Expert film discussion from completely unqualified people


March 28, 2015

No need to bury the lede. Rob's watching all seven.

Confession: I have never seen any of the Fast films. I've derided them in print and in conversation as mindless, graceless exploitation geared toward the masturbatory fantasies of teenage boys (and Michael Bay), but I've never actually bothered. They've always felt like movies I didn't have to see, movies that give away the good stuff in the trailer and then shove in a bit of filler to pad the running time. I can look at the pretty actresses in production stills and decide which muscly bald hero guy I most want to emulate without wasting an hour and a half. Plus, I'm not really the target audience. I know very little about cars. I don't have custom rims. I've never Tokyo drifted.

But honestly, I don't have any particular objection to the series. We need pop films. A good old fashioned high-octane thrill ride is nourishing for the soul every now and again. To dismiss a film as "mindless" because it doesn't feature Socratic debates on semiotics is just as bad as prattling on about how "profound" a film like The Imitation Game is because it was sort of romantic and almost had Nazis in it, or worshiping a self-indulgent mess like Frances Ha because it's "indie" and therefore must be saying something meaningful. Film is a visual medium, after all, and I like shiny things.

Not only that, but I love genre movies. I love exploitation. I love tropes and cliches. They're the fuzzy, warm blanket of storytelling. I never gave the Fast films a chance, though, because they felt too predictable. Pretty people with muscles driving fast. Got it. They felt too broad. Focus-grouped to death, as they say. They can't go too violent or sexy because an R-rating would mean the kids can't buy tickets. The story can't be too complicated because we don't want the audience to get confused or alienated. The stunts can't be too insane because we need this movie to come in on-budget. It all felt too safe. Why would I bother with this crap when there are two whole Crank movies I can watch?

But in the decade and a half since the first Fast film, all I've heard about is how they get better and better with every entry. More self-aware. More willing to take chances and be crazy. So why not? I like Paul Walker. Doesn't The Rock show up at some point? I love The Rock. No, seriously. I think he's a really charming and naturalistic actor when used the right way (he's the only watchable thing in Pain & Gain). Maybe I'll be surprised. Maybe they're not the easy, cheap schlock I think they are. Maybe they're really subversive and fun. Maybe Michelle Rodriguez won't just be Vasquez from Aliens over and over. Maybe I'll eventually be able to say "Vin Diesel" out loud without giggling.

So let's get into this. Here's my best guess at a plot synopsis: I think this first movie is about car thieves, or maybe car thieving? Either stealing cars or using cars to steal. Wait, am I thinking of Gone in Sixty Seconds? Damnit. Well, regardless. I'm assuming that Paul Walker's character starts as some kind of fish out of water, maybe brought into the world of illegal street racing by Vin Diesel? Then he demonstrates aptitude during an important race in the second act before the crew lets him in on the real deal: Robbing/thieving of some kind involving fast cars. Along the way he'll fall for Michelle Rodriguez (?) and decide whether or not to go full outlaw. There'll likely be some alpha male tension between him and Vin until he proves himself as part of the team. Sounds about right. In any case, I'm expecting spectacle. I want great car chases and insane stunts. I'm looking for total abandonment of the laws of physics. Something really special. Here we go:

The Fast and the Furious (2001) 

"It's not how you stand by your car. It's how you race your car."

Alright, well, not the strongest start. Apparently one of the longest-running and most profitable action franchises in film history was born from a disagreement over a tuna sandwich. In any event, the real question is whether or not the film delivers on its promise of speed and ferocity. Paul Walker plays an undercover cop hot on the trail of a group of high-speed thieves who spend their nights hijacking tractor-trailers full of DVD players (2001!). Suspecting a band of local street racers led by Vin Diesel, undercover cop assimilates himself into the racing scene (and into Vin's sister). While Vin welcomes him into the family, Walker is increasingly conflicted about whether or not to apprehend the....


Wait a minute. Isn't this the plot of Point Break? Whatever. The story is a big mess. The film thinks it's clever by waiting to reveal that Walker is an undercover cop until half an hour in. Trouble is, it forgot to give him any kind of placeholder motivation in the meantime. He's just a guy that stalks Vin's sister and likes tuna sandwiches. He's the Designated Protagonist because the movie says so. He has no real wants or needs. Vin's friends don't like him, either because he's got eyes for Vin's sister or because of some sort of undeveloped gay panic subplot. But Vin trusts him because he saved him from arrest while the rest of his cronies left him for dead. Fine, but Walker never actually demonstrates any particular skill with cars other than that he mysteriously owns a nice one. Why would Vin hire him? It's also never really explained why Vin and his gang steal. It's not as if they live a life of opulence that Vin has to pay to maintain. They seem to just live in a house left to them by their parents. The money from the heists go toward their hot rodding. I guess the film expects us to find that an acceptable reason to commit multiple felonies? There's some rivalry with an Asian gang led by Asian Villain Man, but that's all there is in the way of a potential "turf war" angle. All the "my dad died racing" stories in the world won't help us sympathize with completely flat characters. Michelle Rodriguez is sorely wasted. Ted Levine shows up as The Sarge, but he isn't given much to do either. Still, Vin Diesel does his job, and I'm sort of already sad to know that Paul Walker will eventually be unceremoniously sent off in Part VII. 

But of course, we're not here for compelling humanity. We're here to fetishize cars. If I knew anything at all about fuel injection or nitrous oxide, I'd probably be very turned on by all of this. There seem to be many different types of cars in the Fast and Furious world, but the film doesn't bother helping me understand the differences between any of them. Sometimes one car will go the fastest, but other times a different car will go the fastest. There's no real expertise at play here. The cars are mostly just window dressing that double as a means to an end. I think that's the final roadblock between me and this film: It's not about watching the cars doing cool things, but rather looking at cool cars. There are some decent stunts (the whole "drive under the tractor-trailer" thing is cool), and random chases seem to erupt randomly and for no discernible reason, but it all takes a backseat to watching a variety of differently-ethnic characters polish and tinker with their suped-up hoopties while Limp Bizkit plays in the background (this movie is so early 2000s it hurts). There's lots of action, sure, but it's not all that creative. It's really just a lot of whip pans and actors making tough faces against green screen backgrounds. It seems my "too safe" prediction came true for Part I. It's exploitation, sure, but it's cheap and bland and too timid to really get dirty. 

Predictions for Part II? Well, the post-credit sequence found Vin living in Mexico, so I can only assume that when Paul Walker has to face off against a different group of car enthusiasts, he's going to track down his old friend and offer a clean record in exchange for helping bring down the bad guys. Bring back some old friends, introduce some new ones (throw in a black guy who's good at computers or science!), and you're all set. There's a lot of room to grow in the Fast universe. 


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