I’m a Fast and Furious newb. I watched the whole series over a particularly entertaining week last winter. Having suffered the first two films I almost quit but dedicated (read: bossy) fans from the Lewton Bus gang forced me to keep going. I’m very glad I did. Even as early as the third film (the perfectly cheesily titled Tokyo Drift), you can feel the bones begin to align. By the fifth film the series has evolved from reckless, formless action montages into a big-hearted mega-budget blockbuster series that maintains strict focus on family loyalty, brotherly love (well, more than “brotherly” if we’re feeling frisky, and I am), and the never-ending roar of high-speed cock proxies.
2 Fast 2 Furious is, from where I sit, inarguably the worst film in the series. Over in their piece, Bee McGee will argue that the first film is the winner of that dubious assessment, but they’re allowed to be wrong. I’ll dig into my reasons, but, like a parent whose child can’t get above a D grade, I still regard the film with great fondness. The chases are mostly great. The characters are delightful, and as awful an example of filmmaking as it is, 2 Fast 2 Furious is probably the most unrepentantly fun the series allowed itself to be, before it realized the dramatic potential of taking itself more seriously. I’m going to ruthlessly mock this film, but I’m also going to give it some love for laying so much groundwork for the films to come.
A Tale of Fist Bumps and Bikinis
Let’s start by framing this nonsense with what came before. The Fast and The Furious gave us Vin Diesel’s Dom and his charger, it gave us Paul Walker’s Brian, and Michelle Rodriguez’ kickass Letty. It warmly welcomed us into this family of small timers and invited us to enjoy a barely technically adequate little adventure about stolen goods and win-or-die races, told with moronic CGI whips through pulsing engines and thrusting nitrous canisters. So much throbbing and flexing and over-acted nonsense, and yet? These were characters we wanted to spend more time with.
So on to 2 Fast 2 Furious (I’m not even going to start about that title). It’s directed by John Singleton, a man who distinguished himself early on with incisive and heartbreaking accounts of black life in LA, but who has by this point apparently decided that crime is funny and legitimately all about dudes fist bumping and women in bikinis and nonstop laughing at the prospect of death. As the film begins, Dom and his fat throbbing charger are on the run. Brian has relocated to Miami, and quickly made a new home for himself in a local race scene.
We here meet the inimitable Tej (Ludacris) and he is a joy to behold. I mean, that hair! Tej is a bookie for an established race and manages his crowd with equal parts good humor and business sense. He is also a brilliant engineer. We of course dive immediately into the meat and potatoes of the early films: cars and booties. Singleton shoots asses as though this were a 90s hip hop video, wide angles exaggerating their bumps. Same is true of the cars. These aren’t machines; they are bulbous extensions of their drivers’ ids and jiggly bits.
Brian is roped by James Remar’s high-powered federal agent into infiltrating a gangster’s operation by posing as a street racer. Brian reunites with old frenemy Roman, played by Tyrese Gibson. They form a crime fighting duo while Tej and his team become their pit crew. Shenanigans and a bunch of violence happen. Whatever the plot was is irrelevant crap. The team dynamics are a lot of fun even without Dom’s family. Without the team chemistry, this film (and the entire series) fails.
Everything is Awesome, Bro
As a sequel, if we accept that the first film represents a template for what’s to come, the tone here is wrong. The energy is broader, louder, more insistently positive. Nobody pouts in this film. The kids are color coded and costumed like gangs in The Warriors. If you drive an orange car, you wear an orange jersey. It feels instantly hyperbolic, and not in the fun way that the later films feel hyperbolic; while the later films get silly with set pieces that insult standard physics, they adhere to a consistent dramatic and emotional logic. This film is two hours of “Everything is Awesome” played over a stupid heist plot. There is no emotional or tonal dynamic. It’s flat.
The film also never shuts the hell up. Without respite, without moments when characters can relax enough to let loose whatever else they have in them besides GO GO GO, the film is incapable of creating dramatic contrast. Lets deploy a bespoke version of an overused cliché: Without the occasional absence of awesomeness, the whole exercise is less awesome than it could be. It has too much comedic remove to evoke much real empathy – everyone is too aloof and untouchable. This first film overplayed its soap opera, no question, but its sloppy emotional content at least gave it heart and higher stakes.
Everything about this film is joyously reckless. The races occasionally feature upside down camera moves because sure, let’s do some upside down camera moves. This is true of character interactions as well. Reckless come-ons, reckless fights, reckless everything. Singleton needed someone to mediate, to pull him back a bit.
Brian Laughs at your “Death”
In the first film, Brian was a soulful and sensitive dude. I bet that guy brewed chai and cried when he thought about his mom. I miss him. This guy, every other word out of his mouth is “bro”. He grins constantly, and it’s a self-defeating grin, one that renders him instantly stupid.
This Brian is in a perpetual state of FUCK YEAH. He has a new twinkle in his eye. Was he toning down his bro-ness in the first film? Is this who he really is? By the time he’s gone at the end of 7, there have been a good 4 variations on Brian. This Brian is the dumbest Brian but maybe also the funnest Brian?
Every time he’s about to die he screams a carful of whoo hoo hoo. What the hell is wrong with this dude? This version of Brian would speed jump over his mom to prove that he could and then fist bump Tej when he missed and smashed her skull in.
This… This is Not How You Shoot Action
Skilled cinematographers and editors take care to establish continuity of action with a little-noticed but critical technique: characters’ eye-lines direct our perspective and therefore help determine how well we understand action. If a character looks to the left while a relevant shooting takes place to her right, we may miss it. How characters follow action determines how we follow action. For superb examples of hardened eye-line technique revisit Mad Max: Fury Road. George Miller allows his characters to communicate so much, both to us and to each other, with their eyes. You could almost storyboard that film as a series of glances.
Then there’s John Singleton. He’s hip to eye-lines. So hip, in fact, that he mercilessly adds insert after insert of eyes in extreme closeup to make damn sure we’re following what the characters are seeing. In his zeal to make his action understandable, he creates a frankly hilarious montages of eyeballs rolling around in their heads. It is ridiculous and completely distracts from whatever the hell is actually happening. Example:
The film even gives us a fabulous bit where Brian tries to woo an undercover agent by driving at reckless speeds all while watching her.
Bro bro bro bro bro bro, dude, bro
Maleness is a problem for me in these films, and particularly this one. That women are already largely relegated to inactive trophies is hard enough to take. The one woman in this film who has an ounce of command manages Brian and Tej by calling them girls, reinforcing hyper-binary gender coding. Women drive pink cars, boys drive blue. Women are asses (literally and figuratively). They exist to tempt our heroes away from their all-important manly missions.
Men are mobile penis rockets. It’s so absurdly, offensively gendered that I don’t know how to deal with it except to sigh and remind myself that the series turns this around in another film or two. Even The Fast and the Furious gave us Michelle Rodriguez’ Letty who absolutely does not drive pink cars. Maroon with flame decals, yes. Pink, no. (I have nothing, in principle, against pink cars.)
Clearly I hate fun and joy
Mostly true. But I do actually like a lot about this film. The characters are as charming as can be. Tyrese Gibson as Roman is a lot of fun and, along with Tej, will become an important member of the team in the later films. Even its villain, Carter Verone, has an important role to play in future installments. That these characters are so essential in the middle of all this nonsense reminds us that films aren’t qualified purely by their writing or production. The casting choices are superb.
The races are great fun once you get past nonsense like the eye-lines and the reappearance of the godawful CGI engine-cam from The Fast and The Furious. The stunts are exciting and very well executed, and the feeling of legit speed is exhilarating. I’m also impressed with its wreckage. Next to Mad Max, no films pile on cars like these films do. It’s gratifying in that very specific monster truck sort of way. It’s all very male and suburban and fun if you’re in the mood for bar-b-q and Corona.
I love how the film looks. Beautiful sunny blues and golds. Radiant waters and glistening chrome. Its color palette is luscious. Miami nights are electric. Singleton hero-lights the leads in charmingly old-school ways. Even at the peak of a hot white Florida afternoon he’ll throw some highlights at them, creating an otherworldly glow around Brian and Tej and Roman.
Last thing and I’ll shut up: it has jokes. My favorite burn, delivered with panache by Roman to one of Carter’s thugs: