As a celebration of both their 20th anniversary, and the upcoming release of F9, Past of the Furious is a series of retrospectives going through the Fast and/or Furious film franchise, one by one, movie by movie. Together we will discover how a series that began about stealing DVD players became a modern-day GI Joe riff and Universal Pictures’ third biggest franchise ever (only behind Jurassic Park and Despicable Me/Minions).
Since its inception, those who controlled the Fast franchise always seemed stymied trying to figure out what precisely people liked about it. But the general consensus was that Vin Diesel was in one way or another part of the special sauce that made the first film a hit for audiences. His brief cameo in Tokyo Drift was warmly received, and after a string of failed starring vehicles, including flirting with being a family-action star, Diesel agreed to return to the series with the fourth incarnation.
Ironically, it turned out to be Paul Walker who required more convincing to participate in the fourth entry, likely stinging from the harsh reception his sole headlining outing in 2 Fast was received. Ultimately, he was convinced to return directly by Vin Diesel, who assured him that this movie would serve as the most direct sequel to the original film, re-uniting the two leads and finally showing us what Dominic Toretto had been up to. Plus, Diesel was among those impressed with Justin Lin’s directorial work in Tokyo Drift and was excited to work with him directly.
With probably the most confusing of the titles that more or less tells you what you need to know: This movie is promising to be Fast and Furious. And it not only reunited the original duo at the top of the bill, but it also brought back Jordana Brewster and Michelle Rodriguez. Perhaps more confusingly, Sung Kang makes a surprise return cameo as Han in the opening scenes of the film, despite definitively dying at the end of Tokyo Drift. This immediately showed that Lin and Morgan weren’t afraid to…play creatively with their intentions in the series.
Michelle Rodriguez’s return to the franchise is seemingly short-lived, however, as we see Dom walking away from his life with Letty as a means of protecting her, only to find out later that she’s been murdered after getting involved with drug cartel boss Arturo Braga (John Ortiz). Bryan O’Conner, now an FBI agent, is also looking for Braga and crosses paths with Dom. The two team up to infiltrate Braga’s organization, both to take him down and earn revenge for the death of Letty. Along the way they meet up with Gisele (Gal Gadot, in her film debut) who they initially read as simply an obstacle, but soon find to be an ally.
After taking a few bruises over two consecutive sequel attempts, Fast and Furious seemed to crack the mystery of made a successful Fast and Furious movie: have the people from The Fast and The Furious in it. Turns out that formula was successful, and Fast and Furious swiftly became the highest grossing film in the series yet, raking in over $360 mil on $86 mil budget. By all reports, it gave the franchise new life and gave both Cohen and Universal the confidence to invest in the series’ next installment. Which is good, because Lin, Morgan and Diesel had big plans for where the series could go next.
But what do we think about it?
Fast and Furious marks a turning point in the franchise as it leaves the world of underground street racing behind and sets GPS coordinates for the mega action insanity that will engulf the series. This change is something that I still resent a little, even if the box office results are impossible to argue with. The fuel tanker heist that starts the movie manages to be both true to the original film and a thrilling statement that things are going to be even more exciting going forward. Unfortunately, that statement doesn’t really come true until after this film.
It’s not that Fast and Furious is bad, it just feels let down by an action finale that inexplicably takes place in a dark tunnel. It also introduces one of the weirder continuing storylines with the death of Letty. On the bright side, for the first time since the first movie, Bryan and Dom are back at the same time. Gal Gadot is introduced as the mysterious Gisele, a character who starts out as henchwoman for the big bad, but whose run in this series will elevate her to superstardom. This one also features my absolute favorite type of Fast Franchise scene, one where Dom quietly explains to someone his personal philosophy. In this one he patiently explains to the exquisite Gisele that she is not his type, and that he isn’t interested in her flirtatious advances.
The movie seemingly ends on a huge down note, with Dom at his lowest point ever, having lost both the love of his life and his freedom, as he is shipped off to the Lompoc Correctional Facility for his prior crimes. Justin Lin doesn’t let the audience go home sad though, and we see Bryan, Mia, and Han screaming towards the bus in their cars before the credits roll.
Vin Diesel’s involvement was enough to jump me back into the franchise back when it was released, and I more or less watched them all upon release from that point on, but I have never honestly been the world’s biggest fan of the series. It took me a lot longer for it all to “click” for me. I’m enjoying this series revisit a lot more knowing what I know now about where this is all headed.
So it was interesting watching Fast & Furious again with the memory of the later installments in my mind. The Family as we know it really STILL hasn’t assembled yet here in the fourth installment. Yes, a bunch of the original crew are back from that first film for the first time. And yes, Han makes a quick appearance. But it’ll be Fast Five when all the disparate characters from all these different takes on the franchise really come together. I’d always thought it was the practical execution of incredible stunts that made Fast Five the most beloved of the franchise… but I think it’s possibly The Family instead.
After all, this is the one where they kill off Letty only to later make her one of the series’ first resurrections from the dead (but not the last). I don’t feel Letty’s death is particularly well executed here, and it’s even more inconsequential knowing she’ll be back soon. That said, I do love the “Dom as Sherlock Holmes” scene where he goes to Letty’s crash site and deconstructs exactly what happened with superhuman crime scene forensics capabilities.
A fairly mediocre villain is introduced and there’s good reason for both Dom and Brian to really want to nail this guy, so cop and criminal are once again semi-undercover and forced to work together. Letty’s fake death is Dom’s motivation, while Brian’s feels rote. Culminating in a very CGI laden tunnel chase that’s pretty aesthetically ugly, F&F just doesn’t do much to distinguish itself as an entry. And for that reason I’ll highlight some very little things that I just kind of like about this mediocre-at-best entry.
I love that a douchey side character exclusively refers to Brian as “Nutsack.” The opening heist set piece is pretty fun. It’s the first time a blessing is said before a meal on screen. For some reason, it’s pretty satisfactory that when Dom straight up murders Letty’s killer with his vehicle, he takes the time to say “pussy” to the corpse of his adversary.
While it’s great to get the main thrust of the narrative back focused on some of the cast that’ll carry the rest of this franchise through, F&F feels like a stop gap movie that’s just killing time before Fast Five takes us into a whole new era.
Fun fact: This is the first Fast film I ever saw in any context, going to the theater. I am a little hazy on what inspired to me jump in now, but I think between the stripped down title and the reintroduction of the original characters, I was sold on this being a good jumping on point. And it kind of is, if you ignore that so much of the movie is busy winking at you that “We finally got Dom and Brian back in the same movie” and “Isn’t that great?”
Like virtually everyone who talks about this film will remember, the ending tunnel sequence is a weirdly memorable action set piece despite A) being in a contained space, not a strength of either this series or Lin as a director, and B) kind of looking like ass. There are other great, classic Lin action sequences, most notably the almost entirely practical gas tanker heist scene (with Michelle Rodriguez doing all her own stunts!) and the introduction of Brian parkouring to take down a retreating cartel connection, because it was 2009 and that’s just a thing every movie had.
Ultimately, this film feels fairly generic and by-the-numbers. It’s a cop drama, it’s a revenge story, it’s an excuse to get Vin Diesel and Paul Walker in the same frame again. The end result is hampered by the fact that it takes itself a hair too seriously at times (all the scene of Brian interacting with his FBI partners feel like a much more buttoned down procedural), and that it hasn’t quite settled into the groove of the ensemble that will define the series after this. But there are sparks throughout that suggest the ride to come, and it does the important leg work of getting Dom and Brian back on the same page. For all these reasons, it feels especially workmanlike in a way none of the other Lin films do, but it serves as a necessary bridge to bigger things to come.
Our Next Pit Stop: We’ve finally arrived at the heart of the Fast franchise. The film that established the template for what these movies would become, where we finally truly see the whole Family in action. Plus the introduction of a new face that will use the franchise to catapult himself to one of the biggest movie stars in the world. It’s Fast Five, and from here on out, things will never be the same.