There is a moment in The Fast and the Furious, when Dominic “Dom” Toretto, played by Vin Diesel, struts, chest erect, to his classic American muscle car because he’s real angry. He’s wearing a t-shirt stained with dirt and blood, his face is set, and there is purpose in his stride. Someone has to pay. A friend of his has been killed and Dom is the kind of man who believes in settling scores, particularly when his friends (who are also his family) are involved. The scene exudes testosterone, American brawn, and exemplifies why the Fast and Furious franchise (currently clocking in at six films) is so wonderful.
Let us be clear. Each installment has a fragile and generally absurd suggestion of a plot. The movies don’t waste time with plausibility and it’s refreshing to know that you must abandon all sense of logic to proceed. There is no character development. The acting is rarely very good and features mostly wooden delivery, plenty of face acting and, in Michelle Rodriguez’s case, an epic amount of sneering. The actors love to talk to themselves while they’re driving, mostly shit-talking their opponents in a given race. They give great driving face, too, gripping their steering wheels and staring at the road before them intently. At times, there are bits of dialogue so random you cannot help but laugh out loud. In the first movie, for example, Ja Rule (the erstwhile rapper) is racing toward the promise of a ménage a trois with two beautiful women. “Noooooo. Monica,” he laments, as he loses the race.
Women are gleefully objectified in each movie. They are scantily clad set dressing, often gyrating in pairs or groups of three in settings where such gyrations make no sense, their barely encased, often spectacular breasts and asses threatening to break free from whatever leather or vinyl encasement contains them. Women drape themselves across car hoods and stand behind their men and ogle the drivers who flex their muscles in tight shirts and otherwise express machismo. If women do have speaking roles, they are, with few exceptions, the sister or love interest of a prominent male character.
They will, at some point, be imperiled because action movies generally have no idea what to do with a woman if she is not in danger.
The men and the cars are objectified too. There are lots of convenient excuses for men to rip their shirts off, revealing impeccably toned abdominals. In the later movies, some of the men are coated in a delightful sheen of oil, which highlights their musculature in truly lovely ways. In all six movies, fast cars are pornographically displayed–gleaming paint, flawless chrome, powerful engines, a bewildering panoply of brand names emblazoned across the doors–so intense is the gaze on these cars that at times, you want to look away and offer them a little privacy. The sound effects are always masterful. We hear every piston firing, every gear shifting with precision and clarity. It’s all very erotic.
If you are unfamiliar, the Fast and Furious franchise is about street racing—a glorious and unholy mishmash of West Side Story, Robin Hood, The Outsiders, The Karate Kid, Ocean’s Eleven and movies where rivals settle their disagreements through dance.
There’s always a little romance, interesting locales, aggressive hip-hop soundtracks, and plots that bank heavily on loyalty (in times of crisis, street racers stick together), creating communities of choice, and realizing what you really stand for.
In the first movie, Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker) is an ambitious undercover police officer in Los Angeles who infiltrates a gang of street racers led by Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) to find out if they are responsible for a series of truck hijackings. Also in the gang are Mia, Dom’s sister (Jordana Brewster), Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), Vince (Matt Schulze), and Jesse (Chad Lindberg). They’re all misfits but under Dom’s leadership, they are family (family is everything). When they’re not racing at night on inexplicably traffic-free streets, they are working on cars in the garage and throwing backyard barbecues where they always say grace. They have rivalries with local Mexican and Asian gangs. Most of their beefs are settled, as beefs so often are, on the street with cars that drive very fast.
They race for money and registration slips. They race for honor. Dom is of course a bad boy, with standard-issue shaved head and bulging muscles, offering up racing metaphors whenever he gets the chance. He also has A Past—he was in Lompoc for two years after nearly beating to death the man who killed his father.
The need for speed is genetic in the Toretto family. Throughout this movie, Dom makes it clear he is not going back to prison (no way). There are lots of amazing car chases and races; it’s a gear head’s wet dream. In the end, Brian ends up letting Dom go because he has grown to respect him. His true loyalty is to the race and the family.
The second movie is set in Miami with an almost entirely new cast. You know how unexpected franchises can be in Hollywood—if you don’t lock actors into a multi-film contract, you never know if you can bring them back into the fold. There’s an unspoken rule that any movie set in South Florida needs to involve the drug trade, so that’s what happens here. Our old friend Brian is hanging out with street racers, kicked off the force for letting Toretto go.
Until the day when, for some reason, he is recruited by FBI agents, who promise to restore his good name if he does them a favor. Brian partners up with his childhood friend, Roman Pearce (Tyrese) to bring down a very bad drug dealer, Carter Verone (Cole Hauser). Ludacris and a magnificent crown of hair are also heavily featured. Eva Mendes, an undercover agent, pretends to be Verone’s girlfriend but actually turns out to be the imperiled hero’s love interest—two for one.
The highlight arrives toward the end, when Brian and Roman drive a car onto a moving yacht. This really happens. It is spectacular.
We head across the Pacific to Tokyo for the third installment—-Tokyo Drift—-again featuring an entirely new cast. This is the Karate Kid I and II of the Fast and Furious franchise. Sean Boswell (Lucas Black, who is about as convincing a high school student as Gabrielle Carteris was in Beverly Hills 90210) is a street-racing troublemaker from Alabama who is sent to Tokyo to live with his military father to get back on the right track.
He immediately, and I mean immediately, finds all the street racers in Tokyo. His crew includes Twinkie (Bow Wow) and Han (Sung Kang); quickly thereafter he develops a rivalry over a girl with someone named D.K (Brian Tee). What’s key about Tokyo is that they have this magical thing they do in their cars: they drift, which is to allow the rear end of the car to float before the front end of the car. (I’m probably not explaining it well but I don’t really do cars.)
Regardless, Sean has to learn to master drifting, much in the way of waxing on and waxing off. He does eventually learn and becomes the king of Tokyo street racing. He is like Daniel-san, performing the street racing equivalent of the crane kick during a race against DK for the girl, for pride and for honor. Along the way, Han dies, but it’s a bit of a soap opera death. He will rise again. With this movie begins the franchise’s awesome habit of having a pulling out all the stops for a twist ending. Guess who shows up to race Sean now that he’s running things in Tokyo?
Yes. Dominic Toretto…who considers Han family.
What’s particularly charming about these movies is that they give no fucks about continuity from one movie to the next. It is with the fourth movie, Fast & Furious, (not to be confused with The Fast and the Furious), that the original cast is reunited. We are now five years past the events of the first movie but before Tokyo Drift takes place. Bear with me.
Fast & Furious opens in the Dominican Republic, where Dom and his crew are hijacking fuel tankers. Han is there, as are Letty and some new friends. The street racing scene is vibrant here, but we won’t learn too much about it because Dom, in a moment of conscience, leaves Letty as she sleeps, ostensibly for her own good. Back in Los Angeles, Brian O’Connor has been reinstated as a law enforcement officer (possibly an FBI agent; it’s not terribly clear). It’s not really clear. Dom is hiding out in Mexico when he gets a call from Mia: Letty has been murdered. (Don’t get too upset.) Dom returns to L.A., even though he is being hunted by several government agencies. He must figure out why Letty was murdered. He spends most of the movie in sleeveless tank tops and we are all the better for it.
There’s lots of tension as Brian reconnects with Mia, his one-time lover, and Dom, his one-time friend, but soon they’re all working together to infiltrate the Braga Cartel in Mexico. Gisele, a beautiful woman who works for Braga (but naturally has feelings for Dom), helps the crew bring the cartel down. At the end of the movie, Dom is sentenced to decades in prison, but his crew busts him out of the prison bus at the last possible minute.
Now things get really interesting. In Fast Five, the entire cast is on the lam in Rio, Brazil, (cue requisite shot of the Christ the Redeemer statue). We learn Mia is pregnant after she experiences nausea and looks concerned. Vince returns, still sullen and prone to betrayal. The gang is being hunted by The Rock who is spritzed and shiny and so swollen with muscles you cannot help but wonder when his body will break. There’s a train heist. At one point, Dom and Brian jump from a moving car, over a gorge, into a river. There are foot races through the favelas. The Rock flexes. Dom’s t-shirts get tighter. Through some convoluted events, they realize they have something a very powerful bad guy wants. They need to assemble a team so everyone joins in the fun—Tyrese, Ludacris, the two Dominican guys from the fourth movie, Han and Gisele. It’s like the “Quintet” sequence in West Side Story, only spritzier.
In the end, this mighty gang teams up with The Rock in order to steal a crazy amount of money. But wait! There’s more. The Rock returns to the United States, where Eva Mendes (from the second movie) hands him a file full of pictures of Letty, who is still very much alive.
Fast & Furious 6 is very much in the same vein, only more awesome. Brian and Mia have a depressingly non-cute child. Dom is involved with a Brazilian policewoman he met during Fast Five, because in these movies, people move in and out of law enforcement without consequence. Everyone is very much enjoying their ill-gotten gains when The Rock comes calling with evidence that Letty is alive and working with a very, very bad guy named Shaw.
The Rock needs the gang’s help and offers them full immunity for their crimes, so it’s off to London for everyone. Ludacris and Tyrese are back, as are Han and Gisele (who are now an item). Gina Carano, the real-life MMA fighter, stars as The Rock’s partner. Gisele dies for real. At the very end we see once again Han’s death scene from Tokyo Drift, only this time from a different perspective: it turns out that the driver who crashed into Han is Shaw’s brother.
Played by Jason Statham.
Can you believe it? Amazing.
It would be easy to dismiss these movies as pop confections. They are rather silly. During Fast & Furious 6, the gang drives around London in extremely expensive cars, chatting frequently to one other via walkie-talkies that are probably from Wal-Mart. No one involved in the production seemed to think this would prove distracting, so there they are. For all the attention that goes into the cars, other details are blithely overlooked.
There is something else that often goes unnoticed about these movies, though—the multicultural casting. (A Taiwanese director, Justin Lin, has helmed the movies since Tokyo Drift, which is also noteworthy for an American franchise.) In every movie, there is a range of ethnicities on the screen. People of color are involved in speaking roles, and not just as the bad guys.
This isn’t to say the franchise doesn’t make missteps or reductive choices. In 2 Fast 2 Furious, for example, the movie confuses Haitians and Jamaicans in an especially ridiculous way. Still, it is refreshing to see movies where more than one or two of the main actors have some melanin. It is more than a little sad that this refreshing.
In an interview with Coming Soon.net, Sung Kang, who plays Han in the series, said:
“Prior to Tokyo Drift, the iconic perception of Asians in Hollywood films has been either the Kung Fu guy, the Yakuza guy or some technical genius. It used to be such a joke, to be laughed at rather than with. I’ve gotten to travel and meet people all over the world who embrace Han. He’s the kind of guy that I would like to emulate in terms of his values. He’s just a guy you want to hang out with. The Asian thing totally disappears.”
I suspect this desire to have race disappear is something familiar to many actors of color who want to be able to inhabit roles that go beyond the rigid, race-based caricatures we encounter in film (and television and literature and life) over and over again.
Great movies also offer the audience an opportunity to disappear. The lights go down and we disappear into these bright and beautiful images, twenty feet high. We fall into different times and places. We are allowed to step away from our own lives for a time. The loveliest thing about the Fast & Furious franchise is that both actors and viewers get to disappear together, and what a time we have.
Roxane Gay is the editor of The Butter.