4 Fast 2 Serious
I’ll bet when he finished principal photography of his 1953 masterpiece, Wages of Fear, Henri-Georges Clouzot didn’t realize his epic suspense drama about desperate men transporting oil across treacherous South American mountains would be condensed into a thrilling, 10-minute prologue for the third sequel to a film most notable for a young, bald thug declaring that he lives his life a quarter mile at a time. Yet here comes 4 Fast 4 Furious 4 Eva, whose tagline promises, “New model. Original parts.”1 The impressive sequence details the brazen highway heist of a gasoline truck by the first film’s antihero, Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel), and his crew of high-speed bandits. Dom’s girlfriend, Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), nimbly assists in the heist — which quickly and predictably spirals out of control — only to be written out of the picture when the screenplay requires Dom to embark upon a vengeance quest. It seems that at least one of the original parts did not come with an extended warranty.
In the course of his “investigation” — in true revenge flick style, this mostly consists of beating and killing thugs until they give him the name of the man who gave the green light to whack Letty — Dom crosses paths with Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker), the man who destroyed his very comfortable criminal life in L.A. five years previous, and who is now working with the FBI on a drug smuggling case. Brian apparently impressed the Bureau quite a bit in 2 Fast 2 Furious, in which the then-federal fugitive took down a drug smuggler with the aid of his smoldering blue eyes, some pimped-out automobiles, and Tyrese Gibson. Formerly a cop from L.A., and hunted by the law for helping Dom escape justice at the end of The Fast and the Furious, Brian’s impressive work — which included jumping a car into a boat, Dukes of Hazzard style — was evidently awesome enough for the Feds to overlook his maverick antics and criminal history, and make him an agent under the direction of C. Thomas Howell. Howell has adopted a scenery-chewing style akin to that of Powers Boothe, biting off small chunks with an ironically authoritarian growl and “I Survived the 80s” swagger. In short order, the Dom and Brian team up undercover, sniffing out the culprits responsible and causing a great deal of collateral property damage in the process, on both sides of the U.S./Mexico border.
Fast & Furious is not technically inept. Tinseltown glitz and workmanlike professionalism can’t energize a daft melodrama, but at least you can keep track of the cars’ spatial relationships while they’re in motion. Director Justin Lin and screenwriter Chris Morgan are a little enthralled by the dubious heft of the franchise’s mythos, and relate to the characters and their posing as if every pop of the clutch or twitch of a lower eyelid carried great import. This self-seriousness is a bit amusing. When Dom kills a bad guy by driving a muscle car right into his chest, pinning him against another car wreck, he can’t even muster a satisfying, 80s-era one-liner. He just spits, with Diesel-fueled contempt, “Pussy.” Really? Not even, “I grilled him.” Really? Lame.
Among the things Fast & Furious tries so hard to get right, the history between Dom and Brian (the burned and the burner) is treated with absurd respect. While the second film downplayed the deep (seriously deep) iron-jawed male relationships established in The Fast and the Furious in order to focus on a new cast that catered to its garish, fly-by-night cash-in aesthetic, the third film, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, dispensed with the consequences of those stories entirely, moving the action to a whole new country, with a coda thrown in as an afterthought, purely to justify including the film in the Fast and the Furious franchise at all. Irrespective of how much each sequel had to do with another, audiences shelled out greenbacks; apparently, inconsistencies in tone and the absence of original stars or characters were less important than the glamour of underworld nightlife and a fetishization of speeding automobiles that would put Mad Max Rockatansky to shame. Ignorant of the fact that its cast members are interchangeable and expendable, bringing the first film’s solemnity back to the series negates what made the airheaded sequels so numbingly watchable.
Since The Fast and the Furious, Walker has evolved considerably as a performer and leading man, with impressive star turns in Running Scared and Into the Blue. Even 2 Fast 2 Furious benefited from an unheralded burst of confidence from Walker; the idiotically-titled sequel may not have taken itself as seriously as its progenitor, but it was ridiculously energetic, and that braindead vivacity was carried over into the car sequences in Tokyo Drift.2 Even that film was more functional as car porn than Fast & Furious, which seems to regard its protagonists as more watchable than the vehicles everyone came to see flip over, crash into each other, and blow up real good. Walker’s personality is more attuned to this brand of campy gearhead fanservice, and the tragic mistake of Fast & Furious is that it didn’t put him behind the wheel.
With so much screen time devoted to Walker whining unbearably about being cheated out of a racing victory, or taking a shocking beating from Diesel (to surprisingly little physical effect), it seems that Lin blew the majority of his budget on the diabolical opening sequence. As competent as the car chases are — and there’s even a halfway decent foot pursuit early on — long, looooong stretches devoted to “plot advancement” or “character development” drag on and on toward a too-distant vanishing point.
Brian’s unresolved romance with Dom’s sister, Mia (Jordana Brewster), is no more compelling now than it was in 2001, while the unresolved issues between the menfolk are resolved with the typical cocktail of punches, threats, car-fixing, and other emblems of Gen-Y bro-ery. Laboring under the impression that Vin Diesel’s name still carries some weight, the narrative defers dominance to, well, Dom, who surely has an emotional stake in avenging his slain damsel, though the cocked eyebrow and nose-bridge furrows of mild consternation with which Diesel contemplates the spectacularly cold-blooded execution of Letty is no discernibly different from the way in which he might contemplate a plate of hash browns. I get that Dom Toretto is an imperturbable badass, but he is not interesting to watch. More’s the pity, since the film reduces Walker to the bucket-seat bitch we barely remember from eight years ago.
In the end, the Bro Code wins out (of course). The final frames promise a thrilling prison break not unlike the one at the climax of Howell’s own The Hitcher, only to leave us with the final image that met that henchmen in his final moments — the grill of a car, cutting short what could have been a bookend sequence to rival that awesome prologue. Except I know that, following the meta-smush preceding the end credits, there is no cheesy, wonderful one-liner. Just more empty, masculine bonding rituals and long stretches between feats of man/machine coordination that testify to the reason we should care about the fates of these antiheroes in the first place. That’s part of the problem when your original parts weren’t all that original.
Audiences seem to get something from these movies beyond the thrill of seeing cars travel at photonic speeds. There must be a mad allure of the lifestyle depicted in these films, of macho men living at the upper edge of their odometers. And make no mistake: it’s a man’s world. Besides a few passing nods to marginal female characters, like Brewster’s Mia, the only part women have to play in the world of the fast and the furious is to make out with each other, worry over their manly men, or drop the handkerchief at the outset of each street race.
The role of femininity in the cinema of angry young men has, against all odds, regressed since the days of poodle skirts and sock hops, when greasers raced down cement drainage culverts or played chicken with a cliff’s edge for the sake of teen pride. The only difference is that instead of sporting cardigans and ruby lipstick and answering to “hey, dolly,” today’s “bitches’” lips glow neon as they strut about in what amounts to lingerie. Lin is no Nicholas Ray or Tony Richardson, but glorifying the vices of reckless driving and theft and galvanizing anomie into a masculine code of honor, however ineptly presented, must resonate with $136 million (and counting) worth of moviegoers. Those tickets must be very lucky indeed, even if they do symbolize a new era of devil-may-care burnout, smoldering with the acrid smell of high-octane petrol at the bottom of a L.A. ravine.
Edited by Brian Jewell.
- The official name of the film is Fast & Furious, which resulted when an aggressive ampersand viciously assaulted the name of the first film in the franchise, The Fast and the Furious, and usurped its articles and conjunction in flagrant violation of UN resolutions. ↩
- Coincidentally, Tokyo Drift has about as much to do with the characters and wannabe legend of the first two films as Halloween III has to do with its precursors. ↩