About a month ago, the emails started. It was phrased as a question, but it wasn’t really one. There was only one possible answer and it was eloquently sent to me shortly thereafter: “Duh.” The question? “Are we seeing Fast Five?”
Okay, it’s confession time. I’m extremely particular when it comes to my taste. I like what I like, and that’s the end of things. I’ve gotten a not-entirely undeserved reputation for snobbery in some circles for this, but it’s a little more complex than that. I judge movies based on what they are. I don’t go into a Darren Aronofsky movie expecting to bust a gut laughing, and I don’t look to Will Ferrell to provide delicate truth on the nature of immortal love. Although he did a damn fine job of that in Anchorman. So when I’m watching an action movie, I expect to be wowed by stunts, awed by set pieces, and not completely indifferent to the suffering of the protagonists.
Which brings me to my point: I’m a huge Fast/Furious fan. I’ve seen the last three in the theater, and the last two on opening weekend. I can’t wait until the next one (which was teased in a wonderfully ridiculous coda that doesn’t even make sense in context, but I couldn’t give less of a fuck). After coming out of the theater, I turned to my wife and said: “I think we should own that one. And the fourth one too.” She laughed sheepishly and said: “I was just thinking that, but I was thinking about the third one too.”
On the face of it, that might seem like a bizarre statement, since there’s a common perception that sequels are inherently flawed. They will never be as good as the original, and every single one dilutes the premise until it spirals into incomprehensibility. This doesn’t hold true if the first one isn’t very good. Start low enough and the only way to go is up. A friend – Marc, the same one who issued the gloriously succinct message before – told me around the release of the third film in the Fast/Furious franchise that each one is better than the last and damned if he wasn’t right. They accomplished this by the bold decision to ramp up the ridiculousness in each film to the point that Fast Five only resembles reality in passing. For an action film about gearheads with comic-book muscles taking on a Brazilian super-criminal while fleeing an American Special Forces extraction team, this is a good thing.
Despite it being shot almost entirely in my neighborhood, I had no desire to see The Fast and the Furious. I have the same interest in cars that gay men have in vaginas. I understand the necessity but can’t really muster up any enthusiasm for the ins and outs. A subculture based around putting twenty grand under the hood of a rice rocket is alien to me. When I finally got around to watching it I was less than impressed. Rob Cohen, director of the anti-classic Stealth, took Point Break, swapped surfing for street racing, and injected the whole thing with a level of simmering homoeroticism usually reserved for NFL locker rooms and Republican conventions. While it wasn’t terrible, it was eminently forgettable.
Which was why I found the existence of the sequel, 2 Fast 2 Furious, completely baffling. I feel should note here the series’ commitment to odd naming conventions. Only half the sequels have numbers in the titles, and none where they should be. I have no idea why they do this, but I’ll admit that I’ve come to find it charming. Anyway, I couldn’t understand why they made a sequel. Apparently Vin Diesel agreed with me, refusing to reprise his role as mumbling behemoth Dom Toretto. Instead, we have Paul Walker, a less convincing federal agent than Keanu, teaming up with an ex-male model to take down reptilian crime boss Cole Hauser. The sad part is that I can barely remember anything that happens in this movie. I remember I liked it better than the first, but can’t for the life of me remember why.
By The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, I had effectively thrown in the towel. I had given up on the series being anything other than late-night desperation viewing, to turn something on until the room stops spinning. Marc convinced me otherwise when he told me that the third one was legitimately enjoyable and even offered to buy tickets for my wife and I. We took him up on it and were pleasantly surprised. That’s not to say Tokyo Drift is a life-changing film. It’s really just Karate Kid 2 with street racing instead of, well, karate. It also features Lucas Black, a fine young actor burdened by an absurd Alabama accent that makes every line sound like the musings of a mentally challenged hillbilly trying to swallow a mouthful of marbles. His rendition of “If yew don’t dree-yuft to wee-yun, hwy dew yew raaice?” has become a reliable joke in my social circle. The big addition to the Fast/Furious mythology – and believe me, it’s bizarre to use that word in this context – is the character of Han, a hypoglycemic Lazarus that serves as a young Mr. Miyagi to Lucas Black. Only a brief cameo from Vin Diesel tethers this to the previous films. The biggest upgrade to the franchise was going out and getting a real director: Justin Lin, the mastermind of the bizarre neo-noir Better Luck Tomorrow. This was a man who embraced the excesses of the genre without getting bogged down in silly things like physics, but he wouldn’t get a chance to prove it until the last two installments.
Finally realizing that their careers weren’t exactly blasting across the alkali flats on a jet-powered monkey-navigated – and it goes on like this. Anyway, Vin Diesel and Paul Walker were going nowhere. Slow. And these guys were used to living a quarter mile at a time, so this was unacceptable. They returned for Fast & Furious, the fourth film that effectively discarded articles from the titles, perhaps forever. Lin also discovered what Diesel was born to do: he delivers chiched action hero lines better than anyone alive. In the best moment of the film, his sister begs Diesel to back off before it’s too late. “It’s already too late,” he mutters. I will never get tired of that. Ever. The underground racing angle gets shoved into the background as a mere audition to work as a smuggler for a mysterious Mexican drug cartel, which in itself is only means to revenge.
Fast Five cranked everything further. I won’t say to eleven simply because I have faith that Lin will find a way to mainline even more adrenaline into the insanity cocktail pumping through the franchise’s aorta. Deciding that one actor being just a sneeze away from his shirt exploding from his body like the Incredible Hulk just wasn’t enough, they went out and hired Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson to play the federal agent tasked with tracking down fugitives Diesel and Walker. Calling the addition of the Rock inspired doesn’t even cut it. He’s already the most charismatic presence in any action movie, catnip for the ladies and totally believable when he’s kicking the shit out of hordes of bad guys.
In any other movie, a simple fugitive plot might be enough to hold the director’s interest. Lin said fuck that, presumably while being fellated by a machinegun, and threw in an Ocean’s Eleven style heist against Rio’s answer to Pablo Escobar (played by Felipe Hartmano himself, Joaquim de Almeida). There are car chases, gunfights and even a fucking train robbery. Diesel and the Rock go mano-a-mano for a good five minutes. With the notable exception of boobs, everything you’d want a movie like this to have, it has. Seriously, though. I could have done with some boobs.
That’s the peculiar magic of the Fast/Furious franchise. No, not the criminal lack of funbags. (Come on, guys. Can we cast someone who’s not ninety-eight pounds? Curves aren’t just for racetracks, gentlemen.) The fact that against all logic and reason a mediocre racing movie spawned four sequels that somehow keep getting better as they grow further divorced from reality.
You know, until some moron producer decides the whole thing needs a gritty reboot.