I've just watched seven of these films in a row. I'm a little dizzy. I want to put some of my thoughts down while remnants of adrenaline still pump through my veins. This article is going to be long, but I spent more than 900 minutes watching Vin Diesel punch bad guys and drive fast cars, which is pretty immersive. I feel like longform is the only way to go if I am to adequately reflect even a portion of what I've been through.
Because the eighth (eighth!) Fast and Furious film is coming out so soon, some friends of mine decide they want to watch all of its predecessors back-to-back. "Let's spend a whole Saturday on it," they say; "it'll be a transcendent experience." At first I sigh at the Facebook event page and click the "maybe" button. But the idea keeps tugging at my mind. What if this really is a transcendent experience, I ask myself. Maybe I don't want to miss it.
I start reminiscing about the series. I mention this event to other friends and acquaintances, and find myself defending the franchise more often than I'd expected. "It's good," I insist. "Well, I mean, it's problematic, and it's sexually objectifying and it's physics-defying and it's pretty mindless, but at its heart it's essentially a fifteen-hour Mormonad: each of the films is about the importance of spending quality time with your family."
Eventually, I lean all-in to the idea. Not only am I going to join this marathon, I am going to host it. My friends and I make a quick Costco run after work on Friday, gather snacks and supplies, say goodnight, and prepare our hearts and minds for something truly special.
Let me introduce you to these folks for some context.
Jeshua is a coworker of mine. He's a songwriter with a young family, a helpful and fun-loving fellow who's quick to self-depreciate but slow to criticize others. We once had a conversation about how weirdly often Rotten Tomatoes' summaries for various family-friendly movies will include the phrase "cheerfully undemanding," which seems like a hilariously back-handed compliment when talking about a work of art. But for a human being, that's actually a fairly good compliment--and it describes Jeshua pretty well. He's the kind of guy who will start every response to you with an emphatic "yeah!", regardless of whether he's about to agree or disagree with you. He's a huge fan of the Fast and Furious films, and has enthusiastically reminded me every day for the past couple weeks about how great this experience is going to be.
Hayden is also a coworker of mine, and he's in a band with Jeshua. He's a philosophy nerd like me, and we often have long conversations about things like agnosticism, ethics, and identity theory. His wiry frame perfectly matches his studious and non-confrontational personality; he looks like the sort of fellow who loves Woody Allen movies a lot (which, incidentally, he does). He also loves the admittedly lower-brow Fast and Furious films, but has expressed mixed feelings (ranging from excitement to trepidation or even dread) leading up to the big day.
Callan is dating Hayden, and I don't know her as well, but she comes over with him for movie nights; she's proven to be a thoughtful and playful audience, finding something to enjoy and discuss in the profound, in the profane, and in everything in between. I'm not sure if she loves Fast and Furious (yet), but she is open to having a transcendent experience.
Mike is a friend of the aforementioned three, a charmingly sarcastic fellow whose taste in food ranges from children's chicken nuggets to intensely delicious hot wings (which he has reportedly eaten every week for the past several years). I'm not sure what his context is for loving Fast and Furious, but he's way into it: actually he's the one who put this event together in the first place.
And lastly: Jon is a friend of mine who can bring insight and nuance to discussions about the difficulties of international armed conflict while also being able to shout appreciatively during mindlessly violent movies about good guys and bad guys. He's got a consistently amusing caricature of neo-conservativism up his sleeve, available for any given conversation, and he's always able to ramp up his jokes to their logical and emotional limit. His ability to lend momentum and enthusiasm to reckless ideas like "let's watch every Fast and Furious film" is invaluable.
The six of us have gathered with a sense of purpose and resolve today; we are like a motley crew of street racers, cops, and ex-convicts; we are prepared to go through a journey together and come out the other side collectively and individually changed.
We begin at 8:00am.
We distribute cream cheese and bagels, rip open a couple bags of chips/candy, grab a half-dozen cans of soda, settle into our positions on the couch, and press "play."
The Fast and the Furious (2001):
The film opens with a heist scene. Skilled drivers are attacking huge trucks, swerving underneath them and around them and stealing goods. "I'd hate to be a truck driver in this universe," Jeshua remarks. We've hit the ground running: within the first minute or two, the danger already feels refreshingly grounded and realistic, and energy is high.
After the whiz-bang opening, we see a young Brian O'Conner (Paul Walker) ordering a tuna sandwich from Mia Toretto (Jordana Brewster), to the annoyance of a few nearby bros who feel like Brian doesn't belong there and that he shouldn't be invading their space. It's an intimate scene--there's some flirting, some danger, some chest-bumping threats, and eventually even a little bit of a scuffle.
As the tension and the violence in this scene escalates further, Mia's brother Dom (Vin Diesel) is asked to intervene to stop the ruckus. He slowly, almost reluctantly, emerges to settle things down--less like Jesus calming a storm, more like Clint Eastwood coming out of the shadows to lay down [his version of] the law. But then his initial mysterious stoicism quickly gives way to shouting and posturing, and we realize Dom is neither Jesus nor Clint (even though he always wears a cross around his neck, and his guttural growl of a voice closely resembles that of the Man with No Name); instead, he's the alpha male of a wolf pack: he's fiercely protective, hyperbolically testosteronic, and magnetically charismatic.
For a moment here I briefly wonder why this hulking, smirking muscle-man--whose personality couldn't be any more different than mine or my friends'--is attracting so much rapt attention and adoration in my living room. The mood has been set, and at this point it's palpable: we can't keep our eyes off the screen, and all of our ironic commentary seems to have been silenced. But what is it about Dominic Toretto that makes him so feared, followed, and fun to watch? Maybe we want to be like him. Or maybe, underneath all of our social niceties and "following the law" nonsense, we are like him. Or maybe Vin Diesel is just dreamy.
Street racing ensues (of course). The camera dances around cars and actors playfully, even jumping into engines and other parts to show us the machinery at work here. (I don't know anything about cars, so if you wanted a more accurate description of what we're looking at there, I couldn't tell you. According to Clarke's Third Law, and my subjective assessment of how "advanced" automobiles are, this stuff is basically magic.) While, in a way, this scene sets the tone for the whole series, we won't see cinematography quite this playful and rambunctious until maybe four or five films later.
The race is intense, made even more so by the fact that it's Brian's chance to prove himself to Dom--to show that he's a man, too--and to gain the respect of the clan. (He gets his ass kicked, but he soon finds other ways to show his skills and demonstrate his character.)
This first race also plays as an interesting introduction to the franchise's racial politics--or, rather, its lack thereof.
On one hand, there are definitely racially-defined groups, and as the camera swirls around each tribe's huddle, we hear different styles of music playing. It's unclear whether the music is diagetic (audible to the characters in the scene) or non-diagetic (audible just to us). If it's the former, it serves as an indicator of the cluttered and diverse soundscape of street racing; if it's the latter, it's a kind of sonic shorthand for the distinct identities and cultures at play.
But on the other hand, even though these [mostly] racially-defined groups seem to have almost tribal social borders--and even though they often clash with each other economically and philosophically--there's an utter lack of overtly racial tension (and this will continue throughout the series). The sometimes violent divides between groups never directly have anything to do with race. And the main cast of characters--which is in flux for the first half of the series, but becomes fairly constant by the end--is quite diverse. This sort of post-racial cooperation and co-existence is depicted with an almost Star Trek-like of sense of optimism, and that's really beautiful, I think (granted, just about everyone in the main cast seems to be aggressively, insistently straight; but we'll talk more about the films' heteronormativity, and sexuality in general, later).
After the first race, the film turns into a pretty by-the-numbers B-movie about cops and robbers, double-crossers, sex, violence, and alcohol. And it does all of those things exceedingly well--thanks in large part to the strength of its performances and to its sense of uncompromising physicality (during one particularly harrowing action sequence, when a character is in grave danger, I look around the room and see nothing but wide eyes and half-finished gasps; Hayden nervously laughs as someone cries out: "this is nightmarish!" Unfortunately, this visceral, painful reaction isn't really replicated ever again in the series as the films get more and more outlandish and over-the-top).
But, somehow, The Fast and the Furious is more than that. Deep down, this is a film about family: at the 41-minute mark (about halfway through), there's a delightful barbecue scene (which is later echoed in several of the sequels). Guns, cars, and grudges are put aside, and it's made clear: all that matters is spending time with the people you love. Self-consciously hypermasculine bravado gives way to something much healthier: charming smiles, light loving banter, and "pass the Corona." Someone even says grace:
"Dear Heavenly Spirit," stammers Jesse (Chad Lindberg), the anxious genius of the gang. "Thank you for providing us with the direct-port nitrous injection, four-core intercoolers, and ball-bearing turbos. And, um... titanium valve springs. Thank you."
It seems that this film--like many of us, I imagine--wants to have its cake and eat it, too. On one hand, it wants to preach about humble gratitude and peace; on the other hand, it wants to glorify (or at least wink at) consumerist excess and violence. The conflict between those two desires is a weirdly beautiful thing, I think. The result is a surprisingly complicated action flick that's at once both aspirational and self-aware; like Dom Toretto's low grumble, its voice sometimes doesn't seem to know whether it's going for gravitas or machismo.
In sum: The Fast and the Furious is a riveting, intimate, and charming action flick. The chemistry between its leads is unmistakable, and the confidence of its action sequences leaves no room for doubt regarding the question of how this franchise has lasted nearly two deades.
"I really, really liked that," says Hayden. He sounds a little shocked.
It's 10:00am. Spirits are still high, but we all fear that the next two won't be as good. Some of us remember them, while others have only heard stories. We each silently reconnect with the Universe, asking for strength--we say "amen" to Jesse's heartfelt prayer about nitrous injection, four-core intercoolers, and ball-bearing turbos--and put in the next disc.
2 Fast 2 Furious (2003):
Oh boy. Here's where things start to get ridiculous. I'll just get my summary out of the way: the second film takes the series into a bit of a nosedive. Plot-wise, it's more of the same: cops and robbers, criminality and "family." But the tone is more flippant, thoughtless, and mean-spirited. It's not a total loss; a few elements still work, and a few moments are quite effective--but overall, this is a much weaker film. The dialogue is sloppy (why does Brian say "bro" and "cuz" all the time now?), the racing sequences are inappropriately brutal, and the character motivations seem to inexplicably change every two or three scenes.
2 Fast 2 Furious begins with some upbeat hip-hop blasting in the background of a rambunctious and colorful opening sequence. Immediately, everyone in my living room shouts "butts!" There are a lot--really, a LOT--of butts in 2 Fast 2 Furious.
I mean, in general there are a lot of butts in the franchise as a whole. We momentarily consider keeping a tally, but ultimately decide that would be too much work (I like to say that if you turn the sound off, these films could easily be mistaken for a longform documentary about butts), but this specific film is where the butt-centered cinematography really starts ramping up to absurd levels.
So let's talk about sexuality.
It's fair to have mixed feelings here, I think. Provocative dress and sexually charged behavior isn't inherently objectifying or demeaning; there are some really strong, powerful women in this franchise--like the aforementioned Mia, and Letty Ortiz (Michelle Rodriguez)--and they seem to use their sexuality intentionally, as a weapon of sorts to get what they want. However, this is a franchise written and directed entirely by dudes (and based on an article also written by a dude), and the way the camera lingers on female anatomy--sometimes in embarrassingly unapologetic slow-motion--is a perfect example of the male gaze.
So maybe it's not empowerment at all. Or at least, if it is, it's the most limited kind; it's a rigged game (it's like the objectification and infantilization to which Betty Draper subjects herself in the first few seasons of Mad Men; that is, it's empowerment only in the context of systemic misogyny). This kind of "empowerment," in a franchise full of dialogue comparing cars to women and vice versa, is still objectifying: patting yourself on the back for writing "strong women" in a created world like this is probably only as laudable as writing "strong cars" or "strong coffee machines." The women here are objects; they're not treated like agentic, independent forces. They're cogs in a machine (further made worse by the fact that none of the first four Fast and Furious films pass the Bechdel test).
Another note about sexuality: I mentioned earlier how heteronormative these films are. This is illustrated by how the films treat lesbian characters: they're not really characters. They're just background women making out in clubs or at parties. They're fetishized; they exist for the men (in the story and in the audience) to gawk at and to lust after.
There's also a strikingly homoerotic subtext in a lot of the intimate scenes between male characters. This applies not only to intimately "bro-mantic" scenes between friends, but also to intimately bitter scenes between enemies. (It's expected that actors who "face off" during dramatic moments in movies will stand uncomfortably close to each other. A frame only has so much room, and you've got to get your guys to cozy up if you want to get them both in a particularly tight shot. But the Fast and Furious films seem to do this a lot.)
While we're talking about homoeroticism and sexuality: this film did some interesting things with its main villain, Carter Verone (Cole Hauser). He's constantly flaunting his sexual dominance over undercover customs agent Monica Fuentes (Eva Mendes), but he's also always rolling and snipping a huge cigar and carrying a huge gun--I'll let you draw whatever Freudian symbols you want there.
Hauser's performance as Carter makes me think, "he really, really wants to be Matthew McConaughey here, doesn't he."
"I don't know,," my roommate Steven says, after joining our crowd for an hour of the film. "Are you sure it's not just YOU who really wants him to be Matthew McConaughey?"
That's a good question. But to be fair, I want a lot of people--myself included--to be Matthew McConaughey.
The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006):
It's 12:00pm. We bake some chicken strips. We nervously try to excuse the second film, preparing ourselves for the infamously "worst" one in the series. Hayden and Jeshua tell us about a friend of theirs who decided not to come today because Tokyo Drift is the only one he's ever seen. We all complain about him together: "the other ones will be better! And maybe this one isn't that bad anyway," we say, patting ourselves on the back.
We have no idea.
Dom and Brian (the two main characters of the first film, only the latter of which was in the second film) are nowhere to be seen. Tokyo Drift does its own thing. Instead of the characters we know and love, we follow some High School student named Sean Boswell (Lucas Black, who was 24 at the time and trying, unconvincingly, to play a 17-year-old).
Nobody is getting "bored," per se, but we're engaging with this film differently than the previous two. The snarky comments come back in full force.
A friend's puppy comes to my house and we all pay much more attention to the puppy than to the film. The puppy really wants to eat all of our snacks, so we move our snacks to taller tables, which from the puppy's point of view is probably really, really mean.
Sean Boswell befriends a "military brat" named Twinkie (Bow Wow) and a mysterious former racer named Han Lue (Sung Kang). Han's motivations don't make a lot of sense, but we all agree that his hair is awesome and that his performance is the most captivating in the cast.
Racing happens. There are betrayals and outcasts and reversals and "rules to be broken," et cetera. Overall, despite a handful of technically impressive moments, the film is a pretty forgettable ride.
But my friend's puppy is named Sandwich, and she's adorable as hell. Have you ever met a dog named Sandwich?
Fast & Furious (2009):
It's 2:00pm. Sandwich is unceasingly energetic and distractingly affectionate. This is a good thing--puppies should not act aloof; that's what cats are for--but it also means I missed a lot of scenes in the fourth film, simply titled Fast & Furious (Hayden wonders: "did they just name each of these films with no intention of making new ones afterwards?").
Han (from the previous film) is back, and so are Dom and Brian. I'm not sure which scene reveals this, but at some point we learn that one of Han's aliases is "Han Seoul-Oh," which is a hilarious Star Wars reference. Every action franchise needs a hilarious Star Wars reference.
Speaking of Han, in just about every shot he's shown eating something. We wonder aloud why this is the case. He's usually eating chips. Admittedly this makes him look cool and aloof (that is to say, he's not like Sandwich--though she also likes to eat things). It's badass; it's like he's like the Asian Brad Pitt.
Han, Dom, and Brian team up with a few others, and try to take down a very scary Mexican drug lord named Arturo Braga (John Ortiz).
Fast & Furious continues the trend of increasing the violent intensity of car crashes and street races. There's a disturbingly glib attitude about life and death at work here, and it's getting worse. But this rule doesn't apply to main characters--their lives are treated with the most sacred respect and care. Only when there's a minor character (or even worse, an extra or a civilian) in danger does nobody seem to notice. There isn't even any lip service to the collateral damage caused by our heroes' shenanigans. For crying out loud, even the Marvel Cinematic Universe has enough good sense to at least acknowledge (albeit seldom and briefly) the senseless carnage its characters inflict.
But it's becoming more and more clear as the Fast and Furious films evolve: the people you see on screen are chess pieces at best, if not mere scenery. The only ones you're supposed to care about are the big, important ones: the major good guys and the major bad guys. Everything else is irrelevant. It's a video game. There's even a scene that bears an uncannily resemblance to the Wario Gold Mine level of Mario Kart; it's full of tunnels and danger. But, like its counterpart on your Nintendo consoles, the scene ultimately feels harmless. Unless someone with their name on the movie poster is going to die, we are given no reason (other than, you know, being decent human beings) to think or care at all.
I keep thinking of the pod racing scene from The Phantom Menace.
Ironically, while the action in this film gets more and more reckless and thoughtless, the music gets more and more serious. The first film's soundtrack was dated, but full of interesting and vibrant variety (including grimy post-grunge; aggressive nu-metal; proudly crass hip-hop; and fast, flashy electronica). The second film's soundtrack was similar, but leaned more on brash, posturing hip-hop and rap. But by the time the third and fourth films come around we're stuck with maybe 60% bland, temp-track type filler music. It's all atmosphere but no melody; all percussion but no rhythm; all sound but no soul.
The good news: the cinematography is starting to get interesting again. It's not as confident as the first film, necessarily, but there's a lot of interesting colored lighting and some increasingly stylistic choices. Furthermore, there are still delightful family dinner scenes, complete with grace ("thank you, Lord," says Dom, "for blessing this table." Mia gently offers an addendum: "and food, and family," she says, holding Dom's and Brian's hands. "And friendship").
The bad news: I think Callan is falling asleep.
Fast Five (2011):
It's 4:00pm. The fetishization of female sexuality continues. There are a lot more butts. There is a higher body count (I counted three deaths before the 20-minute mark). The franchise's apparent carelessness about life and death and danger continues to intensify.
This is complicated by the fact that Fast Five, for some reason, is obsessed with religious imagery. A lot of helicopter shots of Cristo Redentor, the 124-foot Jesus statue in Rio de Janiero. A lot of extreme close-ups of Dom's cross necklace. There are even a few scenes in which characters are blocked and posed in ways that seem intended to invoke Christian iconography. It's everywhere. Which, again, severely complicates the fact that this film is the series' most violent and callous installment yet.
But, oh wow you guys, what a movie. I think I love it?
I think I'm maybe being beaten into a stupor.
On my little notepad, one of my scrambled notes reads: "CRIME LOOKS FUN IT'S FULL OF TEAMWORK AND FRIENDSHIP AND IT'S ORGANIZED HAPPY FUN TIMES." Is my mind gone? Who am I anymore? Am I having a second faith crisis?
Mike is making hot wings.
Callan is asleep.
Jeshua is still paying close attention. He's very excited.
Jon--who stepped out to get a haircut--has returned and keeps yelling "HELL YEAH" whenever a character says "ride or die" (which, for the record, they say often).
The big supervillain of the hour--Hernan Reyes (Joaquim de Almeida)--delivers a very interesting monologue about the kind of control he craves.
"If you dominate the people with violence," says Reyes, "they eventually fight back--because they have nothing to use. That's the key: I go in and give them something to lose." Reyes continues: "Electricity. Running water. Schoolrooms for their kids." And once the people have tasted a better life? "I own them."
That's impressively sinister, no? And--perhaps on accident--it's sort of an effective illustration of the kind of trap our protagonists keep getting stuck in: they get a taste of peaceful family life, and then when that's threatened, they've got something to lose. So they try to fight back but when they do they inevitably hurt themselves, or each other, or someone else. And if they hurt someone else, that person is going to want revenge, and they've therefore created more problems. If they take out a bad guy, someone worse takes his place. It's American Interventionalism: The Movie, but repeated over half a dozen times and without a shred of self-reflection about its own implications.
Also: it's awesome.
Dom and the gang are able to get the bad guy, escape/evade/corrupt the law, and end up with a ton of money and some peace of mind. But not before a plot twist occurs (which I won't reveal here).
But, perhaps most importantly: Gisele (Gal Gadot!) figures out why Han eats chips so often. It's because he used to be a smoker, and he's got to keep his hands and mouth busy.
In sum: this movie is fine! It's basically The Italian Job, but with more punching and murdering. It's fine. Maybe it's not fine. Maybe nothing is fine. Maybe up is down, and down is up, and I don't have any moral compass anymore, because I've just spent ten hours being trained to sympathize with really reckless and violent criminals (which is apparently easy to do when they seem to love each other and they have cute barbecues and say prayers!).
Fast & Furious 6 (2013):
It's 6:00pm. Sandwich has given up on trying to eat our snacks. Instead, she has decided to alternate between napping, wandering the house, and barking out the window.
Likewise, this film has given up on trying to obey the laws of physics. Instead, it has decided to alternate between absurd action set pieces, "family first" sentimentality, and barking out one-liners--which sound ridiculous on paper, but are amazingly charismatic when said by Luke Hobbs (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson).
Somehow, all of this works. In fact, next to the first one, Fast & Furious 6 is probably the best film in the series.
The music is still almost insultingly bad; it seems to have reached peak mediocrity at this point, full of Zimmer-esque sharp staccato strings and repetitive drums, occasionally punctuated by predictable electric guitar riffs (or, in admittedly clever moments, with rhythmic diagetic gunshots). The music tells you what to feel; if the moment is supposed to be sad, or infuriating, or scary, or happy, then the music never lets the moment breathe long enough for you to interpret the emotion of the scene. It just jumps in and does the work for you.
And the moral questionability of our protagonists is escalating further; a lot of innocent(ish) people meet violent ends just for being in the way. There's no remorse. It appears we are supposed to be beyond feeling at this point--or at least sympathetic enough to our protagonists to overlook such things in the name of "family." Maybe we are.
But despite these flaws, the film still works.
Why does it work?
Does it work because it balances out the higher stakes with some silly humor? Does it work because it sort of stops pretending to take itself seriously anymore? Does it work because it contains a scene with the most healthy and humanizing depiction of sexuality in the franchise so far (it's a heartfelt--and steamy--few moments between Letty and Dom, in which Dom reminds Letty of several memories they'd shared together)? Does it work because it's self-depreciating enough to allow its characters to recognize its tropes (for example, one character notices that the enemy's team consists of very similarly archetypical characters compared to the "good guy team," and he points it out; this moment of self-awareness isn't quite Shaun of the Dead, but it feels like it's on the right track)?
Maybe it works simply because the choreography and set design are incredibly detailed, well-paced, and legible. Maybe it works because the chemistry between the characters is so established by now that this film doesn't have to do any heavy lifting in that area anymore (meaning that the barbecue scene at the very end--which leads up to the end credits with another prayer--plays as uniquely earned and earnest).
Or, simply: maybe Fast & Furious 6 works because the final action sequence, with an endless runway and a truly insane series of airplane stunts, is the most Toy Story 2 thing in live-action history, and it's incredible to look at.
Furious 7 (2015):
It's 8:00pm. Furious 7 is a cold-hearted revenge film (but it's also a quirky heist film, like Ocean's Eleven). Our crew's big nemesis--Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham)--is mad at them because of something they did. Shaw kills one of them and now he's going to try to hunt the rest of them down. He's not likely to stop. So they need to avenge their friend, but they also need to stop Shaw before he creates even more havoc (I know! It's like Watchmen, right?).
There's also a ridiculously bombastic and impressive set piece involving cars flying through skyscrapers. We watch it and a couple of us in the room are instantly, disturbingly reminded of 9/11. "Chris," says Hayden. "Do you realize we just watched two Americans fly a small vehicle through two Middle Eastern buildings? And we applauded." My mind was blown, and I can't decide which is more disturbing: that the parallel imagery could have been on purpose (to say what exactly? That Americans make great terrorists?), or that it could have been overlooked (which would mean, of course, that nobody in the writer's room understood why that kind of set piece could be problematic).
Immediately after the 9/11-ish thing is a scene involving some kind of high-tech super-gadget that would enable absurd levels of surveillance--it's a Patriot Act metaphor, of course, but it's delivered in a way that's even more ethically clumsy (if you can believe that) than in The Dark Knight. This device is only seen as a problem if it's put in "the wrong hands," and precisely zero characters pause to consider whether the group of reckless, destructive criminals we've now been rooting for since 8:00am might--just maybe--be the "wrong hands."
That's about all I'll say about plot. Furious 7 has some incredibly well-choreographed action and it's got some very flashy cinematography, probably the most elaborate since the first film. There's a lot to look at--including more butts (the male gaze stuff is really blatant here--there's even a cringe-worthy scene in which a character calls "dibs" on a female they'd just met).
There's also a lot of doubling down on the themes. "What's real," says Dom, "is family."
The film ends with a fitting, and somewhat touching, tribute to Brian--as Paul Walker had passed away just that year. The gentle piano chords of a hip-hop ballad from Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth fills the room. "It's been a long day without you, my friend," goes the chorus. "And I'll tell you all about it when I see you again. We've come a long way from where we began; oh, I'll tell you all about it when I see you again."
The Marathon Has Ended:
It's 10:00pm. We're not tired. We had bought a large meat-lover's pizza at Costco but, at this point, nobody is hungry. We're all amped up on adrenaline, testosterone, and sentimentality.
"Those movies are better than every other movie," says Jon.
"So. Great," says Jeshua.
No one argues with them.
Callan is awake. She looks at Hayden with a look that says "our bond is stronger now that we've done this; we're better, more enlightened people now; and also, we should get a fast car." Hayden looks back at her with a look that says "hell yes to all of those things, Callan."
Mike buys himself a ticket for the eighth film next Saturday. He encourages us to do the same.
Sandwich, tail wagging happily, goes home to her owner.
My roommate Steven enters the room again. "You did it," he says, clearly a little amazed. "You guys did it." I can't tell if the awe in his voice is reverent or disgusted. Maybe, in this moment, there's no difference.
The Fate of the Furious (2017):
It's one week later. It's 5:00pm. Mike, Jeshua, Hayden, Callan, Jon and I are joined by one of our friends, Jared. He perfectly integrates into our clan as we sit around a table at Red Robin and chat about typical conversation topics: horror films, pornography, and religion. You know, normal stuff.
Hayden and Callan are adorably wearing matching "Corona" t-shirts (Corona is the drink of choice for the characters in this franchise, even though Anheuser-Busch InBev never paid to have the beer appear in the films--meaning that the $15 million of advertising done by these films has been essentially free).
There's a tangible sense of excitement, anticipation, and camaraderie in the air. We've been through an ordeal; together, in the past seven days, we've seen quite a lot of stunts, explosions, fist fights, and NOS.
It's 6:45pm. We are in our seats. The film begins, predictably, with a bombastic street race (in which cars are set ablaze, physics are defied, and respect is earned). There are a lot of gratuitous butt-shots. We all look at each other and mouth the word "butts." We're home.
Dom and Letty are happy. They're in love. There are a few beautiful moments of stasis and joy. But we know, of course, that the peace will soon be disrupted. As I predicted when watching the fifth film, this remains a franchise about the dynamic interaction of family groups as explored through a series of Newtonian reactions; the story revolves around the idea that when you make a mess, the world will push back. How you respond is up to you--but there are consequences to every action.
And in Fate of the Furious, this "ripple effect" idea is made manifest through a new villain, Cipher (Charlize Theron), whose connection to the events of previous films isn't revealed right away--so I'll withhold the details here, to maintain a bit of mystery.
The important bit here is that (at least, as soon as the pieces fall into place), Cipher doesn't feel like an arbitrary, contrived, or "throwaway" villain. She feels like a natural progression of what we've seen before; her contribution to the story--and her cold, anti-family ideology, in direct and symmetrical opposition to our protagonists'--is thematically consistent with the previous seven installments (which is impressive as hell).
In fact, thematic consistency seems to be the biggest takeaway here for me. It's hard to explain why I loved Fate of the Furious so much, but a huge part of it has to do, I think, with the fact that this movie really, really knows what it is. This series remains respectful to the ideals about which it's been preaching (family, loyalty, responsibility, etc) for the past sixteen years.
And this franchise has an impressive level of coherence and consistency not only in its themes, but in its characters, too. The characters' actions always make sense (even when the physical action doesn't), and everything they do ties together in a deeply satisfying way. There are characters whom you don't see for a few scenes, a few hours, or even a few films, who keep finding ways to come back into the narrative in deeply satisfying, logical, and believable ways.
(Russian playwright Anton Pavlovich Chekhov famously writes: "remove everything that has no relevance to the story; if you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there." This has become sort of a law of screenwriting; while some stories (e.g. Mad Men, Game of Thrones, and many of Quentin Tarantino's films) have violated Chekhov's law in impressive and interesting ways, other stories (e.g. Breaking Bad, Hot Fuzz, Signs, and In Bruges) have been noted as excellent examples of why it's powerful to observe the rule. I think the Fast and Furious films are, from a characterization standpoint at least, a great example of Chekhov's gun (or Chekhov's gunman?). If Dom delivers a monologue to Brian in the first film about how driving is all that matters to him--even more than family--and it rings false, then that falsehood is going to come back around in the eighth film, and characters new and old may confront Dom anew, calling into question his honesty, his resolve, and his values.)
But not everything works well in Fate. The music is still boring (as I mentioned during the fourth film, the soundtracks in this franchise seem to have gradually gotten more generic, and unfortunately Fate doesn't reverse that trend). The action set-pieces are still absurd (sometimes in a really, really good way--but other times in a way that feels so cartoonishly over-the-top to be rendered painless, with no sense of genuine danger or risk). And the ever-prevalent use of "hacking" as some stupidly convenient sort of magic is, well, stupid and convenient.
Perhaps most disturbingly, the series' disregard for human life seems to have reached new heights with this entry. Civilian casualties aren't as strongly implied on screen as they've heretofore been, but with even a moment of thought they can certainly be inferred (particularly during a scene in which hundreds of remotely-controlled cars flood a street like a tidal wave of crashing metal and fire). And non-civilian casualties are even more brutal--the film seems to be excusing its violence with a playful but sinister shrug. "They're Russian," it's saying, with numbing intensity and somewhat soothing dismissiveness: "they don't matter." And when one villain is thrown into an airplane propeller, my friends and I look at each other, cringing--but the stranger to my left chuckles: "I just watched Indiana Jones last night!"
Moments after borrowing from Spielberg's Raiders (which is arguably also glib about human life, but perhaps more justifiably so, since its villains were literal Nazis), Fate of the Furious then takes a few moments to borrow heavily from John Woo's films (specifically Hard Boiled and Red Cliff) with a brilliantly choreographed hand-to-hand fight scene (I won't say anything more here--but if you've seen Woo's filmography, you might know what you're in for), before jumping back to the absurdity and chaos of a high-octane James Bond-style chase scene. F. Gary Gray--the director of Fate and a newcomer to the series, replacing James Wan and Justin Lin--has seen a lot of movies, apparently. And it shows. In his action cinematography he may not be as confident as those whose shoulders he's standing on, but he's got a good eye nonetheless, and the chemistry between his cast members more than makes up for any lack in Gray's technical prowess. There's basically no moment here that feels flat.
The film ends with another delightful and warm-hearted barbecue scene. Some newcomers are added to the group, with welcoming embraces, fist-bumps, light banter, and beer (but no Corona! What's going on?). The last helicopter shot pulls away from our little group as everyone holds hands; and, of course, a character offers "grace." It's nice to see the family has continued to grow. I look at my companions in the theater--including Jared, a new addition of our own--and we all smile. Between all the jeers, laughter, excited chatter, and random post-movie discussion as we let the credits roll, something becomes clear:
We're a family now.