When I was getting settled in before my showing, I already had a nagging worry that this movie would disappoint me. Then the guy in the next seat over turned to me to let me know that this movie had the “biggest international box office opening ever”. Looking back at this balding white guy in glasses and sandals, I can’t help but think about how far he is from the original movie’s audience of teenagers with spiky hair and fat shoes, and that this is a fitting illustration of how much the series has changed. But to properly explain my disappointment, I feel like I need to first explain my history with the series.
The Fast and the Furious came out in 2001 and I regarded it as a complete joke. The movie reeked of the corporate co-opting of subcultures that was so common in the 90s. The director Rob Cohen said he wanted to capture the unique world of underground street racing. Instead we got a clone of Point Break with a cool new haircut. The movie was trying so hard to be cool that it came off as pandering and detached from reality, portraying a world that didn't exist; where people casually drive Japanese cars that never came to the US while wearing super goth platform boots and saying completely down to earth things like “I smell...*sniff sniff* skanks!”. It was like a 2 hour Capri Sun commercial for teens who don't understand how cars work. Most people I knew mocked it mercilessly for its palpable desperation, but to my surprise there were some who seemed to genuinely like it and the paper-thin cool world it created. The movie still got my attention, if only for something to be against, so I noticed when the sequel came out: 2 Fast 2 Furious. Between the remarkably stupid title, ditching of most of the original cast and its original setting, and the shameful portrayal of cars behaving impossibly (all-wheel drive cars can’t drift), I knew this movie would be a disaster. I ended up buying the DVD for a plan I had with my friends: the Awful Movie Night BBQ. The idea was that we could indulge in these horrible movies without the fear of being judged by strangers. Awful Movie Night never happened but I did end up watching the movie on my own and it was just as bad as I expected. It was so desperate and misguided, so lame and obvious, I ended up enjoying it as an accidental comedy. Over time, the movie became my secret guilty pleasure. The same couldn’t be said for the third movie, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift. After the flop of the last movie, I couldn’t understand why they would make this one, with no returning characters and no connection to the original. Tokyo Drift was just as desperate and obvious as 2 Fast 2 Furious, but it didn’t have any of the charm brought from Paul Walker, Ludacris, or Tyrese. For three movies now, the series was floundering in a creative purgatory and I was sure that this would be the final nail in the coffin. This series was practically dead.
But it wouldn't stay dead. News started to surface of a fourth movie that was bringing back some of the original cast in one last attempt to breathe life into this corpse of a franchise. I must have been bored because I ended up seeing this one in the theater. There was plenty to laugh at with this movie including the title, Fast and Furious, (giving 2 Fast 2 Furious real competition for Worst Sequel Title). The movie had the same brand of ineffectual posturing as all the previous ones, but it also contained a spark of something special. It almost seemed like the filmmakers were self-aware, realizing we were laughing at these movies and leaning into it. With that little wink from the screen, I was free to stop looking for all the things they got wrong and enjoy a movie that wasn’t supposed to be taken seriously. The movie now seemed like it was on my side, and I was along for the ride. It still surprises me this is the worst reviewed and most tragically overlooked movie of the series. Fast and Furious deserves more credit than it gets, if for nothing else, it set the table perfectly for the next movie, Fast Five. This movie took everyone by surprise except those of us that were paying attention. This was director Justin Lin’s third movie in the franchise and he showed that he really understood this fictional world and its audience. Fast Five was the first movie to unite characters from all four previous movies in an epic team up reminiscent of Ocean’s 11, (and it predated the team up of The Avengers by a full year). The movie was shamelessly joyful, a blazing fire lit from the spark of the previous movie. If the last movie hinted at self-awareness, this movie shouted it. Fast Five didn't seem to care that we were laughing at it, only that we were laughing, and soon we found ourselves laughing with it. One scene in particular is a good example of this; the gang needs to get new cars because theirs are being tracked or something, so they head to the local car race to win some new rides. In any previous FF movie, this would have been played up for action, stretching a 10 second race into a convoluted 10 minute sequence. But in Fast Five, just as the race is about to begin, amid all the engine revving and white knuckling, the movie cuts straight to the gang driving their new cars into the hideout, as if to say to us “We know you’ve seen this before and we are as bored with this kind of thing as you are. We didn’t come here to show you something you’ve already seen. Strap yourself in for something new.” This movie did deliver something new: the first certified fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a total box office gross that was nearly double the next closest movie in the series. People found themselves surprised to like a fast and furious movie so much. I felt pride and vindication now that everyone started to see what I saw in these movies. I was completely on board for the next movie, Fast and Furious 6. While the sixth movie upped the ante in terms of action and comedy, it was a slight let down that I wasn’t ready to admit for a long time. The movie hit most of the same notes as Fast Five, but it did it with less joy, less soul. In every previous movie, the gang were criminals or at least outlaws; this movie has them working for law enforcement to take down a bigger criminal. I wouldn’t realize it until later, but this was the start of something intangible slipping away. Filming was only halfway completed on the next movie, Furious 7, when we found out Paul Walker died. The news caught me off guard, not just because I didn’t expect it, but also because I didn’t realize how much I liked Paul Walker until he was gone. He was an unassuming celebrity, quiet and humble, even letting himself slip from a starring to supporting role in a series that was pretty much the only thing he had going on in his career. He was our collective cooler older brother. The release of Furious 7 was delayed by over a year because of this and the public’s anticipation increased. When the movie finally came out everyone went to see it, partly to have fun, partly to mourn Paul Walker, and partly just for the morbid curiosity of seeing how they would handle his death. They seemed to handle it pretty tastefully and Furious 7 earned the best reviews of the series, although I feel like it didn’t really earn them. We all knew they were working with a huge handicap, and it showed in the final product.
That brings us to the opening weekend of The Fate of the Furious. Watching this movie was akin to listening to a band that is missing members. Along the way, this movie series lost a lot of its characters: Vince, Han, Gisele, Mia, and Brian. It's sad to say, but their absence was felt in almost every scene. With them gone this movie seems like it's suffering from an identity crisis. It lacked a reverence for car culture that was present in every single previous installment. While the other movies presented specific reasons for the cars they used, The Fate of the Furious seems to treat them like literal toys, smashing together whatever they think looks cool for the scene. No matter how outlandish or lame all the other movies have been, they all stayed connected to their roots in some way. Not just street racing, but also the multicultural alternative to the mainstream that it's always been. This series wasn't supposed to be for the wide masses, and that's why those of us who were tired of the status quo liked them. They were our little secret. The fact that people would roll their eyes when we talked about them was one of the benefits. They were fun, dumb, and just for us, the people who were winking back at the screen. Furious 7 changed all that. Suddenly everyone's mom had an opinion about the action scenes, the ending, and the ridiculous plot. The Fate of the Furious took notice of all this new attention and steered the ship towards safe waters. The core was gone; this movie was not connected to any subculture or alternative, this is now the mainstream. The roots have been washed away with over-the-top action, the Rock’s feeble “army-isms” (like “double-time!” or “sumbitch”), and a monotonous stream of wisecracks that feel like they might have been generated by computers. This is no longer a movie for teenagers, this is aimed directly at the 30 something crowd and their deep pockets. The Fate of the Furious aged the series to match its audience, bringing parenthood to the center of the plot and morphing the gang from the outlaw rebels they always have been into archetypes closer to what its new audience holds as heroes: cops, firemen, soldiers with families. The series traded its edge for cash and lost its identity in the transaction. It isn’t soulless, it’s possessed by something alien, something closer to a Michael Bay movie: half shiny colors and half army recruitment video. The movie still had fun moments, but for me it was weighed down by sadness from the loss of one of my favorite fictional worlds. I know I’ll always have the movies I loved, but I lost the optimistic promise of future movies. This stings particularly strong as these movies used to be specifically for me, now they are for everyone but me.
So now these movies will keep going and keep progressing further and further away from what they once were. They will probably be mocked by the next generation for being the mainstream, misunderstanding the zeitgeist, and trying too hard, while simultaneously being championed by people like my theater neighbor, looking for a big dumb spectacle to help turn off his brain. This man is actually the perfect metaphor for the state of the series: completely foreign from its subculture and alternative roots, ignorant of all the hard work and big chances it took to get here, boasting about its popularity. He could well have said “Everyone likes it, so it’s OK for me to like too, right?” I hope you enjoyed it sir. It belongs to you now.