Shifting Gears, Making Marks

by Hanajun Chung

A few years ago, the film criticism and entertainment media received an eye- opener, written by Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Wesley Morris. Prior to the release of “Fast Five,” the former Boston Globe writer wrote a piece examining what seemed like a beautiful mistake by the “Fast and Furious” franchise that he titled, “Fast Forward”.

But here’s what he said in a nutshell: The “Fast and Furious” films have become one of — if not, the most racially progressive franchise in Hollywood.

Think about that for a second. A franchise ostensibly following a bunch of sexy drag racers- turned-international super thieves as an important franchise sounds silly at first. But when you consider the target audience (as Morris did), it makes complete sense. The franchise has been growing and unifying disparate elements under the unprejudiced love of automobiles. It doesn’t matter what race or ethnicity you are to these people, only what you drive — and in some cases, how well you drive. You can speculate about the dumb, idiotic mission of these characters, but you’ll be damn sure they’ll do it in the fastest cars out there.

I totally understand if these films aren’t your cup of tea, and I get it, movies aren’t cheap. On average, a ticket for a new release at a reputable theater costs about $12 dollars and to see a new release every week will add up. And who am I kidding, “Furious 7” won’t need anyone’s money, since it’s projected to make upwards of $90 million on its debut. But if you do go and see this film, just realize that your purchase does help send a message to the studio and audiences worldwide.

It’s actually an awesome thing to do, and here’s why:

Better action

Not only do these films show cars being driven and destroyed in fantastic fashion, but do so with the utmost clarity. On the big screen, there’s nothing better. Furthermore, when it comes to casting for certain action scenes, they don’t skimp. They’ve not only brought in some of the best female MMA fighters — Ronda Roussey and Gina Carano — but have looked east and worked with some of the today’s best, onscreen martial-artists from Indonesia and Thailand.

Done right, it’s an opportunity for future collaborations. Action fans who haven’t seen what Indonesia’s been doing lately are in for a fucking treat.

Better franchise

In this remake, franchise-infested climate, original stories are going to be tough to find. This is even harder for older franchises that are desperately trying to recapture that “Harry Potter” or “Twilight” magic (i.e. money).

The “Fast and Furious” films are going to make money. The reason is actually quite simple: fans love these actors and characters. The filmmakers are well aware of this, and the fact that Vin Diesel’s Dom Toretto is constantly preaching about their group being a “family” is not in the least accidental. But simply bringing those faces back isn’t enough to fill a standard running time, therefore the filmmakers have taken the characters and everything else that worked and toyed with different sub-genres.

Think of it this way, the first four films are like little origin stories for these characters, in which “Fast Five” (or part five) is “The Avengers” of this franchise in bringing all the separate characters together. But it’s also the heist film of the franchise. That’s why part six is essentially their version of a spy film. You see, bringing them all together is great and all, but they must do something. Or as the marketing team would eloquently put it: “New model. Original parts.”

The series did somewhat cut corners with some recent stunt casting, but if anyone did it the best, it was here. There’s a reason why other franchises are casting Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

Type in the term “Franchise Viagra” and see who’s face pops up.

The only other franchise that’s doing it right is the “Mission Impossible” series. While the ensemble groups that make up the new “Star Trek” and “The Avengers” are fun to see, I wouldn’t necessarily consider what they’re doing as culturally progressive, at least in terms of race. “Star Trek” and Gene Roddenberry were always sold on this idea of a progressive future, so the show and the film’s diversity honor an established legacy, but that is hardly fresh by today’s eyes. While everyone — myself included — loves “The Avengers,” its four white males are considered heroes while the women and their African-American leader are distrusting agents with their own agenda. Who knows, “Age of Ultron” might change everything, but we’ll just have to wait and see. Plus, the relationship between studios and fanboy culture have made it difficult for almost anyone major comic book adaptation.

Breaking the rules

In an interview with the Daily Beast, Michelle Rodriguez tells about how she almost quit the franchise after the first film, even after becoming an international hit. Her beef: they wanted her to be the love interest and let the boys have all the action. Threatening to quit, she fought for her character, even gaining the support from lead/co-star Vin Diesel. Five films later, not only does her character Letty have her own story arc while kicking a ton of ass, it also provided other female characters a similar route to follow. Most of the women in this series have a sense of agency, characters with goals, desires, and motivations. They might not get equal screen time, but that’s always an issue with ensembles: just know they’re far from neglected.

This next point is really personal, but I just can’t help admire the diverse cast. You might not realize it, but the late-Paul Walker’s Brian was probably the only white character in the core group, working with African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, and even Pacific Islanders not as
friends, not as colleagues, but (once again) family. That’s an important distinction, especially considering what happened after Walker’s tragic passing.

Speaking of Walker, hats off to the studio, cast, crew, and Walker’s family for signing off on featuring him in a film filled with death-defying vehicular mayhem. Studios rarely push films ahead an entire year unless it absolutely sucks and there’s no turning back (I’m looking at you, “Jupiter Ascending”). Since he died mid-filming, they had the opportunity to start from scratch, avoid controversy and play it safe. Realizing Walker’s legacy, they instead opted to take the year to refine the story and their production to make the proper sendoff, even bringing his brothers to fill in for some areas. Judging by Vin Diesel’s emotional press tour, it looks like they’ve achieved something special. I don’t blame him, he’s always referred to both Walker and his character
Brian as his brother.

Just remember…

There’s definitely a downside to this franchise winning. While we might get more adventures with these characters, Hollywood has proven itself dumb enough to catch onto the wrong thing.

Meaning, instead of getting films with better action or a diverse cast, we could just get really shitty and derivative racing or car movies. It’s already happened with the serviceable “Need for Speed” and, in the early-2000s, two failed attempts at refitting the formula in other areas (“Torque” or “Biker Boyz”).

While I personally love all the cast members, I always saw myself on screen with Sung-kang’s character Han. For the first time in forever, I saw an Asian-American male on screen with agency, personality, and a fucking love interest, arguably with the best female character in the franchise’s history. To avoid spoilers, I won’t mention the specific reason, but those characters are most likely not going to return in the newest film. That doesn’t stop the characters and filmmakers from honoring their absence.

But most importantly, you’re missing a great opportunity to spend awesome time at the theater. While Hollywood is going through an unusual period regarding exhibition and distribution, there are still some filmmakers and films that dedicate their production to the theater experience.

Most of those are planned for summer, but the first few days of April will probably provide one of the best, currently consistent blockbusters today.

Partly why I love these genre films (and action films: shameless plug) despite all their illogical, heightened worlds, characters, and stories is due to some underlying truth that can still be obtained with the experience. Just because something so insane happening onscreen was able to affect you doesn’t make you a moron. Far from it, you gave the filmmaker the greatest complement. You did the best possible thing in that moment. It may not be high art, but a lot of the time, it doesn’t need to be.

Sometimes, you just need to sit back and enjoy the ride.

This entry was published on February 2, 2015 at 7:35 am and is filed under Reviews. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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