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Non-Review Review: The Fast and the Furious

I’m rewatching The Fast and the Furious for a separate project, as solidarity with fellow film critic Jay Coyle for his “Cinema of Experience” project to look at the changing face of cinema in the twenty-first century. He’ll be writing up his account of how the experience of watching movies has changed in the past twenty-or-so years, but I found my rewatch of The Fast and the Furious interesting enough to write a longer-form review of it.

The Fast and the Furious is a curious piece of work, especially in the light of everything that followed.

From the opening scene through to the climactic setpiece, The Fast and the Furious is very much framed as an urban western, a tale of conflicted masculinity within an urban wasteland that might as well be lawless. Street racers serve as traffic cops at one point, blocking civilian cars from the predetermined race track without any interference from actual law enforcement. Towards the end, Dom Torreto seeks to evade the law by outrunning a train to a train crossing, one of the classic high-stakes western set pieces.

More than that, the introduction of Dom Torreto in The Fast and the Furious is very much meant to evoke the introduction of a western protagonist. He is first seen from obscured angles, glimpsed from behind and through a wire mesh. His presence is felt at a distance, an island of calm in a chaotic world. Torreto is introduced as an outlaw who seeks peace in a world that is constantly at war. This is perhaps a canny approach from a scripting and directorial perspective, acknowledging Vin Deisel’s strengths as a screen presence. Torreto’s first act is to break up a street fight outside the little restaurant stall operated by his sister.

Released in June 2001, The Fast and the Furious is one of the last action films of the nineties. It is a snapshot of a nation still paranoid about street gangs and boy racers, of urban decay and social collapse, of the apocalyptic notion that Los Angeles is the final frontier of the nation’s westward expansion. Explored in hindsight, these were perhaps more innocent times.

In that context, existing right at the end the long nineties, The Fast and the Furious feels almost uncanny. This is particularly true when measured against the films that followed. The core cast (Diesel, Rodriguez, Yune) reflects the diversity that the franchise would come to be known for, but the supporting cast is appreciably less diverse. Tellingly, Torreto’s first “found family” seems composed primarily of white actors; Chad Lindberg, Johnny Strong, Matt Schulze. It is one of the more subtly dissonant aspects of the film, approached through the lens of the seven (plus) sequels that would follow.

This awkwardness is reflected in certain other choices that reflect the weird space that The Fast and the Furious occupies. There are multiple reminders of the film’s uncomfortable turn of the millennium cultural context. Less than a decade after the Los Angeles riots, a street gang participate in a desert tournament jokingly titled “Race Wars” and the city of Los Angeles seems divided up among competing groups of ethnic street gangs; the Vietnamese led by Johnny Tran, the Mexicans headed by Hector.

Still, ignoring this late-nineties clumsiness, The Fast and the Furious is a relic of that decade in other ways. “I live my life one quarter mile at a time,” Torreto confesses to undercover cop Brian O’Conner during one emotive scene. Although a defining quote for the franchise, Torreto’s confession about how he lives his life is steeped in the particulars of that late nineties end-of-history aesthetic. It is informed by the sense of listlessness that permeated turn-of-the-century popular culture, in which the moral certainty of the Cold War was gone and the promise of “Morning in America” had long evaporated.

It’s an anxiety reflected in a lot of the popular culture of the period, perhaps most overtly in films like Fight Club and even The Matrix. There’s a sense that the generation which came of age after the fall of the Berlin Wall have nowhere to go. It is an anxiety that seems to have circled back into contemporary consciousness in a round-about sort of way, most notably in the way that Atomic Blonde explores the collapse of the Berlin Wall as the end of meaning in a more ambiguous spiritual sense.

Still, that nineties existential angst is woven into the fabric of the first Fast and Furious film. These young men drive around in powerhouse cars that can go impossibly fast. Torreto repeatedly measures the worth of a car in its acceleration – whether it is a “ten second” or a “ten minute” car. There is no small irony in this, given that these cars are inevitably driven in circles and literally have nowhere to go. Even the big social gathering for these street racers (the aforementioned “Race Wars”) takes place in the empty desert, even more of a vast sprawling wasteland than Los Angeles itself.

This mood is very much in contrast with the later films in the franchise. Those later films suggest that these lost individuals have been found and imbued with a sense of direction, that they are actually going places. In the seven (plus) films that follow, these characters travel the world and embark upon exotic international adventures. They are often given clear objectives from authority figures. Even when they aren’t, they are driven by a sense of deeper purpose. The aesthetic of the later films exists in contrast to the more sombre and morbid mood of The Fast and the Furious.

Perhaps the best illustration of this pre-9/11 ambivalence and uncertainty is the film’s climactic reveal that Torreto is actually responsible for the crimes that O’Conner has been assigned to investigate. Torreto has been hijacking trucks filled with auto parts, despite the script’s very careful introduction of various red herrings like Johnny Tran and even Vince himself. Despite O’Conner’s desire to believe the best about Torreto, Torreto is very much an outlaw. In keeping with the film’s western motif, Torreto is effectively pulling the nineties equivalent of stage-coach robberies.

What is most interesting about the reveal of Torreto’s guilt is that it does not shift the moral balance of The Fast and the Furious. Torreto is still a good guy, a tragic figure. The audience still roots for Torreto. Indeed, the climactic action sequence asks the audience to root for Torreto’s gang over the poor, innocent truck drive that they are trying to hijack. The climax of The Fast and the Furious suggests that the world is moral quagmire, in which good and evil do not truly exist. Torreto can be both the hero of the piece and a remorseless criminal; the two ideas are not incompatible.

The Fast and the Furious does not push Torreto and O’Conner towards the inevitable cops-and-robbers collision expected in films like this, the expected showdown designed to reinforce the moral structures that underpin society. (Consider how the climax of Heat throws Hanna and McCauley into a fatal confrontation.) The Fast and the Furious instead pushes Torreto and O’Conner towards a reconciliation. The robber does not surrender to the cop, the cop does not assert the law over the criminal in order to assert the importance of civic order. If anything, the cop moves towards lawlessness.

At the end of The Fast and the Furious, the cop lets the robber go. O’Conner ultimately accepts that there is no right and no wrong in this cold and chaotic universe. Later films reveal that O’Conner has surrendered his badge, an implicit acceptance that law and order is just an illusion in this morally ambiguous wasteland. It’s a very nineties ending. It could not work in the context of the clearer-cut morality of the franchise’s post-9/11 entries. Indeed, the moral framework of 2 Fast 2 Furious is much more rigid and delineated, only two years later.

And yet, for all that The Fast and the Furious is radically different than the films that follow, it contains a couple of elements that would come to define the series as a whole. Most notably, the theme of family is there from the outset, complete with the obligatory “expanded Torreto family eat together” sequence that would remain a staple even as the cast and budgets ballooned. (Ironically, these sequences are missing from the smaller and more intimate sequels that directly followed, but are reinstated once The Fast and the Furious announces itself as a bona fides blockbuster franchise.)

Ted Levine (perhaps inadvertently) gets the single line in The Fast and the Furious that might be said to sum up the entire series. Conversing with the conflicted O’Conner, he advises his young ward, “There’s all kinds of family, Brian.” In fact, this focus on family might even be the feature of the Fast and Furious films that marks them as one of the core (and most important) twenty-first century cinematic franchises. They might lack the sheen or cohesion of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or the relevance of the Dark Knight or Planet of the Apes trilogy, but they do speak to something in the popular consciousness.

Perhaps seventies populist cinema reflected anxieties about the dissolution of the family due to the introduction of no-fault divorce; from the anxieties about family in The Godfather to the divorce battles of Kramer vs. Kramer to the familial horror of The Exorcist and Don’t Look Now to the generational conflict and resolution-through-death of Star Wars to the entire filmography of Steven Spielberg. There was a sense of social breakdown, as if cinema was aware of the fact that the traditional nuclear family was no longer to be the default building block of contemporary society, but was uncertain what that actually meant.

If that observation is fair, then perhaps twenty-first century cinema represents an attempt to heal, to offer a balm to that lingering open wound in the popular psyche. Twenty-first century blockbuster cinema is very saluting found families, the idea that modern family units are not necessarily defined by rigid and inflexible parametres like blood and marriage. This is a theme that plays through various strands of contemporary blockbuster cinema. It is particularly strong in The Fast and the Furious, but it also plays out in films and franchises like Guardians of the Galaxy, Avengers, Deadpool 2, X-Men.

The Fast and the Furious franchise is the perfect subject for Jay Coyle’s #CinemaOfExperience, reflecting the shifting context of American crowd-pleasing cinema. They evolve from grungy urban westerns with deep-seated millennial anxieties and with white plurality, becoming spectacle-driven cars-as-superheroes films with increasingly simple moral calculus and with a diverse ensemble.

2 Responses

  1. The Incredibles 2 review?

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