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Thursday, June 20, 2024

Eight things I learned watching every 'Fast & Furious' movie in a week

In “The Fast and the Furious” (2001), a dreamy undercover cop named Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker) tries to infiltrate a crew of Los Angeles street racers. It’s basically a dorky movie for car nerds; the film is goofy, charming and relatively small-scale. In “The Fate of the Furious” (2017), those same street racers are taking down a nuclear submarine in the Russian tundra on behalf of the U.S. government. Obviously, the franchise changed in between. What happened? As “Fate” hits theaters this weekend, I took to watching all eight films of this improbable multi-billion dollar franchise in a week. Here’s what I learned.

1. There’s a giant Paul Walker-sized hole in “Fate.”

“Fate” follows the same general formula the franchise perfected in movies five through seven: a job comes up; the family is threatened and high-speed chases ensue. But the absence of Walker, who tragically died in a car accident in 2013, makes this blueprint feel like an empty framework of what it once was.

Walker was always the heart of the franchise. He was dreamy as hell, but dorky, too. His smile was pure joy, and knowingly mischievous. And his evolving relationship with Dom (Vin Diesel) was the most engaging part of the franchise. The tribute to Walker at the end of “Furious 7” was painful and genuinely moving, and the franchise probably should have stopped there.

2. The music and fashion have gotten way more mainstream, and boring.

Part of the joy of the first couple films is how anti-Hollywood they feel. The first movie (also, the best one) gives us a healthy serving of prime Ja Rule tracks. In the most recent film, the action is accompanied by blaring, unrelenting EDM. In “2 Fast 2 Furious” Ludacris rocks an unkempt afro, gold chain and white jump suit; now he wears button-downs and designer watches. The street racing vibe of these movies died as the music and fashion became more bland and less expressive.

3. Races are always awesome, no matter how many times, no matter the stakes.

It does not matter if the race has ANYTHING to do with the plot. If they’re racing for pink slips, it is never not cool. In “Fate,” Vin Diesel literally challenges the dude towing his cousin’s car to a race, and it’s easily the best scene. Even “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift” (the worst movie) is fun when they’re racing for slips. Chases are entertaining, but we learn about the characters’ badassery when they’re going head-to-head. It’s a shame the amount of time they spend racing keeps decreasing.

4. These movies are great because of the people, not the cars.

There are plenty of franchises with car chases, explosions, gunfights and general mayhem. Few have been as durable as this one, and it’s because the movies are fundamentally about the characters, not the cars. From Dom’s love for his family, to Roman’s (Tyrese Gibson) impish apprehension about the missions and Han’s (Sung Kang) constant snacking, the corny sincerity of the weirdos in these films is what makes this tentpole franchise feel personal.

That’s why the tendency to say these movies are getting too big for their own good isn’t quite accurate. It doesn’t matter how big the action gets, as long as the movies make room for its characters to shine. The destruction rises exponentially starting with “Fast Five” (the second-best film), but it’s balanced out by perfect additions, like The Rock. That’s why films three and eight failed: They’re too dependent on the action and forget about the people. Vin Diesel says it best in “Fate": “You know it doesn’t matter what’s under the hood. The only thing that matters is who’s behind the wheel.”

5. These movies are probably a little bit sexist, maybe.

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On one hand, many women in the franchise are reduced to sex objects; in “Tokyo Drift,” one woman literally offers herself as the prize for the winner of a race. The movies have dedicated more than four whole minutes collectively to shots of women’s rear-ends. On the other hand, the movies feature strong, independent, badass women who hold their own, which can’t be said of many blockbusters. So yeah, there’s a little bit of objectification. But on the whole, the movies are getting somewhat better about it as the series goes on.

6. Their "code" is kind of immoral.

As much as ‘family’ makes these movies have heart, Dom’s unqualified devotion to those around him leads to, like, a complete disregard for human life. The family’s adventures often recklessly put the lives of innocent civilians at risk, and there is more than one occasion where Dom puts the life of someone he knows over the guaranteed death of millions of people.

7. These movies were built for global domination from the start.

I don’t know if this was intentional, or if these movies just got lucky, but from the very beginning, "The Fast and the Furious” films were built for global domination. The movies hop all over the world, and the cast has a sort of blasé diversity that’s never flaunted, but always recognizable. These movies put a premium on cultural empathy and multiculturalism (really), and it would be wise for other blockbusters to copy their model. It’s inclusive, and it pays.

8. These movies are undeniably dumb, and relentlessly fun.

When I told people I was watching all of these movies, their faces usually scrunched up in a look of disgust, as if I told them I was getting a Nickelback tattoo or something. There seems to be a consensus out there that these movies stink.

They don’t stink, but they are dumb. The clichés are endless, the writing is terrible and the action sequences are increasingly absurd. But they also never take themselves too seriously. “The Fast and the Furious” movies are unabashed fun, and they don’t care what you think. In a time when most blockbuster franchises are so overly calculated (ahem, Marvel), a film where cars parachute out of airplanes is a blessing, no matter how much prestige it lacks. Movies should be fun, and no franchise maintains a sense of joy that's better than this one.

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