I sing of wheels and the man

In celebration of the time-warping, laws of physics-breaking, booty-shaking universe of The Fast and The Furious. Definitely contains spoilers for FF 1-8.

Recently we’ve been working our way through the Fast & Furious movies, in anticipation of the ninth (core narrative) instalment coming out in May November 2020 May June 2021 (fingers crossed).

After watching the sixth movie, I realised I was in the presence of movie-making greatness, with themes that were only ripening as it headed into double figure entries and spawned two short films and a television series.

A heroic saga in the mold of the Iliad or Lord of the Rings, the franchise makes other buddy action series like Lethal Weapon or Bad Boys seem like rank amateurs. Characters die and are reborn and narrative threads loop back on each other to weave a compelling story of loyalty and honour on a par with the Round Table or a certain Fellowship. The only other comparable multi-movie narratives are either set in a galaxy far far away, or have 60 years of comic book history to draw on. Not bad for a central concept based on pumping pistons.

Flashback to 2001, when I saw a little action movie about car thieves starring the appropriately named Vin Diesel, and some blond blue-eyed chin called Paul Walker. Huh, Point Break with cars, I thought, and forgot about it.

But as the years rolled by and the movies kept coming, there was a nagging doubt in my mind, like fuel knocking. What made this saga so enduring? And then we found a Blu-ray box set of the first six movies on special at The Warehouse, back when they still sold such items. It was fate. Start your engines.

The first movie is dominated by the pan-ethnic non-specific appeal of Vin Diesel as Dominic Toretto, a man with a code, a growl, and a surprisingly small head. The multi-ethnic cast is a refreshing change from the square-jawed white heroes with Black sidekicks for comic relief. His fiery wahine Letty, played by Michele Rodriguez (Dominican / Puerto Rican), and his feisty sister Mia (Jordana Brewster, part-Brazilian) are at the core of his crew. Stereotypes are busted – in a later instalment, we have Black hackers, a Korean cool guy and a sexy ex-Mossad soldier. Paul Walker as Brian O’Connor seems like the token white guy who has stumbled into this richer, more appealing life. It’s the United Nations of stealing cars.  

It almost ended with a lacklustre sequel, Diesel jumping ship to play Roddick in Pitch Black. In 2 Fast 2 Furious, Brian hooks up with Tyrese Gibson as Roman Pearce, and a criminally-underused Eva Mendes as Monica Fuentes for a romp through Florida with drug dealers. Hardly the stuff of legends.

But it’s with the third one, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift that things get really interesting. Lucas Black plays Sean Boswell, a cookie-cutter American boy dislocated to Tokyo and befriended by Bow Wow (Twinkie) and Sung Kang as the mysterious, nonchalant Han. Han burns up the screen, pulling our gaze towards him like a black hole sucks gravity.

Tokyo Drift’s director Justin Lin, got the gig on the strength of his previous and much smaller film Better Luck Tomorrow, about aspects of the Asian-American experience, also starring Sung Kang. If you get on well with an actor, why wouldn’t you cast him in your next film? But giving the character the same name paved the way for a fan theory where Better Luck Tomorrow was Han’s origin story, which has now become widely recognised.

The popularity of Han’s character may explain why after dying in a tragic crash towards the end of the third movie, Han appears alive and well in Fast Five. With some fancy dialogue footwork we are led to understand that this movie occurs *before* Tokyo Drift, as does the sixth. Meanwhile in Fast & Furious (IV), Letty tragically dies while trying to redeem Dominic – or does she?

The movies are full of epic gestures. A romance blossoms between Gisele and Han, but at the end of Fast & Furious 6, Gisele heroically sacrifices herself to save her lover – helpfully freeing up Gal Gadot to become Wonder Woman.

A heart-broken Han is last seen heading in the direction of Tokyo. Don’t do it Han! Our knowledge of everything that has passed hangs heavy on us. And then in a breathtaking piece of retconning, Jason Statham appears as Deckard Shaw in a mid-credits sequence, sealing Han’s fate in a fiery car crash, as revenge for putting his brother Owen Shaw (Luke Evans) in a coma, and I realised the balls-out audacity of it all. This was a franchise that would pull every trick in the book to link everything together. 

The only other place where such narrative sleight of hand is common is comic books, where enduring characters also switch from bad to good. In the Fast and the Furious universe, very few people are irredeemable. Dwayne Johnson goes from persecutor in FF5 to enabler in FF6, and even super-villain Jason Statham morphs into a hero by cuddling a baby in FF8 and teams up with Johnson to star in the spin-off movie Hobbs and Shaw.

I was the most apprehensive about Furious 7 due to the narrative sleight of hand and technical trickery needed to give Brian a graceful exit after Paul Walker’s tragic death as a passenger in a car crash. But the team manages it with the help of Walker’s brothers. The storyline revolves around Brian’s need to put his young family first, pointing a clear path to retirement, and ends with a touching farewell, Dominic and Brian driving side by side and then turning down different roads. Yeah, yeah, call me a softie, but I had a lump in my throat.

Things come a little unstuck with The Fate of the Furious, putting Elsa Pataky along with Dominic’s hitherto unsuspected son, in over-the-top jeopardy from a cyberterrorist played by Charlize Theron, clearly having a ball. But then Helen Mirren turns up for a juicy turn as the matriarch of the wayward Shaw brothers, and by the time Dominic is in vehicular, and occasionally airborne, pursuit of a nuclear submarine, we’re hooting and hollering. We’ve come a long way from drag races and stealing cars. What on earth will they come up with for FF9?  

One reason for their enduring appeal is the strong moral code at the heart of these movies. In FF1, the bromance between Paul Walker and Vin Diesel has grown so strong that Brian gives him the keys to his car to escape the law. It’s there when Tyrese Gibson steps up to help Paul in FF2, and is the reason that Lucas races Brian Tee as Takashi, at the end of Tokyo Drift.

It becomes the overwhelming theme of the franchise in FF6, when Dominic risks everything in a breath-taking chase scene to rescue a back-from-the-dead Letty, even though she doesn’t remember who he is or the decade of their lives together. Owen Shaw sneers at the primacy of Family, but this stance is undercut by his brother turning up in FF7 to exact revenge in his own version of the moral code. Each movie ends with a meal and the family saying grace together.

But we’ve got to talk about that booty. When I first mentioned the epic saga parallels with Lord of the Rings to my partner, he said “ yes, but with more booty shaking”.

It seems to be a condition of release that all these movies must include a slow-mo pan at crotch level through a crowd of women wearing token clothing signifiers. Tight, shiny, and skimpy describe both the fabric involved and how the director sees the audience gaze. Luckily they become shorter and shorter in each movie, to the point of tokenistic self-parody.

How can I call myself a feminist and celebrate these movies? But all of this is just so much bling, like the fancy cars and clothes and pounding music. The real value of women in this universe is expressed by Letty, Mia, Gisele, Elena, and Riley, played by Gina Carano. These chicks are all compassionate, strong, and highly capable of kicking butt and driving just as hard as the men.

Most of the male characters in the movies seem flummoxed by these women. I reckon the role of the booty-shaking babes is to provide superficial visual comfort to cushion the hard fact that they are ultimately unattainable. True partnership is to be found in a shared love of getting your hands dirty under the hood, slinging bullets at the bad guys and driving fast – or as we have found, by going along for the ride. 

Published by Catherine Jeffcoat

Wellington-based communications manager.