Until about ten days ago I did not give a single damn about the Fast & Furious franchise, having endured the first one several years ago and finding it wanting. It was easy to dismiss yet another ropey Rob Cohen movie, especially one starring Paul Walker and which was so obviously based on Point Break (or Donnie Brasco, I guess someone could argue). Its success just seemed like one of those things that happen in the unpredictable summer season, and at the time – and I stress, at the time – could have been attributed to Vin Diesel’s apparent rise to superstardom. I watched the movie, it fed my brain with vroom for a couple of hours, and then it vanished and I didn’t really think of it again, except as That Movie With Vin That Wasn’t Riddick Or xXx.
The second movie came and went without even disturbing my poorly-styled hair, other than to note that Vin didn’t return – surely a bad sign. Nevertheless his stalled career had caught my attention, and thus the success of the first movie suddenly seemed a little more mysterious. It wasn’t Diesel that audiences flocked to see, so what was it? Paul Walker? That seemed unlikely, especially as the third movie came along, this time without Walker, and still made money. At that point I just figured, well, boys like fast cars and women in short-shorts wiggling away from the camera, so that’s that. They struck me as straight-to-DVD actioners that had just managed to catch a wave of enthusiasm, perhaps from gamers who liked that the movies so often resembled a Burnout sequel with added booty.
Suddenly a fourth movie was upon us, and I briefly considered watching the others and then watching that latest sequel, but time was so tight, what with trying to pack in every other movie going, that I decided against it. Besides, surely this was a last roll of the dice, an attempt to keep the franchise going just a little longer by bringing the full team back from the first movie. It wasn’t worthy of my time, and would merely be the end of a franchise that had commendably defied its critics by lasting longer than expected (though I did recently notice this very astute and accurate article praising the series for its commitment to racial diversity, something that has been sadly ignored until recently but has now been picked up as an interesting critical take on the franchise).
But I was massively wrong, and apparently so were the many others who have mocked the franchise and its fans. Though I will admit I only recently took an interest once my beloved Dwayne Johnson signed on, the appearance of a fifth movie made me strongly question my dismissive attitude. You don’t get to five films in a series these days by barely squeaking into profitability. This series continues because it makes fat cash and is genuinely loved by millions of people, and just treating them like idiots who must have risibly low standards because they like car movies is unacceptable. It’s like the movie equivalent of Top Gear; hated by the monocle-wearing Snootingtons of the critterati but adored by many.
So last week I took advantage of Sky Anytime’s generous streaming of Fast/Furious 1, 2 and 4 (no Tokyo Drift, which I figured was because it wasn’t part of the main plot, though please let me know if I’m wrong) and caught up. The first movie was still nothing special, from what I could tell, but I enjoyed it a bit more this time around, taking time to enjoy Diesel’s performance and the pretty cars. The end still seemed problematic; at the seventy minute mark it suddenly goes, “Heist! Accident! Shooting! Bike chase! Drag race! Accident! End!” for no reason other than those elements were always meant to be in the movie but all of the reaction shots between Brian O’Connor and Dominic Toretto ate up the second act.
It doesn’t surprise me that this mulch of action beats was cobbled together by Gary Scott Thompson, the man who eventually gave us the horrendous Knight Rider reboot that died on its wheels last year, and the amazing 88 Minutes, surely the most entertainingly bad mainstream movie of the past few years. Still, I liked it more than the second, which seemed to lack even the momentum of the first movie, with Diesel’s diverting anti-hero missing and replaced by smartarse Tyrese Gibson. No chemistry between him and Walker plus a very silly final act (featuring a weak and poorly staged resolution that reminded me of Black Dynamite, for some reason) meant I strongly considered not bothering with the fourth.
Thankfully I ignored my better judgement and dived in, and was rewarded with easily the best in the series to that point. Chris Morgan’s plot had numerous inconsistencies, as pointed out here, but it was still noticeably sharper than previous scripts, and was willing to take the main characters seriously, meaning Brian and Dominic’s adventures finally had the heft they had needed in the first movie. Even better was Justin Lin’s muscular direction. He was already in my good books for directing the truly magnificent Modern Warfare episode of Community, where his knowledge of action cinema was apparent.
Fast and Furious showed he could bring the love to the big screen, with numerous superb setpieces worthy of mwahs of affection (especially the opening petrol truck heist-gone-wrong and the mid-movie street race with Brian constantly driven off course while his satnav nags him). If previous instalments had felt a little light on dramatic oomph – often by being primarily about racing/sexy male bonding but with a crime element dolloped on top like some cheap vanilla ice cream – Fast and Furious felt like a consistent film. The fractured relationship between Brian and Dominic breathed for once; even more so than the first movie, I became invested in their reconciliation, and was rewarded with a terrific final scene where Brian finally turns his back in the law in order to help his buddy. Ace stuff.
But Holy Fanbelts, nothing – NOTHING IN THE WORLD – could have prepared me for the absolute bug-shit-nuts insanity and balls-to-the-wall brilliance of Fast Five. It’s surely a contender for action movie of the year, and is so far and away the best movie of the series that everything to this point has felt like a mere pre-amble. I’m as surprised as anyone as my snotty dismissiveness has been transformed into rapturous adoration, and I would actually recommend everyone watch the other movies – even if they don’t really like them – just to get to the point where they can watch and fully appreciate the twists and turns of this berserk epic of melodrama, action, and bromance.
Writer Chris Morgan may have been memorably lampooned by The Onion this week, and again there are a number of times during Fast Five where the only response is befuddlement (one scene shows Dominic escaping some chains by just escaping don’t overthink it OMG look a pretty car!), but credit where credit is due; the decision to make the fifth movie a hybrid of Fast/Furious, Ocean’s Eleven and The Fugitive (or more accurately, US Marshals) was a stroke of genius. The mid-section of the movie – depicting our heroes planning a robbery – is enormous fun, with Diesel and Walker the B-list Clooney and Pitt, Sung Kang as Damon, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges as Cheadle, and Tyrese Gibson as Bernie Mac. This refocusing is a far cry from trying to find new ways to make Paul Walker fall out with his co-stars before winning them over with that… that… “smile” of his.
It struck me as I goggled in disbelief at this indecently entertaining slice of summer madness that there is no other movie series ever made where the fifth movie was better than the previous instalments, at least as far as I can recall. Even the fifth Bond movie - You Only Live Twice – is not as good as Goldfinger or From Russia With Love, though it’s still a blast. The Bond series had several high notes later on, but there was a definite sense of fatigue after a while, necessitating a total revamp. The Fast/Furious movies have just hit their fifth instalment and now finally make sense as a whole, using the same cast and plot elements as before, taking the initial concept to its natural conclusion, and basically saying, “Fuck it, it’s kitchen sink time” and ramping the franchise up to heights that are almost epic in scale without abandoning any elements.
For a long time I’ve been increasingly annoyed by the complaints from critics and pop culture pundits when they talk about the lack of new ideas out there. “Too many sequels, too many remakes, too many spin-offs; can no one come up with anything new?”, etc. Yes, I will concede that tired sequels or remakes made with no imagination or no understanding of what worked with the originals – or what didn’t work and needs to be rethought – make me despair as much as anyone. I’m not crazy. When you’re sitting in front of the third Twilight movie and the plot is resolutely stuck in a rut and you can feel your soul turning grey with boredom, it’s easy to think we’ve built a cultural Pompeii on the side of a mountain that will erupt, spewing cliches everywhere and permanently submerging the things that make storytelling matter.
But this ignores the fact – two facts if you count “there are no new ideas, only new variations” – that sometimes, if done right, stories can get better the longer they run. Look at comics; Captain America has been good in the past, but its finest hour is arguably Ed Brubaker’s run, and he’s come in really late in the day. Look at TV shows; Lost had a couple of terrific seasons, admittedly with highs and lows, but the fourth and fifth seasons were incredibly surprising. Look at The Shield or Seinfeld or The Sopranos or The Wire or Friday Night Lights; they didn’t just wow us initially and then burn away because “all the ideas ran out”. They built worlds, filled with characters we knew and understood and loved. We connected with them more the longer we lived with them, and so our interest grew along with the new possibilities being spotted by the creators and then used as narrative fuel.
When lazy critics bemoan this rampant sequelitis, they often judge before they experience. There is always a chance that a creative team will come up with some new twist or idea, or some new possibility based on the seeds sown in previous episodes/editions/movies, that will excite the audience and break new and interesting ground. This should be obvious, but it seems to pass people by, mostly because it’s easy to just get stuck repeating complaints until they eventually become “self-evident”. Fair enough; we’ve all been burned a million times before, and so it’s easy and inevitable that cynicism increases. Some stories work best when told quickly. Not everything needs a million chapters. Some in recent years have been horribly overdone and stretched too thinly (numerous horror franchises or sci-fi epics could be trimmed quite easily). I get that, and in many cases, I totally agree.
However, Fast Five is a perfect example of something that takes a step back, surveys all of the franchise’s elements, and weaves them back together in a new and thrilling way. Perhaps it works better than most because at its heart the series is about artificially created and sustained families, both in terms of the people in Brian’s life and also around the world, as this community nurtures and sustains itself on the fringe of society and protects its members from the disapproving mainstream with mutual respect and codes of honour. This in itself is a fertile ground for stories and continuity, especially as Lin and Morgan have so far proven to be versatile enough to not just make the series about racing.
It also helps that the series has been to so many different locales, with Lin making great use of Rio de Janeiro in this instalment; he stages a rip-roaring chase sequence through a favela that resembles a scene in Louis Leterrier’s Incredible Hulk, except even more exciting. So we see a this template expand in scale, and because we have now arrived at a point where our numerous heroes have become familiar to us over time, Lin and Morgan can get on with setting these characters off against each other in various combinations of friendship, love, antipathy and distrust without the audience having to be led by the hand. The variations would not be possible without this familiarity.
Another beneficial side-effect of adding new chapters onto a story is this removal of set-up; we have about three film’s worth of story in Fast Five because most of the exposition is stripped out, having been dealt with in the previous films. This movie is lean while packed with incident, but – unlike some over-reaching summer entertainments – is not devoid of emotive impact or dramatic weight (provided you buy into it, of course). The big muscular showdown between Diesel and Johnson is not only a crisply-edited and exciting brawl, it has considerable power due to the deftly-handled in-film build-up, and finishes on a memorable and cathartic moment that has great resonance to fans who have watched the whole series. The whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts.
As for the other participants, while Paul Walker and Jordana Brewster still have difficulty generating onscreen sparks, their characters at least matter to Dominic, and therefore to me. I’ve long held that Diesel is a more interesting performer than he’s given credit, especially as he seems drawn to morally diverse characters like Dominic and Riddick, and he does some strong and surprisingly quiet work here. Tyrese Gibson is now designated comic relief and seems to relish it; what had seemed to me to be a casting misjudgement in the second movie really pays off here. Chris “Ludacris” Bridges is slowly becoming a much more confident actor the longer he stays in the game, and this movie makes me look forward to more from him.
What about my hero Dwayne Johnson? He is BUILT TO KILL in this movie, having bulked up to terrifying size. His head is bald, his chin is whiskery, and his face is coated in a sheen of freshly-spritzed sweat throughout. It’s fantastic to see him finally play something a little meatier than his recent ill-advised child-placating roles; it’s not like he’s playing anything really shocking, but his character Hobbs is a bit of a sexist, kinda mean-spirited, a cross between Sam Gerard in The Fugitive and Leonard Smalls in Raising Arizona. He’s not in the movie enough (an unfortunate consequence of that kitchen-sink spirit), but its obvious he’ll be back, and hopefully he’ll have more to do. As previously mentioned before, the fight between him and Diesel – a fight I didn’t realise I needed in my life until just last week – is as good as you would hope, but the best thing is the grudging rapprochement between hunter and hunted.
Allow me to explain. If there is any single relationship arc I love more than any other in all of written or filmed storytelling in the history of our world or any other, it’s the eventual thawing of hostilities between two diametrically opposed characters who hate each other or who cannot possibly ever be friends and yet somehow do because that’s how strong their love is. Midnight Run, Heat, the many buddy-comedy-dramas of Shane Black; these movies have moments that absolutely shake me to my core. Nothing makes me happier than seeing enemies become allies, and let’s just say, without spoilers, there is a moment in Fast Five that made me want to take off all my clothes and run around the cinema screaming “YEEEEEESSSSSS!” while sobbing and jumping and generally getting way too excited.
So yes, Fast Five is the business. For my previous ignorance on the Fast/Furious front, I humbly apologise (to no one in particular, as before today no one knew what I thought and will likely never care). The setpieces are amped up a thousand-fold, the bromance is intensified, the cars are still lovely, and what do you know, the final act throws out some major surprises that I wouldn’t dream of spoiling – I strongly advise fans of the series to stay in their seats until the traditional ropey CGI racing credits finish to see a terrific set-up for the next movie. I’d say it’s a guilty pleasure, if I believed in the concept. Screw that; everyone involved can be proud of themselves for making an action classic that gives the audience more bang for its buck than anything else in cinemas right now.
I might – I should stress might – even go so far as to say I enjoyed this more than I enjoyed Thor, and I really really really enjoyed Thor, though that might be because I’m still basking in the post-viewing glow, or perhaps the shock that something I had been so sniffy about could be so good. Who knew I would have this good a time just by dropping my sense of superiority and giving myself over to the love of two burly men rolling around on the floor and sweating over each other? Five more movies, please! Ten!