There’s an unspoken procedure I run through at the start of every new film project. I’ve noticed that many of the visual effects brood seem to do the same, each in their own ways. Something of a gee-up, a celebratory burst of enthusiasm toward the project, whereby we psych ourselves into the vibe of the thing by consuming some part of what may have come before. For instance, when starting work on The Great Gatsby last year I smashed through the book. Soon as I heard I was starting on Captain America: The First Avenger, I downloaded a few of the original comics to get some of the back-story of a character I was unfamiliar with. Same goes for Thor. Even when starting on Daybreakers, way back when, I rewatched the Spierig Brothers’ first feature Undead for kicks. It doesn’t help the shots go through any more smooth, it doesn’t stop any of us from getting anally-violated at the crunch-time end of the project, and doesn’t have any real bearing on anything. What I think it does do is make a personal connection with this thing that we know is about to soak up a lot of our life and our thoughts and our relationships and our sleep patterns for the next god-knows-how-long.
So, cut to 2013, and I’m working on Fast & Furious 6. What to do? A series I’d snubbed completely when the first instalment appeared back in 2001, back when my self-righteous film-snobbery was at its outspoken peak. Then the sequel. Then the apparently-unrelated sequel to the sequel. Then the reboot/revival. Then the sequel to the reboot/revival. Starting the gig, I had a couple of choices. On the one hand, I could just abandon the regular vibe-up routine, and when I inevitably watch Fast & Furious 6 just to see our work, I’d see the film completely cold, no back-story, no nothing. Stand-alone. But that just didn’t sit right with me. The other option : watching perhaps the first to get the basic gist then the fifth – the one everyone says is good – started seeming quite appealing. But even that wasn’t sitting right. I knew what had to be done. There could only be one way to do this : properly, thoroughly and without shame.
That’s right: film-snobbery be damned, I went all the way; sank a few beers, busted my Fast & The Furious cherry, then proceeded to slam my way through the entire series.
Sadly, for those hoping for a one-liner that might sum up the 554 minutes of furiousness, there’s no short answer. That having been said, I found that because my expectations were generally quite low, and I did not at all attempt to intellectualise any of the stories, characters, sub-plots or physical impossibilities, nor be holding my breath for Oscar-worthy performances, mostly I enjoyed the hell out of them. Mostly…
Fortunately, for those who have skipped them, I can sum up the collective plots quite quickly :
Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel) knows how to drive cars fast, and is physically incapable of losing an illegal street race (unless on purpose). He and his merry band of similarly-extraordinary-driver friends, lovers and hot siblings, use their driving skills to occasionally take part in oddly-elaborate, vehicularly-colour-coordinated heists from time to time. The format of these is almost always the same : the team surrounding an unobservant (yet eventually heavily armed) truck (or train) driver and stealing shit off his rig, and occasionally the rig itself. Often there’s a rival gang involved in the story somehow, and they end up either losing the loot to them and getting shot at, then ultimately needing to race their cars again approximately 95 minutes later, gaining their precious comeuppance. To add to the mix, in the first film we’re introduced to Dom’s secret gay crush, FBI agent Brian O’Connor (played to perfection by Best-Actor-Oscar-award-winner* Paul Walker) (*Note: extreme sarcasm). He tries to capture Dom in the first movie, but in the end Dom ends up capturing his heart. In the second film (with Dom having fled the entire film) he’s now one of the criminals. In the fourth, he’s an agent again. In the fifth, a criminal. Honestly, I don’t even know what’s going on with that guy deep down, but what I do know is that apart from eventually knocking up Dom’s hot little sister, I’m still going to claim that the entire series is about Dom and Brian’s secret love-affair (a secret I’m hoping will finally be revealed accompanied by bright, spangled rainbows in FF6).
That’s pretty much it, apart from the third film, The Fast & The Furious: Tokyo Drift, which, being set in Japan, doesn’t have any real relation to the other films at all, except it’s about driving cars fast again, there’s an evil gang, and Vin Diesel makes a cameo in the last two minutes. It does, however seriously mess up the time continuum of the series, largely due to the untimely death of one of its major (guru) characters, Han (Sung Kang)…. but more on that later.
Overall, the Fast & Furious films can be quickly organised into the good and bad in exactly the same way as nerds have quickly classified the original Star Trek films, but in reverse. Meaning, for this series: first movie = good, second movie = terrible, third movie = good, fourth movie terrible. The fifth is by far the best film of the series. Even Rotten Tomatoes agrees, combined critical opinion reaching a whopping 78% approval rate. Putting that into perspective, the recently-released Les Misérables only did 70% on the same scale; sure, expectations may have been lower for Fast Five (especially after the dismal fourth film) but it’s still an impressive number and a genuinely enjoyable heist film. I’m hoping, for the sake of the work I’m currently doing being part of something eventually-awesome, that Fast & Furious 6 will buck the trend and be as good as the fifth. (Contractually speaking, I probably should stop right there and hold off giving any opinion whatsoever, flick you a non-committal, cheesy, double-thumbs up, and directing you to your nearest advance-ticket outlet.)
The big question is whether or not I felt like this entire endeavour was 554 minutes of my life well-spent. Short answer : yes…ish. I feel now that I judged the first film too harshly when it came out, but that’s the kinda guy I was. It’s cheese. Total, unadulterated cheese, but as it isn’t pretending to be anything other than what it is, I feel I should retroactively give it a free pass and call it fairly solid-yet-mindless entertainment. The racing scenes are pretty cool. The story is predictable, but the characters are (mostly) likeable, and it’s all just shitty enough that you can laugh at the utter dumbness of it all without finding that same dumbness offensive. Except, say, the second film. Even the title is offensively dumb : “2 Fast 2 Furious”. A terrible use of numerals. I’m still glad I saw the film – it sets up a couple of characters who come back later on, but overall it was terrible. Where the first film was about a solid 60% for me, the second was in the low 20s.
The third? Back up there in the 60s again. It didn’t matter that there weren’t any characters we knew in there. The racing scenes were genuinely tense, and made much more interesting by the Japanese setting, the different driving style featured (more about drifting aka. skidding cars around inside a car-park tower) instead of the same old street-races, and as quality “formula” it was spot-on.
Except the character of Han, and the fore-mentioned disruption to the time continuum. See, that’s where things started getting strange. I get what probably happened. They made the third film a completely fresh start – new characters, new country – after what was probably a terrible box office to 2 Fast. They killed Han off (sorry, spoiler… oops) in the third act, even punctuating his death with the appearance of Dom/Vin himself in the final scene, there to pay his respects to his old friend. Whom we’d never met in the earlier films. There was some history there, but we never saw it. Perhaps they thought “oh well, the second film was terrible, we’ll just pump out any old shit for the third, and none of that needs to make any sense”. But then, suddenly, BAM, the third film does well enough that they decide to make a fourth. What do they decide to do? Bring most of the characters back from the other films, even setting it (apparently) earlier so that Han can make an appearance in the first scene.
This is where things get confusing. There’s a really clumsy scene at the start of the (DREADFUL) fourth film, where the team has to go their separate ways – to “lose the heat” after a big heist. Han drops some line about wanting to go back to Tokyo, where “they’re doing all sorts of crazy shit”, or something. It’s a clean-cut out-point for the character – he could happily leave at that point, disappear to Tokyo, where we assume the events of the third film would then play out. No harm, no foul. But NO. What do they do? Bring Han back in the fifth film with yet another clumsy line about needing to get back to Tokyo thrown in. Really? REALLY?!? Then to add insult to injury, Han is clearly seen quite alive and well in the trailer for Fast & Furious 6, still not dead. What the hell? When is Tokyo drift actually going to take place? How many more films will Han keep making his appearance in before he finally goes back to Japan to face his fate?
What those of you who have seen the films are probably thinking at this point is that I should just drop the whole issue of Han and the time continuum and just accept it with the same degree of belief-suspension as I did with everything else dumb in the series. When that petrol tanker bounced over our heroes at the start of FF4, or when Dom and Brian were able to survive that high-velocity fall into the lake at the start of FF5 from a height much greater than the minimum required to commit suicide off a bridge. Or when the super-Marine character played by The Rock in the same film decides – despite being the person most committed to upholding the law in all the world, unlike Brian – to put his badge down for a few minutes, commit a robbery with the crime-team, and murder a man in cold blood for the LOL of it. Or even when I was expected to understand that Brian had actually had enough sex with Dom’s hot little sister so as to get her pregnant, as opposed to Dom himself. (Seriously, there’s far too much pouting and mincing between those two. It’s like Sam and Frodo all over again, only with bigger pecks and slightly less-furry feet.) I should just drop the whole Han-time-issue and just go with it. I should, but I just can’t.
I’m sorta hoping we find out he came back from the dead. Oh, which is another thing this series seems to like to do. I haven’t even mentioned Michelle Rodriguez’ character of “Letty” yet, Dom’s girlfriend in the first film who dies (off-screen) in the fourth film, only to turn up in a stupid cameo-moment in the credits of the fifth. Yeah, so apparently she’s back in FF6… and she’s not happy!
The Fast & Furious movies are a sprawling mess. There are stupid moments in them that are so stupid that afterward you can’t believe you’re still watching. Then, in the next film, they get even more stupid. Your intelligence will be assaulted. Any feminist bone in your body will be slapped around by how brazenly women are positioned as nothing more than extremely toned-thighed car accessories (or, in the case of the hot little sister, guarded over like a meek, unthinking possession). The laws of physics are regularly disregarded, and things explode far easily than they should. But there’s some part of me that loved that just bought it all, hook, line and sinker. I can’t put my finger on it. It’s not like you feel all that much toward the characters – Vin Diesel constantly drawling on about “…cause we’re family…” is about as deep as the emotions tend to run. But where it wins is in the high-octane moments: the ridiculous race-or-chase scenes very snappy and full of genuine tension, and there’s an infectious playful feeling in the action moments that you can’t help get sucked into. Each movie pretty much runs as action scenes split up by plucky comic relief, only spoiled by the occasional attempt at drama, and largely, the combination of action and humour keeps all five films afloat for the greater part.
Would I recommend the series to others?
Maybe. Not as a complete, marathon-worthy set. But a selection? Yes. If you’d never watched one, you could watch just Fast Five and figure out the rest. Or, if you’re feeling adventurous, watch the first and the fifth, or the first, third and fifth. There really is no excuse for watching number two or four. None. They aren’t as bad as Pearl Harbor, but they are both genuinely terrible films, the second so bland I can hardly remember it, and the fourth so boring (and cheap-looking, and, more to the point, for trying to be clever or “a real film” and failing so badly) that there is no other reason to watch them other than “Well, I wanted to watch them all, just like YOU did, buddy”.
We’ve only got a few weeks of work left on Fast & Furious 6 now, and I’ve had a pretty fun time working on a pretty fun bit of the movie. I’ll be seeing it on the big-screen for sure; something I know my 2001 self would be cringing at. I mean, come on... it’s bad enough that I’ve written this many words about the series at all, but to openly, unashamedly say I’m happy to go see any movie with the number “6” after it? Statistically speaking, that’s asking for trouble, whatever universe you live in.
Even if I hadn’t worked on it, I’d have to now anyway – I’ve come so far. And besides: how will I ever be able to watch Fast & Furious 7 if I haven’t seen number six?