling, that is), but Diesel manages to eke a decent character out of the script’s rubble.
It’s too bad the same can’t be said for Walker and his undercover cop, Brian. I like Walker, I think he’s finally settled into a comfortable (if still remarkably wooden) place with the character by now, but good grief, his work here is so bad it borders on stupefying.
Which is why it was sort of a shock that Universal decided they wanted to hang the franchise (for now) on his shoulders once they gave us …
2 FAST 2 FURIOUS (2003)
This is where we first begin to see traces of what the franchise would eventually become as this first sequel proves to be more about antiheroes navigating criminal elements while still tangentially dabbling in the Tuner Culture.
It’s certainly not focusing on street racing anymore, though that does play a crucial part of the plot. Instead, we see Brian, now on the run after letting Dom escape custody at the end of the first film, re-team with an old friend of his, Roman Pearce (Tyrese Gibson), in a deal to help take down a Miami-based drug kingpin (Cole Hauser). We also get introduced to Tej (Ludacris), whose flamboyance here is interestingly absent from his involvement later in the series.
John Singleton (man, remember when he was making interesting, important films like Boyz N’ the Hood?) takes over directing duties and he’s .. .serviceable. It’s not that Cohen brought an irreplaceable style to the proceedings, it’s more that Singleton doesn’t really do much to distinguish the style and tone from what came before. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, I suppose, just somewhat disappointing as this would have been a great opportunity to really make each film have its own unique flavor. That would actually happen one entry later, but for now the series, such as it was, felt like it could easily fall into homogeneity.
2 Fast‘s other problem is that the story just isn’t all that interesting. I never found much of a reason to root for Brian and Gibson just doesn’t have nearly the same presence as Diesel. He’s thankfully not trying to be a Diesel replacement, but there’s just not enough going on between these two to make it terribly interesting.
The driving scenes are all handled fine enough, but none of it manages to feel like anything we haven’t already seen before in the previous film. There’s a nice rivalry the film handles in tuned imports v. American muscle that leads to some fun moments, but overall there’s just not nearly as much to latch onto here.
I’ll say this much, I may consider 2 Fast 2 Furious to be the black sheep of the family, but it’s still enough fun in its broad strokes that I’d rather watch it over most other generic action movie dreck that comes through theaters. 2 Fast may not be as distinct as the other films, but it still has a fun energy to it and that counts for a lot.
Next entry, we watch as the franchise’s future gets put into perhaps the most unlikely of hands … with fantastic results.