Whatever obstacles stunted Vin Diesel’s career in the mid to late 2000s, 2009 would be his year. That’s when he reprised his now defining role as Dominic Turetto in Fast & Furious. At the time, the series was in need of a much needed fuel injection. 2 Fast 2 Furious dwindled at the box office, and Tokyo Drift couldn’t even gross half of what that film did. Both films were critically panned. Audiences didn’t seem to be that interested in The Fast and the Furious anymore. That is, until Universal Pictures rounded up the original cast and made the “official” sequel to their 2001 hit. Nobody could have guessed that this series was about to become the most popular and lucrative franchise in cinema history that isn’t based on previous source material. Fast & Furious is the film that paved the way for what’s to come, garnering a whole generation of new fans while grossing $353 million worldwide. All this despite not being a very good movie.
In a dramatic turn of events, Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) learns that Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) has been killed by a ruthless gangster named Braga. Thus, he comes out of hiding to fight through Braga’s crew one by one until he meets him face to face. But he also has to get through Brian O’Connor (Paul Walker), now an FBI agent, who has gone undercover to take Braga down.
Fast & Furious reunites the four leads from the original film, and for the most part, it’s good to have the old gang back. Having Dom, Brian, Letty, and Mia back as the focus of the story feels like a course correction. Another smart move by Chris Morgan’s screenplay is that it ditches most of the street racing and “car porn” elements in favour of a bare bones revenge plot. Action is the forefront of this film, not the cars, and that helps make this film feel different from the previous films. What is disappointing about this fourth installment is that the plot rehashes too many familiar elements. There’s only so many times the undercover storyline can be interesting and since the series has done it twice already, it feels redundant this time around. Also derivative is Braga’s insistence on auditioning drivers to pull off a job. This plot device is pretty much used to get more racing scenes into the movie, which of course isn’t a bad thing; it’s just obvious. Even Braga’s identity, which is kept secret for two thirds of the movie, is easy to predict.
But in terms of mindless action, Fast & Furious is ready to make Vin Diesel the next Arnold Schwazenegger. Picking up someone off the ground and throwing him onto the hood of a car. Exploding four cars at the same time. Holding a shotgun to someone’s head in a church while saying the line, “You’re not forgiven.” Diesel isn’t so much acting as he is exerting incredibly entertaining screen presence, much like Keanu Reeves, Bruce Willis, or Sylvester Stallone. The rest of the cast is adequate enough, but this is Vin Diesel’s show through and through.
Director Justin Lin gets his second outing helming a Fast & Furious film, and based on his work on Tokyo Drift, he deserves it. Lin knows pacing. He knows how to create tension in dramatic scenes, and how to stage action so that you can be wowed by the completed-on-set stunts while remaining spatially oriented to what’s going on. Where he stumbles is in finding a tone for the picture. There are scenes – sorry, entire plot points – so ludicrous that they don’t earn the required suspension of disbelief, like how an underground tunnel could have been built between the United States and Mexico borders with no border control being remotely aware of it. Or the opening sequence where a car drives toward an exploding tanker and manages to escape untouched. These scenes would have been acceptable if the film didn’t take itself so seriously in other scenes. There’s too much grit to the style, which sucks the energy out of the film while simultaneously undermining the tone of the previous installments. Even worse is the portrayal of the villains, who would have been better fitted in an episode of The Wire as opposed to a grindhouse-lite film about cars and cartoonish characters. So while parts of this film are incredibly fun, others feel out of place.
Fast & Furious is by no means a bad movie. It’s great to have the original cast back. They haven’t lost the chemistry that made me root for them the first time around. The action and the races are top notch. But the film isn’t quite the sum of its parts. Unfortunately, it doesn’t recapture the magic of the first film, and it’s nowhere near as much fun as Tokyo Drift. In fact, I would rank it just above 2 Fast 2 Furious as the second weakest film in the franchise. No matter. Still worth watching.