COVID-19 is strong, but not as strong as family

Images courtesy Universal Pictures.

3/10 F9: The Fast Saga parks itself in a completely incomparable place in movie history. With a $70 million debut followed by a $29.1 million performance over the long Independence Day weekend, it is this movie that christens the post-pandemic era of the U.S. box office, not Black Widow, which released with a same-day streaming option, not Godzilla vs Kong in March, and certainly not Tenet, which attempted to spur a new wave of releases in September and failed. This is a once-in-a-lifetime – hopefully – flash photo of how we conceive of blockbusters at this point in history, both the movie that kick-started the box office after a year of dormancy and, more importantly, the franchise that was counted on to do it.

There’s no uncertainty about it anymore: this is what we want from movies now.

In F9: The Fast Saga, Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel) returns from retirement for the fifth time to deal with the surfacing of Jakob Toretto (John Cena), Dom’s estranged younger brother whom he blames for killing their father in 1989. Other characters from prior installments are also here. There are cars and minefields and magnets. There’s a disassembled world-ending device that Jakob Toretto is after, and some of the lads go to space at one point.

Why is it spelled Jakub? Dude’s from Los Angeles.

The demarcation point for this series will always been the famous/infamous bank vault heist in Fast Five which shifted the series’ focus from machismo contests between small-time thieves to a big, crazy Hot Wheels fever dream, turning off many old fans but capturing many more new ones. The sequence never seems to get credit for how great it is. It was put together over a series of months and done mostly with practical effects, and the chaos is shot in such a way that it’s always clear what’s going on. The defiance of physics is limited to the power those cars are capable of producing, the stuff with the actual bank vault is real – it’d have to be, they actually did the stunts with prop bank vaults.

That’s the level of quality that’s slowly been dripping out of the franchise since. The stunts have gotten, if anything, more ridiculous, and practical stunts have been phased out for increasingly awkward and obvious rear-screen and wirework. Where the key effect of the bank vault scene is to convince viewers what’s happening is possible, subsequent action sequences don’t just look poorly performed, they look impossible, like cars or entire parking lots suddenly bursting into the Looney Tunes world to drag themselves a few meters to the correct position. The funniest part is they always frame the benefitting characters as cool, as if they planned on warping reality to make this happen. There’s also no build-up anymore, and the movies usually open with scenes of this scale.

In F9, we see cars avoid mines by doing 80 mph on wilderness, one car apparently flying over a collapsing rope bridge and another seem to reach out with its tire to grab one of the bridge’s remaining ropes to catapult itself over the chasm – these lowlights are all in the first action sequence and mostly in the trailers. It looks like a Wile E. Coyote sequence eerily materializing into an otherwise live-action movie, sort of a reverse of the old “hanging in mid-air” gag. Imagining this sequence is fine, but the execution elements to weld this fantasy into something visually believable, to bring it to life in the literal way that movies must, just aren’t there. The thought process seems to be that audiences will accept anything, and the movie as a whole seems to be for viewers who will accept anything.

Over at Marvel Studios, we know that action scenes are drawn out years in advance and typically done by second units outside the control of an individual installment’s director – this is a big part of what makes the series so uniform, but also a consistent weakness because the style they insist on maintaining is pretty bad. It would make a lot of sense for something similar to be going on in the Fast and Furious world, fitting the scale of production and the piecemeal nature of these movies and explaining the general de-evolution in attention to detail in these scenes.

F9 dips further into Toretto’s seemingly endless supply of black ’70s Dodge Chargers, which are both in perfect condition and fitted with a super-charged aftermarket engine and death-proofing.

Fast Five also brought in WWE icon Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson as one of many enemies who exist only to join Toretto’s “family” at the end of the film. With Johnson and Diesel clashing so badly they can’t even share a set, Johnson has been given spinoffs, and they’ve brought in another WWE icon, Cena, to replace him.

When you assume the Fast/Furious movies are aimed mostly at and structured to please WWE fans, a lot of things start to make sense. Wrestling features a cast of characters who are mostly beloved for their backstories – on the mat, they’re mostly limited to turns between hero and villain, a transition featured at some point in most Fast/Furious installments. The excitement is laced into who will appear and what their alignment will be, and fans are content to enjoy the fake-looking action and weird soap-opera plot points and ignore the behind-the-scenes personnel moves that would make all of the on-stage drama completely predictable.

The Fast/Furious franchise has a similar approach to its characters. Since the excitement is all about following Toretto’s “family,” no one can simply be absent, every roster change must be explained in detail in-universe, and since there was never an overarching story in the first place, the franchise builds its stories out of this dynamic. When Michelle Rodriguez didn’t want to come back for early sequels, her character is killed off, but when she wanted to come back after the franchise became a reliable $1 billion meal ticket, her death was faked and she has amnesia. When Gal Gadot ditched the franchise after getting the Wonder Woman contract, her character wildly sacrifices herself in her last movie’s climax. When Sung Kang also ditched because he didn’t get to be Gadot’s love interest anymore, they also build a full movie out of his character’s death, and now that he’s wandered back for F9, his death was also faked and he’s been in hiding all this time. Series lead Paul Walker’s untimely death likely helped make his last film, Furious 7, into the dramatic success it was – his character was given a literal drive into the sunset and is insistantly referred to as still being alive in subsequent movies.

It’s to the point that I feel kind of bad for Sung Kang. He looks so bored in every scene.

As the movies get more successful and more former “family” members sign back onto the gravy train, the movies become more and more stuffed with returning characters they brazenly have no idea what to do with. This is most obvious in the roles of Tej Parker (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges), Roman Pierce (Tyrese Gibson), who entered the franchise as supporting characters way back when these were crime dramas with plots, and Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel), who was introduced to the franchise to hang out with and sexualize Parker and Pierce. The trio is often siloed into what appears to be their own secondary movie – in F9, it’s to spend 20 minutes or so wondering out loud if they’re all invincible immortals.

This lack of direction with returning characters is stark against the characters who actually do have a plot, in this case the Toretto brothers – really, this movie could have just been them and a bunch of extras. Their family drama is played out in flashbacks with Vinnie Bennett and Finn Cole as younger versions of the brothers, which climaxes when Diesel takes his younger self’s place to confront the memories his father’s flaws he’d been ignoring and the blame he’s heaped onto his brother for them. It’s a moving, evocative moment of reconciling a personal narrative with a painful reality, when F9’s general lack of quality suddenly falls away into sublime storytelling.

Comparing this again to the MCU, this dynamic clearly doesn’t exist when there’s an actual story to be told – several Marvel characters have been recast during the series’ run, and nobody seems to care, you mostly don’t see deaths and amnesia written into the plot to cover for expiring contracts, but that’s changing. As main actors who are really identified with their roles start leaving, we’re seeing those sort of personnel-driven plot points become more frequent as well, and recent movies and media have been nakedly focused on introducing as many new characters as possible for spinoff material. Tenet got around this dynamic by mostly not having characters at all.

Image courtesy Warner Bros.

Watching F9: The Fast Saga, I find myself thinking of Tenet often, usually just listing all the ways it’s a fundamentally better film. It completely laps F9, with a more ambitious time-bending hook and much greater effort put into the execution, using reversed footage and sound effects, the actual mechanics of filmmaking, to make the impossible look real. I don’t have to build the imaginative premise out with my own imagination because the filmmakers actually brought it to life.

By all rights it should have been Tenet, not F9, that brought viewers back to theaters. That never would have worked out in September 2020, four months before vaccine distribution began, but the fact is, Fast/Furious movies do much better than non-franchise, auteur-driven filmmaking like Tenet. These are reliable billion-dollar movies at this point, and F9 has an outside chance of becoming the first one in a post-COVID world.

F9: The Fast Saga is as stark a picture as has ever been taken of what modern moviegoers want, and it’s tough to look at. It’s about the memory of enjoying past installments and laying pipe for future ones, not enjoying what’s in front of you. It’s about the text of the plot, not the texture of how well it’s brought to life. It’s about as many characters appearing as possible, not about what and whether they do anything. A Fast/Furious movie wouldn’t disappoint its audience by spending too much time on nostalgia or staging its action scenes lazily, that’s what the viewers are here for. It would be bad because it didn’t bring enough characters back, regardless of whatever their role in the plot would be, and because the action isn’t outrageous enough, regardless of whether or not it’s executed well.

How do you measure a movie made for an audience that doesn’t care about movies and by filmmakers who understand that? How do you grade the use of filmmaking tools when the barometers for success are all in the title and the cast? To put it in Fast/Furious terms, how do you look under the hood of a car to check on its engine when you know it’s only valued for its paint job?

I don’t have a solution for this. All I can do is wish someone sees the next one as more than just a meal ticket.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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