Sunday, 2 August 2015

Fastidious And Furious: The Strange And Unwavering Lexicon Of A Franchise | Feature

Soon after Paul Walker's untimely death in 2013 I decided that I could no longer put off watching the Fast And Furious films. As a critic, there are just some films you file under "Will Watch Eventually", and to be honest, I never got tachycardia over the thought of drag races and drifting. But it's ok, I thought, this would give me a chance to watch all the films in succession - concluding with the then recently released sixth instalment. It would, in my mind, give me an experience akin to travelling across the US East-to-West coast, witnessing how the States have developed over time, revealing its own personal narrative. As it turned out, it wasn't until earlier this month when I finally sat down to watch them, and by this time, another episode - Furious 7, Walker's final film - had been added to the line-up. And on completing the marathon (7 films in 7 days), it occurred to me that the Fast And Furious franchise operates under a set of strictly delineated attributes, which bizarrely, while often being diametrically opposed, still tumble, roll, and spin into a coherent, watchable whole. It's not high art, and I'd be lying if I thought that the films appealed to anything other than a pretty slight demographic, but the films - particularly the later additions - pretty much succeed despite, or because of their conflicting ambitions.

On the one hand, we have F&F's unrelenting commitment to bonnets and booty. There's so much chrome, flesh, and hip-hop woven liberally throughout the seven films it's a bit like Xzibit doing Pimp My Ride on Pornhub. You're never sure where to look. But so charismatic are the films' two leads - Vin Diesel and Paul Walker - that you never quite buy their comfort in that kind of world. You get their appetite for the kinetic thrill and gang camaraderie, but it's all a like little sitting outside McDonalds when you were 15. But then on the other hand, for all F&F's superficial, slightly chauvinistic MTV lustre, there are the culturally diverse set of fairly robust female characters that put most films of its ilk to shame; the Spanish Elsa Pataky, the Israeli Gal Gadot, the Cuban Eva Mendes, the Italian Gina Carano, and the Latin American Michelle Rodriguez. And even though globe-spanning locales are now a staple of the kinds of films that feature these kind of impossible missions, the franchise has never been too obsessed in bedding down in US cities. And while I'm at it, given the average Hollywood demographic's disdain for subtitles, isn't it something of a marvel that Fast Five's Big Bad - drug lord Hernan Reyes - as well as two Puerto Rican members of the heist team - Leo and Santos - are subtitled?

But there's no denying what the franchise eventually became; nominally, just another super-hero movie. I'm not quite sure where along in the narrative our team added super-spy abilities to their engineering and driving skills (ok, so Brian O'Conner's always been FBI, and I guess, at a push, Toretto's no stranger to brawling), but suddenly we're once more in territory where the protagonists can experience the most bone-crunching damage and emerge unscathed. Yet for all its artifice and the characters' comic-book resilience to fear and pain, Toretto in particular keeps banging on about the importance and virtue of family and kinship. In Hollywood's messed up misogyny we've become used to seeing female characters espouse the necessity for the loyalty of home, but to see it coming from the oft-sleeveless Vin Diesel is jarring, and not a little bit affecting. All of which emotional familial foundation-laying pays off at Furious 7's ending, where the gang opt to leave Walker's O'Conner to live out his days with Toretto's sister Mia and their kid - an elegant solution to life's cruel inelegance. But Toretto and O'Conner still have one last mountainous road-race to complete, before the pair peel off in different directions. Sure, the weight of real-life tragedy gives the scene its poetry, but it's also entirely consistent with the Fast and Furious mantra. It's an epic, sweeping gesture, cinematic and elaborate, but beyond all that, deep down, harbouring real soul.