Despite the 15 year run of the franchise’s cultural ubiquity, I’ve somehow managed to avoid ever seeing a Fast & Furious movie in full. Sure, I’ve seen them playing as background noise in various bars & living rooms over the years, but I’ve never bothered to watch a single picture from front to end. When the series first got started I was a gloomy teenage snob who wouldn’t be caught dead watching such mindless machismo, but something happened in the years since: I grew a sense of humor. And while I was working on that, something else happened: the series seemingly got exponentially ridiculous with each sequel. It’s rare these days for any genre film outside of slasher flicks to earn six sequels, but here we are in 2015 with a car racing movie reaching its seventh installment next month: Furious 7. It’s with the ads for that seventh installment that I’ve finally reached my tipping point. The trailer for Furious 7 is so deliciously over the top that when I first saw it in the theater I finally felt compelled to catch up with the entire series.
It turns out that the very first installment in the Fast & Furious franchise was a very effective baseline measurement for the series. It was exactly what I had expected: rap-rock era machismo way more concerned with cartoonishly fast cars, gigantic guns, and impressively elaborate action sequences than its superfluous plot about an undercover cop. The movie opens with a dangerous, in-motion highway robbery, then moves on directly to a fistfight, then a drag race, then a feud with a biker gang and so on. In addition to fistfights, armed robberies, motorcycles, and sports cars, The Fast and the Furious features such macho trademarks as rap metal, backyard grills, and lipstick lesbianism. The film also features Vin Diesel in his early 2000s prime (he had a prime, right?), Ja Rule (unmistakably in his prime) as an early sign of the series’ unique interest in rappers-turned-actors, and the strikingly sexy Jordana Brewster as the designated trophy girl for face-of-the-series Paul Walker to lust after. Above all of these macho hallmarks stands what I suppose is the film’s main attraction: fast cars. Cars so fast that light warps around them like spaceships in old-line sci-fi, their roaring engines overpowering the sound design & the inner workings of their nitrous oxide systems becoming a fetishistic focus for the CGI. The series, of course, is all about furiously fast cars, with plot & dialogue taking a very distant second.
The Fast and the Furious is entertaining enough as a mindless action flick & a trashy cultural relic, but it’s nowhere near the peak ridiculousness promised in the Furious 7 trailer. It does have its campy moments, though. The dialogue is often laughable. For example, early in the film when Paul Walker’s character suspiciously patrons a subpar sandwich shop, a hooligan asks, “What’s up with this fool? What is he, sandwich crazy?” In addition to the nonsensical vocal posturing, there’s the hideous detail of someone being force-fed engine oil as a torture tactic, the fact that somehow no one seems to think it’s fucked up that their drag race competition is called “Race Wars”, and a straight-out-of-a-girl-group-song moment when Paul Walker screams “Don’t do it, Jesse!” while trying to convince a reckless teen not to race. Also, as a lazy Louisiana nerd who barely leaves the house, I have no idea exactly how over the top the depictions of widescale California street races that result in thousands of people running from the cops are, but they felt pretty silly to an outsider. The campy charms never reach a fever pitch, however, and the film mostly serves as a baseline measurement for the sure-to-come shameless retreads inherent to sequels as well as the cartoonish absurdity promised in the ads for Furious 7 (and hopefully elsewhere in the five films in-between). It was a decent start to the series, but I doubt it’s the best or the worst that it has to offer. We’ll see.