Fast and Furious Blues, Or a Requiem for Car Culture on the Big Screen

I’m not ashamed of it – I have been a fan of The Fast and The Furious movie franchise since it first hit theatres in 2001.  At one time in my life, you might even have been able to call me a Fast and Furious evangelist.  I can recall how exciting it was to finally have the car culture that I was an active part of – minus the sticker jobs and neon lights – being represented in the popular media.  I saw the first movie in the theatre about 12 times, even dragging my parents (my father is also a car guy) to come along with me and share in what at the time felt like an almost transcendent cultural experience.

Yes, the movie was formulaic, and yes, it was an almost shot-for-shot remake of Kathryn Bigelow’s “Point Break.”  That didn’t matter to me, however – what mattered was that I was seeing young people living and breathing cars, as I did, on the big screen.

We enthusiasts were lucky enough to be given two Fast and Furious sequels (2Fast 2Furious and Tokyo Drift) that also tapped into the evolving street racing and customization community, with the latter film taking us all home to Japan where many of the vehicles celebrated in the series had been born.  Although principle Vin Diesel had temporarily bowed out from appearing in front of the camera, audiences were still treated to the same multiracial ensemble cast that became one of the hallmarks of the Fast and Furious series, a rarity for big-budget Hollywood films and part of the reason why the movies were so successful internationally.

When the fourth movie, unimaginatively title “Fast and Furious” arrived in 2009 after a three year series hiatus, it was clear that something had changed.  The return of Vin Diesel’s character was a welcome addition to franchise lore, but his comeback heralded a disorienting re-positioning of the focus of the films.  While there were still cool cars on screen, and while driving skills continued to advance the plot of the film, the car community had been relegated to a sideshow and given a token role that one felt had only been included for continuity’s sake.  Instead of a fun movie taking us on a rollicking ride through the street racing scene, we were instead shown a script where the crime element of the first three films had been amped to the point that it now took up almost all of the movie’s narrative.

The evolution of the Fast and Furious franchise from tire-smoking thrill ride to guns-blazing action caper was cemented by the fifth and most recent installment, Fast Five.  Although not quite as dark as its predecessor, the movie was rife with ultra-violence and light on car culture, with the only interactions between the reunited cast members from the previous films and the automotive world that had initially united them being glossed over to a groan-inducing degree.

It’s no surprise that Vin Diesel’s desire to advance his image as an action star, coupled with statements by Universal execs that “street racing films” have a “limited audience” have spelled the death of the lighthearted, high octane romps presented to us in the first three films.  The series will continue to be marketed to gearheads and custom car fans but in all honesty The Fast and the Furious has now become yet another generic bullets and mayhem crime series.  I will continue to watch, but out of nostalgia for a time when the roar of a tuned exhaust system, gloriously hackneyed dialogue and living life 10 seconds at a time were all together compelling enough to drain my wallet and keep me planted in my theatre seat for weeks on end.

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