The fastest, furiousest, and stupidestly-named movie series ever ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The fastest, furiousest, and stupidestly-named movie series ever

I have only ever watched The Fast and the Furious (the first one, which I have to clarify for reasons I will later make clear), and even then as a late-night DVD session at a friend's place. See, I never knew my friend as a car freak before (although I shouldn't've been surprised, he always was a bit of a meathead - sorry Ray), but he was totally into this movie, more for the cars and the car porn and the street-racing subculture than any of the movie's actual merits. And that subculture was active enough to sustain the movie through three sequels and a fourth, which makes it a genuine film phenomenon and thus worthy of TMBF's Retro Review coverage. But let me say this upfront: I am not a car freak. I am a (mostly) law-abiding driver. I don't understand why anyone would want a car that can hit 140mph when our highway speed limit is 110km/h. And I happen to value things like plot, character and dialogue. Yeah, these reviews are gonna be fun - probably more for you than for me.

The Fast and the Furious (2001)
My rating:

I wonder now if Ray and I fast-forwarded through the boring bits, because I don't remember it being so lame. Even if you haven't watched the 1991 Keanu Reeves-starrer Point Break - of which this film is a blatant ripoff - the plot would still be pretty predictable. But the screenplay is incredibly lazy even at hitting its own beats. Brian's friendship with Dom, Brian's romance with Mia, Brian's alienation from his fellow cops, Dom's enmity with Johnny Tran; it's like the film doesn't even care about developing any of these things. None of the characters talk; they just preen and posture like 9-year-olds. The acting is uniformly bad. (This is one of the movies that launched Vin Diesel's career? I say his career launched in spite of it.) And the dialogue, when not being painfully dull, trades in hilariously faux-pithy lines like, "It's not how you stand by your car, it's how you race your car."

So what does the film care about? The racing scenes? Maybe, but that doesn't make them good. No matter how many camera tricks director Rob Cohen employs to make 140mph look like freakin' warp speed, there's just not much excitement to watching cars speeding straight down a straight track. Only a truck heist scene near the end generates some decent thrills, mostly through some impressive stuntwork - but still diminished by the fact that the guy in danger is an asshole whom I didn't care if he lived or died. I think what the film really cares about is showcasing the cars and their engines, on whom Cohen's camera lingers as fetishistically as it does on the hot chicks. It's certainly cheaper - 'cos I was reminded of the fact that this movie was a sleeper hit. Meaning it had a relatively small budget, too small to have any really elaborate car chase scenes save for that truck heist one.

And yet the general critical consensus is that this first one in the series is the best (or maybe just the least bad). If that's true, boy, am I in for some fun. But I didn't like it at all, and I think it's because it's dated. Whatever charms it had were small and ephemeral, and have long since fizzled out in the past 10 years. And maybe because, it's one thing to be a little dumb-fun sleeper hit movie; it's another thing to be the progenitor of a franchise that has now encompassed five movies. Maybe it's because I saw nothing about it to warrant any further thought two minutes after it ended, let alone four sequels. Or maybe I'm just biased against Rob Cohen for making one of the most aggressively stupid movies I've ever seen. But I think it's mostly because of its datedness. Ten years ago, I might have given it a pass for being bad but fun - now, it's just bad.

2 Fast 2 Furious (2003)
My rating:

Hey, I actually liked this one better. I did! And that puts me at odds with James Berardinelli, who regards it as one of the worst movies of 2003. Oh don't get me wrong, it's just as trashy and dumb as its predecessor. The plot is sublimely ridiculous; the big bad crime lord's plan to have skilled street-racer drivers transport his drug money makes not one lick of sense. And it loses Vin Diesel but keeps Paul Walker, who belongs to the I'm-cool-'cos-I-smirk-a-lot school of acting and is as dull as ever. But I actually preferred the action scenes in this one. It has a bigger budget, which means its car chase scenes have quite a bit more action in them. Maybe they're over-the-top - the double-car bridge jump bit was very over-the-top - but they're also a lot more fun.

Also fun: Tyrese Gibson as the wisecracking Roman Pearce. There's an agreeable quality to the proceedings however silly it gets, which counterpoints another thing I don't like about Rob Cohen - his movies tend to have a certain mean-spiritedness to them. Not so here with John Singleton on the directorial reins. There's just one, somewhat incongruously nasty scene involving the villainous Verone and a rat, and even that serves to tell us in perfectly unambigious terms that this movie is all about spunky good guys vs. a capital-B Bad Guy. It's not asking for any emotional investment in the characters or their relationships, their jealousies and betrayals and tedious bickering. And no romance either; it teases us with hints of one between O'Connor and Monica, then shuts it down as if to say "naah, we don't really need any of that here."

All it is is a trashy action movie with a prettyboy hero, a comic-relief sidekick and a hissable villain - two out of three of which its predecessor lacked. Another thing its predecessor lacked is a ridiculous and annoying title, which I already know this series is full of (and is bound to get even more annoying). I doubt I'm going with the general critical consensus here when I say this one's better than the first, but I'm sticking to it. It's very very dumb, but it's just the right kind of dumb that makes it just decently enjoyable. Still, I'm not seeing anything about the plot nor the characters - certainly not Brian O'Goddamn-Connor - to make it worth making sequels out of. It's not like there's ever been a desperate shortage of cinematic car chases.

The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006)
My rating:

Hmm, this one's an odd duck. It's a sequel with no returning characters from the previous two movies (except for a cameo at the end), and most of its new ones never go on to appear in any further instalments. About the only thing linking it to the franchise is that it's once again about street racing, which is either a bold new purely thematic direction for the series, or (let's not kid ourselves) an otherwise unrelated movie with a proven brand name carelessly slapped on. Still, odd duck is odd in many ways. The storyline is meandering and never develops any momentum, nor does it ever progress in a way that makes sense. Knowing what kind of movie this is, I knew it would end with a climactic car race, but I couldn't imagine how that could satisfyingly resolve anything that came before. Whaddya know, it didn't.

These new characters aren't very interesting either, and for this franchise, "interesting characters" is a low bar. The mentor-student relationship between Sean and Han is dull, because Han is never more than an aloof cypher. Brian Tee smarms it up as the villainous DK, but this is ultimately just a guy who's rightfully pissed at being cheated out of his money. Our new hero Sean is this weird combination of "arrogant white boy who think's he's better than the Asians" and "loser who keeps getting pwned and never does anything right" - and Lucas Black is laughably unconvincing as a teenager. This is also the one that made me question the series' portrayal of women. It's hard not to see Neela - Sean's main romantic interest - as a dangerous temptress who likes egging men on into self-destructive contests for her affection, especially after an opening sequence featuring that exact female stereotype. It seems that in these movies, women only ever cause trouble for men, or give themselves up to the men once the trouble is resolved.

Still, there is fitful enjoyment to be had from this one. Black is as bland and wooden as Walker, but he's just a little bit more likable and easier to sympathize with. The climactic car race is also pretty exciting, and still better than the first film's - though not really so much for the drifting. I know drifting is its own wildly popular thing in the racing world (and the street-racing subculture, so does that make drifting a sub-sub-culture?), but I've never dug it and this movie ain't making me dig it. And the whole series' depiction of street racers and their world is frankly extremely juvenile. Over-decorated cars, over-expensive engines and parts, under-dressed chicks waiting to throw themselves at the next race's winner - all this can't be real. It's just a glossy artifice of a bunch of movies designed to pander to a very undiscerning audience.

Fast & Furious (2009)
My rating:

Oh dear. Yes indeed, that's its official title in the U.S. It was called Fast & Furious 4 in other markets, probably here as well, for the same reason that X2: X-Men United was retitled X-Men 2; to wit, because we like our movie sequel titles to make some goddamn sense. This is how you're gonna name the fourth installment in your series? Drop two definite articles and replace "and" with an ampersand? Its slipshod attitude towards nomenclature extends to continuity as well; for some reason, this one takes place after the second and before the third, just so that Han can show up in a cameo. And word has it that the latest in the series does the same thing. Are they embarrassed by Tokyo Drift? Do they want to forget they ever made it? Poor Sean Boswell.

But in truth, this is the most continuity-heavy of the franchise to date. It brings back Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Jordana Brewster, Michelle Rodriguez, and features as many shout-outs to the first film as screenwriter Chris Morgan can fit in. Unfortunately, it also brings back the same weakness; its story depends on us caring about these characters and their relationships, and that's just too much to ask for this bunch. We're meant to believe Dom loved Letty, and that his need to avenge her is what drives the entire plot. We're meant to believe Brian and Mia are star-crossed lovers, and that Brian and Dom are brothers from other mothers, but none of this carries the emotional weight it needs to work. Not even the shout-outs are fun in the way continuity nods in a long-running franchise should be fun.

Worse, the movie occasionally goes completely brain-dead. (How could the tanker truck driver not know there's a sharp turn in the road ahead that his truck can't safely negotiate? Is this not his regular route? And how can Dom be more wanted than Letty or the rest of his road-hijacking gang?) Its saving grace is, once again, the action scenes - even though they employ a little too much CGI, they're still more enjoyable than the dull chases of the first installment. Still, I very nearly gave this two stars. It vastly overestimates the appeal of the series, thinking there's substance beyond the purely cheap thrill of fast cars and vehicular mayhem, and that that's what we want to see. No it's not, and no there isn't. There never was.


Well now, we've just defined the formula for making a good (or at least decent) Fast & Furious movie. To wit: a simple, no-brainer plot that allows for lots and lots of car chase scenes, and nothing else. No drama, no pathos, nothing that attempts to engage the heart. I know die-hard fans of the series will probably think I'm some hoity-toity film snob, for rating each one so low - but really, I like a good dumb action movie as much as you do, and I actually like these movies when they're being purely loud and dumb. I just wish they would figure this out and stick to what it's good at and what its fans want. (Except for the street-racing angle. That's just never gonna appeal to me.) Anyway, I'm all swotted up on the series, and I'm ready for Fast Five, which I'm honestly looking forward to - previously because I expect a car chase to be more fun on the big screen, but recently because of this unexpectedly generous review from AV Club. Could this one actually be good?


k0k s3n w4i said...

i never liked any of the fast and furious films till i saw fast five. it ditched the car fetishism and switched genres a little to heists. fast five was gloriously dumb. and everything the rock did was ridiculously over the top. check out the /filmcast review of it - it was one of the most hilarious episodes they ever had.