FAST AND FURIOUS: The Strange Tale of the Third Wave Action Franchise

The Fast and the Furious holds a special place in my heart for many reasons. It was one of the first action franchises that I could really say belonged to my generation, and I remember seeing it multiple times in the theater with my high school buddies, with much bonding over the atrocious acting and dialogue. It was sort of a flashpoint for my entry into older and more venerable action franchises. Most of all, and this remains true to the day, The Fast and the Furious is the only franchise series that I have, from start to finish, viewed in the theater. More than one acquaintance has brilliantly remarked that it’s my generation’s Police Academy, and though I’ve never seen any of those films, the comparison seems apt.

So I’ve always had an intense fascination with the series, even though the bulk of the franchise reads like direct-to-DVD capers with slightly bigger budgets. It’s a bit staggering to think back to the summer of 2001, when major summer blockbusters could be conjured out of thin air. Though Paul Walker had appeared in supporting roles in lots of late 90s teen fare (Varsity BluesSkulls, etc), Vin Diesel was probably the film’s biggest star at the time. After writing and directing a few films that failed to get noticed outside of the festival circuit, Diesel had small supporting roles in Saving Private Ryan and Boiler Room before his breakout role as Riddick in Pitch Black. 

Like Riddick, Diesel’s Dominic Toretto is film’s star, even though Walker is ostensibly the protagonist. There’s something strangely compelling about Diesel in this role. Perhaps its the way he manages to seem completely unintimidating despite his stature (maybe it’s because his shaved head and baby face make him look a little like a muscular infant), or the completely canned way he rattles off lines from the script, which makes sudden moments of dramatic exclamation all the more hilarious (“NOS!!!!!!”) Above all, Toretto is the glue that binds the concept of the first film and all its sequels, together: a band of blue collar outlaws with hearts of gold, for whom family is everything.

Fast and Furious is the most contemporary reading of the franchise action flick in existence. It’s comprised solely of multi-ethnic, working class heroes who excel despite having the odds stacked against them. Characters are computer geniuses without ever having attended college, mechanical experts without any sort of concentrated schooling. In short, it’s a franchise about the new vision of the American dream: multi-racial badassery tied in with the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality that defines the fictional American character. In many ways, it feels like the action film for the 99%, as told by millionaire film executives.

Stranger still, but undeniably delightful, is the way that the franchise’s many directors have managed to mutate the series to perfectly reflect the relevant moment for each film. Each movie feels like a distinct slice from a different moment in the Hollywood chronology, a product of each film being released as a big summer tentpole: the guest stars, soundtracks, featured cars, and locales all reflect a particular moment in the timeline of flicks that go boom. As the series progressed, and most notably as director Justin Lin took the reins, the films began a slow transformation into a finely tuned fan service machine, perfectly calibrated to satisfy the cravings of each Fast and Furious loyalist. This formula reached peak perfection with Fast Five in 2011 (I just realized that this franchise has spanned over a decade. That’s mind-blowing), which found all the fan favorites from every iteration reuniting for a giant, Ocean’s 11-esque heist in Brazil, and threw in Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson for good measure. Similarly, the tone of the films gradually shifted from overwrought, 8th-grade style melodrama to lighthearted but badass capering. The films aren’t any more or less stupid or unbelievable than what Michael Bay’s been cranking out for the last few years, but Fast and Furious somehow feels more innocent and playful, and lacks all of the insulting cynicism and aggression that’s come to popularize Bay’s recent work.

I consider myself as big of a fan as the Fast and Furious franchise as one can find, however, I’m hard-pressed to recall plot details, or even broad overall strokes, from each film. In fact, it would be very easy for me to forget, without certain publications and critics, that the chronology of the series is incredibly fractured, no doubt due to the fluctuating popularity of the franchise (when characters who were killed off suddenly become available, the easiest way to solve it is to go back in time). For those who are curious, the events of the Fast and Furious timeline fold out like this (order in series is noted in parentheses):

1. The Fast and the Furious (1)

2. 2 Fast 2 Furious (2)

3. Fast and Furious (4)

4. Fast Five (5)

5. Fast and Furious 6 (6)

6. The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (3)

It’s hard to say what it is about these films that keeps me, and scores of others, coming back to them time and time again. They aren’t particularly good stories (in fact, most of them are downright bad), and the acting ranges from “passable” to “atrocious”, but there’s something comforting in the simple (sort of), homespun (kind of) quality of the F&F gang. Deep down, don’t we all kind of wish real life were this way? That we might be able to pull ourselves up from impossible odds to beat the bad guys with all of best friends, who we’ve known since we were kids and who we stuck with ’til the end? Sadly, that part of the franchise may be the most fantastic thing in a franchise that once featured souped-up cars dragging bank vaults through the streets of Rio.

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