Start here: the car stunts and fight choreography in Justin Lin’s four Fast and Furious films are unassailable. They would be enough to carry these films to watchable status even without a solid plot or message to hang their hat on. But these films don’t just live “a quarter mile at a time” anymore. Once upon a time, they did, but a late act resurrection has turned this series into the world’s strangest, biggest diamond in the rough, a successful film series unattached to any pre-existing property, with a memory that now stretches back miles and miles.
The Fast series is no Letty, saddled with silly amnesia (my one big complaint about this film, in addition to Gina Carano who… not so much with the acting…); its connection to its past, the boost in the arm it gets from calling up various small characters from its past films to race another day, has only strengthened as it has gone on. That connection has bolstered a film series that is, in essence, simple (fast cars go fast), but that has transformed in appealing ways beyond that simplicity. It brings you in with the cars, and while you’re there, it actually tries to tell you something.
This most recent installment barely bothers with the pretense set out all those years ago – that this is a film series built around street racing. Now, this is a film series about family; the cars are a family hobby, a means to an end. Rather than being, like the pre-Lin films, a showroom for the newest cars or a jukebox for the coolest jams, Fast Five and Fast & Furious 6 especially have turned the series into a powerful engine running off the fumes of a heartening mythology about a group of small-time criminals with a deep honor-among-thieves vibe who, over the course of a decade of hardship and exile, have gone from being loyal only to their own kind to being loyal to all humankind. The team of car thieves has grown and matured in their long sabbatical from L.A, to the point where this rag-tag assemblage of street racers and car mechanics is, by everyone’s admission, even the grudging endorsement of Dwayne Johnson’s Hobbes, the best at what they do in all the world – a loyal team of competent, soulful experts wielding cars as their tools.
That team’s sense of honor, their code, has improved first the people they have come in direct contact with (think Braan coming to the realization at the end of the first film that he preferred Dom, though a criminal, to his law enforcement bosses), then the whole city of Rio (or at least the part that wasn’t barreled over by a giant safe), and now the world! Dom Toretto’s team does nothing short, in this sixth installment of the now deathless franchise that once seemed to be hobbling to an ignoble end after only three films, of stopping a team of international terrorists from allowing the destruction of an entire city.
That’s big stuff, and the action, painted on the canvas of long European autobahns and even longer airport runways, conveys that; but ultimately there is nothing more rewarding in these films than the smaller touches, like seeing this patchwork, multiracial group of noble scoundrels, a self-identified family, finally sit down for supper at that rickety house we first glimpsed over a decade ago and realizing, as they say grace and express thanks for all they have accumulated over a decade of driving fast and living furiously, that the true appeal of the Fast series has been there all along. It’s been in that house, that neighborhood, that tanktopped mountain of a man, Dom Toretto, and his unbreakable love for those he decides, after some time, to actually love. (By now he’s opened up to so many people, and so many previous mortal enemies, that he’s become the world’s toughest softie.)
This is a series about adventure and Nos and car crashes, sure, but it also has an earnest belief, a stubborn assuredness even, in its philosophy of family-first values and a joyful embrace of life’s little things. The series has gotten better with age (cresting with Fast Five, and riding the wave in this thrilling installment) as it has gotten better at conveying that message, which, coming out of Dom Toretto’s mush-mouth, has always sounded kind of profound but now, as we reach the end of this film and see it all threatened, seems to really mean something.
Here’s what’s magical and almost groundbreaking about this film: Joss Whedon can’t kill off Hawkeye; Zach Snyder can’t kill off Perry White (and won’t even take the time to let him live, truthfully); Marc Webb will kill off Gwen Stacy, but everyone in the know sees that coming and can’t really be surprised by it, since it is merely a checkbox that has to be checked; Justin Lin, working off of no existing plotline or outline but his own, can kill off Han (and already has once), can kill off other important characters. And he makes it matter.
His Fast and Furious movies are the Moneyball success story of the cinema world, casting undervalued talent that the budget, which needs to focus on insane stunts, can afford. The models and rappers and UFC fighters and wrestlers and foreign comedians and aged-out action stars and Paul Walkers of the world find a home in these films, and, while the casting of a Bow Wow or a “The Rock” might have once seemed like a stunt, under Lin’s stewardship, the stuntiness of casting from outside the typical Hollywood star system has been quashed by making sure his actors (and non-actors) play actual characters.
And so now, after years of investment, something that viewers of John Singleton’s 2 Fast 2 Furious might have thought impossible will become an inevitability in the coming years – viewers will actually care whether Tyrese Gibson’s Roman and Ludacris’s Tej might live or die. And so they should – over three films, these two actors have earned that audience investment, and a new threat (stick around for the tag!) looms on the horizon.
From the very beginning, it has been easy to get invested in the Fast films’ obsession with fast cars and faster living (for people who care about that; I always couldn’t have cared less), but now we are invested in people and ideas too. It is hard to imagine a scene as human, or as funny, as the Fast 6 scene in which Dwayne Johnson and Ludacris get laughed out of a high-end car auction by an uptight, racist auctioneer only to get the victory they have earned, existing in the first Fast & Furious. Here it works. It is the raison d’etre.
And that embodies the spirit that makes Lin’s Fast films essential viewing, and that will make Fast & Furious 7 (seven!!!) one of my most anticipated movies of whatever year it decides to brighten. That spirit doesn’t make every film in this series well-made (some things can’t be fixed), but it makes the ones that are well-made, like this one, shine, and it makes the series as a whole one of the strangest and most appealing cinematic success stories of this young century. And if that’s getting too carried away, then fast cars bring down a tank and plane, and that’s cool too.