27 April 2011

Fast and Furious: A Retrospective Look

With Fast Five opening this Friday, I decided to re-watch the first four films The first film is the only one that I saw I theaters. The others were all rented or borrowed from friends. As I went through them, some were still fun, others were not. One was downright terrible. So, without further ado, let's begin our journey through the Fast and Furious Franchise.

The Fast and the Furious came out in the summer of 2001. I remember this fondly for many reasons. This was Vin Diesel's big break. He had a minor hit with the underrated Pitch Black the year before, but this put him on the map as an action hero. Paul Walker was coming off of two mid-level hits with his high school sports drama Varsity Blues and college fraternity thriller The Skulls. Like Diesel, Walker was thrust into the spotlight following the success of The Fast and the Furious.

That summer, I was working at the local theater. I remember staying late on Thursday for an employees-only sneak. After watching the movie, all of us employees were ready to go out and street race. That weekend at the theater was hilarious. All the local kids drove their suped-up Hondas and Toyotas to the theater. Once they left, they would peel out and race each other out of the parking lot. Why was this hilarious? The police just sat out in the parking lot in unmarked cars waiting for these gearheads to do just that. I cannot imagine how many tickets were written that weekend within a two mile radius of the theater.

Lastly, my fondness for the movie centers on the bootleg version of this film that all the students on my dorm floor had. It had no music. The entire soundtrack, songs and score, was nonexistent. This made for a hilarious viewing, as we sat around a fifteen inch tube monitor. Some of the scenes were laughable without music. The bass in the trunk was thumping visually, but there was no bass sound. The characters were shouting over nothing. They were dancing to nothing. They were bobbing their heads to music only they could hear. Classic.

The Fast and the Furious opens with a semi-truck heist that has an excitement and awe-factor that none of the sequels have been able to recreate. All the robbers are wearing black masks, so you are not sure who they are. We are not even sure what they are stealing. We then cut to Brian O'Connor (Walker) red-lining his Eclipse before hitting the infamous NOS button boosting him up to over 140 mph. But, he is not satisfied, as he goes back to his job at an aftermarket car parts store. We then find out that he is LAPD working with the FBI to investigate the recent rash of semi-truck heists.

In the effort to get inside information about the semi-truck heists, Brian enters his Eclipse as collateral into a street race against the legendary Dom Toretto (Diesel) and his Mazda RX-7. Brian loses. Cops raid the race. Everyone scatters. Dom is about to caught, but Brian saves the day. They accidentally run across Johnny Tran (Rick Yune) and his gang. They shoot the Eclipse and hit the NOS, blowing up the entire car. This means that Brian owes Dom a 10-second car. Brian laters shows up at Dom’s garage with a jalopy of what could be a sweet Toyota Supra. While getting buddy-buddy with Dom and his crew, Vince (Matt Schultze), Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) and Jesse (Chad Lindberg), Brian finds evidence that Tran's crew is pulling off the heists. After the raid turns up nothing, Brian's loyalty is questioned because of his relationship with Dom's sister, Mia (Jordana Brewster).

A showdown is set when Dom's crew and Tran's crew show up to Race Wars. There, tricked-out cars drag race head-to-head legally. Confrontations and conflicts fill the short amount of time at Race Wars. Jesse from Dom's crew loses to Tran. Dom beats Tran's face in. Brian watches a heated conversation between Mia and Dom which reveals that Dom’s crew is actually behind the semi-truck heists. Dom's crew leaves for another heist. Brian and Mia go to try and stop them. They turn out to show up in time to save them. Brian blows his cover to everyone to save Vince of Dom's crew. Then, there is the finale drag race between the recently finished Supra and Dom's Dad's Charger. If you haven't seen this scene, why are you reading this article?

The Fast and the Furious is a well-paced action/adventure film directed by Rob Cohen (xXx, The Skulls) from a screenplay by Gary Scott Thompson based on a magazine article “Racer X”. That's right, a magazine article was the inspiration for this ludicrous franchise. Pun intended. I can say that this was the perfect way to spend 106 minutes. As for how well does it stand the test of time? I think that if you don’t have the nostalgic memories as I do, you will not be impressed with the bad acting, bad dialog, and two-minute “10 second” races.

2 Fast 2 Furious debuted two years later in the summer of 2003. It opened strong, and finished reasonably. It opens with Brian (Walker), now an ex-cop, street racing in Miami. He is the Racing Dom of Miami, and Tej (Ludacris) is garage owner Dom. Apparently, they needed both of them to split the duties of Vin Diesel, who sat this one out. Brian wins the street course race, not a drag race, after ramping his car over an opening draw bridge. Then, cops arrive, racers flee, and Brain is caught.

Next we are introduced to U.S. Customs Agents Marham (James Remar) and Dunn. With the help of Brian’s old boss from Fast 1, Agent Bilkins, they are able to get Brian to agree to help them catch a smuggler by offering to clear his record at completion. Brian manages to work in his old friend Roman “Rome” Pierce (Tyrese) as his partner, as long as they clear his record, too. We meet Rome as he is competing in a demolition derby with a house arrest bracelet on. After a childish fistfight between Rome and Brian, Rome agrees to help the cause.

From here, the movie doesn’t really focus on the cars as much as it recreates the typical Miami Vice plot. A bad guy is smuggling contraband from Cuba to Miami. A cop is deep undercover and could be compromised. I think they used the plot for the Miami Vice movie, too.

Anyway, the guys race for an audition to run for the bad guy Carter Verone (Cole Hauser). They win the audition, which shocks no one. Brian starts to make sweet on Verone’s lady, Monica (Eve Mendes), who is the possibly compromised undercover agent. Tension builds between the two heroes and Verone’s two thugs.

The finale of 2 Fast 2 Furious is a scene I remember. The police chase Rome and Brian to a huge airport hangar. The police surround the hangar, the doors open and every tricked out car and truck in the Miami area comes driving out with the help of Tej and his friends. I know they tried, but Tej, Suki, Orange Julius, and Slap Jack are not replacements for Dom and his crew.

So, the good guys end up defying the rules of physics and ramp their car onto the villain’s escape yacht. Monica is not compromised, and all is well. Brian and Rome’s records are clear. As they walk away, they talk to each other about opening a garage with the money that they skimmed from their drug dealing antagonist. Though, this is not where we find Brian in six years. I don’t know where we are going to catch up with Rome. He will make his return to this lucrative franchise on Friday.

This was only my second viewing of 2 Fast 2 Furious. It was directed by Academy Award nominated John Singleton (Boyz n the Hood, Shaft, Four Brothers). His direction was a bit better than Cohen’s from the first film. The dialog was better, but it was not as memorable. There aren’t any “I live my life, a quarter of a mile at a time” lines. Would I use up 107 minutes to watch this again? In two years when the sixth movie comes out, sure. Until then? Probably not.

The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift opened in 2006, three years after 2 Fast 2 Furious. It opened weaker than the first two films, and finished with a domestic take putting it a distant third. As I sat to watch this one for the second time, I remembered how I felt about the movie after my first viewing so I was not that motivated to watch this one again, but I put it in the DVD player anyway, and away I went.

Tokyo Drift opens with a ridiculous car race through a housing development that is under construction. The racers are Sean Boswell (Lucas Black) and Clay (Zachery Ty Bryan). Why are they racing? In typical Fast and Furious fashion, they are racing over a girl. Because this is the last straw for Sean’s mom, he is sent to Tokyo to live with his father, who is stationed there with the Navy.

So, on his first day of school, Sean runs into Twinkie (Bow Wow), and they become friends because Twinkie has a tricked out car. Sean also meets Neela (Nathalie Kelley). She is gorgeous, and Sean is instantly infatuated with her. That night, Twinkie takes Sean to a parking garage where they drift race. In brief, the cars are lighter and special tires that allow them to slide or drift around corners.

In typical Fast and Furious fashion, our hotshot hero challenges a character known only as DK, which does not stand for Donkey Kong, but Drift King. Why does he challenge him? DK is the boyfriend of Neela. There is just one problem; Sean doesn’t have a car. Oh, and he doesn’t know how to drift race. Han (Sung Kang) gives him the keys to his car because he wants to see what he can do. Well, Sean loses. But, unlike the previous entries in the franchise, the cops don’t come.

Now, Sean works for Han to pay for the damaged car, just like Brian worked for Dom to pay for the repairs to the Supra. Han pays DK money for something illegal I guess because DK’s uncle is in the Yakuza. It is money to operate on his turf. Tensions build between Han and DK and come to head when it is discovered that Han has been skimming money from the mafia.

Along the way, Sean is taught how to drift by Han and his crew. An interesting fact: the guy who is considered the father of drifting has a cameo as one of the fishermen during Sean’s lessons. Sean finally gets a chance to redeem himself and demonstrate his drifting skills against Morimoto, DK’s right hand man. Sean wins. Again, no cops come.

Leading up to the inevitable final race between DK and Sean, Han is killed in a massive street chase, not race. In an act of avenging a friend, and acting macho for Neela who now wants to be with Sean, Sean goes straight to the Yakuza uncle and challenges DK to a race. The loser leaves the turf.

Back at Sean’s dad’s place, Han’s crew puts his dad’s Mustang back together and turns it into a drifting car. The final race takes place at night down a steep curving mountain, a mountain that only DK has made it down. In short, Sean wins and gets the girl. In the aftermath, Sean is the new DK, and is challenged by someone who says Han was family. This unnamed driver is Dom (Vin Diesel) who appears in a quick cameo.

As I look back at Tokyo Drift, I am shocked by how much less I hated it this time. Don’t get me wrong, it was still not a good movie, but it wasn’t as atrocious as I thought it would be. The storyline had the same elements as the first two films, with the exception of no undercover cop. They had the tricked out cars, the warring gangs, the hero working off debt, the racing for the hot girl, and a rapper in an insignificant role. What didn’t work? The whole fish out of water storyline they tried with Sean in Tokyo went over like a lead balloon. It just felt forced. This is the only movie in the franchise without Paul Walker. But don’t fret; Lucas Black filled the bad acting void.

Oddly enough, Justin Lin directed this movie. This is the least successful film of the franchise but somehow Lin kept the reigns for not only the fourth, but also the upcoming fifth film. What he did well in Tokyo Drift was the racing was real. There weren’t any CGI cars. Instead, real stunt drivers drifted real cars. I find this odd because the thing I remember most about Fast & Furious, the fourth film, is that it was all CGI. Another quick note: in the chronology of the franchise, this is considered to be the last movie. The events of four and five take place before Tokyo Drift. I don’t know where six is going to fall, but I would assume it will come before Tokyo Drift as well. As a final side note, Han makes a quick cameo in the fourth film, and seems to be a major character in Fast Five. He is the only character from this movie to make it into another film. The non-Paul Walker, non-Vin Diesel experiment was an utter failure.

But they got them back for Fast & Furious, which probably had the best tag line: "New Model, Original Parts." That was the only reason I got excited about this movie. By excited, I mean excited enough to rent it. I wasn’t going to go waste my hard earned $8 to watch another atrocity in theaters. Fast & Furious opened in April of 2009, as a pre-Memorial Day release. It opened strong, held on strong, and became the top earning movie of the franchise, and the second highest grossing movie involving car racing.

The movie opens with a semi-truck heist, reminiscent of the first film. Instead of electronics in Los Angeles, this time they are stealing gasoline in Dominican Republic. Han, from Tokyo Drift, is driving one truck, and a new guy named Tego is driving the other. Dom (Diesel) and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) are in a lead car. After the hijacking goes south, the local law enforcement closes in on Dom and his crew. They split up. Han says that hears that they are doing interesting things in Tokyo. So, one could assume that is setting up for Tokyo Drift, but Han is returning in Fast Five which leaves me to wonder how they are going to tie in the third film. That night, Dom leaves Letty for her own protection. Despite her pleas against it, Dom slips away in the night.

Brian (Walker) is now an agent of the F.B.I. He and his division are charged with finding and bringing down a heroin dealer, Braga. Brian chases down a lead, literally. The guy gives Brain the name David Park. Now, Letty is murdered in cold blood. Word gets to Dom via Mia (Brewster), and he returns to L.A. for the funeral. He starts to look into her death, and he is lead to a guy named David Park.

David Park tells the F.B.I. that Braga’s right hand man Campos (John Ortiz) is holding a race audition for the last spot in the next drug run. Brian shows up to race, but so does Dom. Brian shows up for his job. While Dom shows up to avenge Letty’s death. Dom wins the race. Brian sets up a different driver with a bogus drug possession to get in the race anyway.

So, they make their drug run through some bad CGI tunnels under the Mexico/U.S. border. Once they reach the drop point, it is clear that the hired drivers are going to be executed by Campos’s lead driver, Fenix. Dom and Brian escape execution with the $60 million in heroin just smuggled into the country. The FBI sets up a sting to get Braga out in the open, but it goes south. This leaves Brian no choice, but to once again defy authority.

In the finale, Dom and Brian go to Mexico to bring back Campos, who is also Braga, through the CGI tunnel. The idea is to try and clear Dom’s name. Dom gets his revenge on Fenix in a very anti-climactic battle. U.S. authorities arrive on the scene, taking into custody Braga and Dom. At a court hearing, Dom is denied clemency and sentenced to 25 to life. We are left with him on a prison bus heading to jail. But the bus is surrounded by three cars driven by Brian, Mia, and Tego.

Fast & Furious was the first movie to really delve into a deep plot. I am not saying that this is by any means an Academy Award winning script, but it was a refreshing idea. I enjoyed seeing the old cast, sans Vince, back together. I did not like how they just killed Letty. She was one of my favorite characters from the first film. In the grand scheme of things, I enjoyed Justin Lin’s second attempt at this franchise. Would I watch this one again on its own? Maybe. It is a decent use of 107 minutes.

Finally, I have finished watching the entire franchise up to this point. It has been an enjoyable four days. One thing I can say for certain: These movies were not designed to be played in a marathon like this. I was surprised how Paul Walker never really improved as an actor. Unfortunately, neither did Vin Diesel nor Jordana Brewster. So, it must be the brainless car racing and action that keeps me coming back to this franchise.

I have mentioned the running times of these films for a reason. They are all around 105 minutes. Fast Five, however, is being listed at 130 minutes. That seems a bit excessive. I am excited to see it nonetheless and look forward to the addition of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

Come back Friday for the review of the latest addition, Fast Five.

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