The 2001 hit "The Fast and the Furious" hearkens back to the auto-centric B-movies of the 1960s and 1970s, bringing the relatively underground culture of speed racing to mainstream attention. As in the "hot rod" movies of decades past, the tricked-out automobiles are the main stars, and indeed the lead cast members were relatively unknown or just on the brink of stardom at the time of the film's production. That the film turned into a surprise success and has managed to spawn three sequels in its wake demonstrates how easily young audiences can be mesmerized by fast-paced, colorful eye candy.
The film begins as rookie driver Brian O'Conner (Paul Walker) attempts to immerse himself in the street racing culture of Los Angeles. He is initially laughed at and humiliated, but after helping one of the leading drivers, Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel), escape from the police, he is given a chance to show his skills. Unbeknownst to the other racers, however, Brian is actually an undercover police officer who is monitoring the illegal activity of this underground culture. But Brian's loyalties are severely tested as he finds himself increasingly drawn to the exciting and gaudy lifestyle of the street racers and to Dominic's younger sister Mia (Jordana Brewster).
To call the plot that strings the frequent and over-the-top racing sequences together thin would be quite an understatement. The story is so weak and uninteresting that, quite honestly, I barely remembered what the film was about after it ended. Part of the problem is that when characters are not racing at breakneck speed, the movie as a whole ceases to move. The dynamic that is built up between Brian and Dominic, as they are at once rivals and friends, and as Dominic is alternately trusting and suspicious of Brian, is never developed beyond a rudimentary level. All of the character relationships are superficial at best, including Brian and Mia's puppy love and Dominic's more passionate romance with the butch Letty (Michelle Rodriguez). What's worse is that director Rob Cohen treats all of these elements with reverent seriousness, failing both to see how ineffectual they are and to recognize that the target audience of this film has no interest in them.
"The Fast and the Furious" only truly pulsates with adrenaline when the characters stop talking and expend their energy on the open road. But while these sequences are filled with impressive stunt work and visual effects, even they fail to elevate the movie beyond a sluggish pace. The action is empty without interesting characters at its core, and even at its most violent, the movie just does not have enough substance to make the races or chases worth caring about.
2 Fast 2 Furious
If the first movie was a lemon, the sequel is a lesson in turning lemons into ultra-sour lemon candy. Like the high-octane vehicles on display, everything that fell flat in "The Fast and the Furious" has been revved up, tricked out, and colorfully saturated to ridiculously excessive proportions in John Singleton's follow-up. As a result, the film succeeds in being fast-paced entertainment not because it is good, but because it is so very, very deliciously bad.
Paul Walker returns as Brian O'Conner, now a full-time street racer in Miami since quitting the police force after the events of the previous film. On the run from the police, he is finally caught by sexy undercover officer Monica Fuentes (Eva Mendes). He is called in to resume undercover duty as a street racer in a plot to bring down drug lord supreme Carter Verone (Cole Hauser), the greasiest Latino this side of a Spaghetti Western, who uses street racers to do his bidding. By completing this mission, Brian's offenses will be cleared. He is allowed to choose one fellow racer to help him on this mission, and so he chooses estranged friend and newly released prisoner Roman Pearce (Tyrese) in order to make amends for having stood by while Roman was arrested three years earlier.
This so-called story, like its predecessor, is little more than an excuse to showcase tanned bodies driving candy-colored rides at incredible speeds. Apparently realizing how ludicrous the whole thing is, screenwriters Michael Brandt and Derek Haas seem to have decided that if you can't beat 'em, join 'em, turning what is essentially rehashed drive-in fare into delirious camp. The half-baked buddy-flick dynamic between Walker and Vin Diesel from the previous film is reduced even further here to an endless repetition of Walker and Tyrese calling each other "bruh" and "cuz." Cementing the film as a live-action anime, we have Devon Aoki as a cute, Japanese shôjo in place of Michelle Rodriguez's über feminist. And the racing is taken to heights of absurdity that make "The Dukes of Hazzard" look comparatively static.
The movie has nothing going for it in the way of real quality. The acting is uniformly underwhelming, even by veteran James Remar as a pissy U.S. customs agent with a vendetta against Brian. Paul Walker exhibits more of the same boneheaded affability he displayed in the first movie, which makes him somewhat appealing but totally unconvincing as a police officer. While Vin Diesel was no master thespian, Tyrese is a pale comparison for screen presence. Singleton's direction is undistinguished, serving only the necessary function of showcasing the action.
What it has going for it is Brandt and Haas' screenplay, which makes it pretty clear that they do not take this franchise half as seriously as everybody else seems to. The movie glides along from one tacky set piece to another, including one of the most stupefyingly ridiculous torture scenes I have encountered in quite a while. The movie could almost work as absurdist comedy if everyone else was as astutely aware of how awful it is, but as it stands, it is the best film in the trilogy simply because it provides the guiltiest pleasure. The philosophy here is when you can't make high art, make high trash.
The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift
The third installment of the "F&F" franchise is an in-name-only sequel, bearing no connection to the previous entries (until the final reel...). An updating (or rip-off) of sorts of "Rebel Without a Cause" (1955), this movie finds troubled teen Sean Boswell (Lucas Black) shipped off to live with his estranged father in Tokyo when his mother grows tired of dealing with his constant drag-racing antics. Blowing off his dad's stern warning against getting mixed up with cars, Sean immediately gravitates toward a clique of students at his new high school who are dedicated to the motorsport of "drifting," a phenomenon in which drivers forcefully oversteer their vehicle as they approach a turn in order to set the car in a near 180-degree movement. Laughed at by the predominately Japanese students who see him only as an outsider, Sean finds friendship with a black stereotype called Twinkie (Bow Wow), who has ingratiated himself among the Japanese students with his seemingly bottomless bag of hot items (including laptops, sneakers, and iPods).
Sean quickly sets his sights on Neela (Nathalie Kelley), a young woman of ambiguous nationality who is dating the lead "drifter" and school bully, D. K. (Brian Tee). After Sean humiliates himself by disastrously attempting to "drift" against D. K., he becomes the protégé of Han (Sung Kang), an expert "drifter" who takes a liking to him and sees an opportunity to make some money by training Sean as his new racer. Eventually, however, conflict ensues between former friends Han and D. K., and pretty soon D. K. has to bring his Japanese Mafioso uncle (Sonny Chiba) into the picture. That's right, his Japanese Mafioso uncle.
Moving the franchise to Japan only serves the purpose of making this entry even more visually delirious than its predecessors as Tokyo is captured in all of its neon glory. Stylistically, director Justin Lin adds nothing new, and the innovation of adding "drifting" to the racing sequences wears thin after the first action scene. This movie probably features the most preposterous story thus far, but like the second movie, it thankfully doesn't seem to take itself too seriously and can be appreciated as inoffensive stupidity.
"Tokyo Drift" should by all rights have been a direct-to-DVD release with its no-name cast and phoned-in production. It reaches a level of mediocrity that leaves the previous entries in the dust, and it plays up so many cultural stereotypes that I find it hard to believe any Japanese actors appeared in it at all. The film is so by-the-numbers that even by this franchise's standards it is hackneyed and predictable. For a series that had next to no artistic integrity in the first place, this sequel marks the point at which it straddles the threshold between mindless entertainment and heartless commerce, but the actors (particularly Sonny Chiba) seem just self-aware enough to anchor it safely on the edge.
Speaking of commerce, Universal Home Video has given this trilogy the royal treatment on Blu-ray, providing hours of supplemental material for movies that are hardly worth watching on their own. The transfers for all three films are presented in 1080p high definition and look excellent. Each reveals a good amount of film grain while exhibiting sharp detail, nicely saturated colors, rich black levels, and stunning clarity. All three films are presented in 2.35:1 widescreen. You couldn't ask for these films to look better than they do on these Blu-ray releases.
Audio is excellent across the board as well. Each disc offers a 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio track. The multi-channel distribution is utilized exceedingly well in the action sequences, helping to create a palpable aural experience. The sounds of these flashy cars racing through obstacle courses can be intense and thundering, but never harsh. Dialogue and music are integrated well without being drowned out by the powerful effects. This is reference quality audio. French and Spanish 5.1 DTS tracks are also available, as well as French, and Spanish subtitles and English closed captions.
Each film is accompanied by a copious amount of bonus features, most of which have been carried over from the original DVD and HD-DVD releases. All three feature audio commentaries by their respective directors (Rob Cohen, John Singleton, and Justin Lin). These commentaries are pretty straightforward and offer the expected tidbits. In addition, each disc offers a "My Scenes" feature, allowing viewers to isolate and save selected clips, and U-Control viewing options with Picture-in-Picture features, technical specs, and other activities. All three are BD-live enabled and encoded for D-Box Motion Code use.
A few high-definition features are offered for "The Fast and the Furious," beginning with "Dom's Charger," a four-minute piece about the car driven by Vin Diesel in the film's climax. Next is the 10-minute "Quarter Mile at a Time," featuring interviews with current and former street racers and the film's technical advisers. A "Video Mash-up" feature provides viewers with video and musical options to edit their own promo. Standard definition features start off with six very brief deleted scenes with option commentary from Rob Cohen. These all look very rough and "digitized." "Hot Off the Street" is apparently yet another group of deleted scenes, this time without commentary. A brief public service announcement featuring Paul Walker promoting save driving comes next. This is followed by "The Making of The Fast and the Furious," an 18-minute promotional piece. An alternate ending follows. "Tricking Out a Hot Import Car" is a curious piece featuring Playboy Playmate Dalene Kurtis learning how to pimp her ride from technical advisor Craig Lieberman. Kurtis' presence is clearly gratuitous. Next is a six-minute prelude to "2 Fast 2 Furious," a wordless short film showing what happens to Paul Walker's character between the first two films. Viewers are next treated to multiple camera angles of the climactic stunt sequence and a composite special effects scene. This is followed by a five-minute piece on the editing of a violent scene to secure a PG-13 rating. There are also a four-minute visual effects montage, a storyboard-to-final-feature comparison, sneak peek at "2 Fast 2 Furious," music videos for Ja Rule's "Furious," Caddillac Tah's "Pow City Anthem," and Saliva's "Click Click Boom," a soundtrack spot, and a theatrical trailer.
"2 Fast 2 Furious" is accompanied by two high-def features: "Fast Females" and "Hollywood Impact." The first takes an eight-minute look at the female characters from all three films in this trilogy as well as the new fourth film, the brilliantly titled "Fast and Furious." The second feature lasts 13 minutes and features critics (including Leonard Maltin) and crew members discussing pretty much every popular movie and TV series owned by Universal that involves cars, from "American Graffiti" and "Smokey and the Bandit" to "Knight Rider" and "Magnum P.I." to "Back to the Future" and the "Bourne" films. Following this is the same prelude to the film that was featured on the previous disc. A collection of deleted scenes are offered with brief intros by John Singleton and editor Bruce Cannon. Next we have a blooper reel. "Inside 2 Fast 2 Furious" is a 10-minute making-of feature. "Actor Driving School" offers brief clips of Tyrese, Paul Walker, and Devon Aoki (who had never driven before) learning some basic stunt work for the driving scenes. "Tricking Out a Hot Import" lasts three minutes and once again features Playboy Playmate Dalene Curtis and car guru Craig Lieberman. There is a five-minute featurette on the film's stunts. "Making Music with Ludacris" lasts five minutes and features rapper and cast member Chris "Ludacris" Bridges talking about his music for the film. Up next are actor spotlights on Tyrese, Walker, and Aoki and car spotlights on the various models used in the film. A couple of extended scenes rounds out this disc.
"The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift" includes three high-def features, beginning with a 17-minute "Making of the Fast Franchise," which chronicles the production of all four movies. Some footage is repeated from the previous two making-of docs. "Drift: The Sideways Craze" is an hour-long documentary on the sport of "drifting." This is by far the most substantial feature included in this box set. A "Custom-Made Drifter" feature allows viewers to design their own car and watch a clip from the movie with their design inserted. The standard features are headed by 11 deleted scenes with optional commentary by Justin Lin. "Drifting School" lasts eight minutes and features the cast taking lessons. "Cast Cam" provides four minutes of personal video footage taking by one of the supporting actors on set. "The Big Breakdown: Han's Last Ride" lasts nine minutes and examines the film's major centerpiece. The 11-minute "Tricked Out to Drift" looks at the various cars used in the movie and their impressive makeovers. "Welcome to Drifting" offers six minutes of the cast and crew giving their thoughts on the sport. "The Real Drift King" provides a four-minute interview with professional "drifter" Keiichi Tsuchiya. This is followed by "The Japanese Way," a 10-minute featurette on the location shooting in Tokyo. Rounding out the disc are music videos for Don Omar's "Conteo" and Far* East Movement's "Round Round."
Finally, each movie is contained within its own keep case, accompanied by a bonus disc with a digital copy of the respective film. It is quite a long haul to make it through all of these features, and fans have certainly not been left wanting for supplemental material. With all of the warnings to viewers not to imitate the stunts preceding most of the featurettes, I sometimes felt like I was watching a collection of "Jackass" shorts, and while much of the content here is promotional in nature, there is enough informative material to make this worthwhile.
Taken as a whole, the "Fast and the Furious" trilogy amounts to a whole lot of airheaded action that may be fun for some and a waste to others. These films were clearly not meant to be great artistic works, but how entertaining you find these movies will depend greatly on your tolerance for over-the-top action and uninteresting characters. Universal has done a ridiculously impressive job with this package, but I can't help lamenting the lack of similar treatment for more worthy titles. For fans of this franchise, this is a no-brainer.