When the lights go down and Furious 6 roars to life in theaters this weekend, audiences will be watching a franchise that now only tangentially resembles its earlier incarnations. I’ll let you decide if that’s a fundamentally good thing or not, though I think it’s both fantastic and fascinating. Far too often a series will lose its footing and fall into lethargy because the producers and creative minds behind it get painted into a corner trying to recapture magic by simply rehashing the same things over and over.
Justin Lin, who became the series’ unlikely steward with Tokyo Drift, realized that simply rehashing a formula wouldn’t work, so he steered the franchise into what can only be described as … unexpected territory.
FAST & FURIOUS (2009)
We open five years after the ending of The Fast & the Furious. Dom has resurfaced, and he’s back in the game of pulling off highway heists, though with an almost entirely new crew. But wait! Is this really a prequel to Tokyo Drift? Turns out it is, seeing as how the last time we saw Sung Kang’s Han Seoul-Oh (great name or greatest name?) he was going up in a ball of flame on the streets of Tokyo.
So Dom’s on the run but still taking down scores. Letty’s with him, but not for long as Dom decides to leave her behind when he fears the heat is becoming too much to keep her safe. Turns out maybe he should have stayed with he as, weeks later, Dom gets a call from his little sister (Jordana Brewster, sporting bangs that would rev Bob Taylor’s engine) informing him that Letty’s been murdered. Dom immediately finds a way back home to Los Angeles so he can infiltrate the gang responsible for her death.
Which is convenient, since that just so happens to be the same gang Brian O’Conner (who for some reason is reinstated into the FBI) is trying to track down since it leads to a big time drug smuggler. So, naturally, Dom and Brian get to reignite their bromantic rivalry via racing while also fighting over who gets to take down Braga.
The Fast & the Furious movies have never been one for anything even resembling plot complexity, but this feels remarkably slim, even by franchise standards. It’s also not terribly interesting. There’s not a whole lot of vehicular action to be had, and what is there just isn’t all that exciting. The race held to determine who joins Braga’s gang is a highlight, if only because it harkens back to the energy and style Justin Lin brought to Tokyo Drift. The other car bits are infused with way too much awful CGI to really be very worthwhile.
In fact, the more I think back on it and directly compare it to 2 Fast 2 Furious, the earlier film really starts to win out. Huh.
That said, the one thing Fast & Furious undoubtedly holds over any other in the series is that we get the magnificent scene of Dominic Toretto: Car Whisperer. You see, when Dom returns home to investigate the circumstances of Letty’s death, he seeks out the site of her murder. At which point he gains NOS-fueled clairvoyance (or something), piecing together in his mind precisely how everything happened. With nothing but a couple of stains on the ground, Dom knows exactly where to go looking to pick up the trailer of Letty’s killer. It’s amazing. And by amazing, one of the most idiotic things ever for this guy to turn into Sherlock Holmes, but only for a single scene.
What makes this a vital entry in the series, though, is that it marked the turning point. No longer was this a series solely about being a better racer or flashier cars or hot women. This was essentially a revenge flick, albeit not a particularly good one. But it did show that the series was flexible enough that you could remove a large portion of what had once been its bedrock and transform it into something borderline unrecognizable. Again, this is one strange franchise.
But hey, I’m not complaining, since Fast & Furious led the way for not just the best film in the series (so far, at least), but one of the best action movies of the last decade …
FAST FIVE (2011)
This movie should not exist, much less have any business being as good as this is. Justin Lin somehow took a franchise that was in some ways running on fumes and injected it with new life. He does this in several ways.
Chief among them is that he builds on the legacy of the series. Yes, I know most of you probably just rolled your eyes (really hard) at the idea of a Fast & Furious “legacy,” but it’s true. Any series that not only makes it through this many entries, but also manages to successfully reinvent itself has a legacy. Especially when so many of its principle actors have remained in place. Lin understands this, and he understands that people have grown surprisingly attached to this unlikely group of antiheroes, which is why the cast for this essentially turns Fast Five into the Greatest Hits album of the series.
Cheesy as it is (and boy oh boy, is it cheesy), it’s also one very important thing: Earnest. Diesel may still have one of the most hammy cadences in Hollywood, but you believe him when he talks about family. You buy him as the patriarch of this ragtag family that has slowly taken shape. It may be stilted and ultimately thin, but these actors all buy into it, and that counts for a lot.
Secondly, Lin out-Bays Michael Bay. Bay is one of our great American filmmakers. Love him or hate him, you can’t deny this. His movies are garish and loud and choppy and slick and unmistakably his own. His ability to choreograph controlled chaos on a movie screen is a thing to be envied, and Lin manages to give us some on-screen vehicular insanity that probably had Bay sit up and take notice. The film’s climactic rampage through the streets of Rio delivers a level of visual and visceral insanity that rivals, and in more than a few ways, surpasses some of the best vehicular madness that Bay has ever presented. When Dom and Brian are careening around Rio with a massive steel safe in tow, destroying nearly everything unfortunate enough to get in its path, suddenly I couldn’t care less that the series now is only a shadow of its original self.
Although that’s another part that makes Fast Five so good. I mentioned earlier that the cast makes the movie feel like a Greatest Hits. The set pieces and races manage to do the same. The train heist at the beginning (a flawlessly executed bit, I might add), the drifting in the warehouse, the quarter mile (million dollar stake) cop car race, they give us a taste of all the things we’ve loved in the past while still letting the movie do its own thing.
Finally, it cannot be stressed enough just how great The Rock is in this movie. The man is the most charismatic action star, perhaps ever. Yes, more so than Stallone, Schwarzenegger or even my beloved Van Damme. The man has a dedication to his parts and a charm and swagger that outshines nearly everyone else who could be comparable. And the fact that he’s (until now) never had a reliable action franchise to fall back on (my kingdom for a string of Rundown sequels …) is nothing short of a travesty. But he manages to slide right into the Fast & Furious world as though he’d always been there. As Hobbs, The Rock gets to throw his weight around (both literally and figuratively) in a way he’s never quite gotten to in any other action flick so far. It’s a little laughable to see Diesel square off against him (f only because we know that in real life Rock easily dwarfs the guy), but Lin and his actors manage to sell their confrontation surprisingly well, especially once the fists start flying.
More than anything, though, this movie is just flat-out fun. So many action movies take themselves far too seriously anymore, with dour protagonists and far too much of a focus on grim n’ gritty “realism.” With Fast Five, Lin pulled out all the stops, found the right balance of gravitas and insanity and just let it rip. We should all be so grateful.