The story so far. Curious about how a bloated film franchise spawned, I watched the first Fast and Furious movie, having never watched any of the films before. The initial film is an odd beast, partly based on an article in Vibe magazine entitled Racer X (https://www.vibe.com/2015/03/racer-x-rafael-estevez-kenneth-li-fast-and-furious-inspiration-may-1998 ). That article makes its own interesting connection with popular culture:
‘As a kid growing up in Washington heights, Estevez remembers being transfixed every week by TV’s The Dukes of Hazzard. “The Dukes pulled a lot of stunts, soared through the air, and were always getting chased by cops,” he recalls. “The best part was they would always get away.”’
There’s a long history of car movies (and in the above example, TV show) where the heroes are drivers and they have an antagonistic relationship with the police. I suppose that’s inevitable given the inherent public menace of driving really, really quickly on public roads but the connection is more free floating than that. 1977’s Smokey and the Bandit has the hero using his car to help a truck smuggling crates of Coor’s beer or, to step away from the American south, 1969’s The Italian Job is overtly a crime caper film that features Mini Coopers as part of a complex getaway plan after a gold heist. This second example was loosely remade in 2003 by F Gary Gray, the same year as 2Fast 2Furious was released and notably included Jason Statham in the cast.
I’ll contend that there’s a shitty-libertarian aesthetic to the car movie. Driving is posed as heroic and in opposition to authority, the police are antagonists (not always the main antagonist) or at the very least in an ambiguous role (as Paul Walker’s character is in the first Fast & Furious film). However, given the inevitable chaos and destruction that necessarily gets depicted (often bloodlessly but still extensive) there is no sense in which laws against driving really, really fast on public streets look like a bad idea. The drivers are people fighting for their freedom (in one sense) but they aren’t fighting against injustices necessarily (nor consistently depicted as doing so).
In the first film Vin Diesel’s Dominic character gets to personify this muddled ethic/aesthetic. He’d rather die than go back to prison and he commits violent crime (hijacking lorries) to fund the one experience that makes him feel free — illegal street racing. It is the pursuit of happiness in chrome and fuelled by nitrous oxide. Paul Walker’s Brian is unconvincing as a police officer in the first film and inevitably let’s Dominic escape at the end of the film.
The sequel is, I think, the film that first vaguely nudged my notice with it’s cute-but-corney sequel title. If you had asked me a couple of weeks ago, I’d have said the title was 2Fast, 2Furious: Tokyo Drift because that kind of absurd sequel title is what had permeated into online culture. It isn’t a good film by an stretch of the imagination but it is a much better film than the first.
Brian O’Conner is now living in Miami as an illegal street racer having abandoned being a cop (or being sacked or he’s on the run — it’s a little unclear) after the events of the first film. After being caught racing, he is recruited by FBI Agent Bilkins from the first film to join an undercover operation against a South American drug lord. That whole scenario retains the very 1980s feel that was in the first film.
This isn’t quite a heist film but it is more like one than the first film. That original film was still trying to do a kind of slice-of-life examination of a sub-culture (and failing) that reflected some aspects of the original article. The sequel is more clearly living in the land of fiction. Yet surprisingly, the sequel feels like it has a lot more racing in it.
The film starts with an extended racing sequence which is a lot more fun to watch than the first film’s races. I was genuinely surprised by how much better it was. That certainly wasn’t due to realism because I have exactly zero experience with cars other than as a passenger. However, I’ve played my own share of racing video games and even if your only experience was with Mario Kart, the aesthetic connection between this first race and games is clear.
There’s no Vin Diesel in this film, so the male bonding aspect comes in the form of Tyrese Gibson, who plays a boyhood friend of O’Conner’s called Roman Pearce. The stakes are established by the FBI promising to clear the criminal records of both O’Conner and Pearce if they help take down the drug lord.
At this point the plot doesn’t make any sense. There are plans and betrayals and twists but quite what anybody is trying to achieve is unclear. The schemes of the police, customs, FBI and the drug lord are mainly pretexts for situations where people have to drive really fast. O’Conner and Pearce need a second set of cars? Problem solved! They’ll race a couple of side characters and win their cars! Yup, it is a video-game style quest and the film uses video game plotting to move O’Conner from one driving sequence to another.
The plot doesn’t withstand any close examination but neither did the plot of the first film. What it does do is move the characters quickly to new action sequences and in each sequence there is a clearly explained (if very localised) set of stakes. Race here to collect a package to prove you can drive quickly enough to get the job with the drug lord. Race now to win two extra racing cars that your FBI/Customs handlers don’t know about.
Everything moves towards an epic all-the-police-cars style car chase sequence with a heist-move-like we-planned-all-this-earlier sequence and a final showdown with a baddy. That showdown, involving launching a car into the air to crash onto a boat, gets an overt Dukes of Hazard reference from one of the main characters.
This film knows that it is ridiculous which gives it a major advantage to the original. It avoids the confused ethics of the first which tries to cast Dominic as a heroic character who just wants to live a quiet life exceeding the speed limit and beating up lorry drivers by adding in a stock movie villain character in the form of evil-south-American drug lord. It also knows that people want to see absurd car stunts but to its credit when the heroes do crash land their car on top of a boat they are shown as being badly stunned by the experience.