ENTERTAINMENT: Ultimate Movie Review 2: The Fast and The Furious

#8 The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift ("Fast Three", 2006)

 Poster Grade: 7/10. Other than "boosting" Bow Wow's height, this poster is colorful, fiery, and vibrant, creatively mixing deep chiaroscuro with Tokyo's explosive, kaleidoscopic neon-nightlife. 

Poster Grade: 7/10. Other than "boosting" Bow Wow's height, this poster is colorful, fiery, and vibrant, creatively mixing deep chiaroscuro with Tokyo's explosive, kaleidoscopic neon-nightlife. 

Where it worked: Rob Cohen’s original Fast from 2001 is honestly less of the action movie it’s boasted up to be, and much more of an edgy crime thriller/cop drama double-deep fried in adrenaline and injector fuel. It did set off a short-lived string of trendy, high-octane action-film tributes (rip-offs?) such as Biker Boyz, Torque, and--to some extent--Cohen’s own XXX, but beneath the surface one could argue that Fast One seemed influenced by police-centered dramas like Serpico, Deep Cover and (most obviously) Point Break. Justin Lin’s Fast Three attempted to break the cop-drama trend strung along the first two films in the Fast franchise by surgically removing the undercover cop element altogether. By omitting this factor, Fast Three was unapologetically free to be what the first two films wanted to be: simply put, a racing film. Lin did actual research in structuring its drift-racing scene of the Tokyo underground (exaggerated smut aside), consulting real drift racers to perform some of the practical stunts. This point is further indicated by a cameo from Keiichi Tsuchiya, a real-life pioneer of the craft and legend in the actual Japanese drifting world. Fast Three also introduces the franchise to Han, a mysteriously tranquil Devil-May-Care racer (who doesn’t really race….again, mystery) who is not only the standout character in this film, but returns in future installments to become a franchise fan-favorite. And, if we’re being honest, even if you hated the film, you can’t tell me Vin Diesel’s cameo at the end didn’t easily bring the film back to life. For all the criticism it receives, Fast Three is actually the first real breath of fresh air the franchise really needed before re-establishing itself as the action-behemoth it is today, and before attempting to conquer new cinematic territory. This film’s soundtrack is impressively not that annoying, either.

Where it didn’t work: Let’s be real--unless you’re flipping channels on your television on a Sunday afternoon and literally nothing else is on….you still probably have reservations about sitting in on this installment. Genuine racing-heart aside, you’ll be hard-pressed to find worse acting from any other movie released in 2006. The value in having a completely new cast in a later entry of an established franchise is objectively high or low. What nearly brought this film seven feet deep however was not that it had a brand new cast in contrast to the previous two films, but that the cast it did bring in was a hodge-podge of so-called youngsters who collectively brought to the table a violent lack of chemistry, horrible European accents, and scrodum-poor acting. Then-23-year-old Lucas Black as 17-year-old protagonist Sean Boswell seemed to be chosen on unlucky lottery tickets. Black is consistently out-of-place in the flashing lights of overcrowded Tokyo streets, though I do believe that was partly the point: to exaggerate the culture clash. Deuteragonist Bow Wow as Twinkie legitimately does nothing; not even once does he get behind a wheel and drive. He only exists seemingly to ensure that the strangely inclusive Fast trend of having some sort of musical artist in the credits didn’t cease to be (in Fast One, it was rapper Ja Rule; in Fast Two, it was R&B singer and sometimes-rapper Tyrese, notable hip-hop artist Ludacris and former Ruff Ryder greenthumb MC Jin). Seriously, what does Bow Wow do in this movie? Also, Nathalie Kelley’s face looks like a Lego brick. No, Kelly’s love interest Neela is not unattractive by any sort of ridiculous standard Hollywood places unfairly on women--it’s just that her face is stuck on one emotion the entire film, and eleven years later, I’m still not sure what emotion it is. Brian Tee’s antagonist Drift King, is surprisingly one of the better villains of the franchise, yet outside of him or Han, I wish you luck trying to find a likable character here that’s memorable for something other than your hatred for them. Oh, and the film’s CGI decisions are truly, and hilariously, heartbreaking. All in all, it isn’t that this film is even bad. It’s really not, and as a fan of the overall franchise, I still recommend this title. It’s just that this film’s bad can’t overwhelm all of it’s good. And unfortunately, the next three films in the franchise bluntly indicate to the audience that Fast Three is the most important film in the franchise…! I certainly didn’t see that coming.

 

#7 2 Fast 2 Furious ("Fast Two", 2003)

 Poster grade: 6/10. Slick placing of lead characters Brian and Roman up top, though Suki is more eye-candy than a lead role, and Tej is all...head. Blue-tinted chrome was slick.

Poster grade: 6/10. Slick placing of lead characters Brian and Roman up top, though Suki is more eye-candy than a lead role, and Tej is all...head. Blue-tinted chrome was slick.

Where it worked: Coming off the of the grittiness and darker Los Angeles criminal misadventures of Rob Cohen’s Fast One, John Singleton takes over the director’s chair for Fast Two that brings the action to sunny Miami, Florida; this movie is unprecedentedly lighthearted in comparison to the first, both tonally and visually. Vin Diesel’s alpha-male gearhead Dominic Toretto is replaced by new deuteragonist Tyrese Gibson as Roman Pierce, a childhood friend of Paul Walker’s franchise protagonist Brian O’Connor. Now that both former friends have criminal records they need expunged, FBI Agent Bilkins--remarkably relaxed since the events of the first film--offers former cop Brian and former convict Roman a deal to go undercover as street-racing criminals to make runs for antagonist Carter Verone in order to place Verone and his drug operation together, and bring him to justice in exchange for their records cleaned. Though a cop drama, the film feels more like a “buddy cop” ride than the first film ever could, with Dominic’s emotional tough-guy-with-a-heart spills, street-smart wisdom, and deep family loyalty replaced with Roman’s hearty laughter and wisecracking insults to everyone around him. Brian and Roman make an interesting pair: again, in contrast to the seriousness of the first film where Brian and Dominic become like brothers on opposite sides of the law who are overcome by respect and loyalty to one another, Brian and Roman act like children--wrestling, fist-bumping, name-calling, laughing and reminiscing on girls from their high school days. They're always telling each other to shut up. Although Roman is an exceptional driver, Brian is the true king of underground street racing in Florida, and seeing him transition from the guy who could almost beat Dominic to the guy absolutely nobody can touch on the road is actually very satisfying. He finds new friends in race orchestrator Tej Parker and undercover cop Monica Fuentes while rekindling his friendship with Roman quickly. The colors in the film are so explosive that it makes you want to vacation to Miami; the skies and waters are so thickly blue, the sun so annoyingly bright and sunny, the grass so richly green (in contrast, Fast One’s location makes you want to stay away from California forever), and for one reason or another, somebody is smiling in every scene. It’s a decent change of pace coming from a film where almost nobody did so much as smile, but screamed, cried, and frowned all through the streets of L.A.

Where it didn’t work: The action in this movie is weak. In attempting so hard to recapture the satisfying adrenaline of the first film, the racing ends up quite underwhelming. The kaleidoscope of blinding colors--the street lights, the shiny paint jobs, drivers’ matching outfits--and needless headache-inducing camera tricks, mixed with the unfortunate original soundtrack and disappointing overuse of CGI only make most of the race scenes feel like cut-scenes from a discount PS2 racing game. Monica, played by the beautiful Eva Mendes, seems attracted to Brian for absolutely no other reason than the fact that he’s the main character of this film. Their romance comes out of the blue and fails to captivate by any means. Monica is certainly no Mia. Thom Berry’s return as Agent Bilkins is quite welcome, but again, he’s so chill here it’s almost like he knows that at the end of every scene he’s going to return to his oversized bag of weed in the privacy of his trailer. Fuentes’ lack of regard for the urgency of her own situation mixed with Bilkins’ loss of his hardass-boss attitude from the first film over-compliment the film’s glee. I mean, this really is a happy movie. Roman, for instance, has two completely different personas in this sequel: one minute he’s a tough thug fresh out of prison complete with low grumbles, glares, and murmers with a heater on deck, and the next second he’s this overly excited comedian complete with obnoxious laughter and high-volume insults (two of his finest moments of expression shine when he sets fire to the car of two of Verone’s flunkies, and later ejects one of them from his muscle car). They finally “find” his character in future installments, but here, it feels like Gibson is trying to figure out who Roman is really supposed to be. Carter Verone is likely the lamest villain in Hollywood history: non-intimidating, baby-faced, and way too stupid for his own good. Ludacris’ Tej is an interesting supporting character, seen mostly with street racer Devon Aoki’s sadly stereotypical Suki and former Ruff Ryder artist MC Jin as mechanic Jimmy. Tej is mostly comic relief, and has awkward interactions with Roman, who tends to switch from happy-Roman to thug-Roman when he’s around him. They aren’t the close friends they become in future installments yet. Here, they just met, and don’t really have much in common other than them both being Brian’s friends. Want a happy Fast? Look no further.

 

#6 Fast & Furious ("Fast Four", 2009)

 Poster grade: 6/10. Reminiscent of the first three posters, with a creative placing for the text and title, though a shade uncreative.

Poster grade: 6/10. Reminiscent of the first three posters, with a creative placing for the text and title, though a shade uncreative.

Where it worked: You’ve probably heard about how the Fast films keep going bigger and getting better...well, that trend began with the franchise’s fourth entry (and subliminally metaphorical reset), Fast Four. Justin Lin, the director of Tokyo Drift, continues to helm the series but brings it in a direction opposite of his previous entry. He trashes his new cast from Tokyo Drift and reintroduces the core foursome from the first Fast film, offering a welcome return for Jordana Brewster, Michelle Rodriguez, Paul Walker, and Vin Diesel (coming off his Tokyo Drift cameo). This is the first entry where we “feel” Diesel’s Dom take over as the new series lead; although the partnership between Dom and Walker’s Brian still fuels the series as two sides of the same coin, we did see in Fast One and Two that the films were really about Brian, with Dom and Roman serving as periphery for his journey, not the other way around. Here, the film is just a pinch more concerned with Dom, his world, and what he has been up to since the first film. His remark during his Tokyo Drift cameo about once “rolling” with Han is explored as Fast Four is quickly outed as a prequel to Tokyo Drift instead of a sequel--here, Han is alive and kicking, not yet in Tokyo, and although only a supporting character in the film’s earliest scene, it is such a welcome and unexpected return that Lin had to be applauded for bringing back his prior installment’s best character. Lin also works to make this film a true “action” film, by incorporating racing scenes and police elements without making it feel like we’re supposed to be in a racing film (like Tokyo Drift) or a cop drama (like the first two films). Instead, the first scenes open with Dom leading his expert crew of drivers--Han, Letty, and new characters Leo and Santos--raiding an oil rig south of the border, while newly-instated FBI agent Brian chases his prey in an unprecedentedly thrilling chase through urban Los Angeles terrain. A shortened version of this scene is used as the opening of the first theatrical trailer for the film, and is so action-oriented that the audience has absolutely no clue it’s a Fast film until it reveals the cop is played by Walker. This indicates that Lin is done with using the cars to tell a racing story, or cops to tell a cop story. He’s here for the action, and he certainly delivers for the most part.       

Where it didn’t worked: Comparatively speaking, this fourth installment is boring. The title is needlessly confusing and boasts zero effort. Meant to convey a “new beginning” for the franchise, simply removing the “the’s” from the title seems to actually convey a lack of creativity (though I suppose it is better than “The Fast and the Furious: The Next Level”). How can this movie be boring, you might ask, when Justin Lin transforms this series here as a bonafide action franchise? Yes, Lin does a marvelous job at this transformation. At times in fact, it’s strange to think that the same guy who did Fast Four also is responsible for the fail-fest that is Fast Three. Well, let’s just say that the action has little context. Again, thinking about it comparatively, Fast One’s action was so well done and felt authentic because it was handled without the excess of CG, overcompensating background music, or the Looney Tunes-worthy mayhem/explosions/destruction we find here and in future installments. Coming from a trilogy of non-action films, this fourth entry feels like almost all of its action could’ve been accomplished without the excess. Indeed, Lin had a job to do to distinguish Four from Three. He did it well. Still, with an underwhelming reveal towards the end; Walker going rogue from the FBI in what has to be the millionth betrayal of a policing agency he’s committed since day one; a serious lack of original heroine Letty, who commands the film in its earliest scenes but disappears for the rest of the film; and some of the franchise’s worst CG to date in the form of a tunnel run that could’ve (and should’ve) been the film’s best scene, Fast Four serves its purpose in the overall plan to reconstruct the franchise, but on its own two feet, it doesn’t deliver the way it was meant to. But it sure does give a lot of context to Fast Five, a fact that can’t be ignored, and even Fast Six in some obvious parts. Gal Gadot debuts here as Gisele, an associate of mysterious antagonist Arturo Braga, who to my recollection has almost no dialog with Brian but finds herself conversationally lusting over Dom. It’s so great to see her as her own entity in future films, but in her debut role as the character, what with no background history or action for her to contribute to other than the damsel in distress, Gisele is little more than a ragdoll waiting to be rescued by someone else.                      

 

#5 Furious 7 (obviously, "Fast Seven", 2015)

 Poster grade: 9/10. A surprisingly deep character study of the franchise's two lead characters Brian and Dominic, eerily dressed for a funeral, in what would be the last film they would be in together. Not one car in sight.

Poster grade: 9/10. A surprisingly deep character study of the franchise's two lead characters Brian and Dominic, eerily dressed for a funeral, in what would be the last film they would be in together. Not one car in sight.

Where it worked: the beginning of the film reminds audiences immediately that they haven't quite forgotten the foundations of the franchise: Los Angeles! Race Wars! Hector! But this seventh entry worked best on three very specific fronts. Firstly, the chronology: fans who stuck with the franchise after Fast Three: Tokyo Drift were deeply rewarded with Han's return in Fast Four, the franchise's finest breath of fresh air in Fast Five, and the solidification of the franchise's successful formula in Fast Six. All three films, however, were prequels leading up to the events of Han's departure to Tokyo and his subsequent death on the streets of Japan in Fast Three. Seven satisfies loyal audiences by finally providing the first chronological sequel since Fast Two, ending the semi-confusing prequel structure and finally bringing ALL previous events up to date. Director James Wan and company even goes so far as to bring back Fast Three's Lucas Black as Sean Boswell--now the new Drift King after defeating his nemesis--for a full scene between him and Dom discussing their mutual pal Han and returning his body to Los Angeles for a proper funeral. Secondly, the action front: though the series has been reinvented as an action franchise since Fast Four, Seven has the highest amount of action the series has seen up to this point. From flying supercars through skyscrapers, to action-film veteran Kurt Russell leading a black ops team to warehouse gunfights in the dark, to fellow action superstars Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and franchise newbie Jason Statham beating the tar out of each other in sweaty, mixed martial arts madness, this film truly delivers the action-adrenaline rush. Finally, on the sentimental front: it was bad enough that the film opens by revisiting Han's death from Fast Three, with a full funeral and new angle of revenge upon the revelation that Han's killer was Statham's antagonistic Deckard Shaw, the older brother of Fast Six's villain, Owen. Resolving that front, we're immediately and eerily reminded at that funeral that Paul Walker had died in real life. Nobody familiar with Hollywood was exempt from the dark waves felt by Walker's tragic passing before this film finished shooting. Director Wan tastefully chose to handle Walker's unfinished scenes with a clever mixture of CGI and doubles provided by his two younger brothers. Audiences knew that whether Diesel and co. decided to continue the franchise or not, Paul Walker would not be coming back to the franchise, and given that it was birthed from Walker and Diesel's chemistry, the Fast films would never be the same again. And the ending to the film--blatantly dedicated to Walker--ensured tears.  

Where it didn't work: the main difference between the earlier films before Three and the films after it are Diesel's increased spotlight. Whereas Brian leads the first two films with Dom and Roman right by his side, now Dom gets significantly more screen-time than Walker, not to mention less scenes with each other. That isn't a problem so much as the continued lack of focus on Brian and Dom's relationship. It's quite obvious and forgivable why this issue exists here, but it still helps the finished product none. Also, the action is so hype that it finally errs on the side of cheesiness. Dominic stomping the ground and breaking the pavement; The Rock's one-liners and machine-gunning a helicopter while a drone is firing middles in the middle of the LA Streets... It almost makes you miss the days when the highest level of urgency came from when someone was close to figuring out Brian was a cop, or when a race was a close shave. Now it's high-tech spy capers with muscle and top-secret government agencies recruiting the worst of the worst to take on criminals even dirtier. Yet somehow cars...always find their place. A strong criticism is Statham’s Deckard as new series villain. Maybe I ought to watch the film yet again, but I’m not completely clear how Deckard portrays omnipresence and seems to show up wherever Dom's team is. Seems a tad unrealistic even for the Fast franchise for a lone wolf like Deckard to have infinite resources, means of transportation anywhere in the world, when even his younger brother Owen understood the importance of having a team. I reckon it depends more on the situation and how personal that situation is, but even so, the older Shaw appears the be an enemy the team can’t seem to beat, but Dom gets the upper hand in a one-on-one fight, and even that fight isn’t as highly anticipated, or executed satisfactorily, as Dom and Luke’s fight in Fast Five. Wan wasn’t the wrong choice of director this film at all, he just happened to make a very bold, concrete statement about the direction of the franchise’s future. Thankfully, as this film and the prior four entries have all made clear, the franchise may stray as far away from the source material as far as context, but the series will continue to always remind audiences where it came from.  

 

#4 The Fate of the Furious ("Fast Eight", 2017)

 Poster grade: 8/10. Representative of the evolution of the films' focus--characters have become drastically more important than the cars they drive. Excellent placement of title and top-heavy emptiness.

Poster grade: 8/10. Representative of the evolution of the films' focus--characters have become drastically more important than the cars they drive. Excellent placement of title and top-heavy emptiness.

Where it worked: There is simply no way this movie should have worked. The first Paul Walker-less installment since Tokyo Drift, and the first true entry filmed after his death, the series was once thought to have concluded with a sixth entry, and most certainly the seventh. But Eight works as a direct sequel to Seven, so returning here from Seven are the new team hacker Megan Ramsey, Kurt Russell's always-confident FBI agent Mr. Nobody, and Jason Statham as Deckard Shaw. Here, Deckard is forced to work with his former enemies to take down newcomer Charlize Theron's new dreadlocked villain Cipher, who happens to be the world's top cyberterrorist. With Brian and Mia "retired" and Dom coerced into working with Cipher, Dwayne Johnson's Luke Hobbs and Deckard fill in for the shoes usually filled by Dom and Brian, leading their short-handed crew into a complex and difficult firefight with Dom and Cipher, while giving the franchise a whole new level of action-film status. Roman's mixture of humor shines brightly here but he also reminds us of his value to the team, showcasing precision and deadliness to his character unseen since his debut in Fast Two. It's astonishing as well that Letty's tomboy tough-girl character has yet to grow stale--she may be the core team's most important character here simply because, without Mia or Gisele, Letty serves as the other side of Megan Ramsey: the muscle the team needs just as much as the brain Megan represents, gender notwithstanding. Finally, Brian's omission is addressed with class and tastefulness by at least three characters. It was heartwarming and well-done both within the narrative and to the audience who understand the real-life rapport between Paul Walker and his co-stars, especially Vin Diesel and Tyrese Gibson. The film offers very little in the form of new important characters minus Cipher (who is evidently slated to reappear in the future) but like previous installments goes out of its way to bring back certain forgotten characters, including offering a much larger role for Elsa Patsky’s Elena. Vin Diesel and new director F. Gary Gray score another winner with this film that goes above and beyond to keep the memory of Walker and his character Brian alive. Even the completely absent Mia is acknowledged by Letty, so the team never forgets their sense of family.

Where it doesn't work: This movie was unprecedentedly well-done, but not without a few flaws. I had once assumed that because of Brian's omission and Sean's cameo in Seven that Sean would reappear here to simultaneously fill in for both Brian and Han, becoming a permanent asset to Dom's crew. However I was wrong, and instead we get Mr. Nobody's struggling subordinate, Scott Eastwood's Eric, put on the field by Mr. Nobody to work with Dom's crew firsthand. Fast films function by having an extremely-diverse cast at its core. Brian and Sean, both being Caucasian and sharing the screen with African-American, Latino, Asian, Israeli, and mixed men and women, strongly add to that sense of diversity within the narrative, showcasing an accurate reflection of what the America of today looks like. This is a huge plus--so I was certainly expecting (for lack of a better phrase) an American "cool white guy" to wholly round out the crew. That well-roundedness is often clutch in every prior Fast entry...but Eric's character here is just kinda lame. He sticks out as a forced replacement, like jamming a cylinder into a rectangular fitting, and it makes us not only miss Brian more, but also makes us hopeful for Sean's return in the future to replace him. Tej seems pretty unfulfilled here too in many ways, and even Megan--whose capture and subsequent rescue was essential to the events of the previous film--is wondering what her role is in Dom's crew, and seemingly the film. She'll find her place, but it will take some practice. I may add one thing bothers me that I believe I can address without spoiling the film--Han's death at the hands of Deckard is not addressed at all. For all the killing of one another Dom's crew and Deckard attempted in the previous film, based almost solely on the knowledge that Deckard killed Han as an act of vengeance, one would have no idea why Deckard and Dom's crew don't like each other without watching Seven because this simply fact was never verbally acknowledged. The film’s acknowledgement of an absent Brian and Mia and the lack of acknowledgement of an absent Han and Gisele paints an inconsistent picture of how they remember their "family". I hope to see either character return in a flashback sequence, but with the overstuffing of big-name stars, action heroes and non-action heroes alike, I doubt this trend will continue into the future ninth entry. Speaking of big-name stars like Kurt Russell, Charlize Theron, and Jason Statham, it’s also no secret that Helen Mirren was cast in this film. She brings a fresh albeit unexpected tone to the film, but when it’s all said and done, you’ll be left scratching your head about how the events involving her actually came to pass.  

 

#3 Fast & Furious 6 ("Fast Fix", 2013)

 Poster grade: 10/10. Extremely top-heavy, beautifully simple, and full of wonder. Brian's serenity here perfectly matches Dominic's urgency in his own character poster.

Poster grade: 10/10. Extremely top-heavy, beautifully simple, and full of wonder. Brian's serenity here perfectly matches Dominic's urgency in his own character poster.

Where it works: If director Justin Lin's Fast Three, Four, and Five were experimental, Fast Six is the film where Lin finally lands his formula for the franchise. The cyberterrorism element is present here but not overwhelming like in Seven or Eight, and Luke Evan's Owen Shaw is an excellent franchise villain. He is a sort of negative mirror image of both Dom and Brian, and he and his crew act as a "dark" version of Dom's crew, so seeing the two teams try to outwit each other on the streets of London is exciting and overwhelmingly fascinating. Gal Gadot's Gisele, a character who debuted in Fast Four as a mere flunky for Braga (that film's antagonist) but was invited into Dom's crew in Fast Five, shines brightly here as more than just eye candy like in Four or exploited as sexy fantasy for Han (and the audience) like in Five: here, she is invaluable, the perfect amalgamation of Letty's deadly toughness, and Mia's genuine concern and warmth, all while acting as boyfriend Han's anchor. Dwayne Johnson as Luke Hobbs shines here as a man formerly hunting Dom and Brian down, to a man humbly coming to his front door and acknowledging that he can't complete his job without the help of Dom and his team. As expecting from Dom's growing role into leadership in Four and Five, this is also the film that fully renders Dom "the" lead, as opposed to Brian AND Dom both sharing that role for the crew, as we see the team continue to break off into pairs: Tej and Roman's friendship grows, Han and Giselle's relationship solidifies, and Brian and Mia take steps closer to an authentic family life, while Dom's rivalry with Luke Hobbs slowly emerges into the realm of friendship. Letty's return is quite welcome, though antagonistic due to memory loss, incentivizing Dom to further keep her from being used as Owen Shaw's perfect pawn. The action flies high right from the get-go between Dom and Owen's teams, with both teams surprised at what the other brings to the high-stakes table. When Dom and Owen finally meet, it's clear they're enemies, but they seem to almost--ALMOST--have a respect for each other because of their occupations. It's nice to see our hero and villain have SOME sort of personal connection instead of a cold, distant, forced animosity. And if you ask me, Six personally has the best ending to any Fast film yet. Channeling the spirit of Fast One, we truly see the evolution of Dom's family from what it was in the first film to now, at their traditional family backyard BBQ in their old LA home. There's something so real and respectable about seeing this new family together, bowing their heads in a serious prayer led by Roman, as the film transitions to its amazing ending theme song and the closing credits...no less leading audiences into a mid-credits scene finally catching us up to the events of Tokyo Drift. Well done, Justin Lin.  

Where it doesn't work: The laws of physics and logic haven't mattered in the Fast series since Four, so I can't whine too much about the ridiculous, almost super-heroic acts of valor that the Hobbs and Dom pull off, or how long that airstrip is at the end of the film. However, even with her character almost completely intact, it almost feels cheap that Letty's character had to spend three films either absent or completely unaware of her relationships with Dom, Brian, or Mia. Speaking of Letty, I completely understand that Letty's involvement with Shaw's activities are the key draw for Dom to risk the lives of his crew to get her back...but the issue here is that while Dom, Brian, and Han really know Mia and have history with her, Giselle, Tej, and Roman actually have no clue who she is, so why they're so intent on rescuing her is inexplicable. Roman even addresses the fact that he doesn't know who Braga (from Fast Four) is, which would otherwise earn Justin Lin continuity points for making sure the characters from 2 Fast 2 Furious were kept unaware of the events from Fast Four in accordance to their absence, but it still makes no sense he would know--or rather, decide to address not knowing--who Letty was. Tiny plot-hole there. The last issue I have with this otherwise dope action film is the way it handles the character of Riley Hicks, a DSS agent and partner of Luke Hobbs. She's portrayed with zero charisma by MMA fighter Gina Carano, though she's tough enough to give Letty a run for her money in two fistfights during the course of the film. Only worse than her was MMA champion Ronda Rousey in Seven, whose embarrassing cameo and subsequent fight with--wouldn't you know it--Letty, thankfully caused that trend to collapse by Eight. Thank you, Lord.

 

#2 The Fast and the Furious ("Fast One", 2001) 

 Poster grade: 7/10. Unique use of negative space and chiaroscuro shading, keeping two strong focuses, the characters on the outside, and their cars on the inside, wrestling one another for the audience's attention. Pretty dope. 

Poster grade: 7/10. Unique use of negative space and chiaroscuro shading, keeping two strong focuses, the characters on the outside, and their cars on the inside, wrestling one another for the audience's attention. Pretty dope. 

Where it worked: Ah, the original gem that had no idea what it would ever evoke into within the next ten years. Rob Cohen directed this undercover cop drama, starring Paul Walker as Los Angeles police officer Brian O'Connor going undercover as a street racer to investigate hijackings of 18-wheelers and their cargo. Brian finds himself enjoying the thrill of illegal street racing, working part-time at a local chop shop and learning everything there is to know about the market, and falls in too deep, becoming a close companion of illegal street race king Dominic Toretto and falling in love with his sister Mia Toretto. Before the sequels' cyberterrorists hacks and missile-locks that rendered the country bent to the will of supervillains, the scariest things the Furious world had to offer were Ja Rule and Limp Bizkit blaring in the background, desktops that still used floppy disks, and two close friends broken by the bitter truth and betrayal, all in the name of justice. The film is still a pleasure to watch today; before Vin Diesel's Toretto pulled off physics-defying stunts and before Walker's O'Connor himself became the convict/underground racing champion of Florida, they had so much to learn from one another as opposite sides of the same coin, and their respect for each other ultimately led to a bonding as men. The action is all about the cars here--the romance of the race, and the danger of the drive. "Nos" is a term that is never said complimentary to anything or anyone. Almost every time Brian and Dom get into a car, their freedoms--or their own lives--are in complete danger. Dom's crew--even here he refers to them as his own family--is nothing short of what you would expect an underground street racing alpha male's squad to look like in 2001 L.A.: grungy, outcast, motor heads, and street-smart nerds with heart--nothing yet like the all-star mega-crew being hunted by The Rock in Fast Five. Like her co-stars at the time, Michelle Rodriguez was just now starting to gain some star power in Hollywood, and her tough tomboy ride-or-die Letty Ortiz would serve as Dom's anchor for many films to come. Ted Levine plays Brian's older head officer Tanner, who seems to care so much about Brian's welfare that it's a wonder why HE didn't come back in the sequel, 2 Fast 2 Furious. Instead, Thom Berry's FBI Agent Bilkins broadens his role into that film, but first he was the hardass who ran Brian's operation and gave him an extremely hard time for his behavior. However, he was right--Brian was turned by his respect for Dom, his love for Mia, and his obsession with the race, and did everything short of turning criminal himself (so far) to prove it. And how can we forget Dom's original crew? Jessie, Leon, and Vince (who makes a highly satisfying return in Five) are all so 2001 it's frightening. Leon, who doesn't really exist in the franchise other than this first film, doesn't seem to have any deep connections with his mates except for possibly Vince. Seeing him have little chemistry with his friend and crew leader Dom hurts his character and nobody seems to really speak of him after the final scenes of the film, but it's fun to return to this film and remember that, oh yeah, Leon used to be down with the clique. This film is thrilling, enjoyable, and surprisingly holds up after all this time, even to its recent, hyper-amplified sequels.  

Where it didn't work: It's always interesting to see Hollywood romanticize urban counter-cultures. This film is based on a Vibe article written by Ken Li that chronicled the underground racing circuit up in New York City. Pouring the inspiration from that into Los Angeles must have been an interesting transition, and of course, unless you've been there or seen it from afar, you don't really know how accurate of a portrayal you're getting. The soundtrack is so cross-genre and loud that it almost feels like pirate radio, despite context and disregarding the popularity of the artists. That's not really a bad thing, but again, how accurate a portrayal, I don't know. But who knows, maybe Fred Durst was popular among young racers back then. God help us all. Dom's crew were an interesting lot, too. The shared street-talk between crew members Vince and Leon sounds pretty awful looking back at this film sixteen years after its release, and although it really can't be helped now, I still can't get over scruffy Vince, who looks like he just escaped the Matrix but got kicked out of Malibu, telling Leon and Letty, "I know what he's slingin'", referring to his awareness of Brian's attraction, and possible pursuit, of Mia Toretto. Jesse, the only kid who had real heart in the crew, was cookie-cutter expendable. The aforementioned Leon was just there for little reason....not dissimilar to antagonist Lance. Johnny Tran was a very believable villain, and I personally really liked him. This film excels where the story doesn't deliver a villain on a silver platter like the straight-forward sequel that has next to no blurred lines or newly acquired perspectives--here, we don't really know who "the" villain is until, of course, we know, and Johnny portrays an interestingly suave embodiment of who that person could be in the film. His cousin Lance, on the other hand, speaks about two lines in the entire film because he's actually a machine who says nothing unless Johnny asks him a question. He eventually gets his lights knocked out swiftly, and in a single punch, by Letty, which heavily undermines the seriousness of his character. He's a joke in an unfunny performance, and to this day I still question his purpose in the film. He doesn't die, but he makes me want to die of embarrassment. In conclusion, this film deserves its comparisons to Point Break, and that's totally fine. I enjoy both films. But the difference between the two is really the integrity of their endings. Point Break's final scene was powerful, exciting, and heart-wrenching all at once. Fast One's ending was less than satisfying, however. Brian finally deciding to let Dom go as recompense for his betrayal, was satisfying to an audience who weren't ready to see these bonded brothers part ways. But then the film ended. It wasn't made clear what Brian was going to do subsequently after Dom gets away. Did he quit the force? Lie to his superiors? Go find Mia and explain things? No, he just walks into slow motion until the screen fades to black, and he somehow magically ends up in Miami in the sequel. Neat.

 

#1 Fast Five (2011)

 Poster grade: 8.5/10. With the majestically beautiful Rio sky making up 80% of the entire poster, this change of pace for the posters also lines up perfectly with the change of the film's style and genre.

Poster grade: 8.5/10. With the majestically beautiful Rio sky making up 80% of the entire poster, this change of pace for the posters also lines up perfectly with the change of the film's style and genre.

Where it worked: With the first three films all basically having a completely different cast from each other, Fast Four's primary appeal was the return of Dom, Brian, Mia, and Letty from Fast One. But where that story ended, Justin Lin made a full 180 in the franchise's standout moment: Fast Five is a heist film, gliding on action and the establishment of its cast. We don't get to see every race anymore, because we don’t have to--we already know who these characters are and what they can do, and now we have to see them out their skills to a brand new use. The film, for the first time in the franchise, unites the previous four films' unacquainted cast members for one grand heist in Rio de Janeiro. Dom, Brian, and Mia are hiding out in Rio as wanted criminals and recruit reformed douchebag Vince from Fast One; Roman and Tej from 2 Fast; Han from Tokyo Drift; and Gisele, Leo, and Santos from Fast Four. Forming this supergroup of all-stars begs the question why they hadn't even thought of doing this before. For fans who patiently stood by the series from day one, this is the stuff dreams are made of: in one particular scene we didn’t know we wanted until we received it, we see a spark of tension between Toretto and the man who replaces him in 2 Fast, Roman, facing one another for the first time. This team is high on the wanted list both by local drug runners, as well as the United States Diplomatic Security Service and their lead agent Luke Hobbs, played with dynamic electricity by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, his streetsmart partner Elena played by Elsa Patsky, and Hobbs' DSS crew that looks like they'd give the Expendables a run for their money. In between the drug lords run by the city's antagonistic mayor Reyes and being pursued as criminals by Hobbs, the team has limited resources and even less time to pull off their grand heist: to rob Reyes of all of his money--a total of one hundred million U.S. dollars--and "disappear". This is also the last film that places a large emphasis on the importance of both Brian and Dom leading their crew. Although Dom is the lead character, he and Brian are almost always referenced together, one not necessarily more important than the other, and are known as a deadly force to be reckoned with. "A lot of people out here looking for you two," says a local at a race meet mid-film reminding the audience with gentle ferocity how important they are as a duo. This is one of the highlights about Fast Five: like Fast One, it doesn't quite feel like a Vin Diesel movie. Yet, not quite a Paul Walker movie either. It's definitely a shared spotlight, and places an emphasis on the franchise’s foundational chemistry between the two. (One of the film's best scenes shows the two enter the aforementioned race meet, and when a scantily clad lady walks by, loud music blaring and engines roaring, Dom turns to Brian smiling and says, "Home sweet home." Brian responds with a genuine, understanding laugh of approval.) Seeing Roman again is spectacular. Like in Two, he is the film's comic relief but no less useful than his teammates. Tej, on the other hand, is practically reinvented as the team's tech guy, who suddenly has a past prior to that of 2 Fast in which he puts those former skills to use. Han and Gisele make for an interesting pair, both intuitive and addictively serene; seeing such entanglement between the representatives of Tokyo Drift and Fast Four helps solidify the new foundation for future films. This team is so jam-packed and fun to roll with, we completely forget that Letty is not among them this time around. And when Hobbs and Dom--two behemoths with brown skin, no fair, and zero fear--face off, it's one of the most satisfying fistfights of the entire franchise. They beat the tar out of each other in what looks like Godzilla fighting King Kong compared to the other characters. We may not have thought that replacing car culture and races with fistfights and shootouts would work in Fast Four, but with help from The Rock and co., director Lin makes sure to pull it off in Five.

Where it didn’t work: Ah, The Rock. Johnson’s Luke Hobbs is constantly sweating in this movie. The problem is that he’s the only one--whenever he’s on-screen it looks like he just ran two marathons and stopped for coffee, while everyone else around him is dry as raw earth. It’s pretty entertaining in a small way: for those of us who were raised on the “Attitude” and “SmackDown” eras of the WWE, The Rock feels way too familiar in this movie and way too at home, sweating and spitting like he’s in the wrestling ring. Maybe that’s not too much of a bad thing. Their reworking of Tej, however, works perfectly for the context of this film in particular, but crumbles harshly trying to fit in the overall franchise’s context. His non-racing orchestrator self from Miami is suddenly replaced with a tech-saavy nerd version who actually sometimes drives. Their explanation of this transition is short, simple, and sweet; again, it works for the this movie on its own attempted to achieve. Still, thinking of all the films as a whole, it’s hard to see this actually work unless they give to Tej what they gave to Han: a complete history of his character from the Dominican Republic, to Rio, to London, to Los Angeles, and finally to Tokyo. They will not do that for Tej--not sure I want them to, either. But seeing Mia at the heart of the new crew is satisfying. Both Fast One and Fast Four give extremely short bursts of hinting at Mia’s ability to drive like her brother Dom, so instead of showing us whether she can or not, they give her equally significant duties as she holds down the fort on DSS/Reyes watch. Even so, it would have been quite nice to see Mia do some real driving before semi-retiring in Fast Six, and totally retiring in Fast Seven. The action set pieces here are so riveting that a pair of fists mean more than a set of wheels; a gun, more than a gas petal. Looking at the movie posters for Fast Five, then Six, Seven, and finally Eight. You'll notice that they all have alternate posters, most of which do not feature cars whatsoever--the series has completely evolved out of the street race culture confinement with a deeper focus on the characters themselves. I wouldn't be too surprised if one of the final two future installments featured movie posters as well as alternates that featured no vehicles whatsoever. They shouldn't do that, but if they did, it would work because of what they accomplished here in Fast Five. So what about the action set pieces doesn't work, you ask? Let me just be real here: the bank vault scene was absolutely ridiculous on any level. Justin Lin finally stopped caring about grounding his world in any sense of realism. Gravity is defied, physics are shoved aside, and Dom and Brian act like it's completely fine. They're basically two Neos in the Matrix: if they want to drive a car off a hellishly deep cliff and jump out of the car in mid-air as its going in, they can. If they want to drag the largest bank vault in all of Rio through the streets with two superchargers and some steel cable, they'll do it. If Dom wants to jump out of a car wearing a white tee-shirt, land face-first into the road, then get up and not have so much as a SPECK on his angelically-immaculate white-tee, he will. It's all ridiculous. Not that it didn't work, it's just ridiculous. And yes, it only gets worse in the chapters to come. God help us all.         

What say you? Do you even care about the Fast series or are you highly anticipating Fast Nine and Ten, supposedly the final chapters? Let's talk about it.