In a 2001 New York Times review of The Fast and the Furious, the first installment in what would become an eight-movie juggernaut of gleaming muscles and chrome, Elvis Mitchell wrote, “Neither fast nor furious, this film belongs in the section of the supermarket where blah-white labels and big block lettering denote brandless cigarettes, vodka, crushed pineapple, and, in this case, action picture.” The Los Angeles Times called the film “lame” and “essentially an hour and 45 minutes of Rebel Without a Clue.” The critics weren’t wrong. In fact, I’m just going to put it out there—all the movies, including the latest, The Fate of the Furious, which was released this week, are pretty bad.
This helps explain the paradox of The Fast and the Furious series, which has managed to inspire a cult-like following while being one of Hollywood’s biggest action movie franchises. In an era when action movies are dominated by the super-suave (James Bond), the self-serious (Jason Bourne), and the ironic (Iron Man), The Fast and the Furious movies stand out for being almost childishly sincere. For proof, look no further than Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s sweaty body.
You almost never see people sweat in films. But The Rock, who plays the federal agent Hobbs, is constantly sweating. I’m not talking about a little bit of “hot” movie sweat. He sweats in cars that are most certainly air conditioned. In Furious 7, he sweats at his desk job, so much so that he wears a soaking wet rag around his neck to mop his brow while he fills out paperwork. In The Fate of the Furious, The Rock is sweaty just from standing on the sidelines of his daughter’s soccer game.
Like its perspiring star, the series can’t help but be its goofy self. It exudes its simple nature from its very pores. When it hits upon a winning gag, it goes back to it again and again. (Apparently the only rule in drag racing is that whoever is the last to use nitrous oxide—“Nos” in the movie’s parlance—wins.) There is only one overarching theme, which is that the most important thing in life is family. In the world of The Fast and the Furious, this turns the liberal American dream into liberal America’s wildest fantasy, a super-multicultural cast that, with the latest installment, now ranges from Dame Helen Mirren to the Puerto Rican Reggaeton star Don Omar.
So far, Fate has received mixed reviews. The admirers predictably point out the over-the-top stunts, which are the highlights of every movie. At Rolling Stone, Peter Travers writes, “The pop-absurdist finale, set on a Russian glacier, is a digital hellzapoppin. And isn’t that all we want from these speed chasers?” The Village Voice is astounded that the scene in Siberia somehow managed to top even the skyscraper jump in Furious 7: “Nothing in all of the Fast and Furious movies has ever felt bigger or more ridiculous.”
But 16 years after the first installment, reviewers have also found the eighth film too long, too repetitive, and just too damn much. The movie “burns fuel quickly,” Richard Lawson says at Vanity Fair, and makes “one yearn for the smaller, more terrestrial exploits of a younger Dominic Toretto.” Richard Roper over at Chicago Sun-Times writes, “Fast and Furious? More like Slow and Ponderous,” claiming that the movie “drags down the franchise.”
But to pit the movies against one another is the wrong way of looking at the franchise. There are endless lists ranking The Fast and the Furious movies, but these films do not shine in separation. Like a real family, they are at their strongest when taken in toto. For example, Tokyo Drift, the third installment, is usually panned as the worst of the films. But it also brought us the delectable Han (Sung Kang), who is one of the series’ most charismatic and beloved characters. (In doing research for this piece I found out that Han’s full name is a wince-worthy dad joke: Han Seoul-Oh.)
And like all important friendships, the films grow with time. The first movie may have been bad, but it has since become an improbable source of nostalgia. We wouldn’t care about Dom (Vin Diesel) turning on his family in Fate if it weren’t for the bonds that were established in the first movie. The heist in Fast Five—in which they use two cars to rip an enormous metal safe from a police station and drag it through the streets of Rio—wouldn’t have impressed if it weren’t for the fact that the crew was stealing DVD players from a truck a few films prior. Michelle Rodriguez scowling and yelling, “DOM!” triggers so many associations in subsequent movies because we were so memorably introduced to it in the first—it is the kind of punch-line that provokes laughter even before it lands.
Like other franchises, The Fast and the Furious has created a world that exists outside the actual events of any given movie and that colors the experience of watching them. Part of the joy of watching Fate is to see how it plays with the audience’s expectations. When Dom wins the obligatory drag race (Cuban edition, featuring Cuban Nos), he declines to take his opponent’s car as spoils, settling instead for his respect. It’s a nod to the first film, when Brian—played by Paul Walker, who died in an off-screen car crash in 2013—tells Dom he is racing him not for the cash, but for Dom’s respect. “To some people that’s more important,” Brian says. It was a terrible line then, and it’s a terrible line now, but it’s our terrible line and we love it.
Like a good car the series needs all of its parts to work. And also like a car, if you keep adding more parts, it only works better. (I know nothing about cars.) On its own, Fate surely has its flaws. It’s not much more than a plastic bottle of supermarket vodka. But combine it with a pack of brandless cigarettes and brandless crushed pineapple and you have yourself a pineapple vodka and a smoke. If that’s not the American dream, then I don’t know what is.