Wheelman (2017)

“I drive the car. I’m the wheelman. That’s it. End of story.”

The incredible thing about the film Locke is how much tension it manages to generate by depicting Tom Hardy making telephone calls about a concrete pour & a domestic snafu while driving practically in real time in a fancy car. The much grimier, less delicate Netflix Original™ Wheelman sets that restraint & refinement aflame and then pisses on the ashes. Wheelman is essentially Locke with all of the references to concrete substituted with variations on the word “motherfucker” (so much so that Shea Whigham’s Travis Bickle-esque scumbag is billed simply as Motherfucker in the credits) and its stage play dialogue being run over at full speed by GTA-style video game action/chaos. Most people who adored Locke weren’t likely wishing to themselves that it would be remade as a hyper-violent, bitterly macho shoot-em-up, but they’d likely have fun with what Wheelman does with the formula anyway. There aren’t many action movies this year leaner & meaner than this direct-to-streaming sleeper and the fact that it resembles a much classier high-concept picture makes it all the more charming in its own scrappy way.

Frank Grillo stars as the titular Wheelman, a tough-as-nails ex-con who drives getaway missions to repay mobsters for debt he accrued in prison. The movie details a single night of mayhem in his miserable life when a heist goes horribly wrong & puts everything he loves in jeopardy. Instructed to abandon his crew in the middle of a bank robbery, the wheelman finds himself stuck between two warring criminal factions while in possession of the cash they both claim ownership over. Between street chases & gunfights across the city, he negotiates the terms of the money’s surrender by phone between both parties while also sending instructions to his daughter & ex-wife on how to avoid the mobsters’ clutches and tracking down the people responsible for getting him stuck in such a dangerous position in the first place. The plot is lizard brain simple, leaving plenty of room for the slickly edited camera trickery & city-wide mountain of paranoia that drive the film’s action. It’s as if the opening heist sequence of Drive was stretched out for a full 80 minutes and packed to the gills with explosively dangerous testosterone. In other words, it’s a blast.

It’s easy to imagine an action film with this little dedication to establishing complex plot & characters feeling boring or empty, but Wheelman compensates for these deliberate deficiencies just fine in its attention to craft. The majority of the film is shot from inside the car, even the conflict-inciting bank robbery, so that the audience feels like they were shoved in the back seat against their will and taken on a reckless ride into the night. Even when drivers switch hands at the wheel, the POV remains with the car itself. Shots are framed tire-level at dangerously sharp turns. Gunshots & head wounds are allowed to sink in with full impact, even though the movie’s usual M.O. is to chase break-neck kineticism. Much like Locke, Wheelman is little more than a sequence of phone calls made by a single character in the driver’s seat of a nondescript car, but it finds a way to make every moment of that dynamic unbelievably thrilling. It’s much trashier & flashier than Locke, though, so the fact that it’s able to pull off its same formula is much less surprising, even if it is a brutally constant source of action mayhem/fun.

-Brandon Ledet

Speed Racer (2008)

It can be difficult to pinpoint the exact moment a movie’s reputation crosses the line dividing underrated gem and overrated misfire, but the live-action Speed Racer reboot is getting dangerously close to crossing that threshold. After a string of cult hits with Bound, The Matrix, and V for Vendetta, the Wachkowskis got their first taste of massive critical & financial failure when Speed Racer flopped in wide release. In development under several creative teams since 1992 and racking up a budget well over the $100 million mark, the project was likely doomed from the start, but what the Wachowskis delivered was far more bizarrely energetic & personally enthusiastic than what you’d typically expect from major blockbusters that suffer similar growing pains. Speed Racer’s green screen vision of a live-action hyperreality where everything from future sport car races on impossible Hot Wheels-style tracks to pancake breakfasts in a small suburban home feels equally, eye-bleedingly cartoonish is an intense sugar rush of weird ideas I wish even half of all summertime blockbusters could stack up to. The problem is this enthusiasm amounts to an unwieldy, 140 minute long story that’s more epic in length than it is in scale, shoveling that visual sugar into audience’s mouths by the truckload instead of the spoonful. As much as I empathize with dedicated fans of the film who wish to counteract the disregard for this weirdo visual energy by hailing it as a masterpiece, I have to admit that the film is ultimately Too Much of itself. Its cumulative effect is impressive, but exhausting.

Emile Hirsch stars as the titular Speed Racer, a suburban racecar driver who struggles to live in the shadow of his presumed-dead brother, Rex Racer. Speedy has a team of helping hands hoisting up his legacy (as all racecar drivers do), including a parental power couple played by John Goodman & Susan Sarandon and a ride or die love interest played by Christina Ricci. Outside a subplot concerning the death/disappearance of Rex Racer & the not-so-secret identity of the mysterious outlaw Racer X, the story mostly concerns Speedy’s struggles with fame as he’s called up to the big leagues by major corporate sponsors. A dichotomy between small, wholesome racing families and massive big money corporations is drawn as Speedy is asked to participate in a rigged system where racecar driving is treated like pro wrestling: scripted sports entertainment. I don’t have a mind specifically geared to care about cars, but the video game landscapes where these races are staged are a beautiful sight to behold. Speed Racer can often devolve into a jumbled mess of flashback-corrupted timelines and go-nowhere Gags For The Kids involving a goof-em-up chimpanzee, but its story about a young upstart toppling an evil corporation through a pure, passionate dedication to his sport is certainly infectious, especially when paired with this kind of sci-fi, Rollerballish futurism. I’m not sure early scenes detailing Speed Racer’s childhood troubles adjusting to schoolwork & literally competing with his brother’s memory have to be nearly as extensive as they are, but they do help establish the heightened, color-intense surreality of a child’s imagination that commands the film’s overall aesthetic. In terms of plot, Speed Racer‘s major flaw might be that there’s too much of it, possibly a result of adapting pre-existing manga & anime source material for s standalone feature.

I don’t mean to sound overly negative on the Wachowskis’ aggressively strange, admirably overreaching cartoon vision. I was entirely sold on Speed Racer as an ambitious, singular work of world-building through simple CGI, the way Steven Chow features often impress me in their unembarrassed embrace of the artform. The way characters feel entirely separate from their background environments (which feature the most artificial-looking Nature exteriors since Douglas Sirk) is very much in tune with the art of comic book panels & anime action sequences, maybe more so than any other live-action film outside Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World. The way the film clashes a wholesome, nostalgic worldview represented in old-timey racing footage from the silent era and line readings of “Jeepers!” & “Cool beans!” against a ludicrous future overrun by segways & impossible superhighways is a beautifully rendered aesthetic I’m not sure I’ve ever seen in a film before. I totally agree with Speed Racer apologists & devotees who contend that the alternate reality fantasy the Wachowskis crafted here should not have been dismissed outright (the way I readily dismissed their sci-fi adventure epic Jupiter Ascending without blinking). What keeps me from hailing the work as a overlooked masterpiece, though, is the way that fantasy is made to be exhausting by something as easily fixable as the film’s length. After about 80 minutes of Speed Racer the film had offered an incredible cartoon hyperreality the world has never seen before. The only thing it can do for the hour that follows, however, is offer more of what you’ve already seen. As delighted as I was by any of the film’s in-the-moment surprises (one gag involving a weaponized beehive in particular had me choking on my wine), the film’s overall effect was just Too Much of a Good Thing. If Speed Racer were an hour shorter I’d likely be joining in the praise of it as an overlooked masterpiece. As is, I can only appreciate it as a fascinating, sprawling mess of deliciously bizarre, enthusiastic ideas that long outlive their welcome.

-Brandon Ledet

Baby Driver (2017)

In the few days since watching Edgar Wright’s latest at the theater, starting almost immediately after the screening, I’ve been suffering a very annoying case of swimmer’s ear. I can’t hear very well from the affected appendage, which is ringing slightly & swollen to the point of discomfort. I also can’t help but think that this sudden affliction is somehow cosmic retribution for not especially caring about Baby Driver, a film everyone seems to love without reservation, but only stirred apathy in me. In the film, a young twenty-something getaway driver with a heart of gold (named Baby, naturally) suffers from a near lifelong affliction of severe tinnitus. To ease the constant ringing in his ears, he choreographs his day around an endless stack of carefully-curated iPod classics, each loaded with just the right song selection to drown out the noise in his head & get him through his reluctant life in crime. Given how (mostly) great the soundtrack Baby selects for himself is (including tracks from artists as varied as T. Rex, Young MC, and The Damned) and the immediately apparent exuberance Wright shows behind the wheel, it’s downright sinful that I couldn’t manage to have fun watching this summertime exercise in action & style. Do not worry, though. My ear seems to have been struck down for the offense.

I don’t want to waste too much server space shitting on Baby Driver, since it’s bringing a lot of people a lot of joy. It’s easy to recognize what they see in it: stylized car chases, a killer soundtrack, playful action movie dialogue, etc. It’s just frustrating to me that a film with such an exciting premise (a babyfaced criminal timing his bank robbery getaways to pop music) ultimately feels so conventional & uninspired. It starts off sublimely committed to its central conceit too. Baby (played by real-life babyface Ansel Elgort) draws attention to himself by drumming on the steering wheel & lipsycing for his life to a blues rock diddy outside an in-progress robbery. His irreverence is immediately infectious. After establishing Baby’s skills behind the wheel in a show-off’s getaway, the movie establishes its main hook up front in the opening credits. While Baby strolls to a local coffee shop to cap off the heist, the music in his earbuds syncs up to the imagery onscreen, to the point where graffiti & street signs echo lyrics from the soundtrack. In this opening adrenaline rush, it’s easy to be seduced into thinking you’re watching a high octane, pop music-driven modernization of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, a visually complex musical where every meticulously crafted detail in play is just an extension of the song developing in your ear. That’s why it’s such a letdown when the movie then reveals itself to be a much more conventional, instantly-familiar heist picture.

That’s not to say that a conventional heist picture can’t be a worthwhile mode of entertainment. Even while disappointing in ambition, Baby Driver features some exceptional performances from its actors. Lily James is absurdly sweet in her role as a diner waitress, feeling like a cartoolishly pure distillation of wholesome Americana. Jamie Foxx also steals attention whenever he’s allowed the opportunity in his role as the loose cannon criminal who can’t be trusted not to blow every heist apart into a bloodsoaked catastrophe, an unpredictable element of danger that helps the film’s “one last job” plot feel at least somewhat distinctive instead of mind-numbingly cliché. I’m a lot less hot on what Jon Hamm & Kevin Spacey are doing as Foxx’s criminal cohorts, which might get to the core of why I was underwhelmed by the movie as a whole. It’s not necessarily a fault with the performances, but more to do with Wright’s screenplay. Spacey & Hamm are tasked with delivering deliberately over-stylized, insincerely quippy dialogue that makes Baby Driver feel overall like a return to that deluge of mediocre mid-to-late 90s sardonic crime movies that followed in the wake of Pulp Fiction & Reservoir Dogs. Even back then those overly-jokey, scripted-to-death crime pictures were already exhaustingly redundant & flat. In a 2017 context the effect is even worse, feeling about as try-hard & unfunny as Deadpool.

It’s possible my mood was soured before Baby Driver even began, given Edgar Wright’s snooty pre-screening PSA about how going to the theater is an essential cinematic experience, as opposed to to the slackjawed dimwit slobs who watch Netflix on the couch (i.e. everyone alive). Mostly, though, I just felt let down that Wright abandoned his central Action Movie Cherbourg concept so quickly after following it to its furthest end in the opening credits. Whenever stray gunfire or gearshifts sync to the music in later scenes, it just feels like a distant echo of a better movie that could’ve been. Without its defining gimmick commanding every moment, Baby Driver feels alternately like post-Tarantino slick action runoff & a made-for-TV mockbuster version of the equally mythic, but infinitely more stylish Drive. I probably shouldn’t be saying these things aloud, though, just in case it’s risking hearing loss in my currently uninfected ear. I hope you, Wright, and the pop music gods in charge of my hearing will eventually forgive me for the transgression, lest I need to start shopping on eBay for some secondhand mp3 players.

-Brandon Ledet

Death Race 2050 (2017)

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When people claim that “bad on purpose,” winking-at-the-camera camp films of recent years aren’t ever as exciting as those of distant schlock cinema past, I don’t think they’re necessarily saying that, as a rule, intentional, “low” camp is by nature less engaging than bad-on-accident, “high” camp. I hope not, anyway. I just think there’s typically a laziness to straight-to-VOD/SyFy Channel schlock that stops at a premise or a title, say Shark Exorcist or Cowboys vs. Dinosaurs, without any thorough or passionate pursuit of where its initial ideas can lead. To put it simply, modern CG schlock is rarely as deeply weird as it’s advertised to be in its Ain’t This Weird?! titles. That doesn’t mean all “bad”-on-purpose cinema is worthless, though. Just look to last year’s camp cinema triumphs like The Love Witch, The Greasy Strangler, and Pee-wee’s Big Holiday to prove that’s not true. Modern camp just needs to keep in mind that its most memorable ancestors, from the likes of Roger Corman or John Waters or Ed Wood, were made with great filmmaking passion that covered up whatever shortcomings their microbudgets couldn’t. Even when their tone wasn’t genuine, their inherent weirdness was.

Death Race 2050 is a genuinely weird film. It isn’t much more than a R-rated version of straight-to-SyFy Channel schlock, but it makes its cheap camp aesthetic count when it can and it survives comfortably on its off-putting tone of deeply strange “bad”-on-purpose black comedy. Much more closely in line with the Paul Bartel-directed/Roger Corman-produced original film Death Race 2000 than its gritty, self-serious Paul W.S. Anderson remake, Death Race 2050 is a cheap cash-in on the combined popularity of Hunger Games & Fury Road and makes no apologies for that light-hearted transgression. Corman productions have a long history of cannibalizing the films they’ve influenced, like when Joe Dante’s Piranha film openly riffed on Jaws (which was essentially a Corman film on a Hollywood budget). The original Death Race 2000, along with countless other Corman productions, surely had an influence on both the Mad Max & Hunger Games franchises and it’s hilarious to see the tireless film producer still willing to borrow from his own spiritual descendants for a quick buck all these years later. It’s also funny to hear him describe Death Race 2050 as “a car racing picture with some black humor,” which is about the most mild-mannered way you could possibly put it. The movie is, more honestly put, a live-action cartoon bloodbath featuring broad comedic personalities that would make a pro wrestling promoter blush . . . with a little car racing thrown in for fun. It never tries to survive solely on the strength of its premise, but instead injects each possible moment with weird character details and ludicrous production design. That’s the open secret of its many minor successes.

The plot here is standard Death Race lore. A near-future dystopia known as The United Corporations of America enacts population control through a televised racing competition in which contestants earn points for each pedestrian they run over. Children & the elderly earn them extra. Each contestant has a pro wrestling-sized persona: an obnoxious pop music idol, a genetic freak with inner conflicts regarding his sexuality, a Texas Christian archetype who’s turned her faith into terrorist fanaticism. None are nearly as popular as Frankenstein, however. A cyborg crowd-favorite who has long remained masked, Frankenstein is the paradoxical heartless killer with a heart of gold. Because this film is at least partly a Fury Road knockoff, New Zealander Manu Bennett plays Frankenstein as a cheap Tom Hardy stand-in instead of a reflection of David Carradine’s work in the original film. He drives across the country racking up points, trying not to fall in love with his comely co-pilot/annoying audience surrogate, fighting off a misguided revolution, and ultimately taking aim at his most crucial foil: a CEO-type dictator who falls somewhere between Emperor Snow & Donald Trump (the film’s only casting “get,” Malcolm McDowell). Rapid montages of a pollution-crippled future mix with television gameshow gimmickry, dismembered body parts gore (both traditional & CG), a long list of pointless tangents (including an otherwise-useless scene that deliberarely points to its own minimum-effort satisfaction of The Bechdel Test), and a romance plot no one asked for to make this ultra-violent race across the country a consistently fun, if wholly predictable journey. Death Race 2050 never transcends the bounds of what it is: a straight-to-VOD trifle. It stands as an enthusiastically entertaining example of the format, though, one that pulls some weird punchlines like “When your DNA sleeps it dreams of me,” and “Looks like rain today . . . and enslavement by machines tomorrow” whenever it gets the chance.

The only glaring faults I can cite in Death Race 2050 are a total lack of chemistry between its dull protagonists (Frankenstein & his co-pilot) and a dinky production value that suffers under what must have been a microscopic budget. That’s not so bad for a shameless, winking-at-the-camera remake meant to capitalize on two unrelated franchises that have earned popularity in its original version’s wake. Although Death Race 2050 tries to update some of Death Race 2000‘s minor details for a modern context (VR goggles that look an awful lot like swimming goggles, a Donald Trump-like villain, a self-driving AI vehicle contestant, references to things like St. Dwayne The Rock Johnson & Bieber Elementary), its spirit is very much rooted in the genuine weirdness of the Paul Bartel original. It’s a difficult tone to strike, I presume, given how often these cheap CG camp exercises come off as lifeless, passion-free slogs. Through some simple production details (especially in its dystopian Rainbow Store costuming), a dedication to R-rated sex & gore, and a surprisingly authentic punk soundtrack, Death Race 2050 shines like a rare CG gem in a murky sea of unmemorable schlock. It’s loud, dumb, “bad-on-accident” fun, but in a deliberately strange fashion that never feels lazy or half-cooked the way its peers often do.

-Brandon Ledet

A Newcomer’s Guide to the Fast & Furious Franchise

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As I have previously explained, I am a recent convert to the Fast & Furious universe. 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 until a few weeks ago. 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 this month: Furious 7. The ads for that seventh installment finally brought me to my tipping point. Furious 7 promised to be so deliciously over the top that when I first saw the ad in the theater I finally felt compelled to catch up with the entire series, an urge I followed voraciously in the past few weeks.

It turns out that the story of the Fast & Furious franchise is the story of an ever-ballooning budget. The 2001 debut installment cost $38 million to make, while in 2015 a Fast & Furious movie costs $250 million. The first three or so Fast & Furious movies serve mostly as cheap cultural relics, time capsules of bad taste in the early 00s. As the budget continued to expand (along with Vin Diesel’s delightfully long winded musings on the nature of “family”) so did the scope of the action sequences and the feeling that the franchise had actually started to pull its own weight as a unique intellectual property. During this transition the focus of the films also deviated from its street racing roots and instead pursued what it self-describes in the latest film as “vehicular warfare”. The street racing of the early films are mostly gone, but far from forgotten as the series has become completely wrapped up in its own mythology, pretending that the past was more significant than it was and pushing what it can do in the present to any & all ridiculous heights allowed by the strengths of an ever-sprawling cast & budget.

Listed below, in chronological order, are all seven feature films in the Fast & Furious franchise as seen through my fresh, previously uninitiated eyes. Each entry is accompanied by brief re-caps of its faults & charms, but also has its own individual full-length review, which you can find by clicking on the links in the titles themselves. If you are also looking to get initiated into the Fast & Furious world yourself, but wanted to skip the franchise’s humbly trashy beginnings, I highly recommend watching the fifth, sixth, third, and seventh installments (curiously enough, in that specific sequence).

The Fast and the Furious (2001)EPSON MFP imagethree star

The very first installment of the Fast & Furious is mostly effective as a baseline measurement for the series. It was exactly what I had expected from the franchise as a whole: 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. It features such macho trademarks as rap metal, backyard grilling, lipstick lesbianism and, of course, extensive street racing. In this earliest installment the cars move 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 Fast and the Furious is entertaining enough as a mindless action flick & a trashy cultural relic, but it doesn’t even approach the peak ridiculousness achieved in later installments. It does have its campy moments, though, even if they never reach a fever pitch.

MVP of the cast: The stunt-casting of Ja Rule, who’s neither fast nor furious enough to earn a threesome in a street race.
Most curious detail: The fact that somehow no one on the California street racing scene seems to think it’s fucked up that their drag race competition is called “Race Wars.”

2 Fast 2 Furious (2003) EPSON MFP imagethree star

2 Fast 2 Furious isn’t necessarily much better or worse than its predecessor, but functions more like an echo. It hits the same plot points as the original (undercover policing, sports cars reaching warp speed, Paul Walker’s half-assed modes of seduction, etc.) with just a few basic casting substitutions distinguishing the two films. The strange thing about it is that the repetition doesn’t feel like much of a problem. It’s okay that both The Fast and the Furious and 2 Fast 2 Furious share so much in plot & sentiment because plot & sentiment are inessential to the films’ central draws: absurdly intricate action set pieces, a fetishistic love of sports cars, and charmingly dated ideas of cool. 2 Fast 2 Furious may be an exact structural photocopy of the first Fast & Furious installment, but it has such a deliriously lighthearted approach to the intense violence of its reality (a quality that made 80s action films the golden era of the genre) that it’s difficult to be too hard on it critically. Nearly all of the actors except Walker are substituted for new faces (an appropriately shirtless Tyrese Gibson & a Chicken-N-Beer era Ludacris make their welcomed debuts here, though their comic dynamic isn’t fully developed until later installments,) and there’s a complete absence of rap rock, lipstick lesbianism, and backyard grilling, but 2 Fast 2 Furious is still essentially a shameless retread of its precursor. However, it’s one that finds a way to make its more-of-the-same formula entertaining despite the familiarity.

MVP of the cast: The wise-cracking, often-shirtless sex god Tyrese Gibson.
Most curious detail: A not-so-sly reference to Ludacris’ hit song “Move Bitch” is made during a street race, but by a character who is not played by Ludacris.

The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006) EPSON MFP imagethreehalfstar

The third installment in the Fast & Furious franchise is not a particularly unique film when considered on its own merit, but it is very much an outlier in the series it’s a part of. The first two Fast & Furious films are undercover police thrillers about trust & family and the criminal world of California street racing. Tokyo Drift, on the other hand, is about a high school reprobate’s struggle to find The Drift within. The Drift, in case you somehow didn’t already know, is the ability to more or less drive sideways, something Japanese teens are apparently very good at. The Drift also serves as some kind of metaphor for growing up or taking responsibility or something along those lines (with a direct reference to The Karate Kid for full effect), but one thing’s for damn sure: it has nothing to do with the world of the Paul Walkers, Vin Diesels and Tyrese Gibsons of the first two films. There’s a hilarious last minute cameo that attempts to tie it into the rest of the series, but for the most part Tokyo Drift is a free-floating oddity, just sort of . . . drifting out on its own, disconnected. It was more than fair that die-hard fans furiously asked “Who are these people?!” upon its initial release, since the answer to that question doesn’t arrive until a post-credits stinger four films later. However, even though it was hated in its time, it’s a genuinely fun bit of trash cinema about the spiritual virtues of sideways driving, one with almost no regard for rest of the franchise at all.

MVP in the cast: The stunt casting of (Lil) Bow Wow, who plays a wisecracking sidekick that winks at the camera, delivers one-liners like “Japanese food is like the Army: don’t ask, don’t tell,” and refers to the Mona Lisa as that lady who’s smiling all the time.
Most Curious Detail: I’m pretty sure that during the opening race a smashed porta potty splashes digital feces on the camera lens.

Fast & Furious (2009) EPSON MFP imageonehalfstar

The fourth Fast & Furious film attempts to pull the series’ act together by working as retroactive franchise glue, bringing back characters that had been absent since the first film & connecting them to Sung Kang’s Han, a very important player from Tokyo Drift who (spoiler) is supposed to be very dead. 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. 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. 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. After herding the narrative cats of the first three installments, the movie becomes exceedingly difficult to love. It does serve as a necessary bridge to better movies down the line, but when considered on its own, it’s not really worth its near two-hour runtime.

MVP of the cast: Han, resurrected through a receding timeline, not-so-seamlessly (but very much amusingly) sets up the franchise’s ever-shifting chronology in an exchange where he answers the line “Time for you to do your own thing,” with “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.
Most curious detail: The film seems to have a strange fascination with GPS displays. The GPS imagery plays well into the series’ video game aesthetic, but really, it’s GPS; who cares?

Fast Five (2011) EPSON MFP imagethreehalfstar

There’s a lot of killer action movie surface pleasures scattered all over Fast Five (especially in its opening train heist set piece), but that’s not what makes it special. What distinguishes the film from its pedigree is Vin Diesel’s Dominic’s sudden conviction that his gang of ragtag criminals and former cops is a “family”. As far as the franchise goes, the “family” in the first four films act like distant cousins who might see each other once a decade. Suddenly, in Fast Five it’s genuinely moving when Dominic talks about how his father taught him about the importance of backyard grilling, how a family always sticks together, and so on. It’s not a perfect film; it could’ve allowed more screen time for newcomer The Rock & (I can’t believe I’m saying this) more street racing, not to mention that a ludicrous post-credits stinger has the gall to bring the dead back to life without explanation, but it was a huge step forward for the Fast & Furious series as a collective. Five films in, all the separate elements are finally clicking as a cohesive action movie unit. Where most extended franchises gradually unravel over the course of their sequels, this is one that took that time to find itself and cull its own “familial” mythology.

MVP of the Cast: Here we are introduced to Hobbs, played Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who could only serve as a improvement to virtually any motion picture, because he is a perfect human being.
Most Curious Detail: An all-star crew of the gang/”family” members from the first four films are assembled here in the single best team-building montage outside of MacGruber. There’s some truly over the top, jaw-dropping spectacle in the opening train heist and a closing sequence involving a bank vault, but something about that montage feels like the first moments of the series coming into its own.

Fast & Furious 6 (2013) EPSON MFP imagefourstar

Fast & Furious 6 plays right into the franchise’s ever-increasing concern for tying the series together into a cohesive whole. The gang started properly functioning as a unit (or a “family,” if you will) in the fifth film, but this is where individual members of the Fast & Furious family become eccentric cartoon versions of themselves. They begin to get wrapped up in their own distinct mythologies the way the series as a whole got wrapped up in itself in the start-of-a-new-era Fast Five. Now that the “family” has come together as a tight unit, they’ve finally found a way to go truly over the top. The ridiculous caricatures and ever-expanding budget for the action sequences (which include a return to extensive street racing here, which had become surprisingly absent) are what make Fast & Furious 6 feel like a far cry from where the series began, but it’s not what makes the film important. As Vin Diesel’s Dominic would put it, it’s all about family. “Family” is what matters. If you’re on board with the series at this point it’s strangely satisfying to see the film’s major triumph be the gang coming together for a climactic backyard cookout, Coronas proudly lifted in the air. Fast & Furious 6 makes the audience feel like part of the “family”, like we’re all in for the silly ride together. Everyone involved has seemingly gotten comfortable with how ridiculous the series is and found their own ways to make it work as its own unique action franchise, with Vin Diesel standing tall as the most comfortable of them all. It’s adorable.

MVP of the cast: The heart really is in those “family”-obsessed Vin Diesel pep talks. Part of what makes it so convincing is that it feels like he truly believes it.
Most curious detail: The film’s central conflict is with a rival gang who, as Tyrese Gibson describes in an especially hilarious monologue, poses as the gang’s doppelgangers, because they do not believe in family and instead treat their criminal schemes like a business.

Furious 7 (2015)EPSON MFP imagefourstar

Furious 7’s charms depend greatly on the six films that precede it (this marks the first time that the Tokyo Drift storyline is firmly in the temporal rearview), but it uses that well-established history to its advantage as a launching pad for its larger-than-ever set pieces and relentless fan service. To a newcomer the barrage of seemingly insignificant callbacks could feel superfluous at best and grotesque at worst, but for a fan (even a recent convert such as myself), they’re pleasantly familiar. That’s not to say that a pair of fresh eyes would have nothing to enjoy here. At a remarkably brisk 137 minutes, Furious 7 is packed to the gills with action movie surface pleasures that reach new heights in its “vehicular warfare” that will dazzle even the uninitiated. However, anyone who has made it this far into the Fast & Furious ride (or at least tuned in after the not-so-great fourth one) is likely to feel an affinity for the series that not only excuses, but emphatically embraces its trashy, trashy charms as well. It’s sure to please the franchise’s established fans as well as gather some new ones along the way. There really is just so much movie here that anyone who enjoys loud, obnoxious action films in any capacity is likely find something to latch onto.

MVP of the Cast: Paul Walker’s transformation from a “sandwich crazy” undercover cop to an action movie legend was a gradual one that has now sadly come to a close. It’s always a bummer to watch a family member go, but Furious 7 does a great job of giving him a proper send-off.
Most Curious Detail: Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson puts his pro wrestling past to good use in a moment that includes him reviving his signature “Rock Bottom” move from the Attitude Era.

Lagniappe

The Fast and the Furious (1955) EPSON MFP imagetwohalfstar

A 1950’s car racing cheapie from Movie of the Month vet Roger Corman, The Fast and the Furious is far from the legendary director’s most interesting film, but it is only the second title (out of hundreds) that he produced and the first title ever produced by American International Pictures, the film company that helped make him a b-movie powerhouse. The film has very little connection to the much-more-infamous Paul Walker series outside of the purchase of its title rights, but that purchase was most certainly worth every penny. It’s a damn good title. Good thing they decided not stick with the much less compelling original name for the film, Crashout. Filmed in just ten days, The Fast and the Furious is one of many examples of Corman’s superhuman ability to make a surprisingly watchable picture on a tight budget, even if it isn’t a particularly memorable one. It does share some incidental similarities the Paul Walker franchise of the same name, like felons getting mixed up in car racing, racers inspecting/admiring each other’s gear, the featured inclusion of female racers, and (most incidentally of all) mentions of Coachella, California. Both Corman’s film and the 2000s franchise also have a tendency to mix corny comedy in with their criminal intrigue as well as an over-reliance on dated effects (whether they be CGI or driving scenes filmed in front of a projector). Corman’s The Fast and the Furious is by no means essential viewing, but it is an interesting footnote to the trashy cultural powerhouse that followed nearly 50 years later.

Better Luck Tomorrow (2002) EPSON MFP imagethree star

An MTV-produced slice of Asian-American ennui & teen criminality, Better Luck Tomorrow is the feature film debut of director Justin Lin, who made a cohesive whole out of the Fast & Furious franchise with his take on the third, fourth, fifth & sixth titles. The connection to the Fast & Furious universe is mostly tangential here, depending solely on the presence of a high school age Han, who first entered the picture in the oddball entry Tokyo Drift. Han is played by Sung Kang in both Better Luck Tomorrow as well as every Fast & Furious film directed by Lin. Although the connection is tenuous, it’s amusing to watch Lin’s debut and imagine the character’s origins here, not to mention that the film itself is an enjoyable indie crime drama with a killer soundtrack that features Le Tigre, Bonfire Madigan and Emily’s Sassy Lime. There are obviously no direct references to Fast & Furious to be found in the film, but there is the coincidental inclusion of this throwaway line: “We had the run of the place. Rumors about us came fast and furious.”

Turbo-Charged Prelude (2003) & Los Bandaleros (2009) EPSON MFP imageonestar

There have been two officially-released “short films” meant to serve as primers in-between the Fast & Furious features. The nearly dialogue-free short Turbo-Charged Prelude follows Paul Walker’s Brian through an evading-the-law montage that adds essentially nothing of value to the series, but instead plays like a music video for an overlong rap instrumental. I did like that it ended with the phrase “2 Be Continued . . .”, but that was its sole bright moment. The Vin Diesel-penned & directed short Los Bandaleros was a slightly more significant, portraying a Dominican getaway for Dominic & Letty in a sequence that doesn’t involve fast cars or explosions and even misses an opportunity to plug Coronas during its backyard cookout. There are some interesting musings on the prison system as the new slavery and yet another attempt to bridge Tokyo Drift to the rest of the series through Han, but the short is mostly a sweet, low-stakes tryst between Dominic & Letty that receives a vague callback in Furious 7, but really isn’t worth its 20min runtime for that connection.

-Brandon Ledet

Furious 7 (2015)

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fourstar

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The true story at this point of the Fast and Furious franchise is the story of an ever-ballooning budget. The 2001 debut installment cost $38 million to make, which it of course spent on fast cars & Ja Rule, depending on ultra-macho cheap thrills like rap rock & lipstick lesbianism to fill in the gaps. In 2015 a Fast and Furious movie costs $250 million to make, which gives it the freedom to tear down entire cities on the screen, no Ja Rule necessary. The first three or so Fast and Furious movies serve mostly as cultural relics, time capsules of bad taste in the early 00s. As the budget continued to expand (along with Vin Diesel’s delightfully long winded musings on the nature of “family”) so did the scope of the action sequences and the feeling that the franchise had actually started to pull its own weight as a unique intellectual property. The street racing & Ja Rules of the early films are mostly gone, but far from forgotten as the series has become completely wrapped up in its own mythology, pretending that the past was more significant than it was and pushing what they can do in the present to any & all ridiculous heights allowed by the strengths of an ever-sprawling cast & budget. Furious 7 may have taken my top spot in the franchise (although that may just be the post-theater buzz talking) simply because it’s so much movie.

Furious 7’s charms depend greatly on the six films that precede it (this marks the first time that the Tokyo Drift storyline is in the rearview), but it uses that well-established history to its advantage as a launching pad for its larger-than-ever set pieces and relentless fan service. It’s difficult to imagine just how much a newcomer would get out of early scenes where Vin Diesel’s Dominic struggles to keep his “family” together, including the significance of details like the house they worked so hard to hold onto, the struggle to keep Paul Walker’s Brian out of danger, and the faulty memory of Michelle Rodriguez’ Letty. There’s an excess of callbacks to seemingly insignificant details like a tuna sandwich from the first film, images & music lifted directly from Tokyo Drift (within which Lucas Black ages a decade in the blink of an eye), a return to the Race Wars (the ludicrous name of a street racing competition I still can’t believe no one in that world finds fucked up), outrageous stunt casting of flash-in-the-pan rappers (in this case the most-insignificant-yet, Iggy Azaelea), and increasingly obnoxious product placement for Corona. There was even a return to the excessive ogling of the early films, but with a modern update. If the gratuitous leering of the early 00s was Generation Lipstick Lesbian, Furious 7 poses the modern era as Generation Dat Ass, featuring a peculiarly intense focus on the female posterior. The only thing that was really missing was a backyard cookout. To a newcomer these callbacks could feel superfluous at best and grotesque at worst, but for a fan (even a recent convert such as myself), they’re pleasantly familiar.

That’s not to say that a pair of fresh eyes would have nothing to enjoy here. At a remarkably brisk 137 minutes, Furious 7 is packed to the gills with action movie surface pleasures: self-described “vehicular warfare”, flying cars, smashed buildings, absurdly intricate martial arts sequences, drones (or as Tyrese Gibson’s Roman calls them, “space ships”), hacker technobabble, rap music, and the aforementioned near-naked asses. On the gender-swapped side of that butt fetish is a gratuitous shot of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s mostly nude, entirely exceptional body lounging in a hospital bed that is sure to raise a couple heart rates. Although The Rock isn’t afforded much screen time, he makes the most of it. Besides appearing undressed, he also puts his pro-wrestling background to good use in some epic shit talking (“I’m gonna put a hurt on him so bad he’s gonna wish his mama had kept her legs closed”) and a fist fight in which he delivers his signiature “Rock Bottom” move to Jason Statham. However, even that fight pales in comparison to the stunts performed by legitimate hand-to-hand combat artists Ronda Rousey & Tony Jaa. The film could’ve used more of crowd favorite The Rock (and personal favorite Jordana Brewster), but the additions of newcomers like Rousey, Jaa, and total weirdo Kurt Russell more than filled the void.

There was also something missing in the absence of longtime Fast and Furious director Justin Lin, particularly in the scaled-back “family” talk that reached its fever pitch in Fast & Furious 6. Considering the real-life loss of Paul Walker, however, the “family” speeches that are included feel all the more significant. When Dominic says “I don’t have friends. I got family,” you could easily substitute the word “friends” for “fans”. Anyone who has made it this far into the Fast and Furious ride (or at least tuned in after the not-so-great fourth one) is likely to feel an affinity for the franchise that not only excuses, but emphatically embraces its trashy, trashy charms. Paul Walker’s transformation from a “sandwich crazy” undercover cop to an action movie legend was a gradual one that has now sadly come to a close. It’s always a bummer to watch a family member go and Furious 7 does a great job of giving him a proper send-off. The focus on fan-pleasing callbacks and the transition from the “family”-heavy Justin Lin run into a new era (in which Walker will not be joining us) distinguishes Furious 7 from the six previous installments, while still honors them with a lofty reverence. It’s sure to please the franchise’s established fans as well as gather some new ones along the way. There really is just so much movie here that anyone who enjoys loud, obnoxious action films in any capacity is likely find something to latch onto.

-Brandon Ledet

Fast & Furious 6 (2013)

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fourstar

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Surprisingly, it wasn’t until the fifth film in the Fast and Furious franchise when the series cracked the code and found its own distinct voice. That voice just happened to be Vin Diesel’s increasingly slow, gruff droning about the importance of family. Fast Five had an infectious way of making the central “family” bond feel truly important, despite the disconnected quality of the first three films that made the same characters feel entirely unrelated. Fast Five solidified that Dominic Torreto (Vin Diesel) and his ragtag gang can actually function as a cohesive unit. That gang’s-all-here vibe, paired with a ballooning budget, made the film one of the highlights of the franchise so far, right up there with the driving-sideways oddity Tokyo Drift.

Fast & Furious 6 plays right into this increasingly intense concern for tying the series together by kicking things off with a plot-summarizing montage (complete with a Wiz Khalifa rap) over its opening credits. If the gang started properly functioning as a unit in the last film, this is where they individually become eccentric cartoon versions of themselves. The Rock has essentially transformed into a flesh-tone version of The Hulk (putting that pro-wrestling background to good use early & often), Sung Kang’s Han is pretty much an anime character, Ludacris rigs an ATM to literally “make it rain”, etc. The series starts to get wrapped up in its own mythology the way the individual characters are wrapped up in theirs. Han’s threat that they might actually tie the storyline into Tokyo Drift continues for the third film running now with the exchange “We always talk about Tokyo.” “Tokyo it is.” (a promise they finally make good on in a ridiculous post-credits stinger). Paul Walker wistfully remarks upon how much the gang loves cookouts and Corona in the line “We got everything, down to the beer & the barbeque.” Most absurdly, the series continues its blend of policing & criminality by recruiting Vin Diesel as an honorary cop, which is a hilarious development at this point in the series. Now that the “family” has come together as a tight unit, they’ve finally found a way to go truly over the top.

The ridiculous caricatures and ever-expanding budget for the action sequences (which include crumbling buildings and a return to extensive street racing here) are what make Fast & Furious 6 feel like a far cry from where the series began, but it’s not what makes the film important. The heart really is in those “family”-obsessed Vin Diesel pep talks. If you’re on board with the series at this point it’s strangely satisfying to see the film’s major triumph be the gang coming together for a climactic backyard cookout, Coronas proudly lifted in the air. The film’s central conflict is with a rival gang who, as Tyrese Gibson describes in an especially hilarious monologue, poses as the gang’s doppelgangers, because they do not believe in family and treat their gang like a business. There are some returns to the hallmarks of the early films in the franchise: new toys that hack into power-steering systems to cause crashes, brutal fistfights (between women this time), new vehicles like a Batmobile knockoff and a goddamn tank, etc. The film also finds more room for street racing & driving-related set pieces, something that had faded to the background in the last couple pictures. What’s most impressive here, however, is that in addition to these trashy surface pleasures Fast & Furious 6 makes the audience feel like part of the “family”, like we’re all in for the silly ride together. Everyone involved has seemingly gotten comfortable with how ridiculous the series is and found their own ways to make it work as its own unique action franchise, with Vin Diesel standing tall as the most comfortable of them all. It’s adorable.

-Brandon Ledet

Fast & Furious (2009)

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onehalfstar

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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.

-Brandon Ledet

The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006)

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threehalfstar

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Tokyo Drift, the third installment in the Fast and Furious franchise, is not a particularly unique film when considered on its own merit, but it is very much an outlier in the series it’s a part of. The first two Fast and Furious films are undercover police thrillers about trust & family and the criminal world of California street racing. Tokyo Drift, on the other hand, is about a high school reprobate’s struggle to find The Drift within. The Drift, in case you somehow didn’t already know, is the ability to more or less drive sideways, something Japanese teens are apparently very good at. The Drift also serves as some kind of metaphor for growing up or taking responsibility or something along those lines (with a direct reference to The Karate Kid for full effect), but one thing’s for damn sure: it has nothing to do with the world of the Paul Walkers, Vin Diesels and Tyrese Gibsons of the first two films. There’s a hilarious last minute cameo that attempts to tie it into the rest of the series, but for the most part Tokyo Drift is a free-floating oddity, just sort of . . . drifting out on its own, disconnected. It’s also a genuinely fun bit of trash cinema.

Although there’s very little narratively connecting Tokyo Drift to its predecessors, it does share a lot of their surface pleasures: it brings back the rap rock from the first film (with Kid Rock in this case), it adds new toys to the vehicles (this time a revolving sports car vending machine, 3-D paint jobs, and nitros tanks shaped like champagne bottles), and the cars reach the cartoonish, blurred warp speed that the series finds so fascinating (although this time they’re moving sideways). The most important connective tissue here, however, is the stunt casting of a rapper in a supportive role. The first film had Ja Rule, the second had Ludacris. Tokyo Drift has (Lil) Bow Wow, playing a wisecracking sidekick who winks at the camera, delivers one-liners like “Japanese food is like the Army: don’t ask, don’t tell,” and refers to the Mona Lisa as that lady who’s smiling all the time. In the previous two Fast and Furious films Paul Walker served as the only common element between them; in Tokyo Drift, Bow Wow’s stunt casting makes that connection even more tenuous.

Substituting Paul Walker in the central role is the aforementioned teenage reprobate Sean, played by Lucas “The Kid From Sling Blade” Black. Never you mind that Sean is easily in his mid-twenties (and the rest of his American high school classmates are nearing their thirties). He’s a teenage dropout who burns his last chance for redemption in an opening street race with Zachery “The Kid From Home Improvement” Ty Bryan in an attempt to “win” his opponent’s girlfriend. By the time the girlfriend in question declares “Looks like I got a new date to the prom” it’s more than fair for the audience to ask “Who are these people?!” The answer to that question never comes (although their connection to the franchise is hinted at in that all-too-important last second cameo). Saved from going to jail for his street racing transgressions by his leopard print hussy mother, he’s promptly shipped off to Tokyo to live with his military daddy, who really only exists to occasionally give the film some girl group song levity in lines like “It was either this, or juvie hall” and “Have you been racing, Sean?” Sean himself isn’t a particularly essential addition to the Fast and Furious world, but it is amusing to hear him pronounce Japanese words in a thick Southern accent once he reaches “The Drift World” and the idea of a girl-group style teenage bad boy looking for his inner Drift headlining one of these movies is a bizarre enough detail on its own regardless of execution, given how far removed it is from the undercover cop intrigue of the rest of the franchise.

Besides Bow Wow’s antics and Sean’s extended screen time, the real draw of the film is The Drift World itself. There’s an unashamedly trashy pleasure in Tokyo Drift’s world of Japanese sports cars sliding sideways in parking garages and down mountainsides, its Yakuza members who speak English even when they’re the only people in the room, and the live-action videogame feel of its downtown street racing. There’s a few innovations to the format here: it’s surprisingly the first film in the franchise to feature a car being built from scratch via montage; spectators discover a way to watch an entire race through a series of flip phones; this has got to be the only Fast and Furious movie to feature a Shonen Knife song on the soundtrack; and I’m pretty sure that during the opening race a smashed porta potty splashes digital feces on the camera lens. The most entertaining part of Tokyo Drift, however, is how little it is concerned with engaging with the rest of the franchise at all. It’s its own little side story about a young Southern boy trying to make his way through the class struggles of two worlds-apart high school hierarchies. Does he ever find his inner Drift? Yes, but does he get the girl? You betcha. As Sean himself says in the film, “It’s not the ride, it’s the rider,” and Tokyo Drift takes that lesson to heart, using the franchise as a vehicle to create its own space as a ridiculous, surface-pleasures action thriller with some ridiculous one-liners, a car racing fetish, and career high moment for rapper-turned-actor Not-So-Lil Bow Wow. I’m a little surprised by how much that formula worked for me and it ended up being my favorite film in the series so far.

-Brandon Ledet

2 Fast 2 Furious (2003)

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three star

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In my review of The Fast and the Furious, 2001’s kickoff to the hyper-masculine car racing franchise, I supposed that somewhere down the line there would be some “sure-to-come shameless retreads inherent to sequels”. The series did not waste any time getting there. 2003’s 2 Fast 2 Furious isn’t necessarily much better or worse than its predecessor, but more like an echo. It hits the same plot points as the original (undercover policing, sports cars reaching warp speed, Paul Walker’s half-assed modes of seduction, etc.) with just a few basic casting substitutions distinguishing the two films. Sure, we’re blessed here with sex god Tyrese Gibson (who wastes little time in removing his shirt, of course) instead of Vin Diesel and a Chicken-N-Beer era Ludacris instead of the much-less-captivating Ja Rule, but the two films are more or less the same. The strange thing about it is that the repetition doesn’t feel like much of a problem.

It’s okay that both The Fast and the Furious and 2 Fast 2 Furious share so much in plot & sentiment because plot & sentiment are inessential to the films’ central draws: absurdly intricate action set pieces, a fetishistic love of sports cars, and charmingly dated ideas of cool. 2 Fast 2 Furious delivers on the action end early, opening with a ridiculous high speed drag race that features hooligans breaking into a bridge control booth to create a makeshift ramp. The ramp, of course, results in Paul Walker leapfrogging the competition as well as a competitor comically smashing through a Pepsi advertisement. Later, in the cop drama portion of the film, a second car is launched into the air (this time into a yacht) and a much more brutal highway race results in some dude driving a convertible being unceremoniously crushed by an 18-wheeler. The vehicles themselves are updated with some nifty new features: weird lights, Barbie car paint jobs, fire-breathing tail pipes, steam-shooting pistons, and nitros-powered ejection seats. The cops have upped their technology game as well, employing a futuristic, electrified grappling hook that somehow disables car engines through a kind of EMP device. As far as the movie’s 00s ideas of cool go, the CGI camera movements are hilariously dated, there’s a not-so-sly verbal reference to Ludacris’ hit “Move Bitch” (which honestly should’ve been the theme song), the Universal logo in the title card morphs into a spinning rim, and in the opening scene we’re treated to the defining hallmark of only the uppermost echelon of classy movies: break dancing.

2 Fast 2 Furious may be an exact structural photocopy of the first Fast & Furious installment, but it has such a deliriously lighthearted approach to the intense violence of its reality (a quality that made 80s action films the golden era of the genre) that it’s difficult to be too hard on it critically. As a cultural time capsule, there are a couple differences between its worldview and the one from just two years before. For one thing, there’s thankfully no more rap rock on the soundtrack and for another there’s an abundantly frequent use of the sharp uptick of the chin gesture that roughly translates to “What’s up?” The sequel also one-ups its torture game from force-feeding someone engine oil in the first picture to forcing a rat to eat through a stooge’s stomach wall in second one. For the most part, the two films are nearly identical, though. Although nearly all of the actors except Walker are substituted for new faces and there’s a complete absence of rap rock, lipstick lesbianism, and backyard grilling, 2 Fast 2 Furious is essentially a shameless retread of its precursor, but it’s one that finds a way to make its more-of-the-same formula entertaining despite the familiarity.

-Brandon Ledet