Fast and Furious
A review of Justin Lin's Fast and Furious, in theatres now.
Saturday, 2009-04-11 | Film, Social Studies
Director Justin Lin's fourth instalment in the The Fast and the Furious franchise is a truly remarkable movie.
Or, rather, perhaps it would be better to say that it is a movie that demonstrates a remarkable sense of timing and self-awareness: in a given year, any number of screenwriters and movie directors will be said to have their fingers on the proverbial "pulse", but writer Chris Morgan (whose credits include the non-starter b-action vehicle for Jessica Biel, Cellular and 2008's widely panned Wanted) and Justin Lin have really and truly done something remarkable here.
To wit: they have generated very respectable box office numbers (F&F; enjoyed a nearly $73 million opening weekend) by creating a movie that encapsulates the social and economic tensions of their time. And generally speaking, when an intensely topical movie is released to the megaplexes (if it even makes it that far), it tanks.
Morgan and Lin, however, have succeeded wildly at the megaplex by releasing an unabashedly pro-automobile film during the midst of an economic crisis that has caused widespread resentment for the automobile industry and inspired some to make personal death threats against captains of the automobile industry.
More remarkable still is the fact that this movie's theatrical release not only coincides with a high visibility media clash between those in favor of same-sex marriage and those who are opposed1, but, takes a side in the issue and makes no compromises in the defense of its political and social agenda.
In fact, if I had to put a name to the politics of the film, I would say that Fast and Furious is not so much "outspokenly pro-gay" as it is "inherently anti-hetero". Furthermore, I would maintain that it makes some sense to call the movie "pro-gay", if only in a negative sense (i.e. in the sense that it is so against the one thing that it is, by default, very much in favor of the other thing), and even if there are no scenes in the theatrical release depicting homosexual acts.
I should also say that, whatever the politics, I had an awesome time watching this movie. In the aggressive and unrelenting scorn and abuse it heaps upon heterosexual values and behaviors, this film takes a hard line against heterosexuality and, to be honest, as a heterosexual, I found this to be very engaging and more than just a little bit thrilling.
It is not every day, after all, that a white American male in his late 20's has to deal with anything approaching discrimination or intolerance.
Generally speaking, the worst thing that happens is that you maybe get cursed out by a couple of skullies in mega-corp logo jackets on the train. Or maybe a scrunch-faced old Vietnamese makes a point of treating you like you've got to be some kind of retarded. Or the fifth-wave womens' libbers at the cocktail party overhear something about when and for whom a door ought to be held and decide to burn you in effigy.2
The point is that in this movie, there are few points at which some sort of overt or implicit vilification or calumny is not heaped upon heterosexuality. And to sit and have your heterosexual preference scorned as unapologetically as this movie scorns it, to return to my original point, is genuinely remarkable.
That said, this anti-hetero film never turns both barrels on men (even straight men): the worst scorn in the script is reserved for women, especially the sort of women who meddle in masculine love relationships. The misogyny in Fast and Furious is of the variety that one often hears from militant, angry gay men (the type who contemptuously refer to heterosexuals as "breeders" and would sooner change a colostomy bag with their teeth than so much as look at a vagina) and, as such, can be fairly bracing in some scenes.
The film has three female characters. Michelle Rodriguez plays in the film as the "love interest" of one of the the film's two protagonists, Dominic (Vin Diesel). She plays only briefly, however, because she is murdered execution-style for attempting to contend manfully, as Diesel later does, against the film's antagonist. The narrative is thin here, but the implication is clear: if a woman attempts to save a man from trouble or to act manfully in the face of adversity, she will die, face down on the ground, with a bullet in her (addled) brain.
Another of the film's female characters, one played by Gal Gadot, is a perfidious, fundamentally untrustworthy agent of the cartel whose duplicitous nature is reflected in her treachery and her outward appearance (i.e. in her provocative dress). "Gisele", who is clearly named after the supermodel in another of the film's not-so-subtle attacks on the idea that female beauty is anything but a snare or a vice, consistently attempts to seduce the stalwart Vin Diesel and is consistently rebuffed.
At one point, Gisele even goes so far as to ask Dominic if he even likes girls to begin with. When Gisele asks him if he likes girls or just cars (wink wink, nod nod), for the sake of keeping his cover, Dominic responds with the ambiguous, "I appreciate a fine body, regardless of make" and attempts to deflect her sexual advances by hinting at bisexuality.
It's a weird scene. Complex. The kind of thing that inspires film students to write long, tedious papers about the thousands of directions in which the implication and innuendo cut.
The film's other female character, played by Jordana Brewster, is allowed to live on account of the fact that she is relentlessly de-sexualized. In nearly every scene in which she appears, Brewster plays the "mother" figure to the film's male protagonists: in one scene she makes them say grace before feeding them dinner, in another, she carries groceries, in a third, she mends a wound, etc.
In the scene where it is implied (but not shown, for reasons that, I hope, are becoming obvious) that she engages in heterosexual sex with the film's other male lead, Paul Walker, a scant five or six seconds of halting, awkward open-mouthed kissing fade abruptly into the next scene. That's as close as Fast and Furious ever gets to a positive portrayal of heterosexuality or women.
It also bears mentioning that the relationship between Brewster and Walker is illicit: Brewster plays Diesel's sister and, in a scene where she pleads with Walker to stop pursuing a relationship with her, she tells him (and us) in no uncertain terms that his romantic advances in her direction are directly responsible for the dissolution of her family.
Women are used in this movie to demonstrate the inherent weakness and incapability of women, as in the case of Rodriguez' character, or to demonstrate that a woman's sexuality is more like a weapon: dangerous in the wrong hands, even more dangerous in the right hands. Brewster demonstrates that a woman's proper role is a maternal one. The regrettable straight sex exchanges required to facilitate this noble end are quickly glossed.3
Its (mis)treatment of women is really just one manifestation of the film's pervasive anti-heterosexual messaging, but I dwell on it because it is this film's coda: it permeates every interaction and informs nearly every exchange, including the central man-on-man antagonism.
Dominic's nemesis in the film is a a muscular black man called "Fenix" (Laz Alonso) whose scarred face, silver incisor, neck tattoos and mohawk are meant to contrast vividly with Diesel's hairless body, impossibly smooth, pale skin and flawless teeth. When the two first meet, Fenix and Dominic are in the employ of the film's primary protagonist when Dominic asks what Fenix considers an impertinent or disrespectful question. Fenix then suggests that Dominic ought to take a submissive role and simply do as he is told by the man who is their superior. Dominic, predictably, insists that he will be submissive to their superior, but that he will be dominant over Fenix.
The goal of the scene is so unsophisticated that unpacking it further would be gratuitous. Most noteworthy in this very primal wrangling is not the sexual innuendo, but the eros that animates the exchange: Fenix and Dominic come face to face and their lips very nearly touch as the encounter turns from a playfully violent one into a dangerously physical one as two prowess-obsessed men jockey for Alpha male status.
This pattern of dominance play constantly threatening to turn overtly sexual continues throughout the film--the tension and the innuendo build synergistically--until, finally, upon dispatching his foe (by crashing a car into him), Dom's impromptu eulogy for Fenix brings the disparate threads together:
"Pussy," he sneers.
And misogyny is the coda: the character whose role in the film is to be ugly where Vin Diesel is beautiful and submissive where Diesel is dominant is disrespected ultimately and dismissed finally as a "pussy", as female, as lacking the fierce masculinity that the film's heroes all have in common.
The film's antagonist is, in the moment of his final defeat, symbolically consonant with female genitals which, it bears mentioning, are only mentioned this one time in the film and in such a way that they are meant to epitomize male weakness and failure.
Everyone should see this film. It's long and can be a bit tedious at times4 but is definitely worth seeing in the theatre.
- I am referring, of course, to the recent flap over the "National Organization for Marriage" and their recently released and highly controversial anti-gay ad spot called "Gathering Storm". In "Storm", actors portray persons of faith who are troubled by the idea that the legalization of same-sex marriage will require them to compromise their religious or moral principles in order to accommodate the new social order that they argue will be brought about by legalizing gay marriage.
- i.e. treat you to an earful of catty, anxiously half-baked nu-feminism.
- And you don't need me to tell you that it's something between a running joke and an article of faith in contemporary American culture that gay men are fanatics their mothers.
- The action set pieces, which are generally slow-moving and uninspired, compared to a more professional piece of contemporary action such as Casino Royale, still work to the movie's ultimate benefit, if only for the fact that they provide viewers with ample time to reflect on the implications and political agenda of the film's dialogue parts.