Fate of the Furious hits theaters Friday, so let’s talk about how its franchise has become something spectacular. Mind you, the latest edition, film number eight, reportedly carries a budget of $250 million and bills two Oscar winners. So when we say spectacular, we’re not being sarcastic. This Little Engine That Could is never going away.
FF is perhaps the only franchise to get great in the fifth installment. (No, the chronological rearrangement of Star Wars doesn’t count.) This franchise operates like most blockbusters don’t—no superheroes, wizards or Disney characters are attached—yet it continues to do so well as other would-be blockbusters fail. Why? Why does opening night of a Fast film feel like attending the Super Bowl—or more fairly, a professional wrestling match? Because every film is a two-hour amusement park ride blasting Top 40. And these films have no target audience; when you walk into a screening, seats are stacked with the most diverse crowds Hollywood can draw.
How do these movies, which The Onion says are written by a five-year-old, achieve this? The answer is simple: Fast and Furious tugs at the American spirit of accomplishing the impossible. The rotating cast of directors has found a way to make these movies emotional thrill rides that play equally with hubris and risk. There’s also a ton of cars doing ridiculous car stuff.
Historically, an action film’s success mirrors how well it captures the way Americans see themselves and the greater lives they aspire to. In Jurassic Park, humans played God, and they were punished for it. In Titanic, humans taunted God, and again, they were punished for it. More than that, the most superb blockbusters unrelated to fantasylands have capitalized on the conflicts of the everyman. Take Die Hard, for example. The common American (John McClane) actively sticks it to a suited-up elite (Hans Gruber) while wearing underwear and walking barefoot. The Fast franchise is no different.
Making a hero out of a nobody—from Bruce Willis to Leonardo DiCaprio—is American patriotism personified, and this is what FF excels at every damn time. When absurdity gets woven into the lives of characters that in some way represent you, you suddenly become unconcerned with the way a movie defies natural law. The most absurd films become blockbusters the moment audiences decide that defying natural law is more important than remembering the rules of reality. That’s why it took filmmakers five times to get Fast right.
In the original Fast and Furious, the stakes are too grounded and the conflict is too petty, motivated by a couple of sparring dudes. Then the filmmakers decided to embrace jumping the shark. Seven movies later, the movies’ working-class heroes aren’t rival gang members but part James Bond, part Avenger, flying through the skies and looking damn good while doing it. The evolution from practical conflict and suburban road wars in the first film to webbing through glass skyscrapers in sports cars in Fast 7 successfully detached viewers from reality, even if the film’s working class characters still seemed relatable.
By the way, let’s take a moment to revisit when Vin Diesel stood atop a windshield and used a high-speed collision with a guardrail to launch himself through the air and catch Michelle Rodriguez.
Or when Diesel defeated one of his enemies through perhaps the most impractical offensive measure ever.
Of course, these scenes will always annoy the most annoying of audience members. When these absurd scenes occur in other films (remember when Bryce Dallas Howard escaped a T-Rex’s claws in heels?), most of us laugh hysterically and ruin the mood. But at a Fast and Furious screening, you’re supposed to laugh. It’s encouraged. Ronda Rousey doing MMA in a sateen gown is ridiculous. The filmmakers make a point to normalize ridiculousness, thus allowing you to relish in the greatest reward of movie going: the freedom to throw out the rules.
But the Fast franchise is difficult to understand based on just the story and stunts. How is it that an action series retains both its audience and cast amidst so many emotional rides that are at once absurd and melodramatic? It’s because we all have a desire to be a member of that family. A diverse cast that represents the different faces of America represents a country where you can find a way to belong, no matter your background.
With one of the more diverse casts in movie franchises, it’s easy to see how these films are patriotic in a wholly optimistic sense. To this end, Paul Walker’s tragic passing proved just how much the Fast and Furious films became a symbol of family, rather than just a display of it.
When audiences bid farewell to Walker at the end of Fast 7, it was a heavy-handed moment. Charlie Puth’s “See You Again” has since become a Lite FM mainstay favored by soccer moms. Still, the series needed such a moment and song to make Walker’s legacy persist beyond the film. For viewers who have felt a part of Fast’s family, the moment was catharsis. By taking a chance to memorialize Walker in a fictional universe, FF merged its world with ours, reminding audiences to care these characters, the actors who play them and the entertainment they provide. The farewell made it seem all the more real that these movies honor the everyman.
For all of these reasons, the Fast franchise is high-octane American opera—an opera that subs out mezzo sopranos for the roars of Road Runners and fist fights, but an opera nonetheless. The rest of the story arc is almost the same as every opera: characters weathering betrayal and redemption, the imbalance of love and tragedy and wars between nemeses. And while FF might delight too much in consumerism, is there any better reflection of American society than that?
Despite that superficiality, Fast manages to provide average viewers a feeling of absurd, heroic companionship with the characters on screen—even as they take a semitruck to the head—and that deserves to be celebrated.