Going into what should be Furious 7’s third straight week at no. 1, I wanted to jot something down about the first Fast and the Furious movie. A big part of how this series has stayed fresh is through stunts that are constantly escalating. From destroying Rio with a bank vault to engaging a tank to jumping one of the most expensive cars in the world through the Etihad Towers, the series’ stunts are constantly ramping up and they’re all real and they’re all thrilling and they all miss the point. The final scene of the first Fast and the Furious movie is simply one of the best action climaxes of all time, and it’s got nothing to do with the stunt itself.
The scene is simple — an emotionally charged drag race between Brian O’Connor (Paul Walker) and Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel). But in context, there is so much more going on than that. Watching the movie again, we see a constant conflict between O’Connor and Toretto, and not because O’Connor is an undercover cop and doing his sister. The pair are in a constant struggle about who is more masculine, all of which is buildup to the climax.
In their first interaction, O’Connor has gotten into a fight with Toretto’s childhood friend Vince (Matt Schulze). Toretto steps in and tells O’Connor not to come around anymore. In their second, O’Connor shows up unannounced at one of Toretto’s street races and muscles his way in, gambling his car against cash, saying if he wins he’ll get the respect, and they have their first drag race. Here, the shot tracks directly from Toretto’s foot on the gas through his car’s interior and into the engine, as if it were a part of his own body. There’s a similar shot later in the sequence when O’Connor triggers his car’s boost engines.
These shots create an important association — the cars are physical extensions of their drivers. This association lasts all the way through the movie, and turns what should be an engineering competition into an actual and conclusive pissing contest. The snarly, physically imposing Toretto doesn’t win because he has the stronger car, he wins because he has the stronger personality. It’s implied that he constantly wins these street races, and he is clearly viewed as the alpha male among his peers. This also supports the notion that what’s going on is less about racing and more about the personalities involved.
After the street race, O’Connor saves Toretto from some cops and their interactions become more frequent. In the next scene, Toretto takes the beers from two of his cohorts who didn’t save them, keeps one for himself and gives the other to O’Connor. In a later scene, O’Connor tries to bully Toretto into letting him into the crime operation he’s assigned to infiltrate. Then, after O’Connor blows his cover and helps Toretto avenge himself on a secondary antagonist, he pursues him to a stoplight and we have this scene:
Almost every interaction between the characters involves some sort of emasculation or proof of greater masculinity, and it all comes to a head here. It’s not about the action, it’s about what’s going on between the characters! It’s about these two guys who have been trying to out-macho each other all movie finally having it out in a high-stakes game of chicken, and even that doesn’t solve anything. It takes a garbage truck coming out of nowhere to advance the plot, and their conflict isn’t resolved until a sequel that came out eight years later. But in this sequence, even that doesn’t matter. Underneath all the butt shots and techno music, there’s a powerful emotional story here about love, loyalty and betrayal, honor among thieves and the nature of right and wrong, and all those themes come together for this scene.
That confluence is made possible by caring about both sides of the conflict. In many films, there is a clear good guy and bad guy, but many of the best films feature protagonists and antagonists who both demand sympathy and attention. Toretto is a professional criminal, but he’s always been trying to take care of his family. O’Connor is on the side of the law, but even he is conflicted about this when he falls for Mia Toretto (Jordana Brewster).
The rest of the series copped out by putting them on the same team, and even adding another law enforcement agency who’s representative also joins them. Many series also cop out about this in good and bad ways.
The best is Pirates of the Caribbean, which features a clear protagonist in Will Turner, a clear antagonist in Hector Barbossa and a zany mid-tagonist in Captain Jack Sparrow, who is in conflict with both of them at various points in the film. The sequels reintroduce this trio and several other characters, all of whom are interesting and bear their own motivations. There is so much conflict in this series — the first three, at least — it gets to the point that the third movie was criticized for having two many characters fighting too many different battles. This “I don’t understand it so it must be bad” argument wasn’t isolated, but a frequent criticism for that movie.
It’s easy to see why The Fast and the Furious ended the popular characters’ conflict and turned into a simple action series, but the sequels have no where near the emotional impact of the first film for this reason.