FAST & FURIOUS: A Retrospective

In anticipation of seeing Furious 7 the other night I decided to re-watch some of the earlier Fast & Furious films I hadn't seen in a while in order to simply refresh my memory. Given Fast Five and Fast & Furious 6 have been released within the last few years and that I actually have reviews for them posted on this site I didn't bother going back and giving them another look (don't worry though, they've been seen multiple times over the last few years), but instead watched the original The Fast and the Furious, 2 Fast 2 Furious, Tokyo Drift and Fast & Furious. Within each of these is something to marvel at; no matter it be how far the franchise has come from its humble beginnings, how much of the current films can actually be seen in the DNA of the 2001 original or even how things that happened in the past could possibly come back around to inform what other films may come after Furious 7. Where the franchise will go from here is one of the most interesting questions given Paul Walker's Brian O'Conner will no longer be a part of the series and prior to this has only been absent from the prequel/alternate storyline Tokyo Drift. While there are certainly plans for an eighth film (and probably a ninth and tenth if things go Universal's way) I can only hope that Diesel and screenwriter Chris Morgan continue to both bring back series stars like Lucas Black, Bow Wow, Eva Mendes and Cole Hauser and expand their international cast to include the likes of an already pining Helen Mirren. Before we look too far into the future though, I'd like to take a trip back through the first four Fast films I haven't previously written about on this site, so without further adieu...

I was something of a late-comer to the series despite the fact I saw both the second and third installments in theaters. With these two being the most superfluous of the bunch though it felt like little more than a diversion. I didn't see the original film, the one that started it all if you will, because I'm not a car guy and didn't think of it as something for me. At the age of fourteen I was only going to the theaters to see the ones I really cared about given I could only get my parents to drop me off so many times in a weekend. I enjoy the series for what it's become though not because of where it came from and I imagine that is true for many fans of these movies. Given these last three or four films though it certainly makes it more interesting that we can go back nearly fifteen years and see the majority of these characters at such a different stage in life. The fact this first film exists and actually has a fair amount of what builds to what the series has become will only become more fascinating and insightful as more time passes and younger generations begin going back and experiencing the series in full for the first time. While the film originally felt as if it was meant to capitalize on the growing trend of tricked out cars and illegal street racing at the dawn of the new millennium (and was in fact based on magazine article titled "Racer X" by Ken Li) it now feels completely necessary and something to cherish. It also feels like something of a miracle, as mentioned just a moment ago, that there is a semblance of where things might go given the standard plot and necessary action beats pumped out here by director Rob Cohen. Of course, no one could have known that this little movie featuring two recognizable faces, but by no means marquee stars would become Universal's biggest franchise, but it is in these humble beginnings that we see all the reasons we still love the Fast & Furious franchise today and that is the core characters.

As for the film itself it is now striking to see Paul Walker pull out a paper map in order to track the possible locations of Diesel's Dominic Toretto and his gang during the climax of the film. And speaking of the third act in the film, which features the biggest set piece, it is this nicely plotted piece of action that gives us a vague idea of what idea screenwriter Chris Morgan would pick up on when coming on board for Tokyo Drift and really beginning to shape the series into what it is today. Speeding down an abandoned freeway, attempting to high jack and eighteen wheeler, Vince (Matt Schulze) dangles on the outside of the door mere inches away from the speeding asphalt and his death. Walker's undercover cop Brian O'Conner is given the chance to redeem himself while mending a relationship with Vince that got off to a rocky start. The more dramatic scene that takes place immediately following this crash is inherently dramatic but is really the single scene that establishes the dynamic between O'Conner and Diesel's Toretto for the fourth film which is actually the first to directly follow-up the events of this first film. With its rather abrupt ending things were certainly left open-ended for a continuation, but I hardly imagine original screenwriter Gary Scott Thompson thought he would see his characters go as far as they've come.

When Diesel opted not to return for a second film after the original pulled in over $200 million worldwide on a measly $38 million budget Universal grabbed two writers for hire and had them craft a script that saw Walker's undercover cop fleeing Los Angeles after letting a fugitive go free. There is a corny little short film that connects the events of the first film directly to that of 2 Fast 2 Furious which you can see here, but more important than anything else in this second installment is the introduction to what are now two of the most integral characters in the franchise. That would of course be Tyrese Gibson's Roman Pearce and Chris "Ludacris" Bridges Tej. While it is more than evident that Gibson was originally brought in to serve as something of a substitute foil for Vin Diesel's chrome domed Toretto (and was played that way for at least the introduction to his character here) Gibson couldn't seem to help himself eventually morphing Roman Pearce into the wise-cracking comic relief that he is mainly known for today. On the other hand, Ludacris was little more than a supporting character here, an organizer and fairly addictive gambler who never participated but watched from the sidelines with purely financial motivations. When O'Conner eventually pulls these two back into the fold in Fast Five and introduced them to Toretto with the line, "these are the guys I pulled that job in Miami with." It makes this rather complacent second installment all the more worth it. Until getting to Justin Lin's simply titled Fast & Furious much of what we see in this franchise is background information that really isn't all that necessary, but certainly has become more valuable as films four through seven really hit a stride and tie it all together.

I've already mentioned that, had Paul Walker not passed away, it would have been interesting to see if Chris Morgan and Justin Lin would have decided to bring back Cole Hauser villanious Carter Verone in some future installment as well as Eva Mendes' Monica Fuentes (who makes a brief cameo in the mid-credits sequence of Fast Five) to wreack havoc on the guys and girl that put him in jail in the first place. Given the circumstances I doubt that will happen now, but it would have been a fascinating way to go and just another way for this series to continue to build upon itself. While 2 Fast 2 Furious is often considered the worst of the series (and is the most by the numbers comapritively) the one thing it did do over the original was up the action quota and the level of stunts involved. Not only were the set pieces bigger, but the style was more falshy and flamboyant overall. The neon colors of the cars and the sun drenched aesthetic aided by the Miami location give this second installment a feeling all its own that, at the very least, set it apart from the pack. I'll admit to being only mildly entertained by this one, but that it exists and gave fans the opportunity to meet Roman and Tej and ground their friendships with Brian in a deeper way than what would have amounted to little more than a throwaway line in the fifth film when bringing the characters back allows viewers the type of investment we now have and appreciate concerning these characters. That it also gives us an extra chapter to better know Paul Walker's character is something invaluable at this point.

In what could have been the death of the series came its renaissance. While I don't think the actual film that is The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift is as good as some make it out to be it is certainly the one that brought all the right pieces together and pushed the series to what it has now become. Bringing in screenwriter Chris Morgan and director Justin Lin would give this series the shot of adrenaline it needed after stalling three years prior with 2 Fast. While Tokyo Drift features none of the original cast or even the same locations as the first two installments what Tokyo Drift would bring to the table is the globe-trotting idea that is heavily implemented in its succesors as well as introducing us to Sung Kang's Han who would go on to play a major role in future films. While it was unbeknownst to us at the time, Tokyo Drift would actually serve as something of a companion piece to Furious 7 as Fast & Furious, Fast Five and Fast & Furious 6 all serve as prequels to the events that occur in Tokyo involving Han, Sean Boswell (Lucas Black), Twinkie (Bow Wow) and Neela (Nathalie Kelley). If Black's Sean does in fact return in future installments the events of this film will no doubt come to mean more, but as for now Tokyo Drift is the most inessential part of the puzzle in terms of the plot and how it effects the overarching story of the series. Tokyo Drift is a cliff note and one they could have easily ignored, but instead embraced it, making it a part of the mythology and in turn making that mythology all the greater for it.

Again, as for the film itself, this is the one that really set the tone for what was coming. While on something of a smaller scale than the previous two films in the series it is the Tokyo setting that makes this one feel all the more expansive. Despite the fact Lucas Black totes something of an overly exaggerated southern accent that would be seen as a parody of a southern accent had we not all seen him in Sling Blade he actually creates a rather endearing character here that we come to cheer for, especially in the fish out of water scenario in which he's placed. Much like 2 Fast 2 Furious does for Roman and Tej Tokyo Drift does the same for Han in that we come to know these supporting characters in such an intimate way that the inevitable team-up including all of them that occurs in Fast Five comes to mean and signify all the more to those that have been following along. Sure, Fast Five would have been just as insanely awesome action wise, but the character development and the connection we have with these individuals is due to the extraneous work and profiles that the earlier films provided and while Fast Five and beyond will come to be known as the better, bigger films it is these smaller, slightly insignificant early films that may not contribute as much to the ongoing plot, but provide insight and real relationships with the multiple characters included in this franchise. If nothing else, we can thank Tokyo Drift for really pioneering that idea and pushing it forward.

While I feel Tokyo Drift sometimes gets a little more credit than it's due I feel the opposite is true of the fourth entry in the franchise simply titled Fast & Furious (the The's just weren't cutting it for them anymore). Heavily criticized for being both a rehash of the original film and completely conventional Fast & Furious actually sports a much darker tone than any other film in the series and in reuniting Diesel and Walker for the first time since the original it gives us an opportunity to take a look at their characters five years past the mark of them first meeting one another. While this film does indeed pit Diesel's Toretto and Walker's O'Conner against one another again it has them working together more often than not as they investigate the same drug smuggler for different reasons while at the same time introducing us to Gal Gadot's Gisele. Toretto's is of course because he or one of his henchman killed Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) and despite being a wanted man, Toretto can't simply let things go. Somehow, after betraying the police force in the original and making amends with the FBI in 2 Fast O'Conner secured himself his own spot in the FBI and is now working back in Los Angeles while trying to make amends with Jordana Brewster's Mia whom he had a quick love affair with in the original film. While Fast & Furious does admittedly rely too much on CGI during the big action set pieces you can also see Lin really finding his groove here that would prove pure dynamite in the next two features. You can also see the figurative wheels turning in this installment as it pushes each characters story to the place we always wanted them to be in order to set-up the ultimate scenario of where we always saw these characters going. As a bonus, Vin Diesel even directed a short film as something of a prelude to the opening events of Fast & Furious called Los Bandoleros only adding more depth to the mythology.

If I were to have to rank each of the Fast & Furious films it would go something along the lines of Fast Five, Fast & Furious 6, Furious 7, Fast & Furious, The Fast and the Furious while 2 Fast 2 Furious and Tokyo Drift are interchangeable in the last two spots. Fast & Furious, for me, then becomes the most underrated of the series. It brings us back around to the original characters we built an affinity for, displays how they've matured and how their life choices have brought them to their current predicaments. What it then does in displaying how each of these characters accepting the other characters into their lives and what it means for the course of the rest of their existence is key and while Lin and Morgan clearly built a massive idea around this universe of characters and cars they stumbled upon; that it has come together to form something as stupendously fun and financially successful as this series has become is something of a miracle when going back and re-visiting these first four installments. If you're not already a fan of the series there is likely no saving you now, but be sure to check out my review of Furious 7 as well as the music video below that highlights why the newest film in the franchise is the most poignant yet. For some reason, I'm completely enamored with this goofy franchise and while I certainly wouldn't be upset if they stopped making these after the perfect conclusion part seven gives us, I can't help but be curious and excited to see where Dom and his crew go next.

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