Fasts and Furiouses 2: Drag Racing for Justice!

So when we last left those fast, furious, or a combination of the two, Brian O’Connor (Paul Walker) had (presumably) thrown away his law enforcement career in order to allow Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel) to escape, rather than arresting him and his surviving associates for stealing a bunch of televisions in the most unnecessarily dangerous manner possible. I mean, I assume the one guy from the crew got arrested, the one who needed medical evac after getting shot by the trucker they were trying to rob.

It was like if somebody was asked to sum up Point Break in fifty words, so they got the basic plot points, but had to leave out at the details and motivation.

Now, Vin Diesel had moved on to XXX, and was thinking his career was 2 hot, 2 lucrative (see what I did there?) to be doing sequels. Paul Walker was under no such illusions. So when Universal came calling for more furious fasting, he was game.

Let’s look at how he did.

(Think I might skip the live commentary from here, it doesn’t make much sense if you’re not watching along)

Brian’s back

We open with a Miami street race, because of course we do. Where was the movie going to start, a complicated chess game? Actually, we begin with the Universal logo as some sort of hydraulic bouncing rim. And this people prefer to Scott Pilgrim’s 8-bit Universal logo. Where’s the alternate universe where MY movie tastes win out?

Anyway racing. Through this we meet Ludacris’ Tej, who will be important later in the franchise, and Devon Aoki’s Suki, who sadly will not. She’s here to play a less hostile version of Michelle Rodriguez’ Letty from the first film: drive well, look good, don’t wear too much, be acceptably badass (though less than Letty, because she’s not involved in crimes worse than street racing).

Brian didn’t just leave the LAPD after his, objectively speaking, disastrous undercover operation against the Toretto gang. In fact, he’s a wanted fugitive for just how badly he bungled it. But we don’t learn that until after an opening race that, in this movie’s defense, is more exciting than basically any car-based action setpiece in the first movie. It has tight corners, four combatants, and a raised bridge, whereas only two out of seven of the first movie’s car scenes even had turns.

So it seems clear that going into the sequel they decided “If this franchise is about pimped-out import cars being used in dynamic ways, maybe we should put any effort at all into that.” F&F1’s drag races were deemed 2 short, 2 simple (Boom!), so this time we have a little more action than “Two people drive straight, one of them does it faster.”

Anyhoo, Brian gets arrested post-race, only to be greeted by literally the only other actor from the first movie they could talk into this: Agent Bilkins, the FBI agent who was a dick to him. Seems Bilkins has changed his tune since last we saw him, as he wants Brian’s help with another undercover operation. They need a wheelman to go undercover with a drug trader, and he thinks Brian’s the man for the job.

Which… why? Why, though? Did he forget everything that happened? Because it seems to me that based on the events of F&F1 Brian O’Connor is woefully unqualified for this job. He lost his only street race so badly that he broke the car, and when he managed to infiltrate the gang anyway he ended up siding with the criminals. Why would you trust your high-end drug money sting to a disgraced former officer with a history of being bad at his cover story and letting criminals escape? I don’t know, maybe he’s realized that he was kind of a jerk to Brian last time. Maybe he beat cancer or something between movies, developed a new outlook on life, and became a believer in second chances. Whatever the reason, he’s Brian’s new best friend, offering to clean up his record if he does this job. But’s a two man job, and Brian’s quick to dismiss the Customs officer they intend to partner him with, pointing out how ill-equipped he is to blend in.

Brian O’Conner says this. The man who blended in with the LA street racing community about as well as Donald Trump at a Black Lives Matter rally is telling someone they can’t pull off an undercover role. But okay, that’s fine, it gets us moving towards the plot… because there’s only one man that Brian can think of to partner with: his old friend Dominic Toretto Roman Pearce (Tyrese Gibson).

Not Vin

For the bulk of this movie it was impossible for me to see Roman as anything but a quickly-written substitute for Dom Toretto. Turns out Universal commissioned two scripts: one with Dom and one without. And it’s really clear that they only did some minor tweaks for the “Vin’s out” script. Because it’s hard to believe they thought “And for this version we’ll have a completely new character, who also has trouble with the law, who also feels betrayed by Brian because of it, and who also happens to be a world-class street racer.” Well, okay, Brian’s better, and that probably wasn’t in the “Vin’s in” version.

Regardless, Roman brings us to what someone decided was the next step for the Fasts and Furiouses. Last time around, the thing that bonded Brian and Dom (other than mutual affection for Dom’s sister Mia) was their mutual dislike for the even-worse bad guy Johnny Tran. Dom and his crew were the bad guys, sure, but Tran and his crew were the BAD bad guys, and teaming up to get him justified Brian letting Dom escape.

In theory.

Also, let’s remember, Dom was stealing and fencing low-end electronics and not even killing people. He wasn’t exactly Alec Trevelyan.

But Tran was sort of tacked on to the main plot. This time, the plan was clearly to abandon “will Brian betray Dom” and just have Dom Roman and Brian team up against an Even Worse Bad Guy in the form of drug trafficker Carter Verone.  A criminal 2 mean, 2 nasty (okay, I’ll stop) for Brian to be seduced by the lifestyle.

There is, however, someone else who might have that problem.

Let’s have a woman, I guess?

Eva Mendes turns up as an undercover Customs agent, key to recruiting Brian. Somehow. And let’s get this out of the way: she is given even less to do than Michelle Rodriguez was in F&F1. Devon Aoki has more to do in this movie, and after the first race she mostly just stands next to Tej looking pretty. (Which she excels at but that’s not the point.)

Eva first appears at Brian’s big race at the beginning of the movie. Brian spots her in the crowd after his big win in a moment so infused with significance that I had to assume they knew each other.

They did not.

No, he just happened to lock eyes with the one person out to recruit him for a redemption quest. Sure, okay, if that’s… yes, I get it, Eva Mendes is pretty spectacularly attractive, but this was in a crowd filled with great-looking women in skimpier outfits standing next to racing cars.

There is just an endless supply of good looking women willing to dress sexy and hang around street races in these movies. I picked the wrong hobbies, I tell you what.

Anyway, she’s their inside woman, the person getting Brian and Roman close to Verone. The problem is, she herself is a little uncomfortably close to Verone, leading Roman to suspect she’s compromised. Brian disagrees, because she’s a fine looking woman, and if F&F1 teaches us anything, it’s that dangle a fine looking woman in front of Brian, and he not only won’t believe she’s up to anything, he’s probably looking for a way to help her brother escape the law.

So we’ve got an ex-cop with a history of going native while undercover; his ex-con buddy who hates everyone he sees with a badge; an inside woman who appears to be literally sleeping with the enemy; and a senior Customs officer so convinced Brian and Roman can’t be trusted that he almost blows their cover 15 minutes into the operation.

I changed my mind. I think Agent Bilkins is just trying to get fired.

Overall thoughts?

Not as bad as I expected. Not good, but not as bad as I expected.

First of all, having Brian and Roman team up to bring down worse criminals is, I’ll admit, the jump-off point for the world-travelling terrorist-battling mega-franchise this becomes. It’s like the American Dr. Who pilot: yes, it’s bad, but contains a prototype version of a lot of what makes the franchise good down the road.

A friend and I had a long-term argument back in 2005 regarding the ill-advised sequel to XXX. John was convinced that XXX: State of the Union could not, as I claimed, be a step down from the first XXX, because XXX was way too stupid to be superior to anything, even its own sequel. However, based on my own observations and the box office for the Ice Cube-led State of the Union, I feel I was correct. It was possible to be worse than XXX. I say this as context for my next sentence, which otherwise would seem like a nonsense statement to many people.

The movie does suffer from Vin Diesel’s absence.

Walker and Gibson are a little 2 bland, 2 unengaging (I lied about stopping) to carry the movie. Walker is still capping out as a slightly better version of Keanu Reeves in Point Break. It took an hour of movie before I saw Roman as anything other than a jive-talking Dom clone, because that’s how long it took for his and Brian’s backstory to have any sort of traction. Until then, it was simply a rapper working his way through Vin Diesel’s story beats. Brian says “bro” about 50 million times in this movie, and every time it sounds about as natural as it would coming out of Dick Cheney.

They did their best to up the car-based action (to the point of having the final boss fight be simply landing a car on his boat… you heard… and then shooting him once in the shoulder) but there’s still way more closeups of speedometers and gear shifting than actually exciting visuals. That’s what turned me against this franchise when I was running it at the Moviedome: 2 Fast 2 Furious had a lot of gear-shifting, while two hour Mini Cooper advertisement The Italian Job just showed cars driving super fast.

On the one hand, there are the seeds for the F&F franchise-to-be. On the other, there are also a lot of reasons why maybe it should have been put down. The only thing that separates it from any other fairly generic action movie is the street racing and weird surplus of customized racing cars. And if I had to name a strength of this movie, all the street-racing (and in one case jetskis) ka foofaraw wouldn’t be it.

Actually if I had to name a strength of this movie I’d claim to need the washroom and sneak out of the window.

It… kind of has a story, I guess? I just finished it a few hours ago and I’m having trouble naming what it was about. What the struggles were, what the arcs were. They had a job, the bad guy proved (extensively) he was bad, and then they foiled him and the movie was over. I don’t know what else I expected, but it’s starting to feel even more hollow than F&F1.

Very much a film franchise that would need redemption just as much as the careers of its original stars. But first, they had to go Tokyo Drifting.

Random thoughts

  • Ludacris starts out with an afro that would put half the cast of a 70s blacksploitation movie to shame, then ends up with cornrows the next time we see him. Who told him that was okay?
  • I wondered why Brian’s racing car in the first scene was British, all steering wheel on the right. Turns out that was actually Paul Walker’s car. He was huge into street racing and actually a skilled driver. He even did some of his own driving stunts. Respect. (Reminder: yes, he died in a car accident, but no, he wasn’t driving)
  • Brian still fits in around mostly POC street racers about as well Carrot Top at a TED talk.
  • In the second big driving action scene, neither lead is wearing a seatbelt. They are driving OBSCENELY fast. SEATBELTS, PEOPLE.
  • I don’t know that I’ve seen as many tricked-out import cars in my life as seem to be wandering around Miami. Although I suppose I’ve never been to Miami.
  • Racing for pink slips remains a key plot point. I mean, eventually they have to face enemies who can’t be defeated by drag racing, right?
  • Another repeated plot trick: have the BAD bad guys torture somebody in front of Brian. The difference is a) the torture’s WAY worse this time, and b) the BAD bad guys aren’t some tacked on bonus characters there to create a bond between Brian and the LESS bad bad guys.

See you next time, as the studio pins its hopes to the franchise name being enough of a draw to not need its stars.

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