Furious 7 is zooming into theaters today. Yes, that was a car-related pun. If you're not into such cheesiness, you should probably steer clear of the latest installment in the Fast and Furious franchise.
On the other hand, if you're willing to suffer through dialogue that would elicit scoffs from an Actor with a capital A, and you don't mind putting up with some gratuitous shots of mini-skirt-clad women, and you like really exciting things that go really fast, well, this will be one hell of a ride.
When I first saw the original The Fast and the Furious (the censored version on TNT) I thought it was the most awesome film I'd ever seen. I was 12.
But here's the thing: Now I'm 24, and that's still the best word for this franchise. Awesome.
Say what you will about the caliber of acting or the believability of the storylines. And yes, I know the titles are cringe-worthy. (In college, my friends and I once tried to come up with as many antonym-titled alternatives as we could: The Slow and the Circumspect, Plodding and Thoughtful — you get the idea. We were very cool.) The one guarantee you get when you watch Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and his team for two hours is this: You will be entertained.
In the first film, you get a to-the-wire, quarter-mile race between Dom and Brian O'Connor (the late Paul Walker) that culminates in the two cars barely scraping past a rumbling freight train. In the fourth, the climactic action sequence features a Mad Max-esque scramble across the desert, skull-adorned cars and all. And the sixth movie truly goes all out, treating viewers to a haywire sequence in which our heroes literally harpoon a plane filled with bad guys, managing to pull it back to earth and speed ahead of the resulting, fiery crash.
Like I said: Awesome.
In preparation for the franchise's latest installment, I planned to re-watch every movie in the series. And, in the name of journalism, I vowed to knock out all six films over the course of a week and then write about it. (I wound up watching five very fun movies from start to finish, but only 35 minutes of the series' one black mark: Tokyo Drift. I may be an adoring fan of the franchise, but even I'm not willing to sit through that mess of a movie more than once.)
Dated cars, antiquated cell phones, and bizarre fashions aside, the original The Fast and the Furious still holds up well. It feels like a Sublime music video, all orange-tinted Los Angeles and early millennium malaise. Fight sequences don't yet feature two comically strong baldies duking it out; instead, we get Brian scrapping in the street over a girl. And the racing scenes themselves are arguably more realistic in this movie than in any of the others. Part of that is because the film dedicates a lot more screen time to them, and we see just how addicted Brian and Dom are to the adrenaline rush of racing.
If the first film is high school, 2 Fast 2 Furious is college spring break, right down to the Miami setting. The film obviously has more money backing it, upping the cool factor by replacing a Ja Rule cameo with an actual part for Ludacris, who first appears sporting this impressive afro:
But here's what the second movie gets wrong: There's no Dom. Brian is instead paired with old buddy and self-proclaimed bad boy Roman Pearce (Tyrese Gibson). The pair have good patter, but without Dom hailing the importance of family and Sunday barbecues, we lose some of our investment in the characters. What the movie gets right, though, is upping the ante on the first film's action sequences. Gone are two cars racing each other for mere glory (although there is a nifty scene in which Brian flips his car around to race backwards along Miami's crowded highways). Instead, Brian rockets his car off a pier, smashing it onto a yacht speeding away, and effectively nabbing the villain.
Next up: Tokyo Drift. This abomination is poisoned by 30-year-olds playing teenagers, CGI that looks like it was last used in 1990, and Bow Wow. The only redeeming character is Han (Sung Kang), who blessedly gets a chance to redeem himself in future films.
And then there's episode IV: Fast and Furious. It's nobody's favorite. TheWeek.com's entertainment editor critiqued it as "overly serious." My roommate called it "the boring one."
They're right, but Fast and Furious is also necessary. It introduces us to the more finely edited sheen through which the next two movies entertain. And the fourth flick gets back to the formula that works so well: Enter with huge action sequence, move on to comments about families and team so we theoretically care about the characters, and finish off with an outrageous twist that our anti-heroes did not expect — one that pulls them back into the underworld for "one last ride."
Herein lies the only request the actors make of us moviegoers: Suspend your disbelief. Do that, and they'll take care of the rest.
They do it best in Fast Five, easily the series' top film thus far. It's the perfect balance of mind-bending action sequences, the introduction of Dwayne "Franchise Viagra" Johnson, and an immediately iconic one-liner from Dom (jump to 1:30).
Fast & Furious 6 begins to veer dangerously close to Expendables-level fluff. Instead of driving away from the police or toward millions of dollars, the team is pitted against another crew of outlaw drivers — terrorist outlaw drivers. And the reason for the operation is that Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) is not dead after all, despite a pretty cut-and-dry funeral scene in the fourth movie suggesting otherwise. There are too many players, not to mention a painfully bad performance by former MMA fighter Gina Carano. While her addition gives Rodriguez a formidable opponent for several bruising beatdowns, her lines are delivered so badly they make The Rock look like Laurence Olivier. Don't get me wrong: It's still a fun film, but it makes you worry a bit that we've lost the magic captured in Fast Five.
So, what did I learn watching six car-racing movies (well, five and a third) in a single week? First off, it's obvious that our Fast and Furious actors are in on the joke. From The Rock spoofing his role on SNL to Paul Walker muttering "Sorry, car" as he tears through a street race, you get the sense that they know they're in an over-the-top, purely-for-entertainment franchise. They're having fun. And as a result, we have fun, too. They know they're not making art. This is popcorn. (The exception may be Vin Diesel, who told Variety that Furious 7 "will probably win best picture at the Oscars, unless the Oscars don't want to be relevant ever.")
Now, there's always a risk when you return to movies or music or books from your past. Often, you find they don't hold the same appeal they once did; that you've grown up while they've stayed the same. It can be a disappointing realization, to suddenly feel critical of a once-loved comfort. When you start with a movie as ridiculous as The Fast and the Furious, the chance of such an emotional transformation is much higher. So I was happy to note, as I made my way back through the films, that I still find them just as enjoyable — and just as worth defending against their high-brow critics — as I did when I was a nerdy teenager.
When I was a kid, I think I appreciated them on a more genuine "these movies are the epitome of cool" level, whereas now I crave their escapism. But does it really matter? At the end of the day, we're all just watching a bunch of cars drive really fast. Thinking too much about the message or reason ruins the fun.
So in that spirit, allow me to end not with some very thoughtful, deep sentiment about how these movies have grown up with me, entertained us as a country at times when we dearly needed a light-hearted escape, and persevered in a way in which few franchises have been capable of doing. Let's keep it simple, as is the Toretto way. Here's my list of the best to worst installments in the franchise. I'll see you at the theater this weekend, and we can debate where Furious 7 belongs.
1.) Fast Five
2.) The Fast and The Furious
3.) Fast & Furious 6
4.) Fast and Furious
5.) 2 Fast 2 Furious
6.) Tokyo Drift