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Family: Fast/Furious, 2001-2017

What a long, strange ride it's been… and still some way to go: Watching and writing on the "Fast and the Furious" franchise for 16 years.
How can we not talk about family 
When family's all that we got?
—Wiz Khalifa (feat. Charlie Puth), See You Again
What a long, strange ride it's been… and still some way to go. As I write, the eighth film in the Fast/Furious series (FF) is still playing in thousands of cinemas worldwide. I won't concern myself here with the box-office performance of The Fate of the Furious—nor will I attempt synopsis of this or the previous installments—except to note that enough money was taken on opening-day alone to confirm we can expect the ninth and tenth in this prodigiously lucrative Universal franchise to hit our screens late spring or early summer, in 2019 and 2021.
Ideally the 10th—and, presuming Vin Diesel's September 2015 comment about "one last trilogy" is honored, final—picture should arrive exactly 20 years after Rob Cohen’s The Fast and the Furious bowed on 22nd June, 2001, introducing us to Diesel’s Dom Toretto, Paul Walker’s Brian O’Connor, Michelle Rodriguez’s Letty Ortiz, et al. And they should call it Fast X Furious.
This would symmetrically loop back to Racer X, Ken Li's May 1998 VIBE magazine article which officially inspired the first movie (“Rafael Estevez leads a new generation of fearless young racers burning up New York’s streets and racetracks in their tricked-out Japanese compacts. At dusk, they take over the road…”). And it would also adhere to with certain FF naming traditions: the producers' blithe disconcern with strict lexical sense (2 Fast 2 Furious, et cetera) amusingly parallels their screenwriters' exponentially increasing disconnect from the laws of physics and the dictates of plausibility.All entirely in keeping with this grand, unplanned, loopily rhizomatic Hollywood saga—running a total of something like 22 hours—that's currently around 80% complete, has cost $1bn to assemble, and taken around $5bn worldwide (both figures unadjusted for inflation).
FF has been “composed” pretty much ad hoc, mercifully free of the self-consciously mythological baggage of the unwieldy Star Wars nine-parter, the airlessly pre-planned arc of the Harry Potter octet, or those cunningly calculated and calibrated commercial crossovers of the Marvel Comics Universe.
With only the most nominal of "literary" sources in the very earliest days, FF is a bit of a souped-up jalopy, knocked together in fits and starts, its specifics guided more by public reactions—successful characters are retained, less impactful ones are quietly dropped after a single outing—than any kind of deliberate authorial scheme.
And, to use the car-racing metaphor which journalists/critics writing about the series have been duty-bound to deploy since FF flag-fall, the finish line is coming into sight. The specific contours of the road ahead remain a tantalizing mystery, but likely undulations and possible outcomes can be extrapolated with a reasonable degree of confidence given the stories so far and the dramatis personae haphazardly assembled over the past 16 years by the evolving off-screen team.  
All blokes, this 16… The producers: Neal H. Moritz [1–8], Diesel [4–8] Michael Fottrell [4–5 and 7–8], Chris Morgan [8] and Clayton Townsend [6]. The directors: Cohen, John Singleton [2] Justin Lin [3–6], James Wan [7] and F. Gary Gray [8]. The scriptwriters: Gary Scott Thompson [1–2], Erik Bergquist & David Ayer [1], Michael Brandt & Derek Haas [2], and Morgan [3–8]. This essay is dedicated to them; also to Zagreb-born costume-designer Sanja Milkovic Hays, who as far as I can ascertain exclusively shares with Moritz the distinction of having worked on all eight films to date. And, as Seattle-based critic extraordinaire and hardcore franchise-devotee Vern recently put it, “I would like to congratulate the universe on the existence of this great series.”
I can’t quite match Vern’s ardor, but I have seen all eight of the FF pictures, in cinemas, during their initial runs. But only once—no re-watching on any format. I have measured out my life with sweaty Vin Diesel tank-tops, one could say. From January 2000 to December 2009 I reviewed—with a small handful of exceptions—every film I saw, for the website Jigsaw Lounge, as a way of learning the film-critic ropes and developing journalistic-critical discipline. "It's a fair bet... that the producers just cobbled the whole thing together, hoping the action sequences would be enough to paper over their wider failings," I wrote about The Fast and the Furious on 16th September 2001, in a review which singled out Walker and his character Brian for particular opprobrium: “an insulting form of ‘audience surrogate’—it’s as if “we” (i.e. middle America) couldn’t possibly get into this high-octane nightworld without a straight-arrow WASP as our guide.”
My review reads in retrospect as an increasingly breathless billet-doux to the hapless dude he (amusingly) displaced in the gang, Matt Schulze’s "hulkingly beefy, bearded, tattooed grease-monkey Vince," Dom’s childhood pal, who was to disappear from proceedings until returning to die heroically in FF5 (he’s nevertheless glimpsable in FF6’s opening credits), his demise arguably the true pivotal moment when FF decisively left behind its street-tough origins and 'ascended' to Bond/Bourne stratospheres of silliness. I was even sniffier about the Dom-less FF2 (on 18th June 2003), regretting the lack of Schulze and Michelle Rodriguez (as Dom's girlfriend Letty), praising new arrivals Tyrese Gibson (as Roman Pearce, later firmly established as a goofily popular family-member) and the reliably fine veteran James Remar (a one-off as customs agent Markham), while noting that "Walker is no more charismatic or convincing than before."
The actor’s absence in series-outlier FF3 (Tokyo Drift) found predictable favor in my 27th June 2006 review, as I hailed new protagonist Sean Boswell and the way Lucas Black "holds this picture together with his genial brashness that never steers too close towards arrogant cockiness." The relatively disappointing box-office returns of FF3—whose slo-mo opening credits, cut to a Mos Def version of DJ Shadow’s Six Days, stand out arguably the series’ most stylish single sequence to date—doomed Boswell to a marginal, Lazenbyish role in FF history.
Amid much fanfare and after an eight-year gap, Dom and Brian re-teamed for FF4… only to be greeted on Jigsaw Lounge as "Paul 'Charisma Bypass' Walker and Vin 'poor man's Telly Savalas' Diesel," in a film which "seems less like a movie and more like an extended trailer for the inevitable tie-in video-game. There's ultimately very little here to detain audiences beyond the target demographic of excitable, easily-pleased teenage boys," I sniffed on 7th April 2009.
By the time FF5 rolled up in May 2011, I was no longer maintaining my "review-everything" policy, but nonetheless banged out eight quite lengthy paragraphs: "Familiarity breeds contentment - sort of," I began, going on to change my tune about Walker: "the decidedly weak link in the first two pictures—a white-bread putz glaringly out of place among an exotic, ethnically diverse galaxy of glowering badasses (male and female) —has... finally grown into his role and here essays a reasonably convincing portrayal of a street-toughened (if essentially decent and sympathetic action-guy.)”
Indeed, my "review" of FF6 (belatedly written in early 2014 for UK magazine Behind the Green Door) was in fact nothing of the sort, instead confined to passing comments in a Walker obituary, “White Bread Blues,” penned in the wake of his car-crash death at 40: "we got to know and even like O’Connor, watch [Walker] gain stature and a relatively believable tough-guy edge...
“For a franchise that started off in such scrappily opportunistic terms, and which struggled to click into proper gear for so long, it's bizarre that we can now expect the seventh installment to add an element of somberness, even perhaps tragic grandeur, to what was previously a noisily crowd-pleasing combination of thrills, dudes, babes and thick-ear comedy. But these pictures have, for some time, followed no compass but their own, barreling ahead towards the horizon and slowly but inexorably gaining their weird momentum."
Perhaps the ultimate bromantic weepie, FF7 eventually arrived in spring 2015—and this time I was on the franchise’s home turf to see it. I'd seen FF1, FF2 and FF4 at press-screenings in northeast England (the first on 35mm at the MetroCentre in Gateshead on 10th September 2001, of all days), the remainder at public shows in my hometown of Sunderland—where I saw FF8 on opening day a few weeks ago.
For Estevez, it’s not the contest between racers that really matters but the abstract dialogue between the soul of a racer and his machine. Oddly, the makeshift dash cluttered with gauges — telling him everything from water pressure to fuel mixture — is missing one key thing: a speedometer. There’s a good reason. “When you know how fast you’re going,” says Estevez, punching the throttle again, “you’ll slow down.”
Ken Li, Racer X
The author at the crash site. Photo by Mike Ott.
I happened to be in California, however, on April 2, 2015, FF7's very first day, and sat in a back row of the ArcLight in Pasadena, my $15.75 ticket-stub in my pocket, my handkerchief at the ready for the inevitable final-reel outpouring of "manly" tears—they duly came in buckets, prompted by the montage of Brian O'Connor highlights and the closing skyborne dedication 'for Paul.'). Some 20 hours earlier I'd paid solemn respects at the spot in a business-park in Valencia, California—Hercules St, inches away from its invisible frontier with Constellation Road—where Walker met his spectacular demise on November 30, 2013.
In short, then, I can certainly be considered an FF fan—but only to a certain extent, and never without reservations. None of the first eight films have made it into to a year-end top ten; those reviews of I, II and IV were, as previously discussed, lukewarm. I was keener on FF3, FF5 and FF7, and then keener still on FF6 (“Somehow fitting that Hollywood's unlikeliest franchise should need half a dozen tries to locate proper gear,” 12th June 2013) and FF8. Both of the latter scraped into category of pictures I would recommend paying to see in cinemas—but even then, only to those familiar with all of the previous episodes in the series. 
Because, while the lunk-headed, haphazard, often telenovela-like plotting of the FF films—all of them, notwithstanding the poignancy of Paul Walker's death, enjoyably escapist nonsense to various degrees—means critics routinely assure newcomers that they will be able follow proceedings regardless of where they enter, I do believe the only way to properly experience FF is to have seen them all, in sequence, in cinemas, on their initial release (and ideally with paying audiences—on this score even Ifall short). Binge-watching in some big-screen marathon over the course of a weekend would jarringly telescope proceedings down into a rapid-fire, blunderbussing overkill. 
This one-by-one-over-a-decade-and-a-half approach—during which each viewer, of course, ages in approximate tandem with the characters—meant I spent seven years wondering if/when/how Black’s Boswell would intersect with the main, U.S.-based crew. Similarly, there was the crazily protracted "suspense" of mulling over if/when/how FF would address the weird chronological disjoint whereby—as a result of the popularity of Sang Kung's unflappable Han (who had earlier been seen in Lin's non-FF 2002 feature Better Luck Tomorrow!)—FF3 actually takes place after FF4 and FF5 and is roughly contemporary with FF6
So while I have "only" spent 16 hours actually watching FF so far, I've actually been connected to this parallel reality—Vern calls it the ‘Fastiverse’—for nearly as many years.The interweavings between the various films and the relationships between the various characters may not be profound or even all that interesting in and of themselves—no-one could ever discern the complexity of a novel-sequence like Proust’s or Anthony Powell’s, things having been so merrily cobbled together on the hoof. But they do obviously exist, and they sustain FF diehards much more than the promise of slam-bang setpieces—which, in the last four outings since Dwayne Johnson's DEA officer Hobbs (a.k.a. “'Samoan Thor”) joined the fun, have been something of a silly, spicy pill that one has little choice but to swallow.
I generally strongly disagree with Manny Farber's dictum that "Evaluation is practically worthless for a critic. Criticism has nothing to do with hierarchies." But in this, as in other aspects, FF is a notable exception to the rule. Assessing the 'merit' of each individual film is now a somewhat fruitless exercise—this is a franchise which has been jumping sharks of exponentially increasing sizes with exponentially increasing gleeful abandon since the street-racing business gave way to post-Vince shenanigans in FF5.
What matters is the fact that we've been in this zone for so very long—a decade and a half, and counting. The "family" is what sustains FF, that sacred subject which the characters—especially Dom—are continually (and notoriously) banging on about. Family is a sacred but tantalizingly amorphous entity around these parts: much more a matter of friendship/camaraderie/esprit de corps forged and solidified in extreme situations than biological considerations. Effortlessly multi-racial on both sides of the camera (as ‘Vern’ has noted, Cohen remains the only Caucasian to have directed an installment), FF offers—like professional sports—an alternative reality into which we can all, if we so choose, segue. 
The ride will be too noisy, too corporate for many—and even die-hard followers have been exasperated by some developments on- and off-screen, some of them seemingly of trivial importance to non-aficionados (the widely-derided and seemingly inexplicable switching of crew house-beer from Corona to InBev stablemate Budweiser in FF8, for example).
The most baffling 'twist' was the matter of Lin departing from the director's seat (and thus the "family") after FF6, four films into his tenure, just when he was really hitting his stride. "Changing drivers while accelerating induces wobbly steering," I tweeted at the time, with the caveat that the "series [is] now cemented as blue-collar Mission Impossible."
More ideologically worrying: the gradual transition of Dom’s gang, under Brian’s sly influence, from a proudly outlaw rabble to a group relatively happy—under specific circumstances—to work with the representatives of law-enforcement (Hobbs, from FF5 onward), or even for an arm of government (Kurt Russell's Frank Petty, a.k.a. Mr. Nobody, from FF7).
Even casual observers, meanwhile, picked up on the way Deckard Shaw (the effortlessly superlative Jason Statham, so much better served here than in the Expendables series) ended up being cheerily welcomed into the fold—despite his having cold-bloodedly offed well-established "family" member and fan favorite Han at the end of FF6 (reprised near the start of FF7), the death around which the weird chronological loop of FF awkwardly rotates. Then again, this latter is surely the easiest of "betrayals" to swallow, so irresistibly does Statham almost single-handedly energize the whole Fastiverse at this late-in-the-game stage when one might have expected it to succumb to heat-death.
The prospect of expanded screen-time in FF9 for “Decks” and his better-looking kid-brother Owen—Luke Evans, a suavely urbane villain in FF5, fleetingly returning for a surprise, rock-the-house cameo in FF8—alongside Helen Mirren as their Cockney-matriarch ma Magdalene, plus whichever slumming heavyweight (McShane? Finney? Connery?!) they cast as their dad, is more than enough to ensure I'll once again be among the first in line for FF9. Not that there could be any real chance of my bailing out all this way down the line: you don't turn your back on family, as we know.

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