You know that scene in teen movies where the "nerdy" girl gets a make-over (i.e. takes off her glasses and lets her hair down) and all of a sudden all of the boys in school are like "whoa, we had no idea you were so hot"? That scene never made any sense to me - anyone with eyes should be able to see that a supermodel is a supermodel even if she is wearing glasses. How could anyone ever be that blind?
Well, today I think I learned how someone could be that blind, because I just saw a similar transformation occur before my very eyes.
You see, for the longest time I thought that the Fast and Furious movies were just dumb motor movies meant for meatheads. When The Fast and the Furious first came out I ignored it because I don't care about luxury cars or about street racing much less about the sort of empty headed dudes who are super into luxury cars and street racing. 2 Fast 2 Furious' title made it sound like it was doubling down on the inanity from the first film, so I skipped it for the same reasons. Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift also didn't interest me, and Fast and Furious was completely off my radar; it came and went without me noticing.
Fast Five, however, got my attention - it was a much bigger blockbuster than the previous four, and I'm always curious about movies that make that much cultural noise. More importantly, a female friend told me that it was pretty damn good and that I should check it out, which piqued my curiosity even farther. (Were these cars-n-asses movies really for ladies now?) And sure enough, Fast Five was better than I expected. Hell, it was good enough that it convinced me to continue with the series; I paid good money to see the sixth and seventh movies in the theater.
In fact, the last three Furious movies were so good at being mindless entertainment that I started to get curious about the first four movies. Had I written them off too early? Was I just being judgmental? What if they were also really good?
So this week I went back and watched Fast and Furious, the fourth movie in the franchise. And I can now conclusively say without the shadow of a doubt: nope, I was not missing anything. As I had expected, this movie was dumb, dumb, dumb, and meatheady, meatheady, meatheady.
How dumb and meatheady is it? Well, Fast and Furious is about a car loving cop (Brian O'Conner, played by Paul Walker) and a car loving criminal (Dom Toretto, played by Vin Diesel) who have to team up to track down a car loving drug dealer named Braga (played by John Ortiz.) The three men compete by drag racing, and by fist fighting, and even by going toe to toe in a battle of wits. (It's a short battle that devolves into gunfight rather quickly.) Which is to say that this film is a two hour dick measuring contest - sometimes almost literally; at one point Vin Diesel gets a boner for vengeance and his car actually pops a wheelie.
Now I can see how this sort of mindless fun could appeal to people - the action is always easy to follow and there's a lot of top notch stunt work. But Fast and Furious just isn't my bag, because I'm not interested in its very macho aesthetic. We're supposed to care for Dom and Brian, but I find them to be pretty repulsive - they might be honorable men, but it is an unreflexive and aggressive form of honor that doesn't sit well with me. And if I don't like the men behind the cars, well, I'm not going to care about the cars...
Which is why it's so interesting to watch this movie now that I have the benefit of knowing where the series is ultimately heading - because all of the things that would make Fast Five so fun are present in Fast and Furious, but alas, they are hidden behind glasses and tied up in ponytails.
For example, one reason why Fast Five is so fun is that it feels exotic - it made full use of it's Rio De Janeiro setting. Meanwhile, Fast and Furious goes to the Dominican Republic and Mexico, but it spends too much time in L.A. to feel truly globetrotting; they had the right idea, but framed it poorly.
Or: Fast Five culminates in an insane chase scene that destroyed half of downtown Rio; it is one of the most impressive finales I've ever seen. Meanwhile, Fast and Furious opens with a cool high speed robbery sequence, but the climactic race between Brian and Dom and Braga's henchmen takes place in a CGI created tunnel and it looks kind of terrible.
Or: the characters in Fast Five have their macho-ness pushed up to 11, meaning that they walk the line between sincere and kitsch... Which means that they can appeal to people who can take them at face value, but they also appeal to people like me who want to laugh at them. Meanwhile, the characters in Fast and Furious are just meatheads.
In other words, the early films in this franchise have the same basic appeal as the later films, but their superficial differences are hugely important. There are many points in Fast and Furious where the filmmakers could have reached beyond their original gearhead audience, but over and over again they refused to class up their cars-n-asses formula. However, the last three films in the franchise have blown that formula wide open, making it bigger, and sillier, and crazier - which is why they now appeal to non-gearheads like me.
You could accuse the franchise of selling out, and I suppose it has. (I've always wished that teen movies would let the "nerd girl" be happy as a "nerd" instead of forcing her to accept society's capricious beauty whims.) But honestly, it's the best kind of selling out - the type that motivates me to buy movie tickets. I can't think of a single reason why I would ever want to watch the hair-up glasses-on early films, but you can't sign me up for Furious 8 fast enough.