Having already seen Fate Of The Furious this week, a review of which is up already, I thought it a good chance to revisit the franchise that many, including myself, had left for dead back in 2006. I only recently caught up on what essentially amounts to the reboot, watching the 4th-7th installments of the fast paced action racing series only a few weeks ago. I had seen the original two in theaters when I was younger, enthralled by the action and car stunts, and proceeding to run to the theater arcade and play as many rounds of Cruisin’ USA my friends and I had quarters for. I, like many others, skipped Tokyo Drift when it came around, as the series felt tired, and I was no longer amused by what felt like a cash in on the name, given that it kept nothing but cars from the original films. I caught it later on TV, and unsurprisingly, it was very underwhelming, and I remember little to nothing of that movie all these years later. When 2009 rolled around and word came that the series was going back to its roots, I was no longer on board, but with positive reviews, and word of mouth, I again became intrigued by the franchise, however that intrigue never amounted to me actually seeing any of the new movies, I heard how good they were, but never actually sat down to watch them. After seeing the trailer again and again for Fate Of The Furious during my recent cinema going experiences, I realized it was finally time to sit down and watch what I had missed. While marathon viewing of this franchise accentuates the fact that they are all more or less the same, I still found each to be enjoyable, fun, popcorn entertainment.
What caused Tokyo Drift to stumble off the line, and what has made this franchise connect with audiences, besides the car stuff, is the focus on the family element. Dominic Toretto, way back in The Fast and The Furious, waxed poetically about how nothing is more important than the people you call family. The first two sequels never carried that message, which is why they are sub par in my opinion to the rest of the series, but the family aspect was always Dom’s ideal to champion. Putting such a high emphasis on a very relatable topic, helps to draw you in, and while you stay for the guns, and the fighting, and the explosion, and the cars, the insistence they all of it is for the core element of family gives at least some depth to the characters. With the core motif of the series focusing on love and respect, it also raises the stakes, so when characters in the films do die, it hits hard than it otherwise would have, because you know how much all of the characters mean to one another. The main problem with bigger action movies, is that the characters are more of an afterthought, and while I am not trying to say that these characters are deep, complex, and well-rounded, at least you know what drives them, no pun intended.
It’s rather odd, watching all of these films in close proximity to one another, because they are so similar, that it becomes more enjoyable when familiar elements come up. By halfway through Fast Five I came to the realization that these movies break down to being about 25% heart to heart, one on one conversations about honor, family, and their code. The fight scenes are 20%, with all the punching, and kicking, and gun play, all of which is pretty good, until the Rock and Statham show up, then it’s great. Any of the scenes with those two action powerhouses was made instantly better by their presence. Diesel is a good fighter and is quite menacing, while Walker is capable enough, but they don’t come close to the other two in terms of hand to hand fighting on-screen. A small but not insignificant 5%, are the sweeping shots of beautiful vistas, exotic locales, and half-naked beautiful people having a good time. Each film also always includes at least one close up shot of butts walking or dancing, a real mainstay of the franchise. Another 25% is the car stuff, the racing, the getaways, the chases, and all the other big explosion moments throughout. I am not sure which stunt was my favorite, though the “Dukes of Hazzard Leap” onto a boat in 2 Fast 2 Furious, and the car leaping between three buildings were pretty great. then the final 25% might be my favorite, because it’s the most ridiculous in any of the movies, and that is the characters grandstanding. Watching Diesel, Johnson, Walker, Statham, and all the other major players and villains, get in each others faces, and go back and forth for minutes on end, trying to one up, and psych out their adversaries is great fun. The insults, and explanations as to why they fighting, who is going to do what to whom, and the ways in which they are going to do it, have gotten crazier over the films, mostly due to the Dwayne Johnson, who can’t help but be The Rock in these moments. The formula works really well though, and the way they all cycle through these main plot points should feel incredibly tired, but for some reason they don’t. Boiling them all down to these essential elements also saves from having to rehash all of the plots, because let’s face it, the plot isn’t super important in these movies, which is totally fine.
What is important is the characters, because any movie that focuses as much on love and family as this one does, needs to have characters you care about, and people to embody those characters that are enjoyable to watch. While none of the performances in any of these movies are masterclasses in acting, they all do a good enough job that the shortcomings do not matter. Had the acting been worse, and unbearable, then we wouldn’t be at our 8th film in the franchise, or there would have been a ton more turnover, and probably would have moved to a direct to DVD/VOD distribution model. The best part about all of it is that it is so plug-and-play, every film somebody gets added to the cast, either as a good guy, or a bad guy, and fit seamlessly into the world. Many credit Dwayne Johnson for being “franchise viagra,” but the series was able to bring him in with such ease that it makes sense he is so great in this. Johnson is a screentime magnet, but he earns it, as he is a ton of fun in each of the movies he is in. The films all do a great job of incorporating the supporting cast as well, Michelle Rodriguez gets to have just as much fun as all the boys, and kicks so much ass along the way. I loved the fact that she also was given amnesia, because it’s such a ridiculous plot device, but it fits in so well with this movie, I found myself laughing and having a head-slapping moment when she came back in that of course she had amnesia. Having caught up late, I knew she wasn’t really dead when she was seemingly killed off, but I had just assumed she was crazy deep undercover, or that they lied to Dom to get him to do a job, never did I think the movie would incorporate such a silly trope, but it fully embraces the kind of the films that they all are. They are inherently silly, but they play into, and all the actors seem to be having a blast throughout. I cannot imagine what these films would be like if they took the whole thing way too serious, though it would probably be more heart to hearts, with little to no humor. The humor in these are great, and since 2 Fast 2 Furious, the pairing of Ludacris of Tyrese are some of my favorite parts from the series. Tyrese is the almost never-ending butt of the jokes, and Ludacris is always there to pile on, so their banter is particularly entertaining. Plus anytime they do give Tyrese the chance for Roman to shine, he does not disappoint. Each film also has several great smaller characters, I thoroughly enjoyed Shea Whigham’s character, and how he was always one step behind Paul Walker’s Brian, especially in the scenes where he gets his ass kicked. I also really like Han, and all the times he mentioned how much he wanted to go to Tokyo, playing up the fact that Tokyo Drift takes place out of order to the rest of the films. The only real downside to the character aspect of these movies are the antagonists, because outside of Statham’s Shaw, they are all extremely expendable, with no real memorable moments between them. Luke Evans’ Shaw brother is made better by the addition of Statham after he is taken out in 6, but is still not a great character in his own right.
The real spotlight in terms of characters though is Dom and Brian, they are the true focus, and the real stars of the films. Watching the two characters evolve over the course of the franchise was great to see, having only seen them in the first film prior. The way in which they bring the two one time friends, turned adversaries back together, and then become real family was the best part of these films. The chemistry between Diesel and Walker was great, and the mix of banter, friendly rivalry, and genuine love, was brought out by the two, and the films are that much better for it. I will admit to getting a little choked up when the ending of 7 came around, knowing the real life implications of Paul Walker’s death casting a dark cloud over that movie. I knew they had used his brothers as a double, along with CGI to conclude work on the film, but wasn’t sure exactly how they wrote him out. I am glad they went the retirement route, and chose not to kill him off, as that would have felt in poor taste so soon after Walker’s passing. Watching the crew look on, knowing that their next adventure would be without him, was an emotional scene, and seeing the Brian character playing on the beach with Mia and his daughter, struck a chord, having just watched so much of these characters in quick succession. The CGI recreation also worked for the most part, though the last shot of Brian smiling as he drove off down a different road looked incredibly weird. Also I understand the idea behind Dom and Brian choosing separate paths, and Brian taking the exit off the road, but in context of the film it doesn’t make much sense, since Mia and Letty are both back at the beach, and theoretically that wasn’t a real in story goodbye, as they would probably be going back to get them, but that is an extreme level of nitpicking, and the moment was the right call. It was also nice that Furious 7 ended with a Paul Walker montage from the series as a tribute, as the ending of that movie needed to be all about the loss, so overall it was extremely well done.
While nobody will ever say that The Fast and Furious franchise is a high point in the history of cinema, it can be argued that they are all extremely fun, and have succeeded in creating new and exciting movies well past anybody expected they would. The action, the comedy, and more human moments have carried this franchise through, and I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed them, given how I wrote the films, and the actors off 10 plus years ago. I understand these films are not for everybody, and that’s fine, but when given the chance I think if you have never seen them, or gave up when I did, it may be worthwhile to give them a second chance, because having a fun-filled, and entertaining franchise is always welcome, and it doesn’t get more fun than these.