Sometime in the early 2000’s, many of my fellow small-town, Midwestern citizens got excited over another non-distinctive, brainless summer action movie called The Fast and the Furious (2001). It starred then unknown actor Paul Walker and recent breakout “star” Vin Diesel, the latter of whom had previously broken onto the map from the low-budget sci-fi film, Pitch Black (2000). It also starred one of my least favorite actresses to date, Michelle Rodriguez, plus a few other no-names. The movie didn’t look up my alley at all, because while I was (and still am) into action movies like any hot-blooded male adolescent, the story seemed enamored with cars, street-racing, and brain-dead, shallow characters played by non-charismatic actors driving around in toothless PG-13 action sequences and over-CGI-ed stunts.
Turns out I was completely right. I didn’t enjoy the movie at all, but it killed two hours of my time for free (I saw it on DVD, not in theatres, thank God) and I got to check off another dull, monotonous pop-culture reference that dumb rednecks and the dimwitted masses would constantly ask if I’ve seen to back up my totally justified cinematic snobbery.
Years passed from 2001 to 2006 and beyond and I noted with passing interest as the series devolved with fewer returning stars and increasingly laughable titles with each new entry; 2 Fast 2 Furious debuted in 2003 as the first sequel without Vin Diesel and starring new cast members Tyrese Gibson and Ludacris alongside Walker, and then The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift emerged in 2006 without either Walker or Diesel or any of the main cast, simply starring a new soon-to-recurring minor character called Han Seoul-Oh (aka “Han Solo”…*crickets*).
Assuming the franchise was dead at this point, as its box office returns had dipped with its less marketable casts and ludicrous (get it? haha…) titles, imagine my surprise when the franchise rose from its grave with the 2009 film Fast and Furious (they took at the “the’s“) with Walker, Diesel, Rodriguez, and others from the original 2001 cast returning and nailing the series’ highest gross yet, over $360 million.
Amused as I was by this, little did I know that the dumbest moments of the furiously fast franchise were yet to come. At least by this point critics were able to divorce themselves from the massive hype of the dimwitted, popcorn-eating masses and call out these movies for what they were, but as soon as the franchise added Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and diluted itself from niche dumb action schlock to generic mainstream action-schlock, nearly all critics inexplicably started to go along with it. Here is a summary of the entire 7-film canon thus far with each film’s budget, box office, and Rottentomatoes ratings:
|Film||Rotten Tomatoes||Budget||Box Office|
|The Fast and the Furious||53% (147 reviews)||$38 million||$206 million
|2 Fast 2 Furious||36% (159 reviews)||$76 million
|The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift||37% (113 reviews)||$85 million||$158 million|
|Fast & Furious||28% (173 reviews)||$85 million
|Fast Five||78% (192 reviews)||$125 million
|Fast & Furious 6||68% (184 reviews)||$160 million
|Furious 7||81% (199 reviews)||$190 million
As you can see, up through Tokyo Drift, the FF movies’ budget/profit ratio steadily declines, but once main stars Walker and Diesel return for the article-free fourth entry, the box office spikes again. Once the franchise fully abandons its redneck street-racing roots and embraces generic blockbuster action like heists-on-wheels (Fast Five) and car-terrorists (Furious 6 and 7), not to mention adding Dwayne Johnson’s big name and charismatic screen presence, the series really kicks it into high-gear —- from a profit-making and cultural acceptance standpoint, not in terms of actual quality, mind you.
The only thing that separates these later films post-Fast and Furious (2009) from the series’ genesis is that the films’ action formula has changed ever so slightly from a dumb, macho street racing-focus to a more generic, all-inclusive action menu highlighted by occasional nods to the franchise’s drag-racing origins. FF still has fast cars and goes vroomvroom(!), but it’s intermixed with a healthy, more mass-audience-appealing vanilla mix of action features (shootouts, hand-to-hand fisticuffs, shootouts and hand-to-hand fisticuffs in the middle of car chases, etc.). From a marketing perspective, the choice to change up the series framework starting with Fast Five was a stroke of genius. This shift in series’ formula has coincided with massive surges in box office success and mainstream acceptance of the franchise, so much to the point that even critics are now jumping on the bandwagon, forking over “Fresh” Tomatometer ratings by implementing the same low standards and limited context most mainstream film critics employ when giving Thor (2011) or other Marvel movies a pass as well.
In actuality though, despite years of box office slump-to-homerun recovery and a full rebooting of the original cast, not much in the series has changed. The things that kept me from falling in love with the franchise with the first film are the same things that keep me from joining the hype-train with the fifth, sixth, and seventh. I just can’t get into the characters or the cast playing them for the life of me, in particular Paul Walker’s wooden performances as the same, skinny white cop-who-went-bad and Michelle Rodriguez as the same wannabe “badass” Latina chick role she plays in every film, whose acting modes alternate between angry and dead. None of these characters are interesting to me, and given all those slow talking parts in the stories, they count against these movies in a big way. I’m a fan of Diesel’s work in Pitch Black (Riddick is probably one of favorite film characters), but he’s not given a whole lot to work with here other than stand around with that incoherent baritone voice of his and look tough. As an action-star he has almost zero screen presence and I can barely understand what he’s mumbling during half his lines. Dwayne Johnson’s casting was a (marketing) stroke of genius and he’s a much more charismatic presence than either Walker or Diesel, but he’s barely in any of these movies other than Five, where he plays a supporting role. Throw in fairly bland, vanilla narratives with the thinly drawn characters and you have the big “dumb” part of these supposedly “dumb but fun” movies.
It’s hard for me to overlook the lack of substance in these films however stylish the chase sequences may be. A few cool scenes here and there like the tank-chase in 6 and the favela-shootout in Five are neat, but numerous set-pieces like the endless runway at the end of 6, the train heist at the beginning of Five, and most every action-sequence from films 1-4 oscillate between silly and ridiculous; and by ridiculous, I don’t mean ridiculously awesome or over the top, I mean fake and cartoonish and dumb. Not exactly cream-of-the-crop, action-wise, if you ask me.
If we overlook the bad acting, cornball lines, and laughably thin plots from film to film and just focus on the action, which is the main defense of this series, I struggle to find things to laud or praise as “awesome.” Even ignoring foreign action-flicks like The Raid films (2011, 2014) or Snowpiercer (2014) or various other Asian thrillers, which feature everything from superior fistfights to shootouts to brilliant car-chases themselves, even if we just focus on Western English-language options, I can’t help but point out the plethora of better options. Sure the studio stuff in America has been pretty weak these past fifteen years, but there are numerous exceptions and great lower-budget stuff, such as:
- Casino Royale (2006)
- The Bourne Trilogy (2001, 2004, 2007)
- John Wick (2014)
- Dredd (2012)
- The Winter Soldier (2014)
- The Expendables (2010)
- District 9 (2009)
- Rambo (2008)
- Collateral (2004)
- Mad Max: Fury Road (aka Fast and the Furious for grownups, 2015)
- Kill Bill (2003-2004)
- Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011)
- Django Unchained (2012)
Even if we ignore the issues of plot and characterizations, which I argue are laughable in every FF and superior in every film listed above, FF pails in comparison from an action-standpoint to all these aforementioned features in every regard. To some extent FF suffers from the suffocating restrictions of the mass-audience friendly PG-13 rating, but films like The Winter Soldier, Casino Royale, and The Bourne series produce great action (including car chases) within the same rating. FF’s action just isn’t up to par as an action series, so I have no idea why this series remains so financially successful, let alone critically acceptable, other than people’s familiarity with the brand name and general critical apathy.
Maybe some of those films listed are high bars to compare a FF film to, but if so, that assertion is just proving my point that this series is painfully mediocre and overrated. I just don’t get the appeal.
I understand some critics want to give a nod to the series’ ethnically diverse cast and “strong female characters,” though I’m still at a loss at how these films’ endless display of close-up asses is empowering, but I can’t help but compare those arguments to how Paul Feiges leans on the faux feminine empowerment angle for his painfully unfunny Melissa McCarthy comedies that everyone loves or the way Tyler Perry uses minority casts and Christian themes to mask the fact that his movies are exploitative trash. Moreover, movies don’t (or at least they shouldn’t) get artistic points simply for being culturally sensitive. By the same standard Quentin Tarantino would be considered a Satanic anti-Christ of political incorrectness.
My point is that this franchise is not lasting as long as it has because it is worthy franchise, but like most any superhero blockbuster or Avatar (2009) it has managed to appeal to as many filmgoers as possible. It provides mass audience-friendly action (big crashes with flashy cars, loud explosions, little in the way of blood/gore, adult language, or particularly brutal combat) and has a lot of good looking stars. It manages to check off every box in the generic PG-13 action blockbuster list with ease, and unsurprisingly most (if not all) of those checkmarks have to do with style rather than substance. To that end, the stylized action elements of these films barely break above mediocrity even without looking beyond the mainstream hits of Hollywood’s action stables, so don’t fault me if I remain unimpressed with this series. It just doesn’t do much for me on either intellectual or action fronts.
What does impress me is the series’ miraculous resurgence from mild cult hit status to cultural irrelevance and obscurity to finally box office dominance and mainstream acceptance. Who could have predicted the vehicle for mainstream success for muscled, charisma-free Vin Diesel and a wooden Paul Walker would come from this series following the straight-to-DVD quality release of Tokyo Drift? I certainly did not. Too bad it couldn’t have happened with a better franchise that had some legitimacy to begin with.