I’m a young guy – I was just 9 in 2001 when the first movie in the series, The Fast and the Furious, came out. Being neither a car nor racing enthusiast, it’s a series that I really never got into, and I always felt like it was a strange cultural phenomenon in that it’s a series of movies that has been incredibly financially successful despite four movies that all got pretty universally mixed to negative reviews. In watching the films for the first time (I mainlined the first five films of the series this past weekend, with the sixth to come in the near future and the seventh to follow), I had a few thoughts.
It’s easy enough to say that the movies are just dumb action movies with little substance, but in my marathon of the films it became very apparent that it’s a series that has had significant improvement. A key factor in this is the growth of the actors over the life of the series. Stars like Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, and Jordana Brewster can command a fair amount of respect in their more recent performances, but in earlier films in the series … Not so much. Walker especially showed incredible growth as a performer over the life of the series. In the first two movies, playing a detective/FBI agent/wanna-be do-gooder, he was never really believable. But, when they started writing to Walker’s strengths, and letting him do a little bit more of the things he’s good at, he began to really shine.
As for Vin Diesel, what’s to say that hasn’t already been said? He’s truly the core of the franchise – every moment he is on screen is improved by his presence. However, with that said, it’s very easy to see that even he has shown great growth from 2001 to today. His performance in 2001 was above the standard for the series, but today he is able to act at the same level as superstars like Dwayne Johnson and that growth shows.
Much of the improvement of the series is owed to director Justin Lin, who ushered the films from a series of one-off installments to a finely-tuned action series. His first movie in the series, 2006’s The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, is a dismal one in my opinion – arguably the worst of the series. The blame for this largely lies in the lackluster lead performance of Lucas Black, about as uncharismatic a lead performance as I can recall in a recent film.
However, Tokyo Drift did have a couple of factors in its favor: A unique and interesting setting that sets it apart from the previous movies in the series, and stellar direction by the aforementioned Lin. Additionally, Sung Kang’s Han-Seoul-Oh (Han Solo – get it?) was such a great addition to the series that they would keep him around for more. In continuing to direct the series, Lin has kept these additional features, and embraced the true nature of the franchise as a multiracial Ocean’s Eleven with car chases instead of casino heists. Making the series from the fourth movie on a collection of ensemble features has been a great move, allowing more and more personalities to contribute to the melting pot. Settings like the Mexican-American border, Rio de Janeiro, etc, have allowed the series to introduce different and interesting new elements in each film.
Another great move? Sidelining the street racing element of the series. Sure, it’s still absolutely there, but by shifting the focus of the series, Justin Lin was able to turn a series of car races into something more.
Of course I’d be remiss if I were to talk this much about the series without at least mentioning Luke Hobbs, AKA Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson. The Rock is a fantastic actor – not just for a former wrestler, but for anyone. His past experience hosting Saturday Night Live has proved him to be a game performer with a great sense of humor. His wrestling experience provides him with all the charisma one could ever ask for. His performance in Fast Five steals the show, and it was truly inspired casting to bring him in to the series. In his role as sometime adversary, sometime partner-in-crime, he is able to give the series a dynamic that Paul Walker never was able to early on in the series. Plus, he’s just a badass.
Another point in favor of the series is the way in which the series has embraced diversity. Sure, Paul Walker is as plain, milquetoast, and WASPY as they come. But what other series has a cast with multiple Latinos, multiple African Americans, East Asians, Koreans, Puerto Ricans, etc?
In fact, to that point the series has also done an above average job of writing interesting female roles. In a typical adrenaline-and-testosterone based franchise like this, one might expect the women to all be boring femme fatales and love interests. The Fast and the Furious embraces that women can be badass too – Letty Ortiz (as played by proven badass Michelle Rodriguez), Gisele Yashar (Gal Gadot), and Elena Neves (Elsa Pataky) have all subverted stereotypes and managed to be hot women who also are able to kick ass in their own respective ways. Even Mia Toretto (Jordana Brewster), stereotypically written as she was in the early films of the series, has managed to get in on the action
I can’t say that the movies have come so far as to being great movies; at best, they’re above average, well-directed action films with a great ensemble cast. The writing still kind of lacks for depth (though the comedic bits have improved), and the series has coasted by on similar themes and stories in each movie. But it’s grown into a really fun series to watch, and it’s one that I look forward to seeing more of even despite the untimely passing of Paul Walker.
Luke Hobbs: Hey Toretto, you’re under arrest
Dominic Toretto: I don’t feel like I’m under arrest… How about you, Brian?
Brian O’Conner: No, not a bit. Not even a little bit.
Luke Hobbs: Oh, give it a minute, it will sink in.