Note: For those who may have missed my previous Octo-Review of The Fast and Furious 3: Tokyo Drift, I recommend reading that first. In it, I build my case for why I believe the Fast and Furious series should be treated as its own unique art-form, entirely distinct from conventional cinema.
Wow, look at that, they made ANOTHER video replacing the face of Vincent Diesel with my own. This is identity theft and I don't will not accept this indignity. . . there will be repercussions.
On to my review.
When grappling with the artistic medium that is the Fast and Furious Saga, one must maintain awareness of several key concepts or risk spiraling off into madness. The first of these is that the series is divided into BTD (Before Tokyo Drift) and ATD (After Tokyo Drift) periods. The BTD films are much like Picasso’s early work: technically proficient but far from the realm of High Art.
The ATD period, on the other hand, constitutes a revolutionary new paradigm in which each new blockbuster furthers the artistic goal of convincing more and more people to watch crazier and crazier things. In short, the FF Saga must be understood as a performative work of lived absurdity – else it cannot be understood at all.
Today I will be covering the crucial moment when the FF Saga firmly embraced the groundbreaking ATD direction and the franchise rocketed into the artistic stratosphere. Although Tokyo Drift will always be my personal favorite of the series, the next few entries have arguably more merit as devices of the avant-garde. The work in question is Fast & Furious (2009).
Its very title is significant. Fast & Furious is both an homage to the saga’s humble beginnings and also a great leap forward into the sublime, as evidenced by the similar yet subtly different titles. Clearly the removal of the words The and the (again) indicates the sequel is even faster and furiouser than the original.
Now, some of you may be wondering, "Hey, I thought there already were two sequels? What gives?" And at the risk of sounding snobbish, might I suggest your mind is likely unsuited for high-brow entertainment. Why don't you go watch Cuties or something.
Yes, two other sequels previously existed. However, the staggering artistic genius of Tokyo Drift triggered a major shift in FF chronology - in which the third sequel became the fifth sequel, the fourth sequel became the second sequel, and the second sequel was banished from universal consciousness. See below:
Got that? Good. Fast & Furious properly begins in late 2006, when Vin Diesel/Dominic Toretto, the manifestation of “Family”, met with studio execs from Universal Studios. For some time, the studio had been attempting to lure their megastar back to the franchise, but it wasn’t until Vin Diesel blew past security guards in his Dodge Charger, crashed into the office of the president, beat up some more security guards, and made that slimy (probably big lib) shithead sign a contract worth a billion dollars that he decided to return for the fourth installment.
Normally all this would be considered “behind-the-scenes” material, but in the FF art-form, such distinctions are meaningless.
With the central motif – “Family” – firmly established, the other artistic elements swiftly fell into place. Paul Walker returns as Brian O’Conner, an FBI Agent and the representation of “Trust”. Michelle Rodriguez reprises her role as Letty Ortiz, love-interest of Dom and the representation of “Purpose”. Jordana Brewster – Hubba, hubbba! Arrroooooo! – rounds out the cast as Mia Toretto, sister of Dom, love-interest of Brian, and the artistic interpretation of “Yowza, yowza”.
Now, as stated in my previous review, the FF Saga exists in its own paradoxical universe in which events occur instantaneously, simultaneously, and continuously. In layman’s terms, they are “plot-less” films in which the viewer is challenged to structure the sequence of events according to individual interpretation. Hence, think of the following “synopsis” as more of a heuristic tool than a strictly bound recapitulation of events.
Fast & Furious opens as Dom, his old buddy Han (now alive), his girlfriend Letty, and a crew of no-names are hijacking tanker-trucks in the Dominican Republic. Why? It’s best not to get hung-up too soon on why’s.
Actually the scene is crucial, since it has been so long since the audience has witnessed Dom in action. Last we saw him, Dom was operating according to BTD-rules, in which actions carry an attendant risk, death is a permanent condition, and the local authorities present a clear and obvious threat to lawbreakers.
But this scene takes place under ATD-rules, in which none of those things apply. If Dom decides someone or something is a danger, the film treats this entity as an omnipotent unstoppable force until such time as Dom decides it is no longer a danger, at which point, he disposes of it easily.
This has led some to theorize the entirety of the FF Saga is merely a series of daydreams Vin Diesel has while stuck in Los Angeles traffic. This graceful and elegant theory was first proposed by yours truly and has since gained traction among some FF aficionados – although for full-disclosure I have moved away from it in recent months.
Back to the “synopsis”. Although the hijacking is successful, Dom decides the police present a credible danger in this case. He advises the crew split up. Han returns to Tokyo – presumably to take part in the events of Tokyo Drift – and Dom flees to Panama. Letty is inexplicably left behind, only to be cruelly murdered in a purposeful car crash. The mysterious killer (1972 Ford Gran Torino Sport) speeds off into the night.
Guilt-stricken, Dom returns to Los Angeles for the funeral. Afterwards, he inspects the crash site and enters Dom-o-Vision, a video-game-like ability that Dom now possesses, which allows him to replicate past events merely by examining traces of burnt rubber. He concludes that Letty’s killer was driving a car using nitromethane and his investigation leads him to a man named David Park.
Enter Brian O’Conner, back with the FBI and also on the trail of Park. At first, the two rivals compete to untangle the mystery. Dom threatens Park by dangling him out of a window. Brian arrives and convinces Dom to use him as an informant instead. This clever ruse flushes out Giesele, henchwoman for the shadowy Braga, a powerful Mexican drug-lord. She explains that Braga has need for drivers to traffic heroin across the American-Mexican border – no wall existing at this time – and proposes a contest to decide who is worthy of this lucrative task.
Of course, this must take the form of a street race. Dom (1970 Chevelle SS ) gets out to an early lead, but is put through his paces by Brian (2002 Nissan Skyline GT-R). Despite Brian’s perfectly-timed use of NOS injection, Dom has more NOS (and is also Dom) and wins. He is awarded the prestigious honor of becoming a heroin smuggler – because that is usually the way in which these things are decided.
In the FF Saga, there are few consistencies, except that street-racing outcomes are inviolable and can resolve just about anything. How much better this world would be if that were true.
Anyway, Brian also manages to become heroin smuggler. Apparently, this is an easy thing to do. After traveling to Mexico, the uneasy allies rendezvous with Braga. It is there they are introduced to Braga's right-hand-man, the ultimate "bad hombre", a man named Fenix Calderon.
A few remarks here. In each one of us, argues Jung, lies The Shadow. It is that part of ourselves we are frightened even to acknowledge, where reside our worst impulses, our most depraved desires, our most unspeakable fears. When Dom first encounters Fenix, he encounters himself. He knows instantly this man is responsible for Letty's death - but does that not imply, in some deeper sense, that Dom himself is responsible for her death?
All this explains why Fenix is, without doubt, the greatest villain in the entire FF Saga. Masterfully portrayed by Laz Alonso – who I'm almost positive is a real-life gangster (and possible murderer/rapist) – he represents the antithesis of Dom. He is the dark creature Dom could become if un-tethered from the metaphysical force of “Family” and set loose upon the world.
Dom conceals these thoughts for the present, and the team begins their smuggling run. For some reason, this requires them to drive at dangerously high speeds through underground tunnels in the desert. Here, one might uncharitably point out that the existence of such tunnels defeat the point of recruiting expert drivers in the first place. If there is no chance of apprehension, why not use a slower and safer mode of transportation with a larger cargo capacity – say, like a truck?
But that is only what an uncultured philistine would think. Really the tunnels represent the twisting folds of Dom's tortured existence: the confusing, sometimes thrilling, sometimes terrifying jumble of encounters, thoughts, and feelings which is labeled with that poor, woefully insufficient word: a "life".
At the drop-off location – and completely surrounded by armed goons, by the way – Dom reasons this is the perfect time to challenge Fenix. He does so by mentioning that “Only pussies use nitromethane.” This is the point where, as you youngsters say, shit gets real...
(Unfortunately this review is running long, and there are a lot of places where I could write “In the ensuing chaos…” over and over again, so why don’t we just smoosh all those together and get to the good parts?)
...In the ensuing chaos, Dom explodes his car (using NOS and a cigarette lighter), Dom and Brian swipe Braga’s heroin, they reunite with Mia in Los Angeles, Dom realizes Letty was working for Brian when she died, Dom attempts to murder Brian, Brian proves himself (again), Dom trusts Brian (again), they flush out Braga, kidnap him in Mexico, and return to driving at ridiculously unsafe speeds through unlit and constricted tunnels.
Now for the momentously thrilling conclusion. Fenix (the inverse of Dom's existential purpose) pursues Dom and Brian. Fenix's aim is to rescue Braga and naturally he proceeds to do this by repeatedly ramming them. In the pretzel logic of the FF Saga, firearms are ornamental items only, helpful for intimidation or diversion purposes, but of no actual lethality.
The chase concludes when Brian (2003 Subaru WRX STI Hatchback) is t-boned by Fenix (Green Gran Torino). The force of the collision propels both cars through a solid wall of stone and out onto the desert. It looks like it’s curtains for Brian, until Dom bashes his way out of the tunnel, having defeated each of Fenix’s goons in detail (also by ramming).
Dom (1970 Stock Camero) revs and charges his steed. Fenix attempts to ward him off with gunfire – which remember, is useless in these films – and anyway Dom has the power to make any car he’s driving pop a wheelie at any time. He does so. And maintains it for something like 100 yards before ramming into Fenix and crushing him against the wreckage of Brian’s car.
Victorious, having gruesomely slain the murderer of his dearest Letty - and having also annihilated the corporeal manifestation of his inner darkness - Dom emerges from the wreckage, looks down upon his vanquished foe, and delivers the extraordinary line: “Pussy…” You must watch the delivery of this line, it's delivered with a smoldering intensity that would make Brando blush:
I at once exploded from my recliner in unhinged maniacal applause. Gladys was so startled, she assumed I was watching my videotape of the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy debate again. But no, it was the most glorious moment in cinema I have ever witnessed.
Of course, the FBI arrives a moment later, and Dom, deciding he is no longer “going to run”, allows himself to be captured by the petrified SWAT team. The film bravely leaves us with the image of Dom, shackled and collared and being transported to prison. Except in the distance is a line of cars... Brian and Mia have come to the rescue...
So, that just about does it for this edition of Octo-Reviews. Stay tuned for the next installment, where I will be covering the pivotal entry Fast Five (2011) . But until then, kick back, relax, and remember: give it a rest once in a while!