We asked Jeb Lund to watch every Fast and Furious movie in a row to see if it qualified as an endurance event. The answer, after 13 hours and a lot of Vin Diesel chin-rubbing, was "yes." His journey through America's fastest and most furious film series follows.
It is 9:45 in the morning, and I open palm-slam five DVDs into the slot. They are the Fast and Furious movies, and right then and there I start doing the moves alongside the main character,
Riddick Furious. I do every move, and I do every move hard. I eat. I look at women's butts. I sit. I shift up and down in my seat. Sometimes I reach out for things while shifting. I stare at a computer as cars hurtle down the road. The only button I touch is DISC SKIP to move to my next rep. My brain is buff.
"Why would someone watch the Fast and Furious movies?"
I repeatedly asked myself this question over the last decade. The first installment of the series, in 2001, didn't look great; then they made four more of them. I saw none. It was easy to assume that a Fast and Furious franchise was another product of the cultural schlocktacular we'd have to contend with in a post-9/11 reality. We'd downshift and scream our engines away from the hard stuff to something marshmallow-soft but packaged like so much badassery.
The thing is, I like dumb movies. When I was a kid, my mother bought VHS copies of Rambo movies -- not because I kept renting them but because she enjoyed grading papers while watching them every weekend after football season ended. When I moved out, I was not permitted to take them with me. In college, I once came home drunk at midnight and watched Top Gun three straight times until I found myself weeping, for some reason, about my father. This made sense at the time and, I think, still does.
The Fast and Furious series just never resonated with me. Then, weeks ago, three things happened. While doing work around the house, I left the TV on TNT and caught a middle bit of the first Fast and Furious. Days later, ads for the sixth movie started airing. Last, I remembered something a friend -- the sort of guy who shifts highbrow to lowbrow mid-sentence and makes both funny -- told me back in 2011: "I can't do anything next weekend. I'm watching the first four Fast and Furious movies before I go see Fast Five."
The planets -- the series -- had aligned. This was my marathon. Like all marathons, it didn't matter what passed my vision as I moved forward: refusing to abandon the journey was the achievement, no matter the quality of getting there. It was a journey from LA, to Miami, to Tokyo, to Mexico, to Brazil and to the cindered center of myself. Thirty-six hours later, it was a journey that concluded at 11:15 a.m., with me in the line at the local theater, anxiously asking a ticket-window dumbass wearing a floppy side-part midway between Flock of Seagulls and Hitler Haircut, "am I too late, and are there any seats left for the 11 a.m. Fast and Furious 6???"
The Fast and The Furious (2001)
Let us admit some things up front. This is not an original movie. It's Point Break with cars and races instead of surfing and skydiving, and they rob truck convoys instead of banks. This is fine. Alien is Jaws in space; the fax machine is a waffle iron with a phone attached.
Brian O'Conner (Paul Walker) is an undercover cop, tasked with infiltrating the racing gang of Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel), his girlfriend Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), his sister Mia (Jordana Brewster) and suspicious angry guy, nerd guy, and other guys (Guys).
A lot of it is obvious and weird. O'Conner hits on and falls in love with Mia when he knows he shouldn't and despite their having chemistry as intense as adding water to sand. (THE SAND FEELS SO MUCH THICKER NOW. LIKE MY HEART. AND MY DINGUS.) There's a part where the camera trains on Paul Walker's back while the soundtrack goes, "Watch yo / watch yo / watch yo back," and it feels like they didn't go far enough. There should have been a big chromakey arrow pointed at Walker and labeled, "THIS IS HIS BACK." Then there's the off-the-charts bro-ish level of dialogue, which is probably best summarized by this:
Picking apart a movie like this shows you have no priorities. It also suggests you're sober -- which I was, both because it was before 10 in the morning, and because somewhere around 30, midday drunk started coming with instant midday hangovers. Which is too bad, because this is a movie to watch while drinking a beer that starts with an S -- Schaefer, Stroh's, Schlitz, something. (If you just thought, "Sierra Nevada," then leave. Just leave. You are clearly not getting it.) Instead, I brewed a pot of Peet's coffee and made sure to stay alert and hydrated, which enabled me to maintain the laser-like focus that made the following observations.
One: they hold a street race inside an abandoned warehouse compound, and there are so many people, stereos and cars that there's no way their culture could be "underground." There are enough warm bodies to start a scary Bavarian political rally. Hiding this event is like trying to hide a AAA baseball game from the cops. You can try to distract them, but no matter how much you casually try to block their view, they're going to notice 1,000 people clapping and an old lady working a Hammond organ.
Two: nobody explains how this culture works. Fast and Furious relies on "assumed expertise," in the sense that anybody who wants to know how to modify and race cars eventually will. In the same way that caper movies assume you can find a good con man via an underworld Rolodex -- and, more importantly, that people who want to learn these things simply can -- even novice street racers just find each other.
I hoped Fast and Furious would explain this world, if only because street racers used to startle the crap out of me when I lived in an iffy apartment across from a meth dealer. I'd drink beer on my balcony and watch modified cars scream down the road to a one-mile bridge, wondering where they all came from. After all, how do you practice a secret sport?
It seemed that unless you knew where they met, the only way to get their attention was to catch them. Which to a certain extent suggests that street racing is something you just know. Maybe there's a track nearby where street racers have legal meets, but for the real secret, illegal, black-market racing society, maybe you have to know someone or be born into it. Otherwise, just to get in on a peer level, one imagines you have to be willing to sink tens of thousands of dollars into cars and modifications and hanging around shops where they sell, like, double exhaust pipes, then hope and pray that your investment pays off in your: a) meeting these people; b) not hating these people; c) not getting beaten with wrenches by these people; d) not losing your car to them.
Fast and Furious passed on all this. At some point, Toretto delivers a withering criticism of O'Conner about his "granny shifting" and not "double-clutching" and not using the Bort/Antibort intermix ratio to stabilize his Snuh field integrity, but they're all just tossed off without explanation. We don't learn how these things relate to performance or driver control, nor do we see how he could learn these things. It's like watching a fighter ace movie where the grizzled pilot tells the callow young pilot, "You're not using air. Also, flaps. The airplane goes above the ground."
Most importantly: Toretto's lecture is the last bit of technical driving information offered in a 13-hour, six-movie series about driving. That's it. That's the high-water mark of coaching and analysis. It's especially odd, since Toretto goes on to spend the fourth, fifth and sixth movies constantly shifting gears in what look like 35-year-old eight-speed automatics.
Also, the ending is really anti-climactic, although I did kind of want to flip my cheese plate to get rowdy.
P.S. - Oh, waaaiiiit. Buffalo Bill was in this. He played a great big fast person.*
* - He's not fast at all.
2 Fast 2 Furious (2003)
When I told Twitter about my Fast and Furious marathon, the two most frequent replies were, "You can skip part two," and, "You can skip part three." People didn't understand that skipping was not an option. I had to follow this path. Now I completely understand why everyone told me to skip this one.
Paul Walker is back as Brian O'Conner, but without other major original cast members. He's snatched up by U.S. Customs in Miami after cops disable his car as he attempts to flee the scene of a street race. O'Conner must go undercover to capture a drug lord's money before it can escape a cordon around Miami and be laundered. Eva Mendes plays deep-cover Customs agent Monica Fuentes. To accomplish his goal and clear his criminal record, O'Conner enlists help from a childhood friend and fellow con, Roman Pearce (Tyrese Gibson).
This movie is so goofy that I will only bullet-point it.
- Every ten minutes of this movie has been sponsored by a different Ron Jon Surf Shop. It is an ecstasy of boardshorts.
- In the opening race, O'Conner shifts up to something like nine speeds while racing against an Asian woman named Suki, who is not a human being but a composite of different avatars from Gaia Online.
- My decision not to drink seems increasingly like a bad idea. An all-day beer buzz would help this movie go down a lot better, but I'm worried I'd take delirious notes or simply nod off like an old person.
- After winning a race with a bridge jump, O'Conner exchanges so many nods with Suki and the mechanic and race-master Tej (Ludacris) that Peter Boyle was about 10 seconds from celluloid-leaping over from Johnny Dangerously and saying, "No more nodding!"
- Dexter's adoptive father, James Remar, is in this as a cop who JUST DOESN'T GET IT, which confirms my suspicion that James Remar hangs around Miami and has a local zoning rider that anyone filming within the county has to hire him to just scowl around Miami. Also, during the Customs briefing with local police, he and all the agents engage in mammoth displays of chin-rubbing, which is how you know they're serious.
- The visual effects for the nitro bursts are somehow worse than the effects for Chuck Yeager breaking Mach 1 in The Right Stuff, which was released in 1983. THERE WAS A DEMON THAT LIVED ON THE ROAD. THEY SAID WHOEVER CHALLENGED HIM WOULD GET HIGHLIGHTS AND WEAR BOARDSHORTS OVER HIS BOARDSHORTS. HEY, SUKI, YOU GOT ANY BEANDOGS? LEND ME A PAIR, WILL YA, I'LL PAY YA BACK LATER.
- O'Conner goes to recruit Pearce, and after a fistfight in an unpaved driveway, they lie opposite each other with their legs wide open. This seems like the optimal time to lift your leg and plunge your heel into your enemy's package, but, from an ethnographic standpoint, apparently men in the racing world just lie around in dirt presenting at each other.
- I stop really paying attention for a while and conduct a 30-minute phone call with USAA about getting my homeowner's insurance transferred to a new house. The hold music has a sick funk jam.
- I don't remember if the first movie did this, but 2 Fast 2 Furious introduces the problematic series-long theme of "people in cars over 40 feet apart that are screaming at high RPM and sick velocity somehow carrying on back-and-forth trash-talk conversations with each other by raising their voices a little."
- A huge portion of this movie's plot is reliant on a half-billionaire drug kingpin making multiple off-site visits to check up on the activities of newly hired drivers. The "how can we nab the insulated mastermind" tension diffuses immediately when the guy acts like an insane micromanager, needlessly making himself complicit in actions all up and down the org chart of his own drug family. WARLORD PRO TIP: STAY IN YOUR GODDAMN HOUSE. DELEGATE. THAT'S WHAT NECKLESS GOONS ARE FOR.
- Wait, John Singleton directed this? Are you fucking kidding me?
The manifest downside of being sober for this is that I realize I don't have the excuse of saying that I was drunk at the time. Sure, getting up and pouring another glass of fizzy water makes me feel adult and responsible, but this movie completely undoes that self-esteem the more I think about it. I make myself a dagwood sandwich as a form of reparations.
A movie this thin doesn't offer many opportunities for big thoughts, so I will leave you with this: If you have ever driven anywhere in Miami at any time of day, you will not be able to take this film seriously after about four minutes.
The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006)
Before watching this, I thought it was odd that so many Fast and Furious fans said to skip it, while someone like Roger Ebert thought it was pretty good. This is, in a way, the least campy, most solid and also most problematic of the movies in the series.
The plot offers a generic "starcrossed lovers + outsider entering a closed society" story, with cars and races as the vector for challenging norms. Lucas Black plays Shawn Boswell, a southern boy who's kicked out of another high school for racing his muscle car, then sent off to Japan to be with his career-military absentee dad. There he learns that he can't win Japanese races without learning drifting, winds up working off a debt to a guy named Han (Sung Kang) and courting Neela (Nathalie Kelley), the girlfriend of a local Yakuza don's smug child, DK, a/k/a The Drift King (Brian Tee).
You can make fun of this movie, and I did. (I kept trying to IM a journalist buddy in Japan to ask him how much time he spends hanging out in parking garages, but I guess he was busy having a satisfying and well-compensated "career," like some kind of douchebag.) Shawn's dad enrolls him in a Japanese school, despite the fact that Shawn doesn't know a word of Japanese. Somehow, he gets there on his own and begins picking up the language. Leela gives a hilarious monologue about drifting, about how, back in the day, the kids just got together to do it for fun. Before DK made it all commercial, it used to just be about the drift, maaaaan, and the irreparable tire damage. There's the Yakuza don, who gets all his clothes tailored from the "Dandy Don Fanucci White Suit, Hat and Scarf Emporium." There's also the fact that the burst acceleration around every corner in the drift scenes sounds like, "Brrrr burrr brrr brrr brrr brrr," or, in layman's terms, my weed-whacker.
Still, while you can make fun of it, the driving is as interesting as ever. Most of the shots are beautiful just for the locations, and the story is a universally appealing one. Tweak the ethnicities and cars, and it might be parts of American Graffiti. You've seen this movie in multiple other iterations, and if you liked those, you will probably like this one. That said, again, it's problematic.
The movie emits more than a few strong whiffs of Orientalism. The hero is a white guy who internalizes supposedly "Japanese" characteristics of honor and responsibility so well that he's a better Japanese son than DK. He falls in love with Leela, who in the story is half-white and looks the least Japanese of all the women in the movie. (The actress is French-Argentinian, which makes her even more Western-looking.) Both are discriminated against as outsiders, with a version of Japanese culture better fitting the race-paranoia story of Rising Sun from two decades ago.
This probably wasn't the point. Producers surely aimed at the lowest common denominator and assumed Americans wouldn't care about a movie starring non-Westerners. But they wound up with a movie where your two favorite people should be the non-Japanese people out-Japaneseing the Japanese in Japan, where they're discriminated against by some Japanese. It's easy for an unsympathetic audience to walk away thinking, "Man, I gotta root me against some Japanese." It's pretty sloppy.
13 years ago, I helped teach at an English camp in Japan while on vacation with the journalist buddy I mentioned above. Being a Westerner was about the coolest thing you could be. We were awesome for showing up and talking about American stuff. Japan has racism problems just as pervasive as anywhere else, but this movie didn't need a "rotten gaijin!" story, because that story hasn't been one young Japanese people have embraced for almost a generation.
I ate a bunch of wasabi-coated peanuts during this and only at the end wondered if I did that on purpose. I also ate a plate of gyoza 100% on purpose. While this movie didn't make me regret not getting hammered, I started constantly snacking just to have something to do.
Fast & Furious (2009)
This movie reunites the original cast while including Han from Tokyo Drift in an early sequence. After clearing his record in 2 Fast 2 Furious, O'Conner has gone from cop, to outlaw, to EFF BEE EYE AGENT. Meanwhile, Dom and Letty hijack fuel tankers in the Dominican Republic before Dom abandons her to keep her safe. Dom returns to the U.S. to try to hunt down a Mexican drug kingpin after he learns that Letty was killed after trying to infiltrate his cartel.
At this point, I am six hours into my day and starting to lose the thread. I forget to take any notes on the opening action set-piece. I arrange a plate of sliced apples and taste-test them to find a substitute for Honeycrisps now that they are out of season. Toward the end of the movie, I begin simmering meat for tacos. Media bleeds across genres in my head. I hear Kate Winslet speaking to Marcel Proust, saying, "Teach me how to drift like one of your French girls," before she pulls the emergency brake on a madeleine and executes a flawless J-turn into the prison of nostalgia.
Despite the great opening sequence and seeing the whole gang again, this movie is dumb. Nowhere near the second installment's vacancy, but on the level of the first in terms of not trying especially hard. O'Conner and Mia wind up sleeping together again, despite eight years of abandonment. They also start screwing on top of a stove, just a few score feet and several open doors away from Dom, who's already on the verge of kicking O'Conner's ass at any second for numerous reasons.
By far the movie's worst part comes in an extended driving sequence in a mine tunnel, which director Justin Lin and screenwriter Chris Morgan thought cool enough to reprise at the end of the movie. The ability of Dom and O'Conner to anticipate threats coming at them at 60-100 mph is almost Jedi-esque. The absurd degree of obstacles, at a split second, all of which they avoid, makes you expect to hear a little boy yell, "NOW THIS IS PODRACING." A remotely patched-in woman's voice giving directions sounds exactly like those you might get during the video game sequence of this part of the movie, and I would be amazed if it were edited or altered at all for the game.
Regardless, there's something interesting happening here. Morgan wrote Tokyo Drift, this movie, the next and the current Fast & Furious 6, and in doing so created a serial atmosphere, one that plays with characterization and time. If pressed for an analogue, a good one is probably Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The actors are weak, the fights/races are hokey and formulaic, the speeches all start to sound the same. But you've come so far with these people that you want to see them play out the string. Incremental growth in characterization in one movie is okay, because you know that more are coming. Enjoy the story for now; wake up three movies later and notice how far you've traveled.
Nowhere does this satisfactorily plodding growth seem more evident than in Paul Walker's O'Conner, who started out like the laxest goddamn bro on the planet, all blonde highlights and dude-as-interrogative delivery. He was just a few steps removed from being the privileged jerk who tricked Rachel Leigh Cook in She's All That -- an underrated doofy movie and not just because SHE IS BEAUTIFUL AND I LOVE HER -- and he's grown into a guy who can play confidence and steadiness without being a smug fuck about it.
The addition of the Han character at the movie's beginning also reinforces the quasi-Buffy vibe: events happen and matter, and destiny is unavoidable, but not just yet. Events told out of sequence allow the inevitability of fate to make the present more desperately rich just for being there. (Letty's story does this, too.) This is not a good movie, but it's perversely an episode that lays the foundation for things you can care about.
Lastly, I've now eaten all the tacos and had to drink 40 ounces of iced tea to avoid a taco coma. I'm starting to feel very unhealthy.
Fast Five (2011)
I've been here almost 10 hours. Nothing means anything anymore. Now I'm imagining Vin Diesel doing anything. Vin Diesel is slow-pitching my first baseballs at me, and he is my father. My wife screams and pushes through natural childbirth, and the baby that comes out is Vin Diesel -- Vin Diesel is my son. The bishops on my chess board are Vin Diesel. The balls on the pool table are Vin Diesel. Vin Diesel disappears into Vin Diesel's mind and everyone in it is Vin Diesel. "Vin Diesel. Vin Diesel? Vin Diesel! Vin Diesel!" I make my first kill, cutting the body up like the Diesel and eating part of the body, modifying my body, and I take my first step into the chrysalis that makes me become him. I am the Diesel. I AM THE DIESEL.
I have to resort to bullet points again:
- This movie opens with a stunt in which stopping a sedan on the road apparently makes a giant prison bus, like, trip over it??? Let it be here marked that Tokyo Drift was the last movie in this series to not include an action sequence insanely divorced from even bozo-middle-school levels of physics.
- THE ROCK IS IN THIS, AND HE IS SO MOIST. HE IS THE MOST MOIST MAN EVER TO BE MOISTENED.
- Just ate a huge chunk of Boar's Head peppered salami without even noticing.
- Requisite moment of everyone talking about what they'll do with all their fabulous wealth if they can pull off this job, which is like watching, "THIS IS WHAT THEY WILL FLASHBACK TO WHEN THIS CHARACTER IS BANKRUPT OR DEAD."
- Apparently nobody making this movie felt uncomfortable with the idea of Vin Diesel breaking into a woman's house, fondling a cross nestled between her breasts, taking it off and leaving.
- I want to call Paul Walker "Paul Walker Lindh." Or "Paul Walker Lynde." What if he were furiously bouncing around the Hollywood Squares with a bomb? Did he have to take his Female Body Inspector shirt to Goodwill after he went outlaw? What if they started driving all the cars with N64 controllers? Where is the Z button on a 1975 Falcon? What if he stopped shaving? What if he drove all the cars with shoes on his feet?
To understand this movie, you really need only to ask yourself two questions. One, do you remember the modern remake of The Italian Job? Two, do you know that Brazil is a country?
It calls back characters from every previous installment for a larking caper-esque edition. It's by-the-numbers and obvious, but it's fun. What it isn't, apart from the beginning, some test races, a token "let's have fun bit" and a totally improbable end, is a strictly car movie. The franchise has moved into the standard action genre. There are bazookas. You can't really have a film be determined by cars, races and drifting around curves when there are bazookas. Bazookas unequivocally end debate. They, and machine guns and grenades, have a certain finality to them.
It is time to sleep. I have eaten everything.
Fast & Furious 6 (2013)
I could wait half an hour and go to a later showing, but I skip breakfast, jam a hat on my wet hair and rush out the door to make the 11:00 matinee of the latest movie. I anxiously ask the lunkhead at the box office counter if the trailers are still going on. I find a distant unoccupied popcorn line and get my lunch. I'm tempted to have them slather the corn in Butter-Inspired Motor-Oil Flavor Product™ -- just because of the movie I'm about to see -- but decide against it, because I don't want to die. I am excited. Toretto, O'Conner, whatever Ludacris' character's name is ... I need to know what happens to them now.
Fast & Furious 6 is so unapologetically an action movie that there's no question the franchise has left behind driving as the core plot engine. There are machine-gun shootouts, explosive charges and a tank. Still, as screenwriter Chris Morgan insists, "family" impels these people to do what they do, and that explains why I'm here. From Start to Now, this has been popcorn fare, but making the trip with these guys invests me in popcorn fare.
Still, you can't help but bust on a few things:
- The film opens with an incredibly convenient and forbearing interlude of, "Well, if you must do this, honey, I support you 100%." O'Conner's wife, traumatized by the risk of loss of life to her husband and brother in previous films, nonetheless sees him off with total understanding. Meanwhile, Toretto's love interest tells him to find a previous love interest, because it's what "she would do." I do not know these people, and they are not from Planet Earth.
- The Fast and Furious series adopts the sins of other action series by having characters miraculously increase their skill sets between installments. In this one, random punching and brawling hit ACHIEVEMENT UNLOCKED, and everyone learned Krav Maga. They went from Die Hard skills to Jason Bourne. Also, somewhere in the last two movies Ludacris went from a great garage mechanic to a kind of hacker and computer guru.
- The movie concludes with a chase on a runway roughly the length of Portugal.
- The comically bad physics, which the boat sequence in 2 Fast 2 Furious started and which the cave sequence and vault stunts in the last two movies doubled down on, reaches a clownish apex with Vin Diesel crashing his car to leap over a bridge gap and hug someone ALSO FLYING and then land on a car. Unharmed. This sort of thing is bad when a gunshot in Django Unchained makes someone fly six feet backward while the person firing the gun just stands there, but most people understand that if you cause a car accident at 60 mph, you will goddamn well fly off that car at 60 mph. Although I suppose Fast & Furious 6: Look, Ma, I'm a 40-Foot Smear isn't a sexy title.
And you know what? It doesn't matter. As silly and "X-TREME" as many parts of this movie are, it's part of an earnest and generally improving gradualism.
Most massive-sequeled franchises doom themselves by adding onto something excellent whose excellence prompts more installments. No Die Hard entry eclipses Die Hard, and even schlocky horror devotees will argue that no Nightmare installment really has the punch of the first Nightmare on Elm Street.
What makes the Fast and Furious franchise work is that the first one really shouldn't have and -- considering its sequels, it doesn't. It unexpectedly made a lot of money for a Point Break ripoff starring a bargain-basement bro and Vin Diesel before he became a kind of pricey, gruff institution. There was nowhere to go but up. Eventually, the franchise did.
One can explore interesting and deep thoughts about this franchise. For one thing, its casting is stunningly diverse. Apart from Jealous Suspicious Guy from the first movie and Fast Five, Walker is the only recurring white guy in the series. He's not only surrounded by positive characters from multiple ethnic groups, but strong women as well.
From just a plot standpoint, the Han character might be one of the most empathetic and stoically moving characters in popcorn drama. His story is foreordained, but Sung Kang makes him wistful and joyful enough in even small things as to evince a pleasure in spite of the world and himself. Kang doubtless takes advantage of knowing his character's fate, but he plays the aloof delight in the brokenness of everything for a fatalistic bemusement that befits his character. He likes being alive, and loves, in spite of everything.
Playing around with time and place let this franchise evolve bigger and broader than its initial installment. What most people consider a silly deviation from the main cast, Tokyo Drift instead invested the rest with a kind of poignancy, even as the main cast rebooted and found a new footing. It gave this world consequences and limits, and it gave the principals a terminal anchor as essential counterpoint to always besting the bad guys, getting away with it, winking at the audience.
They rebooted Fast and Furious and made it better, but they did it because they made the word "family" not just a silly encomium -- which it is, at the end of the movies -- but something that can be fought for and lost anyway.
Not a bad way to spend 13 hours.
1. I am going to get a spoiler on my ass to help me sit down regularly.
2. I am 2,500 pounds of twisted steel and sex appeal.