In 2001, Universal Pictures delivered the car-racing, screen-stealing action flick The Fast and the Furious, intent on launching the career of the pretty boy Paul Walker and continuing the upward trend of the gravelly-voiced hulk Vin Diesel. After a strange step away by Vin Diesel in the out-of-sequence sophomore outing and the out-of-sequence Tokyo Drift, Diesel returned in the third and hasn’t looked back since. And now, we’re just days away from a sixth adrenaline-infused outing that looks to defy anything you’ve expected from it before, while banking on the multi-ethnic, comic, dramatically thrilling stunt show that anchors in the real-life action rather than in CGI “cheating.” So, how’d we get here?
In the original, Walker’s Brian O’Conner goes undercover with the gang of Dom Torretto (Diesel), who oversees a crew of illegal street racers who moonlight as semi hijackers. O’Conner falls hard for Torretto’s sister, Mia (Jordana Brewster), under the watchful eye of Torretto’s girlfriend, Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), Torretto’s “little brother, Jesse (Chad Lindberg), and Mia’s ex-boyfriend, Vince (Matt Schultze). But O’Conner’s bosses turn up the heat on the investigation after he points the finger at the wrong racer, Jonny Tran (Rick Yune), and the net closes in on Torretto’s crew. A shoot-out, a car/bike chase, and a speeding train all lend themselves to ten minutes of action that best be seen, not read about. Overall, this one is a 9 out of 10 for action and pithy quotes like Torretto’s life mantra: “I live my life a quarter-mile at a time.”
The opening of the sophomore follow-up from 2003, 2Fast2Furious, throws a barrage of actors who are now hot names, like Michael Ealy, Ludacris, Amaury Nolasco, and later, the rapper-turned-movie star Tyrese Gibson. Here, the fugitive O’Conner is responsible for infiltrating an Argentinian drug lord named Verrone (Cole Hauser) with his ex-con buddy Roman (Gibson), as they follow the path blazed by Customs Agent Monica Fuentes (Eva Mendes). The set-up from the first one has been established as a trend: we’re watching a thrilling car-driven (no pun intended) actioner that mixes race, gender, and style as long as the people are pretty and the chemistry works. But they’ve stepped up the conflict from local and gang-related; now, it’s taking on the mob, and the Diesel element is no longer present. Gibson is no Diesel, but he holds his own (and looks more comfortable than he does running around against a CGI screen in the Transformers series). Verrone is a bad man, as proofed by his rat scene with Mark Boone Jr. (Sons of Anarchy) but this one has its fair share of humor, too (ejector seats, anyone?) The window is bigger but the outcome remains the same: it’s all about the race for freedom!
The Fast & the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006) appears out of sequence, as it’s supposed to happen after all of the others. It was received poorly at the box office and critically, without the star power of Diesel, Walker, or… anyone else. But it did bring in director Justin Lin, who has booted the series back into stunt driving heaven. ‘Nuff said.
Fast & Furious (2009) finds Torretto and his crew hijanking tanker trucks in the Dominican Republic but when they encounter too much trouble, Torretto breaks up the queue. Letty is gunned down by a drug-running street racing crew that O’Conner is also investigating, and suddenly Torretto and O’Conner are back at odds and working against the same common enemy, Arturo Braga (John Ortiz). While this one has more of the sense that the original did, with more racing and less blah-blah-blah, it’s just a subpar movie compared to some of the others. Sure, we can appreciate the opening scene and the final race through the tunnels, but in between, this feels like any other heist movie, and not a particularly good one. But Walker and Vin Diesel are back in the center of the screen, and that makes for better stuff all around.
Fast Five (2011) is quite possibly the best of the lot, yes, even better than the first. After O’Conner and Mia land in Rio de Janeiro, they join up with Vince (who has been hiding out there since the end of the first film) and Torretto to steal some cars. But the car they steal rides in the drug war between drug lord Herman Reyes (Joaquin de Almeida) and Diplomatic Secret Service agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson). Which sets up a wonderful beefy meathead versus beefy meathead battle royale between Diesel and the Rock. Let’s see what Lin has cookin’!
The skydiving stunt at the beginning has awesome written all over it. But it’s the first in a long sequence of spectacular stunts as Lin’s crew ramps up the non-CGI action here. The crew goes after the drug kingpin’s money, and that truly ramps up the rest of the film. It has an Ocean’s Eleven-meets-The Italian Job feel to it, given that the crew continues to blossom, the violence is cartoonish (most of the time), and the humor is fast and loose in physical humor and one-line barbs exclaimed between characters. But it also throws out conversations between Torretto and O’Conner about fatherhood (yep, Mia is preggers), showing that it’s family-related AND that even in this fast-and-loose series, that they know some growing up is necessary.
Fast & Furious 6 (2013) shows that Lin, Diesel, et al. have a sense of humor. How else could you appreciate a film that includes a battle with a tank or a car chase-flying-from-an-exploding-plane as we’ve seen in the trailer? And how about the return of Letty, as both a ploy and a major question for Torretto? What will “family” look like when Rodriguez and Haywire’s Gina Carano are done beating the heck out of each other? I’m betting on seamless energy, amazing stunts, and double-doses of humor and entertainment.
Where else can you see a multiethnic battle of wills, where race and financial status aren’t what determines who is good and who is evil? Where else can you see men and women fighting for family (and not just sex) to make their way in the world and establish their identities? I’m not saying its great theater or that the films would be half what they are if you sucked out the great stunts, driving, and base backbeats, but please, did you see this one turning into a trivia question about movies that have delivered more than three films successfully at the box office?
Torretto is the godfather of a crime family you find yourself cheering for. Death before dishonor might be what they claim for themselves, but it’s more along the lines of family before isolation or community over individualism. It’s a strange blend because the racers themselves are vying for position, to be the best, the fastest, the boldest, but they constantly attribute their strength to what they hold in common: their value of loyalty above all.
We’ll see what Friday adds to the mix but for now, you have time to kick back and catch a few thrilling chases, a couple of life-defining lines, and a sense of adventure that’s contagious.