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Non-Review Review: 2 Fast 2 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 Furious franchise exists somewhere in the space between The Fast and the Furious and 2 Fast 2 Furious, but is never quite caught on camera.

The Fast and the Furious is a late nineties undercover urban western about lawlessness in turn-of-the-millennium Los Angeles, of the dead end of the American Dream where young men (and occasional women) drive fast cars in circles to nowhere in particular, living their lives “one quarter mile at a time” without any purpose or any escape. It is a moral quagmire, a tribal wasteland in which law and order mean nothing. The film centres on a police officer sent to infiltrate this world of fast cars, who ultimately cannot bring his target to justice – because there is no justice in this empty and nihilistic world.

2 Fast 2 Furious is effectively a soft Miami Vice reboot. It is a bright and colourful thriller which follows former undercover police officer Brian O’Conner and his old friend Ramone Pierce as they are tasked to infiltrate a drug kingpin’s organisation in Miami. It is a much more conventional and delineated film, and also a much less existential. There are clearly defined good guys and bad guys, and O’Conner has absolutely no ethical objection to bringing in this particular criminal. The film is also appreciably brighter, both be virtue of its heavily saturated surroundings and by an increased emphasis on neon.

Watching 2 Fast 2 Furious, there’s a real sense that the production team had no idea what a hypothetical sequel to The Fast and the Furious would look like, only that it should exist… and maybe it should have some cars in it. Indeed, 2 Fast 2 Furious is pointedly at its most ridiculous when the script is forced to shoe-horn the “obligatory racing bits” into a conventional “undercover Miami drug bust movie.” There’s a weird disconnect between the two films, that goes beyond the absence of Vin Diesel.

Even with Paul Walker present and few small continuity references, there’s little to tether 2 Fast 2 Furious to The Fast and the Furious. It recalls the sort of old-fashioned Hollywood cynicism that produced sequels like Die Hard with a Vengeance, when familiar characters would be clumsily bolted on to a completely unrelated script to create a new franchise installment. Of course, with Dom Toretto in the wind, 2 Fast 2 Furious doesn’t even really have that many familiar characters to anchor it. Brian O’Conner was never going to be the franchise’s breakout character, after all. 2 Fast 2 Furious only has the name.

In some ways, the spark that would drive the Fast and Furious franchise is found in neither The Fast and the Furious nor 2 Fast 2 Furious. After all, the later blockbuster installments of the franchise feel like a completely different breed than either film; espionage-style superhero films involving the fate of the world. That spark is found in the gap between The Fast and the Furious nor 2 Fast 2 Furious, in the cynical idea that just about any kind of movie can be a Fast and Furious movie if you stick enough cars in it.

To be fair to 2 Fast 2 Furious, it has much more in common with the later entries in the franchise than The Fast and the Furious did, even if it’s missing staples like the “breaking bread together” sequence or the presence of Vin Diesel. In terms of style, it’s much more of a heightened genre piece than The Fast and the Furious. It’s Miami Vice… but with cars, the point in the series at which the cars come to occupy a strange narrative space in the series; an essential part of the franchise’s legacy, but no longer a pressing thematic or plotting concern.

It’s possible to trace many of the franchise’s later trappings back to 2 Fast 2 Furious, albeit in a much more modest (and much more reasonably-budgeted) manner. Agent Markham is very much an antecedent to the later supporting character of Mister Nobody in the later films, a vaguely antagonistic figure who provides a set of objectives for our outsider heroes to accomplish against a clearly-delineated antagonist. Carter Verone evokes the more colourful antagonists of the later films, especially Reyes in Fast Five. Even the climax which features a car leaping onto a boat sets a tone for the later entries.

2 Fast 2 Furious also sets up a defining aspect of the later entries in the series, the idea of a relatively famous and established director arriving to put their spin on the franchise and to reinvent it to suit their aesthetic. The Fast and the Furious was directed by Rob Cohen, who has had a long career in Hollywood, but is hardly a director with a unique visual and aesthetic style; his credits include Dragonheart, Daylight, xXx and Alex Cross. Cohen is probably the least notable of the directors in the franchise that he helped to start: John Singleton, Justin Lin, James Wan, F. Gary Gray, David Leitch.

John Singleton has much more in common with those later directors. Whatever criticisms can be made of Singleton’s later career, Boyz in the Hood is a much more important and influential piece of work than anything that Cohen has directed. Even Singleton’s genre work, including the perhaps-a-little-too-early reboot-sequel Shaft starring Samuel L. Jackson, is consciously and heavily stylised. It is immediately clear in the opening moments of 2 Fast 2 Furious that this is the work of a more confident and more assertive director. This trust in directorial vision would become a feature of later installments.

This more stylised aesthetic is reflected in a number of different ways, even from the opening street race. Ludacris’ gigantic afro immediately suggests that 2 Fast 2 Furious is best seen through the lens of exploitation cinema. The film also repreatedly features sequences in which cars are disabled using miniaturised electro-magnetic pulse devices built into hooks. While these gadgets are relatively low-fi compared to some of the stuff in later films, they would have seemed much more out of place in The Fast and the Furious.

However, the biggest narrative distinction between The Fast and the Furious and 2 Fast 2 Furious is the shifting morality of the series. The morality of The Fast and the Furious was ambiguous at best, nihilistic at worst; the climax relied on the audience rooting for Toretto ahead of the innocent truck driver who found himself under attack by harpoons. In contrast, the battle lines in 2 Fast 2 Furious are drawn a lot more clearly. There is no moral ambiguity and no uncertainty in the story that the film is telling.

Of course, O’Conner and Pierce are technically still outlaws. O’Conner is even less of a law man than he was in the previous films. Both characters chafe against the leash that the Federal Bureau of Investigation puts on them, Pierce even firing at Agent Markham when an impromptu sting threatens to blow their cover. However, there is never any anxiety about Carter Verone. Verone is unambiguously a monster, Cole Hauser playing Tom Berenger playing a Miami Vice villain. O’Conner never has any doubts about bringing this criminal to justice.

(Verone is a fairly stock villain, perhaps most notable for his heightened fragile masculinity. This masculine insecurity is suggested in a number of different ways. It is present in his obsession with cigars, sending his auditioning drug runners across the bay to recover a cigar and the repeated castration imagery with cigar chopper. It is also present in his attitude towards Monica Fuentes. This tortured masculinity is a stock trope when it comes to drug kingpins, perhaps rooted in cultural clichés about Latin American masculinity.)

This more clearly defined morality perhaps suggests the most radical change in the space between The Fast and the Furious and 2 Fast 2 Furious. If the eighties could be said to have ended with the collapse of the Berlin Wall and if the sixties ended with Woodstock, then the nineties ended with the attack upon the World Trade Centre. But that measure, The Fast and the Furious is very much a late nineties movie, permeated with existential anxiety and purposeless dread. In contrast, 2 Fast 2 Furious is very much an action movie for the War on Terror. There are good guys and bad guys, and the law must be upheld.

This arguably reflects the cultural mood during the early years of the War on Terror, a broad patriotic belief that the government existed to protect the people from the terrible things in the world. (In fact, making Verone a drug runner represents the franchise’s first flirtation with international threat.) More than that, the chaos and uncertainty of global terrorism seemed to awaken a hunger in popular culture for clearly defined heroes and villains. The real world was a messy and ambiguous place, and there was a clear desire for cinema to offer the kind of clear-cut baddies who would try to get a rat to gnaw through a cop’s stomach.

This perspective is much more in keeping with the tone of the Fast and Furious movies that followed, and with the emergence of the superhero genre with which they occasionally flirted. The evolution of the Fast and Furious movies hinges on the idea that the series could eventually support the Rock leaning out of a car to kick a torpedo launched by a Russian nuclear submarine. 2 Fast 2 Furious takes small steps in that direction, rejecting the ambiguity of the first film to insist that the world is full of bad people and that our protagonists are not lost young men looking for purpose, but heroes who can save us all.

None of this gets around the fact that 2 Fast 2 Furious isn’t especially good, and that the franchise isn’t entirely sure what to do without Vin Diesel. 2 Fast 2 Furious clumsily attempts to fill its Vin-Diesel-shaped hole with Tyrese Gibson, but it feels like a stopgap measure at best. Roman Pierce isn’t especially interesting or engaging, which the later films acknowledge by effectively demoting him to comic relief. In 2 Fast 2 Furious, the character feels too much like a faint echo of Toretto, another character on the wrong side of the law to whom O’Conner has developed a strong attachment.

Similarly, 2 Fast 2 Furious makes an ill-judged decision to compensate for the absence of Dom Toretto by shifting the narrative focus to Brian O’Conner. This misunderstands a lot of the appeal of the first film.  O’Conner was a window into the world of The Fast and the Furious, but not a feature of it. To the extent that Paul Walker works within the context of the Fast and Furious franchise, he works as part of the broader ensemble rather than as a focal character. In its own weird way, 2 Fast 2 Furious affirms the importance of family to the themes of the series by demonstrating how hard it is to make the films work without it.

These difficulties with the human characters reflect a lot of the issues with 2 Fast 2 Furious, which often feels like an uncanny valley improvisation riffing on the ideas that would turn the franchise into a cultural behemoth. Watching 2 Fast 2 Furious, there’s a real sense of the durability of the core concept, and that this has consciously been engineered into the franchise at the earliest opportunity; at the moment when Fast and Furious went from a single film about underground car racing in Los Angeles to a “brand” that could support sequels.

Indeed, by the time that The Fate of the Furious came around, the series had embraced a lot of the ideas that are bubbling away beneath the underwhelming execution of 2 Fast 2 Furious. The eighth film in the franchise seemed comfortable marginalising Vin Diesel, having effectively latched on to Dwayne Johnson as an amped-up improvement for its strong-and-silent lynchpin. It took the film a long time to get there, but it all worked out in the end. It’s hardly the biggest issue with the film that Tyrese Gibson is no Dwayne Johnson, but it is an issue.

The strongest connection between The Fast and the Furious and 2 Fast 2 Furious is that both films happen to involve cars. They are completely different in terms of characterisation, plotting, stylisation, outlook and theme. However, that very thin strand connecting the two would prove sturdy enough to support an entire franchise.

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