Eight years ago, The Fast and the Furious cobbled together Japanese automotive imports, the subculture of urban street racing, and two young, relatively unknown male leads into a surprise summer hit. In one weekend, the film recouped its budget and lifted Vin Diesel into stardom. Since then, two sequels have been made, with different bazaars, different cars, different stars—and different results at the box office. In Hollywood, making bad movies comes with the territory; making bad money does not.
Which explains the new, fourth installment in the franchise, Fast and Furious, which returns Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and Brian O’Connor (Paul Walker) to their original Los Angeles haunt, recapturing and even surpasssing the original film in danger and drama.
This is not to say that Fast and Furious lacks ludicrous moments (though, thankfully, this time it does lack Ludacris)—the opening sequence, set in a tropically-generic version of the Dominican Republic, includes fishtailing pickups and a CGI (computer-generated) escape from an enflamed runaway gas tanker. Nor does it avoid cheesy, forgettable and offensive dialogue— like multiple tired parallels between the curves of women and vehicles.
In fact, while the sex is modern (read: gratuitous girl-on-girl action), the film’s sexual politics are depressingly retrograde. Reveling in the misogyny of its cartoonishly muscular protagonists, Fast and Furious quickly establishes firm breasts and fan belts to be man’s playthings; the camera actually segments female bodies into their constituent parts for voyeuristic consumption. As a society, we want—almost demand—moralistic uplift from our leaders, but individually we are only too happy to sit in darkened rooms and stare at dancing derrieres. Jamaican women are denigrated enough without their husbands expecting to live out celluloid fantasies.
But beyond all that, beyond the silly lines and soft-core pornography, Fast and Furious succeeds. It succeeds by doing what Hollywood does best—sticking to a formula. Only it’s not Formula One. Fast and Furious is a Western in disguise—a souped-up, hyperkinetic Western, but a good Western nevertheless.
Vin Diesel’s Toretto rides into town, alone, after a long absence, with a score to settle and an unwavering determination to settle it. His past keeps chasing him (in the form of federal agents), forcing him to live life on the run, and extracting the ultimate price—losing someone he loved. Despite his experience, he is an outsider. The only tools at his disposal are his own skills and attributes—his physicality, his hands, his rough charm—and his trusted horsepower. Shane (1953), The Searchers (1956), Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)—there is no shortage of desert-backed films that share the same story kernel.
Unconvinced? Consider three more bits of evidence. During one chase, Toretto leaps from one car to another driving alongside him, in a new take on the old chestnut of switching horses. To pick up the trail of the man he seeks, Toretto studies a crash site. He bends down to the asphalt and rubs some residue between his fingers. Like any Western hero who knows his dirt, the residue points him in the right direction. And finally, the film contains an epic chase across the American-Mexican border desert, with Toretto and O’Connor (and even their names now seem to fit in the genre) pursued by a dozen or so men, riding in formation.
John Wayne might be spinning in his California grave, but only because Fast and Furious blew past it with a nitrous-oxide injection of speed, seduction and solid adventure.