An outsider’s take on the ‘Fast’ saga: ‘Fast & Furious’ (2009) (Movie review)

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hrough the end of May, I’m looking back at the nine movies of the “Fast & Furious” franchise, watching most of them for the first time. Next up is the fourth movie, “Fast & Furious” (2009):

STRENGTHS

After their good but safe “Tokyo Drift,” franchise shepherds Justin Lin (director) and Chris Morgan (writer) reinvent the saga as good ole American action-movie muscle. The scope widens beyond one city and the action sequences get bigger as our antiheroes pursue a heroin lord in both L.A. and Mexico. The strained relationship between Brian (Paul Walker, much improved from “2 Fast 2 Furious”) and Dom (Vin Diesel) rings true, and there’s a sheen of competence and clout to the FBI investigation, unlike in previous films.

What if Brian had killed an innocent pedestrian or driver in this race? It’s basically pure luck that he doesn’t.

WEAKNESSES

Although less stupid than “2F2F,” “F&F4” still leans more toward dumb than smart. This fourth film may be the point where the saga makes a leap forward in quality, but still, it ain’t exactly “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol.” But the writers seem to forget their characters aren’t IMF agents. The villain hires Dom, one of the FBI’s most wanted, and Brian, an FBI agent, to his heroin-smuggling driver team. Why wouldn’t a background check reveal their identities?

COOLEST CHARACTER

Letty (Michelle Rodriguez). Although she’s only showcased in the opening oil-tanker-heist sequence, Rodriguez is almost always the coolest cat in the frame. She’s neck-and-neck with Diesel for that title, and I picked Dom for the first movie, so now it’s Letty’s turn.

WOMEN’S ROLE

“F&F4” is a man’s movie. Dom’s motivation is revenge for the death of his girlfriend Letty, who we later learn took a deadly undercover assignment in an attempt to give Dom a clean legal record. Brian buries the hatchet with Mia (Jordana Brewster) and starts something up with her again. Gisele (Gal Gadot), a middlewoman in the villain’s organization, fails to capture the fancy of Dom. The least man-focused female character is FBI analyst Trinh (Liza Lapira). Lapira plays these types of roles a lot, but it’s always nice to see her.

VILLAIN

Campos/Braga (John Ortiz). Veteran character actor Ortiz is the best villain of the saga so far simply because he’s a good actor and Braga’s multi-billion-dollar heroin operation is competently run. While the “street race to find one more driver” sequence is dumb, Braga is relatively smart, notably when he uses a decoy at a handoff.

TOO GOOD FOR THIS MOVIE

Gal Gadot as Gisele. Gadot would later become Wonder Woman, making the fact that she has a supporting role in the “F&F” franchise rather funny in retrospect. But everyone has to start somewhere.

MOST THRILLING SEQUENCE

The heroes and villains zip through a smuggling tunnel that runs under the U.S.-Mexico border. Sometimes it’s wide enough for two cars, sometimes not. I gotta give these films credit: They’re still coming up with types of races we haven’t seen before.

THAT’S RIDICULOUS

Crime lord Braga needs to recruit one more speed racer, so we get a race event complete with sexy car girls that’s run within thick L.A. traffic. Granted, the villain of “2 Fast 2 Furious” also held such an event, but at least it was somewhat on the down-low. Furthermore, what if Brian had killed an innocent pedestrian or driver in this race? It’s basically pure luck that he doesn’t.

The four racers zip through the border tunnel to get the heroin from Mexico to the U.S. Each of them have one case of heroin in their trunk. Why not put a couple cases in the backseat too? Would the extra weight cut into their need for speed?

All of this “If you do this job, we’ll clear your record” stuff is absurd. To the film’s credit, it knows this, and Dom gets sentenced to 25 years in prison at the end even though he did the good deed of taking down a drug lord. That leads to another absurdity, though: Brian (presumably) springs Dom from a prison transfer bus in a closing teaser for future films.

CHEESIEST DIALOGUE

Gisele: “Are you one of those boys who prefers cars to women?”

Dom: “I’m one of those boys who appreciates a fine body, regardless of the make.”

FAMILY VALUES

One hundred percent of Dom’s motivation here is revenge in the name of his lost love, Letty. Mia’s purpose is to worry about losing her brother, Dom, and boyfriend, Brian, to the family business of jobs that involve dangerous highway stunts (although she also participates sometimes). Dom finally is OK with Brian by the story’s end, and the feeling seems to be mutual as Brian teams up with Mia to spring him from that prison bus.

FINAL THOUGHTS/EXPECTATIONS

The template of “antiheroes take on bad guys, barely operating within the law” is crystalized here, with exciting action on top of it. This plot was also found in “2F2F,” but without Dom and these next-level stunts and effects. I expect the group might be operating entirely outside the law next time. If Brian is somehow still working for law enforcement after springing Dom from the prison bus, then I’ll have to re-examine the “F&F” saga as an outright statement on the moral corruption of U.S. federal agencies.

Schedule of reviews:

Saturday, May 16: “The Fast and the Furious” (2001)

Sunday, May 17: “2 Fast 2 Furious” (2003)

Wednesday, May 20: “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift” (2006)

Thursday, May 21: “Fast & Furious” (2009)

Saturday, May 23: “Fast Five” (2011)

Sunday, May 24: “Fast & Furious 6” (2013)

Wednesday, May 27: “Furious 7” (2015)

Thursday, May 28: “The Fate of the Furious” (2017)

Saturday, May 30: “Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw” (2019)