As humans, we can’t help but approach new things with a certain degree of prejudice. It’s an immediate, unconscious reflex – when we see something new, our brains immediately evaluate it so that we have some way of understanding it, even if that understanding is flawed. This phenomenon is as true of our approach to movies as it is to anything else. As much as we idealize the purity of going into a movie without pre-existing expectations, the fact is that never actually happens. If you’ve seen a single trailer, poster, or even know the title of the movie prior to going in, you’ve already made judgements about it. Judgements as simple as “hey, that looks good!” or “ugh, I can’t stand science fiction movies” or “wow, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a remarkably terrible title for a movie.”
I say all this not to make some hackneyed point about not judging a book by its cover, because it’s impossible not to do so. The problem comes, though, when you are unwilling to be wrong about that judgement.
I LOVE the Fast & Furious movies. I love the characters, I love the action, I love the earnest silliness, I love it all. These are movies that place just as much value in the familial bonds of its main cast as it does in its preposterous action, and the result is a series of movies that are as warm and endearing as they are energetic and exciting. It’s a series where a family barbecue can be just as compelling as a fight on an airplane as it careens down an impossibly long runway. The trouble, though, is that’s not what these films look like from the outside.
Two years ago, if you had asked me to describe the Fast & Furious movies, I would have told you that they were dumb movies about meatheads racing cars, and that I had no interest in ever sitting through that kind of garbage. I’m not what you would call a “car person” – I own a car purely out of practicality and have little understanding and less interest in what’s going on under the hood. It was clear to me that these were movies that were not only not aimed at me, but were also bad. I was as opposed to giving these movies a shot two years ago as many of you probably are now. Later that year, however, things changed. First, I had made a commitment to go out and see one new release movie every weekend, and as the release of Furious 6 loomed on the horizon, I knew I’d probably end up going to see it. Then, to my complete shock, I started to hear good things about the movie! Intrigued, I asked around to see how many of the previous films I needed to see in order to be brought up to speed, and the overwhelming consensus was “all of them.”
“Nonsense!” I sneered, “this series can’t possibly be so intricate that I have to watch all five of the previous movies to get what’s going on.” After some wailing and gnashing of teeth, though, I begrudgingly went for it. One by one, I went through these films, and at first, all my assumptions seemed to be justified. I did not enjoy The Fast and the Furious and severely disliked 2 Fast 2 Furious, but as I continued things started to shift. I wasn’t really into the car racing story in Tokyo Drift, but there were other layers there that interested me. Han was a cool character, and the arc of the movie was resonant in a way that nothing in the first two films were. After that Fast & Furious brought back the cast of the first movie, but with a level of craft that was completely absent from the original. Finally, I sat down to watch Fast Five and everything changed. Characters I hadn’t cared about in the previous four movies suddenly meant something to me, and the film itself was highly invested in them. There was humor and heart in the story that caught me completely by surprise, and the audacious, willful disregard for realism in the film’s action scenes thrilled me to no end. The movie ends with our heroes stealing a vault filled with cash by hooking it up to towlines on a pair of cars and dragging it through Rio de Janeiro while they’re pursued by the police! What’s not to love? Not only that, but the movie is followed by Furious 6 which doubles down on the miraculous nature of Fast Five with even more absurdly wonderful stunts and joyful interactions between this weird patchwork family assembled from the casts of the previous films.
The most amazing thing, though, is how these later movies elevate the earlier ones. I came very close to hating 2 Fast 2 Furious on my initial viewing, but after growing fond of Brian and Roman in Fast Five and Furious 6, I can go back and enjoy an earlier adventure with these characters I love. I wasn’t a huge fan of Tokyo Drift the first time through, but now I absolutely adore it. I’m now smitten with this series in a way that I would have found inconceivable just a few years back.
Earlier I described my assumptions about this series as “dumb movies about meatheads racing cars,” and while that is technically true, it also couldn’t be more wrong. Yes, these movies are dumb, but they’re dumb in the most genuine, endearing ways. They’re not ironic, intentionally bad nonsense like Sharknado, but rather they’re films that wear their silliness and sentimentality on their sleeves. Dom crashes his car into a barricade on a freeway so that he can launch himself through the air to rescue a loved one. Yes, it’s dumb, and it’s silly, but it’s also so sweet and so charming. It’s the reason why the tribute to Paul Walker at the end of the most recent film, which breaks the fourth wall in a way that is so corny and so on the nose, has left people sobbing in movie theaters across the world. It’s the sort of thing that shouldn’t work, but in a series where emotion is far more valuable currency than logic, it plays perfectly.
It also helps that, starting with Tokyo Drift these movies have had really strong directors. Both Justin Lin and James Wan do a phenomenal job directing action, and as a result are able to take absurd scenarios and craft them in to action scenes that rival the best of all time. These may be dumb movies, but they’re made by smart people.
All of this – all of the ways the Fast & Furious films flew in the face of everything I ever assumed about them has made me a better movie fan. It’s an experience that has taught me greatness can be found in even the most unlikely places, and that even though something may appear on the surface to be entirely unappealing, it can go on to surprise you in the most profound of ways. It’s easy to sit in a place of smug superiority, to look at things that don’t fit into your carefully constructed box of what a “good film” looks like and turn up your nose. It’s easy to look at the success of something you think looks bad and say that audiences are just dumb animals, lapping up whatever garbage is placed in front of theme. All of these things are easy, but they’re also myopic and dishonest. It takes far more courage and far more honesty to find out what all the fuss is about and run the risk of being wrong in your earlier assumptions. You may not always be surprised, but if you’re open to it, falling in love with something completely unexpected is one of the most exciting things in the world. That’s what I found in the Fast & Furious movies, and who knows, maybe you will too.