I Watched Fate of the Furious (F&F8)

We are nearly at the end of the race but this one left me feeling dissatisfied.

The action scenes were as exciting and as ludicrous as normal. The actors all did their things and yet the film fell flat. With any other film I might conclude that it was the plot that was lacking but this is a Fast & Furious — “plot” is simply connective tissue joining car chases together. None of the films so far (with the marginal exception of Tokyo Drift) have had plots that made much sense.

I did like the opening act. Dom and Letty are finally having their honeymoon that had been delayed by first Dom leaving her and then by Letty being murdered by an evil drug lord and then by a whole other film and then by Letty losing her memory and being controlled by an evil British cyber-criminal and then by the whole gang being hunted by Jason Statham, sorry ‘Deckard Shaw’. With all that out of the way, the couple are in Havana.

The Cuban scenes are nicely done and the film open with a car race. I may be wrong but I think this is only the second time that one of these films has a car race this early on. Dom wins the race, beating another car while he drives a decrepit rust-bucket car. He narrowly crosses the finish line first but he does so driving in reverse with the car on fire. The minor bad guy Dom was racing is so impressed by Dom’s driving skills and his honour that he does a Heel-Face Turn and becomes a good person. That is an important theme but this example is the more plausible one of the film.

The paradise (as always) is interrupted by the intervention of the gods. This time the divine being is Charlize Theron (like Jason Statham, an alumni of the remake of The Italian Job). She is yet another cyber-criminal and she HAS SOMETHING with which to take control of Dom.

The next part is also pretty good as we go and have a look at the domestic life of Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson). He is his daughter’s soccer coach and if the film has one part worth watching it is Hobbs leading this tiny soccer team in a haka.

From there stuff happens. Hobbs recruits Dom’s team to do a job in Germany for the US government which has to deny any involvement etc etc. At the last minute (gasp) Dom of all people BETRAYS the team (gasp) and drives away with the macguffin. Hobbs is arrested and has to take the fall for the disastrous operation. He gets put in the same prison (in fact the opposite cell) as Deckard Shaw. Mayhem ensues.

Super secret spy guy Mr Nobody (Kurt Russell) steps in to restart the plot. He gets Dom’s team to his base (the team now includes the nice hacker woman from the last film) and also Hobbs and also Shaw (oh dear). Now for some plot exposition. Charlize Theron is an evil and mysterious cyber-terrorist super villain called Cypher and (gasp one more time) Dom is working for her! She has stolen all sorts of things and is obviously going to do something very bad and Dom is going to help her do it. Mr Nobody is going to get Dom’s team to stop Dom because they are the only people that can do so and also use both Hobbs and Shaw to find Dom because they have both managed to nearly stop him in the past (and technically failed in each instance).

The plans to stop Dom are interrupted by the bad guy and Dom attacking Mr Nobody’s base, incapacitating everybody, and stealing the ‘Gods Eye’ (or Devil’s Areshole as Helen Mirren later improbably calls it) macguffin from the last film. As Dom and Cypher leave they kiss, compounding Letty’s horror.

Part of the problem here, is maybe this plot line is a bit like F&F6 where Letty has somehow joined the baddies and Dom has to get her back but with roles switched. It feels a bit like a re-tread for a film series which while always being sort of exactly the same also manages never being the same film twice. This film is the most stable in terms of sub-sub-genre the series has got. Having spent six films playing with templates, they finally stuck with one on the seventh and repeated it for the eighth.

Anyway, the truth is revealed. Cypher has kidnapped Elena (the sweet Brazilian cop from film 6, who was Dom’s partner until Letty came back from the dead) but what is worse is Elena also has a baby boy and that baby boy is…Dom’s. She had just fell pregnant when Letty had comeback and didn’t feel able to tell Dom etc etc. So there you go. Dom’s motives are, as always, family but a tad more genetic than usual.

Stuff continues to happen. Dom kills Shaw (seems fair) except he doesn’t and it is all a plot he cooked up with Shaw’s mum who is Helen Mirren. These films get oddly more British as they go on. I feel like Fast & Furious 12 will be Carry On Fast and Furiously and star Sid James and Hattie Jacques back from the dead.

Shaw it turns out, is not a bad person after all and had been framed by the British government in the past. Yeah but…he did literally MURDER HAN ON SCREEN. This is where the twisty-turny aspect of the films starts undermining itself. The whole schtick about found family and loyalty is undermined when whole characters just get forgotten about again. Giselle has been forgotten, Han has been forgotten, that other smaller guy from the first film with ADHD has been forgotten. Worse with Han is that everybody gets over their hatred for Shaw pretty quickly just so the series can have Jason Statham carry on Jason-Stathaming.

I also really disliked the attack on the Russian submarine base. The people at the base aren’t the baddies (technically that is Dom under duress) but the gang just openly shoot several of them dead. It is a callousness that wasn’t present in the earlier films. Sure beating up innocent truck drivers and levels of property destruction that in reality would have led to many deaths of bystanders, have been a repeated theme of the films but generally (miraculously) very few people ever got shown to be hurt. The gang weren’t killers before, not really.

But yeah, car chase with a submarine that works.

Is the absence of Paul Walker part of the problem here? There was always a sense of Brian O’Conner being the narrative character in the films. Not the protagonist as such (although sometimes he is) but the person observing events. If the films had a voice-over it would have been his. Aside from that, it wasn’t obvious what role he played and I was surprised that his absence would make such a difference.

The film also kills off Elena which is a shitty move. It’s pretty much a way of adding motivation to Dom, making Cypher look even more evil but also a way of removing the complexity of the Dom-Letty-Elena situation. And yes, just like Han and Giselle, she gets forgotten about by the end of the film. The baby survives (rescued by the not-dead Shaw in an airplane scene that I feel must have helped inspire The Mandalorian)

The baby is called Brian after their dead friend, who isn’t dead in the film’s continuity but alive and well and presumably in regular contact with Dom. I think the story no longer knows who is dead and who isn’t and who is bad and who isn’t and presumably who is good and who is bad.

The gang are now just a bunch of special operatives who kill people for the US government, personified by Kurt ‘Mr Nobody’ Russell. They aren’t outlaws any more but a hit-squad. Notably when Mr Nobody first turned up he was sinister. Indeed I thought he was going to turn out to be a next level up bad guy. Now he is just everybody’s boss (including both Hobbs and Shaw) and they all do what he tells them to do.

That is sad. The action is still good but the film has lost it’s anarchic heart.

We have one more film to go: the Vin Diesel-free Hobbs & Shaw.

I watched Furious 7

Having watched too many, I liked this one. It has many of the same flaws as the previous films, it is overlong, it has juvenile obsession with dancing women in bikinis, the story makes no sense and it has a B-plot that eats the main plot. And yet…

Last time I laid it on thick that the Furious series read more like stories of legendary heroes than anything else. Irish myths in particular have these characters who really are doing little more than picking fights and stealing cows in a small country that you could walk the length of in a couple of weeks. The legends though spin the heroes into epics and every deed becomes something bigger and sooner or later they end up interact with supernatural other worlds and beings. The heroes are also good only in the sense that they are the protagonist.

Earlier I’d compared the films to superhero films and I had consider following that further for Furious 6, which has its own supervillain with equivalent power (fancy cars!) as our heroes. Furious 7 surprised me not because it was like our current crop of superhero films but because it reminded me of comic book story arcs that wander off track episodically.

Furious 7 had a new director, James Wan, an Australian-Malaysian who is most famous for the Saw films. Like Justin Lin in prior films, there is a very careful attention to filming of the action sequences that maintains the chaotic escalation of events within a surprising clarity of who-is-where and who-is-doing what. There is an extend car-chase/heist sequence where the band has to rescue a hacker from an armed convoy controlled by a terrorist (Djimon Hounsou) that has so many improbable things happen that I lost count BUT which at any one moment you always knew what was going on — even if it made no sense as a whole. The plots of all the films since the fourth one have overall followed the same kind of localised logic.

I was sold, though, on the opening pre-title scene which is wholly Jason Statham-centric. It turns out that Jason Statham (Deckard Shaw — his parents must have been Blade Runner fans) is the brother of the baddy from the last film. The film starts with talking philosophically while looking out of a window with a view of London. The camera is very close. It pulls back a bit to reveal that he is talking to his comatose brother in a hospital room. As he walks away the camera pulls back further and we can see there are hospital staff also in the room but they are cowering. We then follow Shaw out of the hospital and we see more and more of the aftermath of whatever he had done to originally get into the hospital: smashed up walls, wounded or dead SWAT guys, small fires etc. The final shot is Shaw exiting the hospital and a major chunk of the entrance falls down behind him. It really is very well done. Rather like Furious 5 being a battle between Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson as to which big bald guy gets to own the movie, Furious 7 does the same thing but throws Jason Statham into the ring as well.

Johnson gets his moments too, of course, although he is out of action for the bloated middle section of the film that for some reason has Kurt Russell attempt to steal the plot (Russell has control of the story for awhile but has far too much hair to actually possess the story). Johnson comes back for the climatic finale. He is still in a hospital bed with his arm and leg in plaster cast after falling from a building earlier in the film. There are huge explosions outside (the band fighting both the evil terrorist and Shaw for different reasons). Johnson leaps out of bed and then shatters the cast on his arm by flexing his muscles. It’s the most anime thing I’ve seen in a film that (largely) wasn’t trying to to be an anime homage. He goes onto fight a predator drone with an ambulance so he can steal it’s huge machine gun because of course he does.

As I said, the story makes no sense and if you forced me to explain how they end up driving a car out of huge skyscrapers in Abu Dhabi then I’d have to make something up, because that was a thing that happened but something-something-macguffin-something-unneccesary-scene-of-dancing-women-in-bikinis. As an action-comedy, these leaps are more forgivable but typically the comedic end of the action comedy is confined to Roman Pierce (played by Tyrese Gibson) who the film series keeps making goofier with each episode. The tonal shift between scenes is as awkward as it has always been. Vin Diesel plays Dominic Toretto with great earnestness bordering on woodeness as if he is still in a serious film about illegal street racing subculture rather than the mutant-mix of Mission Impossible and a 2000’s MTV compilation of videos set at pool parties.

However, by the blunt effort of these films insisting that they are their own thing and letting various character compete for control of not just the macguffin of the week but also for the tone and plot of the film, Furious 7 demands that you judge it in terms of it being a Fast and Furious film and honestly at no point was I not entertained. I also can’t think of many films that has quite so many bald men as major characters (Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Tyrese Gibson, Djimon Hounsou).

The film makes better use of Michelle Rodriguez than previously and she gets her own big fight scene (again in Abu Dhabi fighting UFC fighter Ronda Rousey for reasons that I have forgotten and frankly don’t matter). She has a sub-plot that she still has lost her memory (being dead for a couple of films will do that) but she remembers in time to bring Dominic back to life by sheer force of their love (when I say that works better than CPR, I’m not being sarcastic — that is literally what happens.)

So there is a lot of death both boom-pow unserious action movie death but also angst filled and emotional. Han gets to die again or rather the same death gets shown for a third time. There is a brief cameo by Lucas Black from the third film when Dominic travels to Tokyo to restore the film continuity. Overshadowing the in-movie deaths is the real-life death of actor Paul Walker, who was killed in a car accident (unrelated to the making of the film) during the production.

Not knowing the plot in advance, I assumed the story would kill off Walker’s character as well and there is plenty of foreshadowing of that. At the start of the film Brian O’Conner is wrestling with becoming a suburban dad and driving a family car. The implication throughout that this is the one-last-job before retiring, emphasized by Mia having another baby on the way.

In the end Walker’s character gets to drive off into the sunset and presumably a quiet and happy life with Mia and his two kids. The film finishes with O’Conner and Toretto driving their cars next to each other along a stretch of road before O’Conner turns off to drive down his own roadway. Yeah, I did tear up a little.

I watched Furious 6

Do not say that you did not anticipate this!

In the previous film, our heroes passed from the mortal world to the land of youth (or variously, Avalon, Faerie, Tír na nÓg, or Hy Brasil) after passing a series of trials by the supernatural being known as “Hobbs”. We meet the heroes again at the start of the film, living lives that match their fondest wishes. Brian is living in a beautiful house with Mia and their new baby. Roman is flying around in a personal jet full of beautiful women. Tej has wonderful cars and can make ATMs shower people with money. I’m sure there are flagons that magically refill themselves with mead and plenty of boars to hunt in the forests as well.

Dom though, is living with the beautiful Elena, who is one of Hobbs’s people and Dom knows that at some level the magical world they are in is not the true world. Hobbs intervenes by tempting Dom with the soul of Dom’s long dead wife Letty. If you recall, this longer cycle of myth was precipitated by the death of Letty in the fourth tale of Dom’s legendary band.

To bring Letty back from the land of the dead, Dom must complete a task for the demi-god Hobbs: defeat one of Hobbs’s own kind, a monster known as Owen Shaw. Oh! ‘Shaw’ I say excited to know that means Jason Statham but no, it is Luke Evans aka Bard the Bowman aka ‘Is that Orlando Bloom? No, it’s that other guy’. Of course, you can’t just travel from faerie to the mundane world in a jet or a car, you must pass through one of the soft places in the world. The band had done this originally through the cognate land of Brasil but to return back they must pass through a different doorway and where better than London to make the leap. That city has always been close to Faerie.

Where does Faerie London end and mundane London begin? The film only gives a few clues. The band have many high speed car chases and one high speed car race through the streets of central London, so those parts are obviously in the magical fantasy London rather than the real one.

Letty we discover is under a geas or an enchantment and is now a servant and charioteer for the monstrous Luke Shaw. Dom faces her in a series of battles and contests to win back her soul from Luke Shaw.

Eventually, with the intercession of Hobbs, the whole band (except for Mia, Elena and Mia & Brian’s son, who stay in Faerie for safety) confront Luke Shaw and his band in Spain.

Then we get the high speed car chase with a tank.

That chase alone deserves a long write-up by I lack the poetic skills to sing of the high deeds that were done upon that stretch of road. They included a mighty salmon-leap by Cú Chulainn, (sorry I mean Dominic Toretto) to rescue Letty from falling from a high place.

Defeated and now bereft of his tank, Luke Shaw uses his magics to send his servants to kidnap Mia, Elena and baby-Brian (Elena, being magical, spirits the baby away but Mia is captured). Letty’s curse is partially lifted and she sees that Dom is the man she should love and pledges her spear and chariot to him and his band of heroes.

Hobbs realises that he must release Luke Shaw from imprisonment to rescue Mia. The band must now chase Luke Shaw’s cargo plane using their cars and Chekov’s pneumatic steel cable harpoon guns (a common trope in Gaelic myth, honest).

Ah, but there is a price for bringing back a soul from the land of the dead. It will be a heavy price indeed!

Han, you will recall, has been cursed with a death foretold (film 3). His fate is such that if returns to his mundane life in Tokyo then he will die in fire. Yet he has also pledged his love to Giselle (Gal Gadot) and with a return to the mundane world imminent he proposes that they both return to Tokyo once they have defeated Luke Shaw. Thus the fate of both Han and Giselle is sealed!

Dom’s band destroy Luke Shaw’s plane and Dom walks out alive from the burning wreckage. But Giselle has died! A life for a life! What cruel irony! Dom and Letty are re-united but Han is bereft!

With Luke Shaw defeated, Manannán mac Lir — sorry, I mean Hobbs (the idea of Dwayne Johnson playing a sea-bound demi-god/culture hero of an island people is obviously ridiculous) — asks Dom what rewards he would like and offers him all the riches of Hy Brasil. This is a faint, because Hobbs has always known what the real stakes where. Instead Dom offers Hobbs a number — the street address of his original home, from which he was banished because of his many audacious cattle raids, I mean truck hi-jackings. Hobbs, who has already engineered the return of the band to the mundane world through the trial of capturing Luke Shaw, with a wave of his cloak returns the band to the real world of Los Angeles.

You all know the ending of the The Sick-Bed of Cú Chulainn but I’ll quote Wikipedia anyway:

“After much discussion both women recognize the other’s unselfish love, and request that Cú Chulainn take the other. Fand decides that since she already has a husband, Manannán mac Lir, Emer should stay with Cú Chulainn so she will not be left alone.”

And so the story ends. The monstrous Luke Shaw is defeated and Dom’s band of heroes have returned to the real world. Dom is in his hall with his wife and kinsmen by his side.

Ah but fate is not so simple. Giselle’s death was in exchange for Letty’s soul. Han still owes a debt to The Morrígan, goddess of battle and fate. In the mid-credits we return to prophetic third film and see the car chase again from new eyes. ‘Twas no accident when Han’s car was hit! Han dies as fate had always decreed but we now see the agent of his death! The ancient Brythonic deity of destruction known as JASON STATHAM!

Thus ends the sixth tale of Dom and his Valorous Band. They have returned but not unscathed to the lands of their clan in hope they may live once again the life of cattle raids and chariot races. But a dark and vengeful god has crossed between the worlds to find them.

I Watched Fast Five

There is a distinction between movies that don’t make sense but intend to and movies that do not care whether they make sense or not. In the first case, plot holes or under explained motivations are aesthetic failures. In the second case we might choose to dismiss the whole style of film as nonsensical but little is served with criticising a given example for its narrative leaps.

The previous four films in the Fast and Furious series have each had some pretentions to serious drama. The first and third in particular are low on laughs and ostensibly offer insights into a subculture. The second has more of a caper feel and the fourth occasionally thinks that it is a serious crime drama. Vin Diesel in particular appears to think he’s doing serious acting.

Fast Five is transformational. It is the first of the sequels to directly follow a proceeding film. The opening heist is the gang’s attempt to free Dominic Toretto from a prison bus, which is where the last film finished. From there we jump to a heist in Brazil where for reason that will never be explained, US DEA agents are transporting impounded cars from drug dealers by train across the countryside. As always, the action sequence is very well done and makes zero sense.

Maybe at this point director Justin Lin and writer Chris Morgan (who both worked on the relatively sensible Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift) have realised that none of these films have ever entirely made any sense and that the only way forward is to put their foot heavily on the utter-nonsense pedal and shift the gear to utter-banana-pants.

Technically it is Dwayne Johnson who strides into the franchise at this point but the film feels more like the Fast & Furious gang have accidentally wandered out of the original setting of low level street racers and into Dwayne Johnson’s world. To stay in the Rock’s magical world of make-believe, the gang have to prove themselves worthy. That is a tricky demand because Johnson is both a decent actor and also well versed in maintaining the anti-logic of professional wrestling. His character, a US Diplomatic Security Service agent (that’s a real thing but I doubt as depicted) is really no different than Vin Diesel’s gang except in Dwayne Johnson’s world there is no contradiction between his character Luke Hobbs being this untamed force of destruction and pure will AND an agent of law enforcement in good standing.

The film goes through three shifts. Firstly it starts in gear of the previous film. With Johnson’s arrival the script offers a kind of weak version of The Fugitive with Johnson adopting a kind of Tommy-Lee Jones attitude. That tenuous state isn’t viable for very long and so in another shift the film decides it is a heist movie. Characters from the previous films ( Roman and Tej from the second movie, Gal Gadot’s character Gisele from the fourth movie, Han from the third and Leo & Santos from the fourth). They have each been picked because of their special skills and in each case their special skill is driving cars very fast, except for Tej whose skill is fixing cars.

The plot then wobbles back and forth around a plan to steal money from the obligatory evil South American drug lord who has framed the gang for the murder of the US DEA agents which is why Dwayne Johnson is after them in the first place. The plan falls to bits and instead the gang steal a giant safe from a police station by attaching steel cables to it and dragging it out behind two cars.

The subsequent car chase is insane. The laws of physics are suspended as the heroes drive around Rio at high speed with a huge metal box behind them, clobbering into everything as they go. Friction, inertia, rubble are now under the sway of some magical force that cannot be questioned. It is glorious.

Having defeated the bad guy (I think Dwayne Johnson summarily executes him, because, ha ha, police violence was funny back then), the gang are now safely in the world of Faerie and King Oberon (still Dwayne Johnson as Luke Hobbs) allows the gang to stay in the magical consequence free world. Everybody now has millions of dollars and everybody is happy except for Han who is under a magical curse that means he still somehow has to end up as a minor gangster in Tokyo so that the prophetic third film can still come true. Does this mean he has to die? Well maybe not. The gang have successfully transitioned between world and death is not as permanent in Faerie as it is in the real world.

I watched Fast & Furious

Four movies in and they decide to make a sequel to the first movie. On the way they make the fourth movie a sort of prequel to the third movie. It’s not that the films so far are unconnected but rather that they connect in unconventional and non-narrative ways.

We start with another truck robbery by speeding cars. This time though, it is a huge multi-articulated truck carrying petrol and we are in the Dominican Republic. Dominic (Vin Diesel) has his gang with him including some new faces which include Han who died in the previous film.

I wonder if we can claim these films are actually pirate films? Dom’s gang have a lot in common with sympathetic pirates but instead of the high seas it is the high way.

The opening scene is only loosely plot related. The subsequent attention Dom’s gang get mean they split up. Dom sneaks away from Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) so she won’t get caught up when the police finally catch him.

Some time later Dom discovers that Letty, who has returned to LA, has been murdered. And so begins the plot.

Brian (Paul Walker) is now an FBI agent. Thus we get the defining feature of all of these films. Somehow, no matter how absurd the stunts, the plot always manages to be more implausible than action sequences.

There’s no change in Brian’s character, it’s just that the FBI made him an agent. He wears a tie now. Aside from that the man who was barely keeping his shit together as a police office is now in the FBI.

Brian is also on the trail of the evil South American drug lord (not the same one from the second movie which may or may not have happened yet) but a different one. There are always ethnically coded gangster baddies but so far they have alternated between East Asia and South America.

But what has this to do with driving cars both fastly and furiously? Well, to smuggle drugs across the border, the drug lord needs really fast drivers. So both Brian and Dom have to win a race to get recruited by the evil drug lord. This is the exactly one race in the film. After this the car sequences are all car chases not races.

  • The Fast and the Furious: Three races
  • 2Fast, 2 Furious: Three races
  • The Fast and the Furious — Tokyo Drift: Two races
  • Fast and Furious: One race

The video game aesthetics with this single race are the most overt yet. All the races have a custom GPS system that provides their route with exciting computer visuals.

After this, the film wanders into action/revenge thriller. Gal Gadot turns up but isn’t given much to do. There is a twist that makes no sense. The FBI keep letting Brian do things that he really shouldn’t. Brian does other things that he really shouldn’t if he wants to stay in the FBI, like rekindling his relationship with Dom’s sister who miraculously forgives him.

Sadly, at the end Dom is caught by the authorities and at his trial the judge sentences him for a really, really long time in prison. Which, while I’m a critic of the US prison system, the judge has a point. Even if Dom isn’t a bad person (multiple truck drivers would beg to differ) he’s a flippin’ menace and cause of many, many cause somersaulting in the air with people in them.

Oh but we aren’t done! A prison bus driving along a deserted open road is carrying Dom to prison or a new prison or somewhere…does it matter? It does not. All that matters is that this is like transporting pirates in a great big old-time galleon somewhere off the Caribbean. Sure enough a fleet of fast cars driven by Brian and Dom’s sister are on their way to rescue him! And that’s the end!

I watched the Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift

Now here is where things get interesting. Not interesting in terms of script or cinematography or acting but interesting in that you really have to turn to Wikipedia or fan diagrams to work out what this film has to do with the other films in the franchise. However, I’m trying to treat these films as I see them unspoiled and I didn’t turn to Wikipedia until I watched the next film (Fast and Furious aka The Fast and the Furious 4).

Not every movie with a car race is a car racing movie. Take, for example, this scene from the 1970’s homage to the 1950’s that is Grease:

As well as borrowing a little from the chariot race in Ben-Hur (and a little nod to Thunder Road) the scene also borrows from Rebel Without a Cause. James Dean’s character isn’t a race as such but rather a game of chicken, with the two cars driving towards a cliff.

Cars and car racing as youth rebellion and masculine rivalry is a whole other thing. The third film in the Fast & Furious franchise, initially dumps the urban setting and heads out into the suburbs. The new protagonist Sean Boswell (Lucas Black) is a troubled youth whose only interest is in cars. Having being goaded into racing an obnoxious jock from his school, he once again ends up in trouble with the police. Here’s the first major scene from the film.

Rather like the whole franchise, the film then goes off in a different direction. Sean is given the choice of having to either go to gaol or go to live with his estranged father in Japan. Yes, that raises some very strange questions about America’s criminal justice system, not to mention Japan’s immigration system but these films will ask for far greater efforts in the suspension of disbelief than that.

In Tokyo, Sean ends up in a Japanese school that has a smattering of non-Japanese students, including Twinkie (Bow Wow), an African-America teenage with a side line in possibly stolen goods, and Neela (Nathalie Kelley) whose full background is never really explained. Neela is the girlfriend of Takashi, a young man with Yakuza connections and an avid street racer. Inevitably, Sean gets into a confrontation with Takashi which is resolved by (you guessed it) a street race. Sean loses the race badly but in the process falls under the mentorship of Han Lue, a business partner of Takashi.

The film then sort of follows a kind of Karate-kid (there’s at least one knowing joke about this in the film) martial arts training plot. Instead of a fighting style, Sean has to learn the art of ‘drifting’ i.e. causing the car to do a controlled skid when turning a corner. Meanwhile, he has to cope with life as a teenager, his troubled relationship with his dad, his rivalry with Takashi and his affection for Neela. He probably should also be worried about being deported from Japan for illegal car racing and his connections to criminal gangs but luckily that doesn’t come up.

Everything comes to a head when Takashi and Han fall out leading to a car chase in which Han dies. With everything on the line, Sean brokers a deal with Takashi’s Yakuza uncle to settle their disagreements with a car race down a twisty-turny mountain road.

This is a very earnest and very silly movie but it is does a far, far better job about being about a racing sub-culture than the first movie. There is a lot of racing, there is a lot of Sean learning how to race (or rather re-learning). Lucas Black is largely quite convincing as Sean, except he doesn’t look like he is a teenager (he was 24 at the time but I guess some teens look like older than they are). The car races themselves are still absurd but there’s more naturalism to them than the earlier films and effort to imply that these are things that could really happen.

Watched in the order that the films appear in (and that is an important caveat as we will learn), this film is a reboot: a new cast, a new protagonist, a new setting. The only connection with the earlier films (until the film’s postscript) is that it takes the premise of the first film: a movie about an illegal street racing subculture. There is no law-enforcement character, the male bonding aspect is altered to a mentor-student relationship and the criminality is adjacent to the racing.

The postscript, presents Sean as now a star in the Tokyo drift scene. He is challenged to a race and lo & behold the challenger turns out to be Vin Diesel who, it turns out, new Han Lue before Han had moved to Tokyo. This cameo ties the films together. Sort of, the connections will get complicated…

I quite enjoyed this, more than I expected. I preferred the absurd silliness of the second film but while this movie takes itself a bit too seriously, it is quite tightly put together. The actors all commit to their roles and while it is stuffed to the gills with cliches about American high school and American perceptions of Japan, it all sort of works.

The director (Justin Lin) goes on to make other films in the franchise and the writer (Chris Morgan) goes on to be the main writer for the subsequent films. So technically a reboot that worked…except…I already watched the next movie in the franchise and this film has (almost) nothing to do with it. Three movies in and this major film franchise still doesn’t know what it is as a sequence of films. Instead, this is the third experiment in trying to make a Fast and Furious film series happen and it is back to the drawing board for the next one.

I watched 2Fast, 2Furious

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.

I watched The Fast and the Furious for the first time

There appear to be a lot of films in the Fast and the Furious franchise and only a global pandemic has paused their proliferation. There is a point where natural curiosity overcomes my overall lack of interest in cars. So if I have to start somewhere then it makes sense to start at the first film.

Before hand I knew that the film was about a cop infiltrating a gang of street racers who are involved in robberies. If that sounds a bit like the film Point Break with Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze and “surfers” swapped out for “street racers” then, well, I haven’t watched Point Break either. I also know that the star of the film died much later in the franchise and that didn’t stop the films somehow evolving later into an action thriller with Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham.

Released in 2001 the film looks and sounds like a product of at least the previous decade and at times feels like it belongs in the 1980s or even the 1950s. The title, of course, is literally borrowed from a 1954 film but there is a definite 1950s pulp book feel to the way story frames the central street racing gang as all a bit scandalous and dangerous. It’s a macho culture and aside from two characters, women are portrayed primarily as sexual rewards. The first exception to that is Michelle Rodriguez’s character Letty, who is the girlfriend of gang leader Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) but also an equal member of the close knit gang and an adept driver. The second exception is Dominic Toretto’s sister Mia (Jordana Brewster) who is the primary love interest but still sort of falls into an ‘innocent young woman caught up in a criminal subculture’ archetype. Both women are definied in terms of the relationship to Dominic but that is sort of true of the whole movie. Vin Diesel gets to be centre of everything and only Paul Walker’s cop character Brian O’Conner ever gets to be defined in terms of any other relationships.

The street racing sequences are surprisingly quite dull. Each race is basically down a straight road between two cars. In the first race between Walker and Diesel they even have a kind of trippy visual effect when the characters press a go-faster button, as if they engaged warp speed. The more exciting actions sequences are confined to the first heist (which opens the film) and the second (which begins the final stage of the film).

Diesel and Rodriguez are the most convincing in their roles. Walker, not so much. The plot makes it obvious he’s a cop even before the surprise reveal but at the same time he’s never convincingly a cop even when talking to his boss and the FBI. His undercover role makes little sense and the obvious route for busting Dominic Toretto’s criminal operation is tax fraud, as he clearly is spending a lot more money than his garage could generate.

The four street racing factions we meet are split on ethnic lines with the Vietnamese Johnny Tran (Rick Yune) being the main bad guy. Despite his gang frequently shooting at cars and people on motorbikes, the police are less interested in that and focused on the lorry hijacking scheme. Aside from that the ethnic divisions don’t play a role in the plot.

I wouldn’t have guessed this was a franchise spawning film if I didn’t already know. Walker is wooden, the car sequences are OK but it’s not Mad Max. The writing is weak: Dominic and Brian bond because the plot says so, Mia and Brian fall in love because the plot says so. The characters feel like action figures being moved around. The lorry heist plans makes no sense and the surprise the gang faces when the lorry drivers start packing shotguns really shouldn’t have been a surprise.

I’m going to watch the rest. I’m genuinely curious now.