Why You Should Love the “Fast and the Furious” Series

Few people have seen all four of the Fast and the Furious movies.  Yes, there are four of them.  The titles are strange and confusing, so here they are, in order:

  1. The Fast and the Furious
  2. 2 Fast 2 Furious
  3. The Fast and the Furious:  Tokyo Drift
  4. Fast & Furious

The first movie seemed to get the most attention, mainly because it cast Vin Diesel as the leader of a street-racing crew (Dominic Toretto), Michelle Rodriguez as Diesel’s hottie girlfriend Letty (isn’t she a dyke now?), and Paul Walker (a previous no-name but eventual heartthrob for the ladies) as the undercover cop, Brian Spilner/O’Conner.  This first movie, surprisingly, was not the highest grossing movie of the franchise, despite its being well-regarded in the popular zeitgeist.  The latest, Fast and Furious, was the best-performing (although it showed on more screens and movie tickets are probably more expensive in 2009 than in 2001 when the first movie came out), according to boxofficemojo.com.

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The perception of the later movies was that the franchise was dying a little more with each progressive film.  The latest film didn’t seem to be marketed very heavily but it’s performed well by the numbers.  The latest two films have the same director, but the first two had two separate directors.  So the styles can vary quite a bit.

So what I want you to understand is that you should appreciate this franchise.  I know it looks cheesy and it seems geared towards a young high school male crowd.  But what the franchise actually does is provide an overview of the history of street-racing culture and documentation of international affairs issues.

Let me explain.

The Fast and the Furious

The first movie sets out to cover street-racing culture essentially where it became biggest, in Los Angeles.  The culture as proposed by the film is macho in nature, mainly men racing cars against each other for money or for pink slips (car titles, or the ownership of the car) or for the favor of women who are usually dressed in skimpy, bimbo’d out outfits.  Michelle Rodriguez plays a tough mechanic in Diesel’s crew who races cars — she breaks the stereotype.

The cars in this film are mostly import tuners rigged up with NOS (nitrous oxide systems) with replacement engines and pearlescent detailing on the body.  The idea is that you buy a cheap car and kit it up so it can go faster with less weight and at a lower cost than buying a sports car (with the added benefit of being a good example of how open standards and modular equipment can lead to innovation, similar to custom-built PC computers).

Since the setting is LA, the mix of people is diverse:  Vin Diesel and his sister and girlfriend are Hispanic, Walker is a cracker, Ja Rule (a rapper) is black, and there are competing street-racing gangs such as the Hispanics and the Asians (who of course have rice rocket motorcycles).  The shy, wobbly guy in Dom’s crew is a dyslexic kid who is somehow a genius with CAD and rebuilding cars.  If only our school system wouldn’t alienate these hidden geniuses!

The first movie moves at one point to a “Race Wars” in the desert, cognizant of the illegality of street-racing inside the city.

At the end, Dom and Walker’s character chase a shamed Asian gang’s leaders (victim to a Joy Luck Club-like humiliation in the form of an FBI raid while eating dinner with their parents and elders) and then finish in an industrial zoning section of LA.  Dom’s car of choice is an American muscle car, a 1970 Dodge Charger R/T.  He was afraid of its power after his father died while racing it.  Yet he rebuilt it anyway.

This movie is all about the American muscle mentality ultimately, despite the use of Asian tuner cars. (see the cars from this film)

2 Fast 2 Furious

The second film had a ridiculous title, a new director, no Vin Diesel, but Tyrese Gibson as Paul Walker’s counterpart.  The franchise lost a lot of momentum with this film.

But the second film took place in Miami around Miami’s narcotics underworld.  Instead of the LA FBI, this film deals with customs agents, Miami nightclubs, and Miami yachts and boatyards.  Instead of straight-up American muscle cars, there are convertible ragtops. (see the cars from the second film)ff2

Eva Mendes is the requisite superstar hot chick (Dom’s sister in the first film, Jordana Brewster, was hot but not well-known enough) who is an undercover agent herself.  Ludacris, the rapper, is the bankroller for the good guys in this film, and he seems to be friends with this super-hot halfie chick named Suki, who drives a pink ragtop that she designed herself.  Obviously in this film there was more effort to break stereotypes.

This was the weakest of the four films.  John Singleton directed it, and it came off plain.  It took the least risks.

Tokyo Drift

Tokyo Drift is already playing on cable TV.  It is a sleeper favorite of mine.  It was the worst-performing movie of the franchise, but it was just so outstandingly different than its previous films and than other peer films.

Tokyo Drift takes the young cornfed American muscle car driver kid and portrays him as a troublemaker with a broken family who doesn’t respect authority.  He wins a race at the beginning, his muscle car against a Dodge Viper driven by a high school football player.  Winner gets the football player’s girlfriend.  The starting line girl takes off her bra to start the race.  Very American.  But both guys end up totaling their cars so the kid gets shipped off to Tokyo to stay with his Navy dad.  Football player’s a trust-fund kid with a rich dad so he gets off, thanks to connects.ff3

So muscle car American goes to Tokyo (his flight has Japanese businessmen and a bunch of college kids going to Japan for summer vaycay) and starts attending a Tokyo school and of course hits on a non-Japanese girl who ends up being the “Drift King”‘s girlfriend.  He also befriends Bow Wow (a rapper), who’s the only other American in Tokyo because he’s a military brat.

Muscle car American challenges Drift King (DK) to a race.  But the race is within a parking garage and simple drag racing down a straight strip won’t fly.  Dolled-up Japanese girls in knee socks and lots of makeup line the race’s track.

“You wouldn’t have that problem with a V-8.”

“Boys.  All they care about is who’s got the biggest engine.”

“I’m a guy.  It’s in my DNA.  So y’all race with these things, huh?  Cute little toys.”

ff3_2

Thus the American learns about drifting, or detaching your car’s wheels from the road to skid around corners without losing speed, being bankrolled by a rich Japanese guy who doesn’t care about wasting money but is so bored he wants to see something interesting.

What’s cool about drifting in the film is that drifting started in Japan, and it is proper for this racing franchise to pay homage to it.  YouTube has a bunch of videos including the originals of the drifting founder, Kunimitsu Takahashi.  Watch this history of drifting on YouTube:

So the American has to learn to drift in order to beat DK at the end, who is actually son to a Yakuza (Japanese mafia) boss.  The American also has to learn how to drive much smaller cars (Bow Wow’s shows a VW Touran with some punched-out frame work done for a fist-shape effect, delivered out of a Tokyo-appropriate automated parking garage machine).  See the rest of the Tokyo Drift cars.  In the end, the American beats the Japanese guy by drifting…in an American muscle car.

The best part for the franchise?  At the end of the film, Dom makes a cameo at one of the parking garage races.

Fast & Furious, the Fourth and Latest

For the latest film, the original cast was brought back. Dom is on the lam, now raiding fuel trucks in the Dominican Republic and Michelle Rodriguez is trying to get his freedom back and also rebuilds his Dodge Charger (the car which takes on a mythical presence in the franchise).

This time, Dom and Brian (Walker’s character) are going to Mexico to kill/arrest a drug cartel leader who offs Dom’s girlfriend.  The American muscle cars are back, and as this page of Fast and Furious’s cars says, the German-engineered BMWs and Mercedes get destroyed.  No love for them.

ff4

Drivers are getting executed in the desert after making a run through the US border control.  Transporting massive loads of drugs across the border.

For some reason this movie did better than the rest of the films, I suspect because it had the original cast back and people expected it to re-capture the original experience.

So Why Should You Love the Franchise?

The franchise delves into strange law enforcement and black market/underground bedfellows.  It embraces the drug war, cultural and ethnic divides, and other taboo topics.  It also embraces the street-racing and car-modding communities in a way that no other films have come close to doing.  It mashes up old cars and new cars and popular actors, musicians, and unknowns.  It pays homage to Paul Newman and drag racing.

It adapts its franchise to different locations with different cultures and styles.  It wasn’t afraid to go to Tokyo to tussle up the franchise.

It’s highly stylized with quick cutscenes of fuel being injected into a combustible engine with NOS treatment to provide blurry-filmed bursts of speed (sort of an homage to the Three Kings gunshot wound scene).

This film I think defines Vin Diesel’s Hollywood presence moreso than Pitch Black did.  His glowering and growling aren’t easily replaceable.

The attention to detail in cultural differences in locations is remarkable given the pop culture atmosphere of the movies.

Women are portrayed as the educated engineer types, with every movie giving a prominent scene to a female mechanic or gearhead or computer junkie.

The FBI should totally try to use this franchise for recruiting — embracing kids who do questionable things but offer skills the FBI might need.  Maybe it’d be a complete waste of time but the FBI could at least exploit the nominally-positive FBI mood in the franchise.  The FBI is seen as the stereotypical insular, out-of-touch organization, but it’s employing a new generation of kids (think 21 Jump Street or The Mod Squad) in the franchise.

The franchise covers a decade of the American experience at home and abroad.  Drug trades in Miami and Mexicali, kitting and piracy in LA, the art of drifting and expats in Tokyo.  US primacy is no longer unquestioned, as external influences in the form of drug cartels and the mafia exert counter-balancing power against American might and American law enforcement.  The rise of the rest, with Latin America pushing in on America’s borders and Japan’s culture being completely unknown, but not untouchable, to Americans, dominates the tone set by the franchise.

To sum up, there just aren’t many other franchises covering strange subcultures like the Fast and the Furious franchise did.  There’s something unique about this one, despite its goofiness at times.  That’s why you should love it.

[More on the franchise from Mahalo.]

Other Taboo Movie Topics

I explained this amazing franchise to my friend Preetum one time — she’s still skeptical.  But there are other film subjects I will gladly defend with ferocity.  I still maintain that as much as you can make fun of Keanu Reeves (and my buddy MonkeyPope does a hilarious impersonation of him), the guy has a filmography any actor would kill to have:  Point Break, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Much Ado About Nothing, being in a William Gibson book-turned-movie (Johnny Mnemonic), Parenthood, the Matrix trilogy, Dangerous Liaisons, The Replacements, Speed, The Devil’s Advocate, and of course Bill & Ted.  You can’t argue against that résumé.

For that matter, I also think that while the original Matrix was by far the best, the rest of the trilogy is worth watching as a whole summation of parts.

And with that, my nerddom is done for now.

5 Comments

Filed under Anthropology, Movies

5 responses to “Why You Should Love the “Fast and the Furious” Series

  1. daniel

    Bollywood has pumped out at least two (relatively) big budget F&F clones.

    Frankly, I’m more interested in seeing those. Not only do they sing and dance, they sing and dance about having a sequel!!!

    Alas:

    http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/05/08/as-bollywood-strike-continues-desperate-moviegoers-turn-to-fast-furious/

    “We don’t want to see [Fast & Furious], but we don’t have a choice.”

  2. Ben

    Haha, those links are elite. Thanks, bro.

  3. MonkeyMonk

    First of all, I’ve been demoted, but on the plus side, the new name sounds like Marky Mark with a speech impediment and also sounds like muckymuck.
    You neglected to mention that the Matrix sequels are also worthwhile viewing to catch a brief glimpse of a silver Ford Focus in the background traffic of the highway chase scene. That car really elevated the series. Secondly, you know I’m a huge fan of Keanu. He represents the Everyman, albeit with little self-awareness. He’s played every Hollywood archetype in every archetype of a Hollywood movie. Who else, with no ability to act, would be so fearless? He barrels forward, never even acknowledging his naysayers, with an absolute belief in himself. And if he can do that, then any of us can do anything.

  4. daniel

    Just to follow up:

    “A ray of hope has shined on the people of India, who will now have more to choose from at their multiplexes than repeated viewings of “Fast & Furious””

    http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/06/05/bollywood-strike-is-resolved/

    Hooray!

    And, just for the record, I work with one of Keanu’s cousins.

    And a Ford Focus always takes my parking place outside my apartment. Damn you, Ford Focus! Damn you to hell!!!

  5. Ben

    MonkeyMonk, you’re always a Pope in our hearts. How did you get demoted? Your write-up of Keanu is kind. It’s something straight out of FreeDarko’s Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac. The illustration of Keanu would have him as Neo, his eyes bandaged, fighting off movie critic sentries while plowing forward in his virtual actor’s mind.

    Daniel: MonkeyMonk’s Ford Focus was in the second Matrix movie. I know. I don’t believe it either. He tried to point it out to me but I didn’t see it.

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