“It don’t matter if you win by an inch, or a mile,” crows a bullet-headed man with a voice like gravel and eyes like belt-holes. He’s all swagger, all guile. “Winning’s winning.”
We live in an age of franchises which never end, characters who can’t die, physics that don’t apply to bodies onscreen. We also live in an age of nerd culture weaponised; every beloved property beloved by nerds made manifest with budgets equal to the annual expenditure of small countries. We were told the meek shall inherit the earth – and lo, the nerds run Hollywood.
But right after the first X-Men film hit screens, the jocks took a swing. The Fast and the Furious was an utterly shameless spin on the Point Break formula: bromance, family, thrills, and an undercover cop having to make a hard call. It’s also where that quote up top hails from; a young Vin Diesel delivered it to a frost-tipped Paul Walker after a street race. I never watched it when it first came out, though. I was a nerd. It wasn’t for me. It was, I assumed at the time, some kind of ham-fisted cinematic dump made for people whose unrefined tastes drove them away from geekdom.
But when lockdown started, something compelled me to go back and watch each film in order. And here’s the terrible, liberating truth, my friends.
The Fast saga is proof that life becomes eminently more bearable the instant you learn to love things unironically.
“There’s something that happens before these films,” muses Tyrese Gibson, who plays crew member Roman Pearce in the Fast saga. “You’re racing and having fun on the freeway, on the way to the theatres. Then … you watch the movie. And you look at how everyone in the room, specifically, is intrigued by car culture, and this franchise.”
“So everyone’s on a united front, like, we’re all in this because we all love the same thing. And then after the movie is over, all of this energy ends up in the parking lot.”
He raises a single eyebrow at me. It is, frankly, hilarious.
“People burning rubber. Hangin’ out. Drinking. Barbecuing. Talking. Gathering, socialising. And … it is something … interesting. That’s the only thing I can think of, it’s like … these movies really bring people together, and I think… for twenty years we’ve carried the torch of people being able to go to the movies, and see someone onscreen who looks like them, or that’s from where they’re from. We’re not selling diversity – we are diverse. And we’ve been this way from the beginning, period. And … I don’t know. Maybe that is the answer. But … shit. We’re just happy to still be here.”
Tyrese’s point about representation is bang-on. Fast & Furious 9 (and the rest of the series) champions women who can, and regularly do, kick the crap out of angry, burly men with impunity.
“I fought really hard to get that scene,” said Jordana Brewster, who returns to the series as Dom’s sister Mia Toretto. The scene in question, taking place in a small apartment in Tokyo, is utterly frenetic.
“I’m a pretty active person, I love training … but to do that kind of action sequence just requires you to practice every single day and get it in your body, so that you’re not thinking about it. In Fast Five, I remember when I did this action sequence with Paul (Walker), and we’d jump off a building. My body looked like it was doing what it should have been doing, right? But my face was like…”
She scrunches up her face to illustrate her point. It’s like she’s trying not to throw up whilst in a wind tunnel. “And that’s ‘cos I’m so afraid! If you freeze the frame, that’s what I’m doing. You have to be so comfortable that you just look like a bad arse.”
I’m convinced that the Fast saga is the MCU of car movies. It has it all: a team of semi-invincible heroes with particular skills, a Nick Fury-esque spymaster who gets them all together, and crossovers aplenty. And I’m convinced that by relegating it to the genre of jock movies, like some aggrieved cinematic elitist, I was cutting myself off from an almost inexhaustible source of unfettered joy, available on-tap whenever I needed it. Somehow, this franchise has evolved into a blisteringly stupid, joyously wonderful body of work because the people who make it love it unironically.
Nobody involved in this gargantuan ten-film odyssey (if you count Hobbs and Shaw, which you should) has anything less than a fervent adoration for the world these characters are rushing around in.
So whilst the films range from “meh” to “YEEEEEEAAAAAH!,” they’re so ambitious, so byzantine in structure, that even when they stray so close to madness that audiences bellow with laughter, said audiences are still invested.
It’s magic. Gasoline-fuelled, clear-eyed, full-throated magic.
Part of the magic? The Fast Family. Vin Deisel’s Domonic Toretto was a fascinating, gravelly, bullet-headed anti-hero. The only thing bigger than the engine of his 1970 Dodge Charger?
Then, of course, there’s Brian O’Conner (the late Paul Walker), an undercover agent sent to pull apart a crime ring involving illegal street racers. Then there’s the rest of the crew, who are a large part of the reason these films are so damned addictive in the first place. What grabs audiences, though, is that these films are surprisingly good. Overly earnest? Absolutely. But everyone involved gives a shit about every quarter mile of road the films travel on.
The second film wasn’t great – 2 Fast, 2 Furious was a Toretto-free mediocrity, but it did introduce Pearce and Tej, played with buoyant earnestness by Tyrese Gibson and Ludacris respectively. Tokyo Drift, the threequel, is set after the sixth film in the series. And doesn’t feature any of the main characters from the other films.
The brazenness of being this temporally ambitious in a fragmented franchise about buff men speeding around in cars and talking huskily about the importance of family made legions of cinephiles pay a modicum of attention.
Director Justin Lin even had the balls to import a beloved character from his debut feature, Better Luck Tomorrow – a smooth-talking, mysterious vagabond named Han. It’s no secret that Fast & Furious 9 marks the return of Han, the kind of improbable happening that frankly belongs in the superhero genre. I suppressed an inner scream whilst asking Sung Kang, who plays Han, if he was stoked to be stepping back into the series.
“Oh absolutely! Especially because Justin is at the helm. If anyone was gonna bring Han back the correct way, it was gonna be Justin. We developed the character together, you know, early on. And then to be able to share that experience with your buddy? Come on. It’s pretty cool.”
The cast also know it’s unrealistic. They know it’s goofy as hell, but that doesn’t stop them running full-speed at each instalment. “It’s the simple theme of family,” Sung Kang said.
“Aside from all the action, how do you relate with blowing up a $2 million car, saving the world or going to space? It doesn’t work, right? But … it’s easy to connect to the theme and the idea of loyalty, and being there for the people that you love, and doing the right thing for your friends. Right? So I think just that simple theme is universal, and I think that’s what keeps people coming back! That’s what connects the audience to the characters, you know? That theme of family is the secret sauce of the Fast and Furious.”
Fast & Furious 9 might err a little too far in the direction of mayhem – the action sequences are some of the most ridiculous in the series, and the consequence-free magic which coats the bodies of our heroes makes the stakes feel almost absent at times – but as Sung said, there’s that secret sauce. Family.
Beneath the patently bonkers trappings is some of the most touching, most pathos-ridden storytelling in the saga to date. But with the Fast films, that’s what people keep coming back for. Not the explosions, or the cars, or blowing up a two-million-dollar cars. The story underneath is what makes the Fast saga the most earnest, moreish, kind-hearted series which I was a fool for turning my nose up at all those years ago. And whilst Fast & Furious 9 might not necessarily exceed it’s predecessors, it’s like Dom said. It don’t matter if you win by an inch, or a mile. Winning’s winning. And to have this much heart this far down the road?
That’s a win.
Paul Verhoeven is an author, broadcaster and TV presenter. His books Electric Blue and Loose Units are out now through Penguin, and his podcasts, DISH! and Loose Units, are available everywhere you get your podcasts. You can follow him on Twitter, Instagram, and in person, if you can find him (he’s very good at hiding).