Rise of the Machines

Every film franchise is a testament to growth and conquest. In the case of the Marvel movies, that growth is exponential and expanding: movies beget more movies, more spinoffs, more series that emerge from spinoffs. What sets the Fast and the Furious series apart from franchises like this—at least for now—is its habit of folding all that hot-media-property energy back into itself, making the movies all the more strange and intense.

On the Fast and the Furious movies

Still from The Fast and the Furious.

F. Gary Gray. The Fate of the Furious. 2017.

The Fast and the Furious was released in June 2001, on the second day of summer. Though it took its name from a 1955 Roger Corman noir, it was neither a remake nor a reboot. It certainly wasn’t conceived as the start of a massively lucrative franchise. For a Hollywood movie, it was modest. The screenwriters—Gary Scott Thompson, Eric Bergquist, and David Ayer—adapted a 1998 Vibe article about street racing in Washington Heights. “The excitement of going fast is like nothing else,” says one of the article’s young amateur racers. “Another group gets excitement from doing drugs or whatever. Speed excites us.” It is not a big leap from this to the film’s iconic line, delivered by Dominic Toretto, Vin Diesel’s character, in his thick, macadamized growl:

I live my life a quarter mile at a time. Nothing else matters: not the mortgage, not the store, not my team and all their bullshit. For those ten seconds or less, I’m free.

Breezy and silly, the film is one of the last artifacts of the long Nineties, free of the portentousness that seized Hollywood after September 11. The music—twitchy electronica, chugging rap-rock—is as awful and banal as music was back then. The climax of the film takes place when Paul Walker’s Brian O’Conner pulls out a cell phone. This how Dom, a hijacker, realizes that Brian is a cop. Only cops have cell phones— hijackers, never.

The action has been moved from New York to Southern California, birth place of street racing. The LA of The Fast and the Furious is a cliché: hazy orange and yellow and nowhere near as grand as in the great LA action movies, like Die Hard or Speed. The cars are great (cheap, reliable Japanese models emboldened by new hardware, flashy paint, and ground effects), the plot half-assed (Point Break with driving instead of surfing), the racing sequences—sadly—embarrassing. Nothing in the film approaches the workaday, canonical chase in Bullitt, or even the jagged energy of The Bourne Supremacy.  The director, Rob Cohen, told Complex, “I didn’t want to know how speed looked, I wanted to know how speed felt.” The movie suggests he did not find out. There are endless close-ups of surging speedometers and tachometers and CGI renderings of NOS—the alchemical, quasi-fictional nitrous-oxide compound that functions as the series’ healing elixir and deus ex machina—but until the final showdown between Dom, Brian, and a rapidly moving train, there is no sense of space, and thus very little tension. The series did not actually master its raison d’etre until the third film, Tokyo Drift, only to back away from racing and chase scenes soon after.

In spite of this, The Fast and the Furious is a joy to watch, thanks to its young and inexperienced actors. The small roles are well cast, with the exception of Ja Rule, unpersuasive and in need of a booster seat. Jordana Brewster as Mia, Dom’s sister and Brian’s girlfriend, makes the best of an underwritten part.

Michelle Rodriguez, who plays Letty, Dom’s girlfriend and fellow hijacker/racer, doesn’t have enough to do, but it’s impossible to imagine this movie or any of the others without her. Tough and focused, she is an unusual screen presence in a series full of unusual screen presences. No one broods or snarls her lines quite like Rodriguez—not even Diesel—and no one does more to ground the escalating absurdity of these films in something approaching emotional realism. She is the only driver in the films who makes driving feel as scary and irrational as it really is.

Paul Walker, meanwhile, doesn’t really act in Fast and the Furious, but neither does he not act—his performance is somehow unrealistic and naturalistic at the same time. He has two modes: amiable and smiley, and surly and angry. You can tell that he prefers the former, because when Brian has to yell at the LAPD sergeant and the FBI agent who try to micromanage him, Walker speeds up his delivery, like he’s trying to rush through the scene so the good vibes can return. When they do, he is unable to stop smiling, even in serious moments. Brian O’Conner is a contradiction: the chilled-out careerist cop, the SoCal bro out for justice. Walker seems confounded by the paradox: his dazed stillness gives the scenes he’s in a trippy, static quality. Maybe he’s just happy to be behind the wheel: Walker grew up street racing in the San Fernando Valley and remained a car buff throughout his life.1

Much of the writing about the Fast and the Furious films is gestural and overheated—as if to capture the excess of the filmmaking (or the series’ staggering box office revenue), one must speak in hyperbole.2 Yet when it comes to Vin Diesel, it’s hard not to. He is the best part of The Fast and the Furious and the best part of every subsequent film in the series. Anytime he’s not in a scene, the films deflate and begin to feel dull and rote. The movies he’s not in suffer for his absence.

Diesel emerged in The Fast and the Furious as a big, brash action hero, but an untraditional one. Over the years, he has thickened and slowed. He remains charismatic without being energetic.

In 1995, Diesel wrote and directed a short film called Multi-Facial, in which he plays a struggling New York actor who tries on different races and ethnicities for each of his auditions. He’s too intense for the Italian-American role, too light-skinned to read for the black one. When he’s asked to read for a Latino character, he screws up because he doesn’t speak Spanish. He finally nails an audition for a black character, but the casting directors tell him that they’re looking for someone with dreadlocks. The film sets up a problem that the Fast and the Furious movies resolve casually, with a cast that’s more racially diverse (or ambiguous) than almost anything that can be seen onscreen today.

The one sour note in The Fast and the Furious is the name of a desert-racing competition attended by the gang and their rivals. In the Vibe article, the event is called Drag Wars, but in the film it’s Race Wars, a nasty, mean-spirited pun that’s out of place in a series devoid of easy irony, or really any irony at all. Race Wars implies a conflict absent in the films: in the first big race in Fast and Furious, the black, Latino, and Asian teams are pitted against one another, but it turns out to mean very little. Vin Diesel is celebrated for winning, and when Paul Walker and Ja Rule are mocked, it’s not because they’re white or black and they lost, but because they lost.

The best thing about the second film in the series, 2 Fast 2 Furious, is its title. 2 Fast lacks the freshness and relative coherence of the first film, and Walker flails without Diesel, who skipped out on the sequel to star in Rob Cohen’s dreadful XXX. John Singleton, of Boyz n the Hood but also the Shaft remake, does not improve on Cohen’s direction. Tyrese Gibson and Chris Bridges (a.k.a. Ludacris), both instrumental in the subsequent films, make their first appearance in 2 Fast 2 Furious as Roman Pearce and Tej Parker. Eva Mendes is in this one, too.

The collective antipathy toward 2006’s The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift is mystifying. It features the best driving in the series, the best cars, and the best locations—and it introduces (and kills off) Sung Kang’s Han Lue, every sensible fan’s favorite secondary character. Justin Lin, who first directed Kang in 2002’s Better Luck Tomorrow, is a far better filmmaker than Cohen and better at directing a Fast and the Furious movie than Singleton. Lin went on to direct the fourth, fifth, and sixth installments in the series; he has done more than anyone else to shape the overall aesthetic, for better or for worse.

The firmest reason to dislike Tokyo Drift is the absence of Walker, Rodriguez, and, until the very end of the film, Diesel. Another reason is Lucas Black, who is too old and too solid to be playing Sean Boswell, an angsty high school student sent to live in Tokyo with his father, a generic, tortured, Vietnam-vet / withholding-father type. (When father and son finally bond, it’s over a ’67 Mustang.) Yet of all the films, Tokyo Drift comes closest to the purity of a great car chase movie. It’s not perfect, like John Frankenheimer’s Ronin, but it pays scrupulous attention to drifting—a form of driving the film helped popularize. The race sequences in a multistory parking deck, through central Tokyo, along a mountainside, and in a suburban housing development in Arizona are all magnificent.

Sean finds a friend in Han and an enemy in Brian Tee’s D.K., which stands for “drift king.” (Keiichi Tsuchiya, the real-life Drift King, has a cameo in the film, which also stars the great Sonny Chiba as D.K.’s mob-boss uncle.) Sung Kang, who rarely raises his voice and always seems to be a little stunned by the camera’s attention, is a powerful presence in Tokyo Drift and in the later films. He is a professional, like Letty and Dom, but he has an easy warmth and is calmer onscreen than anyone else in these overheated movies. The fourth, fifth, and sixth movies are technically prequels to Tokyo Drift, a chronological puzzle set up to forestall Han’s premature death and keep him in the franchise.

Lin has said that when he saw the first movie, he was taken aback by the fact that “the Asian-Americans were all the bad guys.” The casting of Kang is an effort to mitigate this imbalance, as is Tokyo Drift generally: it mostly avoids the clichés that might haunt a lowbrow Hollywood movie about fast cars and Americans in Tokyo. When Sean falls for D.K.’s girlfriend Neela, played by the Peruvian-Australian actress Nathalie Kelley), Han delivers the best line in the film: “Why can’t you find a nice Japanese girl like the rest of the white guys around here?”

Women are a systemic problem for the series: the movies have become more meaningfully inclusive and casually sexist at the same time. One of the unusual aspects of the first film is its general restraint with regard to female objectification. Few women are ogled, and shots of asses that then glide up women’s backs are kept to a minimum. It isn’t a perfect display, but it is better than average, a grade further improved by Rodriguez’s commanding performance and Jordana Brewster’s brief but memorable drive through the LA streets. In 2 Fast 2 Furious, the women wear fewer clothes and feel more superfluous, though Devon Aoki’s Suki, who drives a pink Honda, races with an all-female crew. Tokyo Drift features large crowds of women wearing small fragments of clothing, a template that recurs throughout the rest of the films. The poster for The Fate of the Furious, the eighth film in the series, features a barely clothed starter girl in high heels; in the first film, the starter girl was a schlubby starter guy: Noel Gugliemi’s Hector, the race organizer, fully clothed. Like so much else in these films, the starter girls, fangirls, and hangers-on feel torn from video games. Grand Theft Auto, another hugely successful car-themed franchise consumed by a generation less interested in buying and driving cars than their parents, is a major influence, but the parade of half-naked women owes a debt to more primitive sources like Big Buck Hunter.

With the exception of The Fate of the Furious, the even-numbered films are bad. The lazily titled Fast & Furious, the fourth in the franchise, is the least bad of the bad ones, but it is still tentative and forgettable. Its plot does not concern the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms’ botched “Operation Fast and Furious”—internet Republicans’ second favorite Obama-era controversy after Benghazi—though it does sort of prefigure the scandal. The film’s signal accomplishment is structural: it reunites the cast and sets the subsequent films in motion. Diesel, Walker, Rodriguez, Brewster, and Kang all return, but they all do their best work in other films. Fast & Furious is also the first appearance of Gal Gadot (now better known as Wonder Woman), the Puerto Rican rapper Tego Calderón, and singer Don Omar, who have small parts as members of Dom’s crew. The plot involves a Mexican drug lord, and in two separate instances Diesel and Walker drive through tunnels under the border, which sounds like more fun than it is. It is a shock when Letty dies early in the movie, but—at least in retrospect—you never quite believe that such a bleak development can be permanent. She is not resurrected until Fast & Furious 6.

Fast Five—released a decade after the first film and a decade into the war on terror—is the key to the franchise as it currently stands, and the most off-putting of all the films. It broke sharply from the modesty of the early movies and their focus on the theft, racing, and maintenance of cars. A behemoth that contains some of the franchise’s best moments, it also introduces its most troubling features, including, worst of all, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as Luke Hobbs.

Fast Five is significantly longer than any of the previous films, and its budget was far larger. (The first film cost a relatively modest $38 million to make; Fast Five cost over three times that, and Fate’s budget was an obscene $250 million.) Characters who were once very good at racing, stealing, and crashing cars are revealed to be masters of hand-to-hand combat, surveillance, computer hacking, robbery, and gunplay. The best way to understand Fast Five is as an over-the-top remake of the earlier films in a new genre: the mega-expensive heist movie. It is more Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation than Two-Lane Blacktop.

People die in the first four Fast and the Furious movies, but in Fast Five they die by the hundreds. Mia announces her pregnancy after an early action sequence unlikely to be endorsed by any OBGYN, but one very special child cannot make up for the carnage that descends on Rio de Janeiro in this film. Cops, drug traffickers, and civilians alike are killed with nonchalance in Fast Five, a Grand Theft Auto: Vice City with live actors. There are massive casualties in the favelas, in the city center, and out by the water—and many massive guns. The cars have become more militarized for the purpose. The first film pitted sleek Japanese cars against Dom’s father’s Dodge Charger. In Fast Five, Hobbs drives a hulking armored truck called the Conquest Knight XV. (The cars have grown bigger and less carlike with each successive film: Fate features a chase scene with a nuclear submarine.)

The death and violence in Fast Five have an industrial quality embodied in Johnson, contemporary cinema’s most industrial actor. His traps are so large that his head never seems to protrude from his shoulders at a normal angle. He speaks in commands and grunts, dropping “sumbitch” like it’s the most normal thing anyone has ever said. His physical presence is unusual for a series that, in spite of Diesel’s size, had previously operated in human dimensions. That Johnson plays a Diplomatic Security Service agent out to capture Dom’s team makes perfect sense in the context of this transitional movie, as does the team’s eventual collaboration with him. In the first film, Dom and Letty et al are outlaws and Brian is the law, but it’s clear from the beginning that the movie won’t make much of this distinction. Their crimes are nonviolent, and Brian lets Dom escape. It’s a film that’s on the side of the criminals, but they’re pretty modest criminals to begin with: they live in the family’s old house in East LA and probably pay their taxes. Dom’s paeans to family feel worlds apart from, say, Margaret Thatcher’s: you can imagine him redistributing most of his winnings and building a workshop for neighborhood kids.

Fast Five sides with state power. Luke Hobbs is blunt and cruel, prone to torture and brutality, and yet our heroes end up working with him anyway. There is no moment more depressing in the series than when you realize that the triumphant antiheroes of The Fast and the Furious are now mercenaries for the war on terror. In the later films, they wreak havoc on foreign countries in the name of the United States government (and, in Fast Five, hypocritically call out corruption: is a Brazilian police captain being in bed with the mob any worse than a clandestine agent of the American state killing off foreign citizens at random?). This is a conscious choice made by producers and a director who correctly intuited that the Fast and the Furious movies could accommodate propaganda, fight scenes, and brutality along with fast cars. The decision was likely made during a teleconference, but it is Johnson who feels decisive in transforming this series from a fun and silly collection of B-movies to an all-American onslaught. The scale of his violence alters the films’ sensibility.

There are two breathtaking action sequences in Fast Five: one involving a train, a bridge, and a cliff, and another in which the crew pulls an enormous bank vault through the streets of Rio de Janeiro. These are giant undertakings, brilliantly filmed. They almost compensate for the loss of human scale (and human life) that Fast Five represents.

Fast & Furious 6 is a grim and sludgy heir to Fast Five. More money, more locations, and more actors with less than ever to show for it. The low point of the series, Fast & Furious 6 introduces something called a Nightshade device and is obsessed with gadgets.

That Letty comes back to life as an amnesiac villain is the kind of absurd plot point that the old Fast and the Furious movies would never have attempted, but it’s good to have her back. Rodriguez and Diesel share the best scene in the film: after narrowly beating Letty in a race through London, Dom attempts to remind her of her former life by annotating her scars. It is a touching moment, and if it weren’t for the two hours of dirge that surround it on either side, it would register more acutely. The driving sequences are dull and forgettable, though there’s a gonzo hand-to-hand combat scene (really, two scenes played out simultaneously) in the London Underground that is worth tracking down on YouTube: UFC fighter Gina Carano vs. Rodriguez, and Indonesian martial artist Joe Taslim against Roman and Han. The bad guys win.

Even more than Fast Five, Fast & Furious 6 is a tribute to the logic of cooptation, most explicit in both films’ casting. In Fast Five we got Johnson, an already popular action star. Fast & Furious 6 features Carano and Taslim, and, at the very end, Jason Statham. Statham returns in Furious 7, Kurt Russell makes his first appearance, and Carano and Taslim are swapped out for another UFC fighter and another martial artist: Ronda Rousey and Tony Jaa, respectively. The Fate of the Furious introduces Charlize Theron and Helen Mirren.

None of these actors is steadily integrated into the series cast the way Gibson, Bridges, Kang, and Gadot were. They are just new opportunities for synergy. Statham, weird and blank-faced in Furious 7, is an unsubtle Easter egg aimed at Transporter fans. Carano, Rousey, Taslim, and Jaa—all excellent—bring in audiences more interested in MMA and YouTube highlights than action movies at the multiplex. Theron was in the Mad Max reboot and that Snow White movie and is now an action star. Mirren co-starred with Bruce Willis and Samuel Jackson in those movies based on that comic book. Russell . . . well, he’s Kurt Russell. And of course Johnson himself is the entire growth strategy incarnate. Why have one box office draw when you can have two, or three, or eight?

After the evil but accomplished Fast Five and the evil and shitty Fast & Furious 6, the future seemed clear: the movies would get bigger and dumber and more violent, foregrounding new characters, over-the-top set pieces, cross-promotional opportunities, and cars far too expensive for the characters in the original Fast and the Furious to even dream of owning, at the expense of everything charming and human about the series. The franchise would become indistinguishable from the Transformers movies, only with smaller machines.

But when Paul Walker died in a car crash halfway through the filming of Furious 7, this trajectory suddenly seemed less certain. Walker wasn’t driving the red Porsche Carrera GT in the crash that killed him, but the echoes were nonetheless haunting. A series that had responded with sensitivity to the deaths of its characters onscreen was now confronted with a worst-case scenario—the real-life death of one of its beloved major stars. Production was halted, and for a few weeks it wasn’t clear if the next movie would happen at all.

The version of the film that appeared in theaters a year and a half later had been rewritten to account not for Walker’s death, but Brian’s retirement. Walker’s brothers, Caleb and Cody, stood in for Paul, and Peter Jackson’s visual-effects company, Weta, was brought in to model Walker’s face. I don’t know if it’s a tribute to Walker’s acting in the other movies or to Weta’s skilled work, but I could not tell the difference.

Mitigating the tragedy was the director James Wan, the best thing to happen to the Fast and the Furious movies since Vin Diesel. Wan’s credits were five successful horror movies, including the first Saw film, and one small action movie starring Kevin Bacon based on a Brian Garfield novel. His budget for Furious 7 was nearly ten times larger than his biggest budget up to that point, and his transition from supernatural chills to capitalist excess was effortless. Furious 7 is the grandest, most absurd, most decadent film in the franchise—exponentially more ludicrous than the first few films, but rarely rote or predictable. It is the only Fast and the Furious movie you could plausibly call delightful.

Furious 7’s three great action sequences are filmed with total clarity and logic. In Los Angeles, the crew fights an armed drone and performs some spectacular handoffs of Ramsey, the hacktivist character played by Game of Thrones’s Nathalie Emmanuel. In Abu Dhabi, Dom and Brian drive a $3.4 million Lykan HyperSport out the window of an apartment in one of the Etihad Towers, a complex of five neighboring skyscrapers. They land in a construction site in the next building, but the brakes malfunction, so they keep moving and jump again, this time into an art gallery in the third tower, where they do doughnuts through what seems like the Met’s entire Asian Art collection. It is an amazing sequence: Wan cuts to distant shots that make the September 11 allusion explicit, only with cars instead of planes, three towers instead of two. Best of all—and better than any action set piece in any of the other movies—is an extraordinary, largely CGI-free scene in Colorado (standing in for, of all places, Azerbaijan), which begins with the crew parachuting off an airplane in their cars. This is followed by a high-speed mountainside heist. In the most dramatic moment, Brian finds himself stuck on a bus teetering over a cliff. In Peter Collinson’s overrated Italian Job from 1969, this device delivers some unearned existentialist angst: the bus hangs over the edge as the credits roll, and our heroes are stuck for good. Furious 7 is an American film with American heroes: Brian runs across the roof of the bus and jumps off at the last possible moment, into the vehicular arms of Letty’s Dodge Challenger, a good American car.

Even more surprising than Wan’s skill at capturing action sequences is his sensitivity. By the time Wan came on board, the series didn’t just have a massive audience but an entire cosmology. In the first movie, Dom was a man who cared deeply about family—the scene where everyone gathered to say grace felt strange and refreshing. But as the franchise evolved, the directors and screenwriters couldn’t simply replay the scenes of family meals; they felt they had to emphasize and underscore them, the way Star Wars movies cater to fans obsessed with chronology and continuity. Fast & Furious 6 and The Fate of the Furious point to the danger of hitting those notes too hard, but whatever corniness might have snuck into Furious 7 was effectively effaced by Paul Walker’s death. Suddenly, these really were films with real feeling, with stakes far beyond the next heist and the next race.

Furious 7 makes it clear that the central emotional bond in the films was never Dom and Letty, or Brian and Mia—it was Dom and Brian. In the first film, with its erotically charged car repair montages standing in for sex scenes, one could imagine the two as unlikely lovers, but by the later films their relationship was deeper and more permanent: they were brothers. When Mia announces that she’s pregnant in Fast Five, the baby seems as much Dom’s as Brian’s—or rather, it somehow belongs to the three of them.

In Furious 7, Mia is pregnant again, leading screenwriter Chris Morgan to almost omit her from the movie. In the worst scene in the film, Brian is miserable because he has to drive his son to school in a minivan. Being a multimillionaire with a cute child and good friends doesn’t seem like a bad life, but Mia feels for Brian and encourages him to join Dom and the crew on their dangerous mission. She doesn’t tell him about her pregnancy until late in the film.

It is a spoiler to say that Paul Walker does not die onscreen, but it is also essential information—no one should have to watch Furious 7 in a state of heightened anxiety. At the end of the film, the crew is lounging on a beach bathed in late afternoon Southern California light. Letty, Ramsey, Tej, Roman, Riley, and Dom all gaze wistfully at Brian and Mia and their son playing in the water. Dom gets up and does what anyone in the Fast and the Furious universe does when he needs some time to think: he goes for a drive. He sits at an intersection in the hills near Malibu as Brian pulls up. What follows are two of the most audacious minutes of any big-budget Hollywood movie I’ve ever seen. As Dom and Brian drive alongside each other—not racing this time, just driving—we see a montage of the best Paul Walker moments from the previous films. By most laws of filmmaking, this should be ridiculous: Wan is taking us out of the world of Furious 7, forcing us to acknowledge the death of the person we’re seeing on screen at that very moment, and playing a highlight reel—not over the opening credits or after the closing credits, but during the movie itself. It is a remarkable and moving moment: a personal tribute to a friend and collaborator that also threatens to derail a movie and a franchise. After the montage, our two heroes drive together for a while, and then their roads diverge. The camera follows Brian’s Toyota Supra for a while, then pans up slowly to the sky, which fades to white. The final words on the screen? For Paul.

One of the more underrated aspects of Furious 7 is that Johnson is barely in it. He is hospitalized after his fight with Jason Statham in the movie’s opening moments and is redeployed only at the end, in the chase scene with the drone. His absence makes for a film that is less militaristic and purer in its intent, despite a gimmicky storyline about mass surveillance and an all-powerful piece of software called God’s Eye, which an all-powerful government figure called Kurt Russell asks the team to track down. This doesn’t sound pared down, but you barely notice the plot points through the onslaught of spectacle and emotion.

F. Gary Gray’s The Fate of the Furious is a retreat. It feels overstuffed with everything except for action sequences, of which it needed at least one more good one. Its centerpiece is an inspired chase-and-heist scene in New York, whose cabs and private cars are hacked by Charlize Theron’s Cipher and deployed against the visiting Russian defense minister. Cipher commands the cars to stampede down streets and leap from a parking deck en masse—a hail of weaponized machinery. (The cars’ internet connectivity makes them vulnerable, like the Jeep Cherokee wirelessly overridden by two hackers in 2015.) It is a dark and hilarious vision of our autonomous future, a topical piece of technophobia perfect for a series that began with the simplicity of small cars fitted with powerful engines. That Gray had to destroy hundreds of real cars to film the sequence seems fitting: in the world of the Fast and the Furious, cars are worthless without drivers.

Statham’s Deckard Shaw, an odd fit in Furious 7, has a far greater role to play in this film. Like his antecedents—Brian, Hobbs, and Gadot’s Gisele Yashar—he is a bad guy who has become a teammate, and he is more enjoyable to watch in his new, somewhat lovable mode. His redemption, however, brings up a serious moral problem for the series: at the end of Fast & Furious 6, we see that it was Shaw who killed Han, establishing his villainy in the context of the series. Is the film suggesting that Dom can easily work side by side with someone who killed his teammate? Deckard saves Dom’s baby from Cipher, but still, I’d like the ninth film to feature a criminal trial.3

Fate has too many jokes, many of them involving Johnson, too self-involved to be a reliable comedic actor. Gibson’s Roman, handsome comic relief in the earlier films, is hammy and overwritten this time around.

There is more plot in The Fate of the Furious than in the first four films combined, which means spoilers. Dom has been turned by Cipher, a world-class criminal hacker with unfortunate blond dreads. Cipher has kidnapped Elena Neves, Hobbs’s partner in Fast Five, who got together with Dom when he thought Letty was dead. And Neves has a baby, also captive, who it turns out is Dom’s son—which is why Dom submits willingly to Cipher’s entreaties and turns against his team. There are also nuclear missiles.

It’s annoying to have to write those four sentences. Letty’s resurrection was an unlikely plot contortion for a pretty literal-minded series, but at least we got Rodriguez back. Fate’s kidnapping plot and its polyamorous implications are, by contrast, totally out of character and too attenuated to have an impact. In the early films, plot is concordant with the team mission: everything that occurs is in service of delivering some kind of financial or material result. But the elaborate contortion involved in producing the “evil” Dom feels like an affectation and an imposition. Gray and Morgan, screenwriting again, are clearly noncommittal about the whole conceit (it’s abandoned less than halfway through), but it leaves a sour taste. Can’t we leave brooding and portent to the comic book movies?

The kidnapping/childbearing plot brings to the surface the series’ weird baggage with mothers. The main characters’ moms go unmentioned over the course of eight films; Mia Toretto practically disappears when she becomes a mother; and in Fate, the biological mother of Dom’s child dies as soon as she delivers her progeny. Helen Mirren’s silly and appealing turn as Deckard’s mom suggests that, in the Fast and the Furious universe, childbearing mothers may resume the fast, furious life if they make it beyond childbearing age. If the films are going to engage overtly with contemporary political flashpoints, as Fate does, they might as well take on maternity leave next.

Every film franchise is a testament to growth and conquest. In the case of the Marvel movies, that growth is exponential and expanding: movies beget more movies, more spinoffs, more series that emerge from spinoffs. What sets the Fast and the Furious series apart from franchises like this—at least for now—is its habit of folding all that hot-media-property energy back into itself, making the movies all the more strange and intense. Whereas Star Wars and Harry Potter build out more worlds, more histories, to populate with new and random protagonists, The Fast and the Furious is loyal to its core, producing something closer to America’s most beloved miniseries about cars and the increasingly superheroic men and women who love them. That means more Dwayne Johnson, more Kurt Russell, more hand-to-hand combat, more explosions, more repetition. It means longer running times and sillier plots and bigger budgets and more diverse and extravagant settings. But it also means more self-reference.

Some of this can be attributed to Diesel, who is a kind of guardian of the series. Diesel has always had a lot to do behind the scenes: in 2009, he directed a short film, Los Bandoleros, that set up the events of Fast & Furious and revealed what these movies might look like if their focus was not cars and criminality but left-wing politics and Dominican food. (It is a tantalizing vision, available on Vimeo.4 ) But over the past few years, and especially after Walker’s death, Diesel has become a full-time spokesperson for the films and their characters. In interviews and on the “Vinbook,” the massively popular Facebook fan page Diesel updates himself, the actor grieves with us and on our behalf.5 At times his performance in Fate feels like one of his Facebook posts, especially in the film’s opening moments in Havana. But Diesel, who named his real-life daughter after his “brother” Paul Walker, can be allowed a bit of excess. (In Fate’s final scene, Dom announces with earned grandeur that he has named his new son Brian, an affecting but inevitable bit of metatext.)

Johnson, however, has no excuse. There has never been anything in the series as cynical as his performance in this film—a hectic mix of violence and smug crowd-pleasing. Yet the numbers suggest he’s good for the brand: “Fate of the Furious just destroyed global box office records,” BuzzFeed reported two days after the film opened, with appropriately martial tones. Will the omnipresence of Johnson, a registered Republican and likely presidential candidate, push the ninth film in a more Trumpian direction? One can only hope not. Thus far, the franchise’s unlikely group of actors and characters—and unusual points of emphasis—have helped it resist the worst political impulses of its box office rivals. For Letty and Dom and the rest of the family, the greatest freedom of all is the freedom to go fast. But as the films (and real life) have shown again and again, it is a fickle freedom: one wrong turn and it’s over. “The thing about street fights,” Dominic says to Deckard Shaw in Furious 7, as a Los Angeles parking deck collapses around them, is that “the street always wins.”

  1. This poignant video of Walker visiting a tuner in Japan shows a man in his element: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PM-X6WF0S40

  2. The success of the podcast How Did This Get Made?, which has done three excellent Fast and the Furious-themed episodes to date, suggests that breathless fandom is better suited to audio. 

  3. A number of fans of the series seem to agree, as does Rodriguez. “When [Deckard] was introduced,” she told the Los Angeles Times, “they didn’t even think for us to give him any flack when he walked in. And we were like, ‘Yo, dude, this guy killed one of our boys! You know it doesn’t fly like that!’” http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/la-et-mn-fate-of-the-furious-han-jason-statham-20170420-story.html 

  4. https://vimeo.com/46696697 

  5. He also posts karaoke videos, including a heartfelt rendition of Rihanna’s “Stay.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gzxoGArufdc 

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