Over its first three installments, the Fast and Furious franchise had very little concern for establishing a consistent narrative. Watching the films for the first time, it’s been difficult to imagine just how & when it got to the grand, sprawling-cast action spectacle promised in the trailer for Furious 7, as there was very little connecting the films besides a sports car fetish and an affinity for Corona. 2 Fast 2 Furious shared only one actor with its predecessor (face-of-the-franchise Paul Walker) and the third installment, Tokyo Drift, didn’t even have that much of a vague connection, but instead was only spiritually tethered to the rest of the franchise through the stunt casting of a rapper-turned-actor, in that case (Lil) Bow Wow. I loved Tokyo Drift for its lack of concern with justifying its own existence (and its voracious enthusiasm for driving sideways), but there wasn’t very far for the series to go as a cohesive unit by leaving that film . . . adrift.
The fourth Fast and Furious film, the succinctly titled Fast & Furious, tries to pull the series’ act together by working as retroactive franchise glue. In an opening high speed heist (an immediate callback to the first film), the original Furious couple of Dominic (Vin Diesel) & Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) make their triumphant return to the fold by robbing an 18 wheeler. This time, however, they have a new compatriot in their schemes: Han (Sung Kang), a very important player from Tokyo Drift who (spoiler) is supposed to be very dead. So, what does this mean? Is Fast & Furious supposed to be a prequel to the series? Not quite, since Paul Walker’s undercover cop shenanigans from the first two films have already taken place. So does that make Tokyo Drift a pseudo sci-fi car racing film set sometime in the near future? I buy that. I mean, they were driving sideways. This chronology is not-so-seamlessly (but very much amusingly) set up in an exchange where Vin Diesel’s Dominic tells Han “Time for you to do your own thing.” and Han replies, “I heard they’re doing some crazy shit in Tokyo . . .” They’re doing some crazy shit indeed, Han. First of all, they’re driving sideways.
The problem is that after these first ten minutes of retroactive narrative, Fast & Furious loses its sense of purpose. Setting the undercover police intrigue in the Dominican Republic, the film offers the franchise a new location, but not much else. There’s some nonsense about using liquid nitrogen to pull of heists, the only new toy for the cars is a GPS visualization (that plays into the series’ video game aesthetic, but really, it’s GPS; who cares?), and the movie introduces the idea that Vin Diesel’s Dominic has the ability to mentally reconstruct car crashes based on tire marks, but none of it really amounts to much. For the most part, the action is standard stuff you’d expect in any action franchise: Vin Diesel hanging dudes out of windows by their ankles, Paul Walker chasing criminals down back alleys in his tailored federal agent suit, lots of tumbling cars, etc. The best moment, action wise, is when Diesel does a controlled slide (Tokyo style) under a tumbling 18 wheeler, but that takes place during that saving-grace opening set piece.
Fast & Furious can’t even get its own franchise’s charms right. Besides there being no new shiny toys for the cars (unless you’re especially wowed by GPS), there’s no cartoonish warp speed during the street races, the leering lipstick lesbianism makes too big of a return, and although the rap rock is back (Hispanic rap rock this time) it takes a back seat to relentlessly sappy acoustic guitar work. The main thing it’s missing, however, is a sense of fun. Fast & Furious is just so unnecessarily dour, especially after the cartoonish excess of Tokyo Drift. If there’s one thing you want your mindless car-racing action movies to be it’s fun and Fast & Furious undeniably fails on that front. There’s some mild hilarity in its failure to achieve a serious tone, like in the exchange, “Maybe you’re not the good guy pretending to be the bad guy. Maybe you’re the bad guy pretending to be the good guy. You ever think about that?” “Every day.” For the most part, though, this tone just makes the film unbearable. There are a couple bright spots here or there, like the much-appreciated return of Jordana Brewster & the spectacle of the opening heist, but for the most part Fast & Furious is only concerned with herding the narrative cats of the first three installments. Once that business is out of the way the movie becomes exceedingly difficult to love. Hopefully it’ll serve as a bridge to better movies down the line, but when considered on its own, it’s not really worth its near two-hour runtime.