Over the next several weeks, Game of Nerds will be looking back at our greatest modern soap opera. Each installment of the main Fast and Furious franchise will be covered in preparation for the release of F9 on June 25, 2021.
Finally, Dominic Toretto and Brian O’Conner are back together. After years of Vin Diesel distancing himself from the franchise, and Universal Studios telling Paul Walker he didn’t have to go home but he couldn’t stay in the series, our lead characters from The Fast and the Furious (2001) have returned to rekindle the bromance. So excited to continue this part of the story, Universal announced this return by calling the 4th film… Fast & Furious? So they’re literally just subtracting words from previous titles, a trend that would continue in future installments.
It has been 6 years since Brian (Paul Walker) let Dom (Vin Diesel) escape arrest, as squad cars hurled towards their location. Now, despite it being an open secret that he let a criminal getaway, Brian is back with the FBI. Yet here, he’s a bit weary and worn down. Gone is the cheerful charisma from the original, or his “I’m going to get laid tonight” smile from 2 Fast 2 Furious; he has a perpetual frown as he strolls around the lifeless office of his precinct.
Meanwhile, Dom is living his best life in the Dominican Republic. He, along with his girlfriend Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), and his new crew is back to using their superhuman car powers to hijack vehicles. The movie opens with a blistering scene, where Dom steals life from the jaws of death about 8 times. At the end of it, you know this is just a regular Tuesday for him. However, the fear that the U.S. will eventually track him down gnaws at Dom’s consciousness. He tells his new right-hand man, Han (Sung Kang), that he’s relieved of his duties and should get out of this life while he can. Han made his debut in The Fast and the Furious Tokyo Drift (2006), but his fate in that movie tips off the audience that Fast & Furious is a prequel to Tokyo Drift (if this sounds needlessly complicated, don’t worry – it is). Han references what’s to come when, after being told by Dom he’s “free to do your own thing”, responds “I hear they’re doing some crazy shit in Tokyo.” Oh, Han, you charming bastard, not even you can make that line not sound contrived.
Dom wants the same exit for Letty, feeling he’s too dangerous for her to stick around. Letty refuses to leave Dom, but a chance twist of fate compromises their relationship, leading Dom on a hunt for revenge. Meanwhile, the FBI is hot on Dom’s trails, but they’re doing so for their own personal gain. Due to his previous affiliation with Dom, Brian is enlisted by the FBI to bring Dom in and use him as a means to capture an even bigger criminal – drug lord Arturo Braga.
If you’ve seen these movies, you know this sounds all too similar to 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003), furthering my suspicion that Diesel was originally scripted to fulfill Tyrese’s role in that film. It was a stale plot device in 2003 and remained so in 2009. Which puts added pressure on the action and the character interactions to carry the entertainment value. To be fair, Justin Lin (who also directed Tokyo Drift) understands the kinetic energy this franchise needs to make the action feel exhilarating. As ridiculous as Dom’s opening exploits are, the scene’s appeal is a sense of scale. When we first are re-introduced to Brian, chasing a criminal on-foot in Los Angeles, Lin follows the shaky-cam trend of the era but does so without confusing the audience on the visual language they’re seeing. And as an aside on this film’s expert use of shaky cam, was that so hard, Hollywood?! Did we need to experience a decade of wondering if we saw Liam Neeson’s foot connect with the bad guy’s face? Did we have to punt on a generation of action choreography because your star actors aren’t fit enough, or because you don’t know how to lightly shake a handheld?
As Brian gets further entangled with the case, he ends up reuniting with Dom and Dom’s sister Mia (Jordana Brewster). Brewster’s return to the franchise is welcome, but she hasn’t had much to do in these films except lament the decision-making of the brother and lover in her life. A source of conflict in the story revolves around Brian trying to find the words to explain to Mia why he let Dom go. When Brian eventually confesses what’s on his mind, it glosses over the reason he gave in 2 Fast 2 Furious. This may seem small, but for a franchise trying to establish a firm and consistent chronology, these details are important. Speaking of which, one scene that has aged poorly is when Mia, concerned about Dom’s fate, says “How do you say goodbye to your only brother?” Don’t worry Mia, you still have John Cena.
The biggest victim of the screenplay’s problems is Gal Gadot, who makes her debut in the franchise as Gisele Yashar. Initially connected to Braga, Gisele emerges as a tepid love interest for Dom, as Gadot turns in one of the worst performances of the series to this point. Not only is her flirtation with Dom a conflict of interest for the audience, given how much we’ve come to invest in the Dom-Letty romance, but Gadot’s lack of acting experience is on full display. Even in a film series that is no stranger to wooden acting, she is particularly bland and robotic, coming off as a video game cutscene character meant to act like a fawning damsel for the male protagonist.
Her role eventually leads to further inspire Dom on his path of redemption. She tells him, on multiple occasions, the Spanish proverb “Vaya con Dios” (I don’t know why these movies are still referencing Point Break 4 films in, but here we are). The timing for each of these calls to action is flat, given the lack of development between Dom and Gisele, but it’s also silly to see Gisele say this. As far as I can recall, the character is not Latin, and Gadot herself is Israelian. Talk about insult to injury for Letty, as Michelle Rodriguez is of Dominican and Puerto Rican descent.
As the film nears its climax, what’s driving the plot is the hunt to discover Braga’s identity. But the film’s sleight of hand is ultimately a pointless diversion; we don’t care who Braga is, and his identity changes very little about the character dynamics of the film. Making matters worse is a messy inclusion of religious iconography as if to suggest some type of juxtaposition between the journeys of Braga and Dom. At times, it feels as if there were scenes and pages left on the cutting room floor, that would flesh out the deeper emotional story the movie is trying to tell. Additionally, the film seems so focused on its emotional elements that it mortgages the humor and absurd characterization from previous films. This is the most serious Fast film to date, and that lack of balance is extremely noticeable. The melodrama isn’t strong enough to stand on its own, requiring that element of humor to put the audience at ease.
Ultimately, Fast & Furious is less a rewatchable movie, and more of a vehicle to bring the original characters back into the fold. But its somber tone, poor plotting, and questionable character decisions make one miss the fun/over-the-top energy as well as the earned emotional beats, both being staples of what people love about the franchise. Lin establishes himself here as a good action director, but Chris Morgan’s screenplay is lacking, resorting to being derivative while also removing franchise elements that we’ve come to enjoy. It’s an entertaining mess, but a mess nonetheless.
Fast Saga Reviews: