In defense of the Blockbuster hit-series Fast and Furious and other movies of its ilk, my good friend Tommy Black, a film major at Baylor, has written my post for this week.
“Action movies are mindless and indulgent. They’re random explosions and pure chaos,” many have said. In some cases, this might be true. Certainly, Michael Bay movies as of late feel like a man yelling obscenities in your face at peak volume for two hours. But there is an art to action movies—an unnoticed skill that goes into making them—and legitimate ways to distinguish between the good and the bad. The last three Fast and Furious movies are among the good. They are joyously playful while still following a necessity in action storytelling: setting things up and paying them off.
The most successful moments in action movies often depend on paying off something set up earlier. The clearest example of this is in the intro to Raiders of the Lost Ark, where Indie traverses a number of booby traps and comes out seemingly unscathed, only to have to run back through the same traps, but this time with the whole structure collapsing around him. This scene works exceedingly well because it first creates an understanding in the audience of the “rules” of the scenario (the placement of the traps and how they work), then has the protagonist play out the scenario by the rules previously established, with a few twists and turns to spice it up. Completely random surprise is no fun for the audience, but to surprise by playing on previously established “rules” is a delight. A movie without these set-ups is like a board game with no instruction manual: it’s total nonsense.
Most movies explicitly place set-ups in the narrative for the audience to notice. They explain in Jurassic Park that the dinosaurs eat goats, so when a goat disappears, the audience immediately knows the T-Rex is near. What makes the Fast and Furious franchise special is that many of the set-ups are not part of the explicit narrative, but rather a part of the audience’s expectations of a Fast narrative and its characters. They are rooted in the “idea” of a Fast film, as well as the films themselves.
For example, Vin Diesel’s big, bald head is not given any particular importance within the narrative. But at the end of Fast 6, when his character takes out a bad guy with a glorious aerial headbutt, it works as a pay-off to the set-up of his head being so conspicuously bald. This works so well because the audience is most satisfied when they are incredibly surprised, but simultaneously aware that the moment makes complete sense given what has come before. So set-ups that don’t call attention to themselves (like Vin Diesel’s baldness), but pay off in a big way, are ideal.
The Fast films have reached a point where they can do almost anything, and it will have been set up by some expectation of the audience. They have inexplicably created a universe such that its observers will accept anything that happens within as plausible. There is a scene in Fast 7 that exemplifies the sneakily absurd nature of these films: Vin Diesel’s character, Dom, is being recruited for a mission to stop a terrorist from obtaining a super-hacking program by the leader of a top secret shadow organization in a room filled with futuristic computer monitors. Dom’s specialty is driving cars and stealing stuff. The first movie is a down-to-earth street racing movie where he steals DVD players. And now he is basically being called to save the world. On my first viewing, I didn’t even notice the absurdity of this scene until halfway through. I completely accepted that the street-racer from the first movie would be standing in that sci-fi room talking to an eye-patched secret-organization leader. Why did I accept this? Because the franchise has slowly and organically built up to this, sprinkling in moments of absurdity with increasing frequency. It has earned its absurdity by cultivating it throughout seven movies. No other franchise has the complete freedom to pull off such ridiculousness while maintaining the goodwill of the audience.
One might still say that this is mindless, because the possibilities are so endless that they can seemingly be pulled at random, but this is not so. The silly ideas are firmly rooted in a consistent movie-logic. Vin Diesel’s headbutt is glorious not because it is random, but because it is set up by his bald head. The Rock flexing his broken arm to break out of a cast is not random, but plausible because of the audience’s understanding of him as cartoonishly muscular. When Vin Diesel pulls out two huge wrenches to use as weapons in the final duel, it is completely unexpected, but it makes so much sense, because what else would a car-obsessed protagonist use as a weapon in these car-obsessed movies? Everything is so amazingly silly, but yet so completely satisfying because it pays off expectations the audience didn’t even know they had.
The Fast franchise is the ultimate cinematic playground, because it can give life to our wildest dreams, not to scoff at, but to delight in. Its plots are reminiscent of a child’s impromptu stories played out by a mishmash of various toys, but given structure and credence. In a cinematic climate of Nolan-esque grittiness and Bay-esque anonymous chaos, the Fast and Furious films stand out in their distinctive and exuberant playfulness.