Despite the Hype, the ‘Fast/Furious’ Franchise Is Still Terrible

The original The Fast and the Furious, back in 2001, was a monumentally stupid summer throwaway in which handsome young Paul Walker and tough guy Vin Diesel did a lot of glaring and a lot of driving and a lot of growling. The plot was a warmed over Point Break retreat that existed solely as a clothesline upon which to hang the film’s many street racing scenes, where any displays of skill or suspense were undercut entirely by the laughable computer-assisted effects. The first sequel, 2 Fast 2 Furious, found Walker going solo (Diesel and director Rob Cohen had gone off to make the equally dense xXx) under the direction of once-promising hack John Singleton, and the film supplemented the dopiness of the original by amping up the misogyny. After that film, this viewer checked out; these movies were clearly not for me, and they could continue making them for the vroom-obsessed demo without my participation.

But two years ago, a funny thing happened: the fifth entry in the series, Fast Five, generated uncommonly good buzz and reviews, even among those who disliked the original outings (it’s certified “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes, with 78% positive reviews), and early word on the sixth film, out tomorrow and dubbed (according to the opening title card, at least) Furious 6, was that it is just as good. Is this possible? I wondered. Could a series actually get good five movies in? So, against all my best survival instincts, I watched Fast Five and Furious 6 in two consecutive days. And I’m here to tell anyone contemplating the same reconsideration: the hype is wrong. These movies still stink.

Five begins where the fourth film (titled simply Fast and Furious—these titles are a hot mess) apparently ended: having helped Dom (Diesel) escape from a prison-bound bus, cop-turned-criminal Brian (Walker) and his girlfriend/Dom’s sister Mia (Jordana Brewster) head to Rio to hide out. But no sooner do they arrive than they’re roped into a daring theft of expensive cars from a moving train, and when that job goes awry, a tough-guy DSS agent (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) comes in to track them down. Meanwhile, they discover that the actual object of the theft was not the cars but a chip inside (these are chip-heavy movies) with the details of a drug cartel’s business. Dom and Brian decide to pull off a heist, and here’s where the Ocean’s Eleven element comes into play: you’ve got the standard heist movie scenes of assembling the crew, laying out the plan, discussing what they’ll do with their share, and the clever reveal at the end that we weren’t really in on the whole plan all along. So thorough is the duplication that they’ve even got a Pitt-style guy who snacks in every scene.

If Fast Five is their Ocean’s Eleven (albeit Ocean’s Eleven as rewritten by a functional illiterate), then Furious Six is their Ocean’s 12, in which the guy they got over on in the last film — the Rock, in this case — unconvincingly gets them to go to work for him. “If you wanna catch wolves, you gotta get wolves!” he announces (pretty sure that’s not a thing), and tracks down Dom in Spain to help him track a gang of thieves who are good with cars. His bait, since no criminal with half a brain (which no one’s ever accused a Diesel character of having) would go to work for a man who he has embarrassed and is still trying to track him? Dom’s lady love, Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), killed in the fourth film is (gasp) still alive. But she’s got amnesia! This is actually a major plot point in a studio movie in 2013.

Who cares, the defenders will say. Nobody’s going to these movies for plot. How’s about the action? And it must be said: director Justin Lin (who took over the franchise with the third outing) can put an action sequence together. The car/train scene that opens Fast Five is well constructed and breathlessly paced; ditto its closing heist, in which two cars drag a giant vault through much of Rio, wreaking havoc all along the way, like something out of a Road Runner short. There’s a straight-up car chase early in Furious 6 that spins like a top, and its closing scene, of the gang thwarting an airplane escape, is decent as well.

But, particularly in the new film, those legitimate thrills are often short-circuited by the utter cartoonishness of the computer-aided stunts. The Rock tumbles a good 15 feet onto the top of a car, is thrown from it, lands on concrete, and starts shooting a bad guy without skipping a beat. Diesel takes a flying leap to save Letty, and seems to momentarily acquire the power of flight (and indestructability, based on their no-bruises landing). Most laughably, that final action scene moves full throttle for at least twenty minutes down a runway that we can only assume is 100 miles long.

It must also be not only noted but stressed that both films star the charisma black hole that is Paul Walker, who certainly isn’t going to hurt himself doing any acting. No, this isn’t Shakespeare. But his blank-slate kisser is seemingly incapable of registering anything resembling emotion, thought, or comprehension; whether he’s being told he’s going to be a father or fearing that his best friend has been killed, he still wears the mug of a dullard ordering Thai takeout.

Here’s the primary concern, however: each movie has two very good action scenes, usually at either end, but then about an hour and a half of the most asinine tough-guy nonsense between them. Both films run about two hours and ten minutes, and there’s no reason on God’s green earth for movies like this to run two hours and ten minutes. Because that means lots of scenes of things going boom, yes, but that also means lots of scenes of people talking to each other, and that seems to be a problem area for screenwriter Chris Morgan.

Here’s a few lines of actual dialogue from Fast Five and Furious 6:

  • “I thought this was business, but it sounds personal to me… Personal ain’t good business.”
  • “When your life is on the line, that’s when you learn about yourself.”
  • “I’m the one that gets to make it right. Let me make it right.”
  • “If you want the big fish, you’ve gotta be willing to put on the big boy panties and sail out to the deep end.” (Come again?)
  • “Whatever you found out, that’s for you. What we’re about to do… that’s for her.”
  • “The guys we’re after are professional runners. They like speed and are guaranteed to go down the hardest possible way so make sure you’ve got your thunderwear on.”
  • Rock’s supercop, giving out surveillance assignments: “If he goes to the bathroom, I wanna know how many times he shakes it.”
  • Letty the amnesiac: “I may not remember anything, but I know one thing about myself—nobody makes me do anything.”
  • And yes, in the year 2013, somebody actually says, unironically, “We’ve got company, guys.”

Who cares, they’ll say, nobody goes to these movies for dialogue. And maybe that’s true — but that doesn’t mean they have to be written like a bunch of third graders playing “movie” in the school yard. Big tentpole action blockbusters can still be smart; they can still have intelligent characters who communicate with a modicum of wit and intellect, as we’ve see in the Marvel movies and Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy and Looper and the like. It’s not a matter of those filmmakers talking up to their audience. It’s a matter of filmmakers like Lin talking down. This is the guy who directed the paintball episodes of Community—he’s clearly smart and self-aware and has a sense of humor about this stuff. But his action movies have none of those qualities; he’s playing to the dumb guys who like this pap.

What’s inexplicable is why critics are suddenly going along with it. As mentioned, there are a select few, mildly commendable elements here; the ethnic diversity of the ensemble is laudable, and they occasionally give female characters something to do beyond the hood ornamentation of the early films (though each flick is careful to include at least one scene in which the camera ogles nameless car groupies in barely-there clothes). And any movie that has the good sense to hire Gina Carano gets some credit.

But those elements alone do not a good movie make. Perhaps it’s all a matter of expectation, of critics and discerning viewers, dispirited at trudging into another Fast and Furious movie, latched on to the improvements of Fast Five as something resembling quality. And yes, Fast Five and Furious 6 are better than the series’ inaugural outings. But it’s a good long ways from that distinction to an actual endorsement.