I did not think that this series would make it to seven films. If it did, then it would be in some radically diminished form. The first film was Point Break with cars and it was OK, and it did OK, but the sequels began shedding their stars, and setting off on the typical downward spiral down into straight-to-DVD. 2 Fast 2 Furious. 3 Fast 3 Furious.
Then something happened. The fourth film reunited Paul Walker and Vin Diesel and brought back some interest. The fifth film brought The Rock on board. The sixth kept going. Somehow, as these ludicrous films have gone into overdrive, they've become a legit cultural phenomenon; a sort of expanding gravity well dragging in stars like Jason Statham and Gina Carano and, of course, Ronda Rousey.
I go and watch these films in London's most awesome cheap cinema, where people cheer at the bits with The Rock and gasp at the betrayals and laugh at the jokes.
When people look at the Fast and the Furious, they often neglect the underlying mechanics, and deprive themselves of richer understanding of what they're observing. It's like watching an MMA fight without a base-level understanding of BJJ, or the southpaw-orthodox dynamic. Shit's lazy, son.
F&Fs are action films, and follow two common vehicular laws:
- The Law of Constant Velocity: All vehicles travel at the same speed
- The Wacky Races / Daytona USA Corollary: Unless one is behind and needs to catch up
This is true for all cars in almost all action flicks, be it a humvee versus a lamborghini, or a dirtbike and a semi, or a Dodge Charger and a truck . The Fast and the Furious differentiates itself by having individuals who can warp this otherwise-immutable law, and who can actually drive slightly faster than others. Hence the name.
It's important to note that this isn't dependent on the car itself, but upon the individual driving it. Often the vehicles which are driven seem impractical from the naive perspective of our physical world, as they tend towards heavy, unwieldy American muscle... but these are not "cars" in the way that we think of them. Instead, they are receptacles; focal points for the supreme ability of Driving, which in the F&F world is something similar to The Force. It's a fundamental ability to control the mass and velocity of a wheeled conveyance at every level.
The paterfamilias of the Fast and Furious crew, Vin Diesel's Dom Toretto is probably the most powerful Driver in the world. He's the zen centre of the films, and when his friends come to him for help with their issues, he soothes them with glottal Stallone aphorisms like "You can't tell someone they love you", or "I don't have friends, I got family." His signature Dodge Charger is the receptacle for his will, and so it is the biggest and the silliest and the most top-heavy car around, and he waits patiently for the inevitable time in every film when problems both physical and emotional can be solved with the shift of its gears and the injection of nitrous which sends it gliding through the air like a bird. As the series has progressed he increasingly resembles a badass if slightly perplexed tortoise.
Backing him up are his crew: Paul Walker (RIP), Michelle Rodriguez (still the best actor in the series by a significant stretch), Ludacris, The Rock, and Tyrese Gibson.
God's Eye, Jason Statham, family, something something
The plot of F&F films has never been a strong point, but 7F7F is a new level in tissue-thin nonsense. There's something about a hacker who has stolen that one MacGuffin that Batman used to hack the world's cellphones, Evil Jason Statham, Danaerys's handmaiden, and a cliched African warlord/mercenary as the boss bad guy. The film missteps particularly badly in adding Kurt Russell as a black-ops CIA operative who puts millions of dollars in government hardware at the service of Toretto's criminal family.
There are obvious reasons why this is done- it continues to decouple the F&F crew from the troubling capitalist risk-reward issues of the fifth film; it helps to establish the sense of increasing scale; and Russell provides exposition for the aforementioned godawful plot... but his character doesn't really work, at all. He's smug, and he spends far too much too much of the film saying how awesome Dom Toretto is. This is worse than redundant, as Toretto is a living God-King connected directly into the wellspring of his universe's power. We do not need to be told how awesome he is.
Thongs and product placement
With this being said, the complete detachment of the Toretto crew from any kind of material responsibilities does allow for a certain nonsensical freedom. The team and their opponents flit cars, planes and small armies between the States, Tokyo, the Caucasus and Abu Dhabi with baffling alacrity.
These places are, of course, generally full of car races, parties, and women. Or, more accurately, women's arses, which tend to be panned over in luxuriant slow motion as the only part of many of them that you will ever actually see. The film makes some kind of gesture to the sheer unlikeliness of Abu Dhabi being a place where thongs are a common sight, but more than anything it all speaks to the weird multiculturalism of the F&F universe, where this melting pot of a team (what IS Vin Diesel, anyway?) and everyone everywhere around the world are brought together by the universal juvenilia of street racing.
In addition to the inevitable sexism, the film features some stark product placement. There's an ongoing "beer" dialogue between Kurt Russell and Vin Diesel's characters which is particularly cringeworthy:
Russell: "I like Belgian beer, it is delicious."
Diesel: "I prefer Corona"
Russell: "HERE THEN HAVE SOME CORONA" *puts bucket of Corona on table*
Diesel: *approvingly* "CORONA DRINK IT."
Russell: "CORONA DRINK IT!!"
However, while the problems with sexism and product placement are certainly there, they're not all that terrible for a modern blockbuster. Honest. The above scene isn't as egregious as Casino Royale's "Gordon's Gin GORDON'S GORDON'S DRINK IT DRINK IT!", nor is the sexism as troubling as Skyfall's shower-rape, or Transformers 4's paedophilia jokes. You don't find yourself asking "what were these writers thinking?", in part because they were so transparently thinking nothing more complex than: "Heh... butts."
The film does have Michelle Rodriguez. As mentioned, she acts everyone else off the screen, retaining that ability to project a flickering vulnerability through a hardass persona which generally just gets her cast as some kind of riff on Vasquez.Her fight scene with Ronda Rousey is gratifyingly gritty and physical. Rousey for her part plays the unlikely bodyguard of an Abu Dhabi billionaire, and she doesn't get a whole lot of screen-time (and notably less than Gina Carano), but it's a good fight, and the film doesn't bar her from turning up in future installments.
Much better than the Expendables
Is it actually good / fun? It is a lot of fun if you like amiably silly action films. The cast is charming, and they look like they're having a good time. The franchise has adroitly sidestepped a number of problems which seem obvious in retrospect: it could have easily fallen into "white middle-class guy goes to different culture and becomes the best at it", but Diesel correctly remains the primary character over Walker. It would have been easy to make Ludacris the straight man for the series's jokes instead of Gibson. The Rock is not overused, and as a result Hobbs remains the most fun team bruiser since BA Baracus. The ending, where the series bids goodbye to Walker, is surprisingly emotional.
The action itself is great, depending on how much of a tolerance you have for ridiculosity, as it comes somewhere between Bay and Bollywood. More than this, the film just gets ensemble action scenes, understanding that they should involve each participant doing something different and offering some value to what is going on. Conversely, for example, Sylvester Stallone's sclerotic Expendables series tends to have its fogies plodding their indistinguishable way in step through boring shooting gallery after boring shooting gallery.
So how good is 7F7F?
Most pertinently, is it better than the thus-far undisputed peak of the franchise, the sixth? In all honesty... no. It's not as likable, and it doesn't have the same clean thematic run-through in the plot and in the action scenes.The military-industrial fetishizing has been taken a bit too far.
Is it superior to the next best entry, the fifth? I would say that it is. While 5F5F was fun, it was also struggling to reconcile its heritage as a heist movie while fitting into a new skin as Mission Impossible w/ Urban Car Jedis. The crew murders the entire police force of Rio with a giant safe, and while it tries to excuse this by claiming out that they were all corrupt, I can't help but feel that there's something important somewhere in recent world events which might show us that corrupt bureaucracy is at least better than no bureaucracy.
So, 7F7F is the second-best then. That's still pretty good. In many ways I'd like to see the franchise end here, just admit to itself that it will be lessened without Paul Walker, and bow out on a high note... but sadly, I know that this is not the way of the Fast and the Furious. It will keep going until its love of excess kills it. It'll bloat with guest stars, and the growing budgets will finally cause some catastrophic, bling-riddled implosion, like a gold plated Death Star collapsing on itself, its threnody a Wiz Khalifa and Iggy Azalea OST.
The question becomes how long it lasts in the interim. Two more films? Three? Imagine, if you will, the fever dream of 11 Fast 11 Furious. A greying Vin Diesel guns his car down the deck of a rogue nuclear aircraft carrier which can only be defeated by Driving; its captain a villainous Liam Neeson wondering what the hell happened to his career. A film wherein the F&F crew visit the People's Republic of China, or maybe Antarctica, comforted by the knowledge that these countries, like all countries, are populated by those who love shiny cars, and slo-mo disembodied butts.