Furiouser and Furiouser

My Fast Adoption into the Action-Movie “Family” That I Once Mocked

I’ve never cared much about cars or action-movie chase sequences, and the shininess of Vin Diesel’s head has always alarmed me. Along with the rest of the Internet, I dunked on the Fast and Furious films when they first appeared in the early 2000s, and felt assured that I was a true intellectual for doing so. Despite my mocking, I’d totally missed the first eight movies in the franchise until an episode of How Did This Get Made opened me up to the idea that these films are not only extra, but might be so on purpose. So extra that they’re wonderful. Potentially even a societal critique.

That was around July 4thof this year. Today, I write as a different woman, who has now not only seen the ninth installment in the Fast and Furious franchise (albeit a spinoff), but who has watched every possible predecessor many times. In fact, I write this as Fast Five plays in the background. I have definitive rankings of which films are my favorites (5, 1, 6, 4, 2, 8, 3, and 7 is last for obvious Paul Walker reasons), and I would probably die for Dominic Toretto, because I know he’d do right by my family.

The more recent films have gotten great reviews. On Rotten Tomatoes, Fast Five and Furious 7 clocked in at well over 75 percent, monumental considering the previous four iterations hovered around the 30-percent mark. One could make the argument that the creative team of director Justin Lin and writer Chris Morgan have hit their stride, and turned the franchise into a winner. But to do so is to neglect the three genuinely good films before you! (I cannot, in good faith, include Tokyo Drift. #JusticeforHan)

It’s A Family Affair

Each Fast and Furious film is somehow a perfect distillation of the aggressive, values-driven energy we’ve come to expect from the Torettos and company, and has been since the first. Fast and Furious sets up this world for us in which characters typically presented to be “the bad guys” have value systems and actually make decisions based on them. Paul Walker’s character Brian O’Connor is a street-racing East L.A. cop who must infiltrate Dom’s gang and get to the bottom of their Robin Hood style of stealing tankers full of electronics.

The Fast and the Furious (2001)
L to R: Johnny Strong, Vin Diesel, Paul Walker and Chad Lindberg

The reveal, as Vince bleeds on the side of the road and “Officer Brian O’Connor” has to call it in and save his life, is up there in one of the best examples of dramatic tension, and is one of the only moments where Paul Walker has to do any amount of acting throughout the series. Brian earns the trust of the Toretto family and ultimately sides with our antiheroes, but his betrayal represents the worst kind of affront to the deeply traditional Dom, an affront that can only be made right by letting Dom go in the end.

That value system can pretty much be summed up as: family, and, a little more generously, loyalty. Brian’s betrayal and eventual decision to let Dom go sets up this narrative from the beginning. People who value their family are good, correct and come out on top. The rest of the franchise echoes his decision.

Teeming With Team-Ups

The Rock’s character Luke Hobbs pursues our heroes for two full hours throughout the streets of Rio de Janeiro in Fast Five only to team up with them in the end. After all, the mob boss who they’re up against killed his guys—his family—so he had no other choice. Family is the same impulse that sets Jason Statham’s character, Deckard Show, going; his brother, another Shaw, was the villain in the sixth installment, and he obviously needs revenge. That is, until he teams up with Hobbs—presumably aided by a sense of common values, though it’s not explicitly said.

If you’re with us, you’re family. Vin Diesel and The Rock in Fast Five. 

The enemy of family, in this universe, is greed, because greedy people aren’t loyal. From the outset, the films obviously glorify mechanics and the working class, and cast our heroes to steal from the rich and even the scales. Stealing from big business and mob bosses eventually escalates to their becoming millionaires themselves. And while Tyrese’s character Roman Pearce lives it up abroad, the rest of our cast generally prefer a quiet beach shack and owning their own body shops.

Dom’s speech says it best in Fast Five, the first of the franchise to move away from street racing toward more Ocean’s Eleven-style heists: “Money will come and go. We know that. But the most important thing in life will always be the people in this room, right here, right now.”

A Very Big-Budget Soap Opera

The later films are a bit more furious than fast, more action-movies-with-cars than the beloved LA street racing stories where it began. But really, the series at its core is a very big-budget soap opera—and I’m extremely here for every breath each impossibly beautiful character takes. The Fast and Furious films are all of the best parts of mainstream action movies, with action scenes are so incredible and brazen that I 100 percent need to suspend my disbelief in the laws of physics in order to rationalize that these scenes happen in the same world in which I’m living. (They dropped cars from a plane!)

But their outlandishness—their extra-ness—embodies precisely the kind of impossible feats we all, deep down, want to be able to do ourselves. You cannot watch Vin Diesel and Paul Walker drag a two-ton safe throughout the streets of Rio de Janeiro and not want to be them.

The series takes fans from one breathtaking locale to the next, unfurling a web of complicated, nonlinear storytelling. The soapy tropes abound.  Han dies, but then he doesn’t; Letty dies, but then she doesn’t. Hobbs is bad, and then good; Shaw is bad, good. But one incredible symbol—Dom’s silver chain—carries through each narrative, dropping hints of future stories and letting us know which characters are the good guys. It’s a too earnest and only slightly over-the-top touch that signals to viewers that Dom (and his faith) are in control here and that we, like Letty and Mia, are all going to be okay.

An FBI agent (played by Buffalo Bill himself, Ted Levine) says it best in the first Fast and Furious, when he demands that Brian decide where his loyalties lie: “There’s all kinds of family, Brian. And that’s a choice you’re going to have to make.”

I’m choosing a Corona on the beach with this crew—this family—a quarter mile at a time.

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Katie Smith

Katie Smith is a Philadelphia-based writer. Find her on Instagram @saddy_yankee for cat pics.

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