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).
Fast and Furious was a huge success, the biggest yet for the franchise, and gave producer Neal Moritz the confidence to double down on the legacy of the series rather than striking in new directions. The team of Justin Lin and Chris Morgan were both signed back, and leaned into the concept of respecting the history of the series, taking the jumbled continuity of it as a feature, not a bug. It was actually Vin Diesel who suggested that they bring back characters from all the previous films, which lead into the concept of expanding the scope of the film to be less of a “buddy” story and more of an ensemble, a concept that was there from the very first film with Dom’s team, but never truly explored in full. With a final promise from Universal to agree to finance not just one but two more films in the series if they transitioned from being “car culture” movies to broaden appeal heist movies (“like a modern French Connection” was reportedly the edict), the stage was set for what the next phase of the franchise would be.
But a distinctive new direction would also need to add more new blood into it, preferably one with some name recognition. Enter Dwayne Johnson, the artist formerly known as The Rock who had been spending the last few years toying with his public perception, waffling between comedic and light family fare. Thanks to a supporting and pseudo-antagonistic role, Fast Five served as his opportunity to film establish himself as top shelf action star once more.
The film picks up literally where Fast & Furious left off, having Brian and Mia rescue Dom from going to jail for his involvement in the events of the previous film (plus, you know, his long existent rap sheet). This lead to all three of them becoming fugitives, escaping to Brazil. There they get secretly hired to run a car heist for the leading drug kingpin in Rio, a scenario that leads with them being hunted down by both the local drug cartel and DSS Agent Luke Hobbs (Johnson). Realizing they are going to need to gather a team to get the biggest score of their lives and run free with $100 million, the film constructs a beefy ensemble of at least one character from each of the previous films.
The reconfiguring of the formula worked, as the series received both their best financial and critical response, scoring over $600 million dollars at the box office. With another film already guaranteed by Universal, all involved finally had settled into an identity of what a Fast movie was: a series of high-octane action movies that had cars but weren’t about cars. No, ultimately what became clear from here on out was that the films were about the strange collection of characters and circumstances they found themselves in. These were films about Family, and with that as a core principle firmly established, the franchise finally had an identity it had long sought.
But what do we think about it?
Last week got away from me, so this week I played catchup, diving into a double feature of the 4th and 5th films. The former was fun, even if the CG is atrocious. The latter, on the other hand, is fantastic.
As an huge fan of the remake of The Italian Job, it felt like I was watching that film’s off-kilter cousin who uses significant amounts of both cocaine and steroids. Injecting The Rock into this one works great, too. It feels likes the series is starting to become the kind of fun super team I always hoped The Expendables would be.
In other words, it’s a damn shame I’ve waited this long to join the Family. But I’m here now and I’m not going anywhere.
And in case you didn’t already know, “The motor vehicle actions sequences in this film are dangerous.”
Fast Five is not my favorite movie in the Fast Franchise; the first one holds that place in my heart. I’m afraid that Fast Five will have to settle for being the best movie in the series, and possibly the most perfectly crafted piece of franchise filmmaking ever.
Justin Lin bookends the movie with ludicrous vehicular mayhem, and fills in the middle with a magical combination of action/heist/superhero team-up movie. Lin also captures the specific tone of melodrama that I really enjoy in the best of these movies.
My favorite among the many skillful things Lin does is his deployment of The Rock in the same manner of a pro wrestling promoter. To borrow from wrestling vernacular, Lin has Hobbes “job” to Dom Toretto to “put him over.” When Dom beats this man-monster in a brawl, Dom is established as the ultimate alpha in this particular universe. Then when the Family saves Hobbes from the ambush, Dom gets the big hero moment extending a merciful hand to rescue his former captor. It’s rare that anyone can max out the potential of a star like Dwayne Johnson.
You don’t need me to tell you that the rest of the movie is similarly spot-on, but the heights of ecstasy that we reach once Tej gets that safe open and we go into the Danza Kurduro ending montage are unmatched by anything else in this series. In the moment, it’s hard to imagine how the series could continue after such a perfect ending. But of course, we finally go full comic book movie with the mid credits stinger that brings back Eva Mendes to tell The Rock that Letty is alive.
A year before the Avengers assembled, Fast Five gave us everything one of those movies does, but better. I doubt we will ever get a Fast movie that tops this, and that’s ok.
Justin Lin and Chris Morgan played the long game and laid down a royal flush when it came to Fast Five. It’s just a totally confident culmination of several installments in a Hollywood blockbuster franchise in which it seems they just knew EXACTLY how to please the audience, and went all in to make the most satisfying film of this franchise yet. (Not to mention the installment most consider to be THE best to date).
But back to the long game. Perhaps they previously felt Brian just NEEDED to be a cop in order to keep up the dramatic tension. But damn if it isn’t so totally satisfying to just dispense with that and get Brian squarely within The Fambly. But there has to be SOME heat breathing down their necks, so enter The Rock. Despite what has become an epic ego clash between Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson that’s best left to the gossip columns, there’s no doubt that The Rock brings a musclebound big screen antagonist for the ages to match biceps with Dom and infuse this franchise with a little sweaty relentlessness. Johnson just strolls right into this universe like he was born to be here and it works like gangbusters.
But it’s the “Avengers Assemble” component of Fast Five that truly sends it into the stratosphere. Bringing back cast members from the first, second, third AND fourth installments was pure catnip to movie fans and it’s just as much the presence of this charismatic cast as any other component of the Fast/Furious films that sends them to box office gold time and again. Separately, not many of these cast members are A-list, above-the-title movie stars, but together they’re nearly unstoppable. Having seen the film for only my second time, after having seen 2 & 3 for the very first time, Fast Five clicked for me in a way it hasn’t before. Obviously. It’s hard to be excited about the Avengers Assembling when you’re unacquainted with most of them. But having genuinely loved 2 Fast 2 Furious, and at least genuinely loving Han in Tokyo Drift, it did feel mind blowing to get them all together for Five.
This chemistry and history also elevated the action for me. When I saw Fast Five theatrically I was impressed, from a distance, by the action scenes. But I wasn’t emotionally invested in the franchise so it didn’t leave a big impression on me. Now, feeling like a silent member of The Fambly myself, the opening Mad Max-esque train heist and the closing vault heist requiring each member of The Fambly’s special set of skills, were essentially “chef’s kiss” action movie filmmaking.
Then, on top of all that goodness, Fast Five up and gets emotional on me in ways I wasn’t suspecting. With Jordanna Brewster’s character becoming pregnant and the resultant discussions of fatherhood and the importance of sticking together, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t even get a little misty-eyed.
Handily the best of the franchise so far, I would fear that it’ll only be downhill after Fast Five if I didn’t already know that I’ll once again find myself misty eyed when revisiting Furious 7. All the components of hip hop and street racing culture, international appeal, cross sub-culture appeal, massive action set piece filmmaking, and family melodrama all collide in Rio to make Fast Five the best of the most unlikely blockbuster franchise in memory.
Bonus: See Ed’s live-tweeting on this watch for additional observations RE: O’Conner’s skate sneakers.
The thing that struck me most about this viewing of Fast Five (a film I have watched and half-watched more times than I can count) is how expertly plotted it is. We start at the lowest point we’ve seen for these characters yet, on the run and out of options, desperately gobbling up food as if they don’t know when they’ll eat again. By the end, the triumph of this scrappy chosen family is so glorious that it feels almost strange to continue the series after this point. And each transitional point from A to B makes sense, gradually growing until the final ecstatic driving sequence.
I keep harping on this, but it honestly bear repeating here: Justin Lin is a masterful action director. He has knack for both embarrassing the absurd but always in service to clarity and storytelling. That final driving sequence is the high point of that style, but there are moment throughout this movie that would be a crown jewel moment in any other film. There are just so many “moments” that pop in this film that it’s easy to see why it pivoted the world of seeing these films as being expendable, C-tier summer programmers to something special.
And that something special is the earnestness everyone brings to it. This movie is silly, big and outsized, but the stakes for the characters are mostly very personal. This is a “one last job” movie where the stakes are a perceived sense of freedom, and that is communicated by every last member of the crew. At one point Roman argues “Personal is bad business,” but in this business, the personal always seeps in. It is unavoidable. And with the Family finally united, those personal ties are only going to be strengthened.
Our Next Pit Stop: Wait there’s more of these? But everyone got their 11 milly, drove off into the sunset for their happy endings. Where could it possibly go from here? Oh they’re going to become the 21st century GI Joe? Well that sounds cool at least; let’s see how that turns out in Fast & Furious 6.