Ah, the sounds of an overworked big end and someone rapping in Spanish – can there be any more potent auditory tip-off to the fact that we’re back in the peculiar world of the Fast and the Furious franchise? The thing about these big film series is that they can be very different beasts – some of them maintain a pretty standard profile throughout their history, the earliest films bearing a strong family resemblance to the most recent instalments, while others go through remarkable shifts in tone and style as they years go by. The Fast and the Furious definitely falls into the latter camp.
Bearing this in mind, Justin Lin’s 2009 film Fast and Furious (which is technically The Fast and the Furious 4) is one of the key movies in the sequence. The original movie had done rather better than expected at the box office, but the first two sequels were severely hobbled by the fact that mountainous star the great Vin Diesel had jumped ship to attempt to forge his own career as an action star. Luckily for lovers of all things rapid and bad-tempered, by the late 2000s said career was foundering a bit, leading to the big man making a moderately triumphant return to what’s now surely his signature role.
And so Fast and Furious basically ignores the second and third films entirely and picks up where the first one left off, with baldy boy racer/criminal mastermind Dom Toretto (Diesel) doing his thing in central America (well, the existence of Tokyo Drift is sort of acknowledged, but the implication is that this film is set some time before it). Toretto’s wilful defiance of the laws of the land, not to mention the laws of physics, result in the police being very keen to have a word with him, and in an attempt to spare the rest of his gang (principally, for our purposes, the divine and radiant Michelle Rodriguez), he cuts out on them.
Meanwhile, pretty-boy maverick FBI agent Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker) is in pursuit of some drug dealers in Los Angeles – especially a mystery man named Braga. Having infiltrated Toretto’s gang five years earlier, but opted to release Dom into the wild rather than arrest him, relations between O’Conner and the Toretto clan are rather strained. What could possibly bring them back together?
Well, someone blowing up the divine and radiant Michelle Rodriguez, of course. Somehow she gets herself tangled up in Braga’s operations and meets an entirely and definitely terminal sticky end (well, sort of). With O’Conner out to bring Braga to justice, and Toretto equally intent on exacting revenge, it’s inevitable that the two of them will eventually butt heads and resume their understated bromance…
My understanding is that what happens to the Fast and the Furious franchise in this film was the result of a considered decision on the part of suits at Universal, the studio responsible for the series. At this point in the late 2000s, Universal felt they were lacking a solid blockbuster franchise and decided to try and elevate the F&F series to this status. Prior to this, the series had always been, at best, mid-range action movies, so this was a bit of a gamble, but one which has obviously paid off magnificently.
So the prime objective of Fast and Furious 4 is to take the original characters and some how get them into a position facilitating the production of Fast and Furious 5,6, and 7 on a much bigger scale, and the thing about this film which is too easy to miss is just how easy writer Chris Morgan makes the plot- and character-management look. The start and end points for most of the characters were, I would imagine, pretty inflexible, but the job he does of getting from point A to point B, providing a reasonably satisfying story en route, is actually really impressive.
I’ve no idea how many films in advance this series is planned, but the first act of this one suggests either a startlingly long-term plan or deep inventiveness on the part of the screenwriter. What’s shown here on screen makes sense (at least as much as the rest of the movie, anyway), but – as astute viewers may have noted – these events have been revisited and revised on two separate occasions in subsequent films. And yet it all still hangs together, with no very obvious holes or gaps.
Of course, the shift in gears does result in a film which frequently doesn’t feel quite certain of what it wants to be: for every relatively low-key, character-based moment that feels grounded in reality, along comes a dumbass action sequence or ridiculous stunt. But not that ridiculous – or, perhaps, not quite ridiculous enough, compared to the monumental spectaculars laid on by later films. This movie is neither one thing nor the other, and it occasionally suffers for it.
I could go on to talk about the lamentably small amount of Michelle Rodriguez in this movie, or the forgettable nature of the villains, but even somewhat flawed F&F is still mightily entertaining stuff, with the requisite amounts of beautiful people and machinery doing alluring but transgressive things – one gets the sense these films aren’t really about the clash of good and evil, but perhaps beauty and ugliness, or possibly speed and slowness. Or perhaps there’s a subtext about something else entirely: Vin Diesel gets come on to like a rocket by Gal Gadot (making her series debut), but seems unmoved, preferring to grapple with his need for vengeance. Or Paul Walker. Or, come to that, an engine block.
In the end Fast and Furious is an atypically awkward and difficult to categorise instalment in this particular franchise – all the subsequent films have been effortlessly enjoyably, breezy popcorn fun, but you sense this one struggling to shake off its roots as a rather different kind of film entirely. In the end, though, the conversion from drama to pure blockbuster is a success, and clearly paved the way for the series which is such a fixture of blockbuster season now.