In 2000, Universal released the trailer for The Fast and the Furious. Cut to an aggro nu-metal track, the sizzle reel boasts Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, and Michelle Rodriguez submerged in a gritty, sweaty, sexy world of car races, gunfire, and explosions. It’s muscly and loud, to be sure. But there’s something tightly contained about the experience, like we’re being allowed to peek under the lid of an underworld sub-culture, observing like a voyeur, mouth agape at the alluring grunginess of it all. Case in point: The film is structured around an outsider entering in, an undercover cop played by Paul Walker, our eyes and ears into this subset of the world.
21 years later, Universal released the trailer for F9, the ninth film in the now long-running, lucrative, supersized Fast and Furious franchise. Compared to the original trailer, it definitely feels… different. Scored over needle drop after needle drop, all in accessible, emotion-driven pop spaces as opposed to the purposefully antagonistic nu-metal of the original, the vignettes seen are ginormous, bombastic, operatic, and wide the hell open. We’re no longer diving into a subsection of a world; we’re taking over a world. And in fact, the world is not enough, as the trailer ends with the promise that this family of characters, who were once content getting their kicks in small scores and drag races, is literally driving cars to outer space.
How did we get from point A to point Z so furiously? Tyrese Gibson, ever the franchise’s endearingly befuddled voice of reason, wonders this aloud himself in the F9 trailer: “Y’all ever thought about the wild missions we’ve been on? We’ve taken out planes, trains, tanks. I’m not even gonna think about the submarine.” Among these various missions of increasing intensity and absurdity, we can point at one midpoint rest stop that changed the itinerary forever — not just for the Fast and Furious franchise, but for blockbuster filmmaking en masse.
Fast Five was released in 2011, 10 years after the original film’s release. It was intended as a game-changer, an elevation, an expansion of who this franchise could appeal to. Universal chairman Adam Fogelson called it “the transitional movie,” and said at the time of producing the film, “We’ve heard so many people say, ‘I’ve never seen one, and I’ve never wanted to see one,’ about the Fast franchise. So if these movies were still about street racing, there was probably a ceiling on how many people would buy tickets. We wanted to see if we could raise it out of about racing and make car driving ability just a part of the movie, like those great chases in The French Connection, The Bourne Identity, The Italian Job… The question putting Fast Five and Fast Six together for us was: Can we take it out of being a pure car culture movie and into being a true action franchise in the spirit of those great heist films made 10 or 15 years ago?”
The answer wound up being an emphatic “yes,” of course. But Fast Five also wound up charting the course for action blockbusters 10 years from 2011. Broadly speaking, the early 2010s cracked two paths for viable blockbusters of its future. There’s the Marvel Cinematic Universe template, in which shared screen universes are setup using seemingly complicated character relationships to demand (and acquire!) unprecedented attention from its viewers — think, obviously, of the 2010-2012 MCU run that begins with Iron Man 2 and ends with The Avengers. And there’s the Ghost Protocol template, in which practicality and tactility is the rule above all else, with audience appeal coming from a sense of grounded spectacle, a sense of “they really did that” — think 2010’s Inception, or yes, 2011’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. Our modern prestige blockbusters, be they Avengers: Endgame or Mad Max: Fury Road, tend to fall into one of these two buckets.
Somehow, Fast Five does both at the same time, perfectly, scorching the earth with skid marks action filmmakers simply haven’t had a choice to not follow. On the MCU bend, Fast Five fearlessly flings several of its universe’s characters together — Vin Diesel from Fast 1, Ludacris from Fast 2, Sung Kang from Fast 3, Gal Gadot from Fast 4, Paul Walker as the seamless Nick Fury — while chucking in a new baddy with the brawns of a Thanos and the charms of a Loki (Dwayne Johnson, of course). The chronology of the entire series is thrown all cattywampus, and the knowledge a casual moviegoer needs for it all to track expands aggressively. And yet it all plays with accessibility, even with more success than the MCU. Some of the most successful scenes in the picture come when the characters slow down to, simply, love each other, either in sequences meant to elicit charm (the fam enjoying beers and each other’s company in a warehouse) or pathos (Walker expressing fear that he’ll be a terrible father like his own; Diesel insisting that he will be an incredible one). It’s so easy to love these characters, because these characters love each other so easily, and returning director Justin Lin wisely uses this emotional pull as a reliable compass through the film’s purposefully puzzling roadmap.
And on the “practical spectacle” bend, I mean, wow. Fogelson further explained the Fast Five gear shift by wisely analyzing blockbusters’ reliance on increasingly clutter-filled, falsified imagery: “Our strategy behind one of the biggest bets we’ve ever made is that the business has gone so far towards CG action every weekend, that we really believe creating a movie with real action and real cars will be amazing stuff to people excited by seeing something real.” And while other 2011 blockbuster films like Green Lantern are nearly immediately aged by their reliance on CGI, Fast Five feels like it was made yesterday. When our crew flings cars into other cars to drag a big vault down the street, or when Paul Walker jump-punches (jump-punches!!) bad guys twice in a row, or when Diesel and Johnson have a Big Beefy Fist Fight, it all sings off the screen with crackling, guttural authenticity because, well, they actually did that shit. There’s a level of love in the craft, imagination, and cartoonish glee in the construction of these set pieces, almost playing like longform improvisational comedy performed by a tightly-connected group of friends, so eager to top each other with both the macro-functions of the piece and the micro-moves within. Somehow, they all feel bound by the earth; somehow, they all feel as free as possible.
Fast Five also, despite the joy-bordering-on-camp appreciation the franchise receives even in this very piece, digs into some deeper character motivations, political positions, and interrogations of systems in ways we see shades of in other action flicks in its wake, though never to quite as explicit a degree. Fast Five believes in the muckraking individual triumphing over the crushing system, the power of the people triumphing over the power of the oppressor. Staying true to the franchise’s roots despite all this action-level expansion, Diesel and his band of misfits remain in the margins of society, working not just without the oversight of official organizations, but actively against it (eventual acclaimed Mission: Impossible sequels like Rogue Nation and Fallout coming in this film’s wake and borrowing these themes and vibes). And yet, when Diesel shouts “This is Brazil” to Johnson, who thinks his system equal power, the people of Brazil raise their arms, showing that franchise vet Chris Morgan’s screenplay is concerned about camaraderie exactly where it counts. The film is also interested in tackling colonialism, the exploitation of people, and the wielding of nationalistic power; one of its biggest bads, a drug-lord-power-player-wannabe Joaquim de Almeida, insists that he “owns” the people he wishes to subjugate (what is Immortan Joe if not this idea taken to its utter extreme?).
Also, it cannot be stressed how much Fast Five says ACAB. Johnson is about as charismatic a screen performer as you’ll ever find — when he says “Stay the fuck out of my way,” I not only believe him but want him to neg me some more — but his US Marshal is explicitly positioned as a villain whom our characters, and we, hate. “I’m just here to bring two assholes whose names hit my desk,” barks Johnson of his motivation for taking down the family, a representation of the anonymous, monotonous excuse of “professionalism” needed to justify such assholish, reactive, emotionally blank behavior (“Yeah, that sounds like a real hero,” is the perfectly sarcastic reply from Walker, playing a man who left the life of being a cop for being a real figure of morality). One scheme involves breaking into a police station, during which Ludacris refers to the police as “po-po, five-o, one-time, pigs, people we don’t like.” And one of the most triumphant, potent images of the entire film comes not in a giant set piece, but in the simple usage and co-option of a police car by our “illegal” family in an important race. While anti-authority narratives are baked into just about every action film at one level or another, I’d be hard-pressed to think of another recent blockbuster that is so explicitly anti-cop in such a casually provocative way (Captain America: Civil War is at least halfway interested in discussing ideas like this, but presents them as intellectual sparring points that eventually turn physical, leaving it for the audience to decide “who’s right” rather than making a stand of its own). Heck, not even the next few entries in the Fast and Furious franchise are willing to stick with Five’s position, giving Johnson’s character a face-turn that eventually yields him his own spin-off, and regularly aligning the family with government agencies and systems (though usually in a kind of tenuous truce or deal for amnesty).
Once again, I must turn to Tyrese Gibson to sum up how Fast Five changed the game for everyone, and even struck out some new rules contemporary blockbusters have yet to borrow: “This shit just went from Mission: Impossible to Mission: In-freaking-sanity!” It’s in-freaking-sane, alright, and feels impossible. But it also feels light, joyful, incisive, emotional, and fully intentional. Fast Five was, and is, such a successful piece of work that every blockbuster in its wake has just been trying to fulfill its mission, trying to follow its GPS narrated by a particularly gravelly-voiced Siri. There’s nothing like Fast Five, and yet, everything is like Fast Five. I can’t wait to see how F9’s journey to the stars evolves the blockbuster form next.
We still don’t know what his next film will be.
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