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'Watching the entire Fast and the Furious franchise convinced me it's film's greatest celebration of male friendship'

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In preparation for The Fate of the Furious, Sam Diss went back and watched the first seven films to see what he could learn about burning rubber and questionable physics, but what he found went much, much deeper than that…

In 2003 I sat in the middle of a multiplex in the Romford Brewery shopping centre’s newly refurbished Vue cinema surrounded by my entire school year on a lazy, late summer school trip and ate a box of salted popcorn with a bunch of Revels dumped-in, as blue, red, and green lights flashed over me and the sounds of Ludacris and comically souped-up engines thundered about the room.

The year 2003 was strange: the death of the Concorde, the siege of Baghdad, an all-Italian Champions League final where boredom bordered on transcendental. It also had the best summer in music history: ‘Where is the Love?’ by Black Eyed Peas, Beyonce and Sean Paul's ‘Baby Boy’, ‘Frontin'’ by Pharrell, ‘In Da Club’ by 50 Cent, Blu Cantrell and Sean Paul's ‘Breathe’, ‘Right Thurr’ by Chingy, ‘Get Busy’ by Sean Paul, ‘Like Glue’ by Sean Paul, ‘I’m Still in Love with You’ by Sean Paul. It was the perfect soundtrack for my first brush with alcohol – a bottle of Glen’s vodka tipped, haphazardly, into a litre of Blue Bolt energy drink on the top deck of the 252 bus – and my first brush with romance – more specifically, when a girl brushed her boob onto my hand and then stared me down, after seeing that I was very deathly afraid of girls. And 2 Fast 2 Furious.

As a twelve-year-old boy in Essex, 2 Fast 2 Furious was the only movie that existed. Its opening scene – a CGI-laden whip around a glistening Miami, with effects that somehow hold up to this day – feels like snorting an Andre-the-Giant’s-finger-thick line of smelling salts, leaving you snapped back in your seat covered in Sprite and chocolatey-popcorn. It is so loud that you can feel your teeth shaking. The action on screen bears so little resemblance to reality that it feels like you’re in space – only they’re driving cars! Like what that guy next door drives! Loud ones that scream off in the middle of the night in the approximate direction of Southend. Your dad hates him. You love it. Like bodybuilding, the cars in these films play on the idea of a physical body taken to its illogical extreme, with the car under-lit by glowing neon strips, like Greek gods on an alien Olympus. Despite being five years away from even taking a single driving lesson, it was a very important time in our lives.

We left the cinema making screeching car noises, shouting “MOVE BITCH, GET OUT THE WAY” and talking about Nitrous Oxide like we invented it. Warring factions of schoolboys were brought together by the love of the chase, the race, and Tyrese punching out the window of an already unlocked car. I went home and liberated a fiver from my birthday stash and bought a copy of Rev from the local corner shop, my pre-pubescent face submerged in the lurid pond of exhausts and bodykits and questionable sub-editing for the next few days solid.

The Fast & Furious franchise is about cars. It’s made $3.9billion dollars off seven films about cars with the eighth – The Fate of the Furious – poised to ten-second dash the series much closer to $5 billion. A car features on all of the posters. Both the “fast” and the “furious” elements the franchise name refers to cars. But really, it’s not about cars at all.

In the fourth film, Fast & Furious (the second worst in the series after the third movie, Tokyo Drift), Dom says: “We talkin’… or we racin’?” And that’s the moment in the franchise I realised it’s not about racin’ at all. This is a movie about talkin’… and about feelin’.

To use the term only wheeled out by people who studied film and like to bore people about Quentin Tarantino at parties: in the universe of Fast & Furious, cars are a McGuffin. If you don’t know what a McGuffin is, I envy you: it’s a cinematic device introduced almost exclusively to drive the plot forward (LIKE A CAR DOES!).

The films have only gotten McGuffinier as the series has grown and mutated into a film about family. Like the cars pneumatically-dragged from the side of a speeding train at the start of Fast Five, this was not a subtle change: the word “family” is frequently thrown around in the series’ dialogue.

"You don't turn your back on family,” says Vin Diesel’s Dominic Toretto in Fast and Furious 6, voice something biblical and angry, like a great storm felling trees. “Even when they do."

“The most important thing in life,” says Dom in Furious 7, voice like a bomb dropped onto one trillion lions, “will always be family.”

“I don’t have friends,” says Dom in Furious 7 again, voice like someone trying to Nutribullet a pallet of metal screws. “I got family.”

And while the properly ridiculous (but great) Fate of the Furious takes the word “family” and batters you over the head with it by including it in every single line of dialogue, Furious 7 was truly the apex of the franchise’s familiness, owing, in no small part, to the tragic real-life loss of co-star Paul Walker before the film’s release. It was even more tragic for its irony, a man whose stoic, some-might’ve-said-wooden resolve was an oasis of calm in a screeching banshee of a car racing movie, dying in a car crash. Contrary to most action series, where the concept of the original twists and mutates into something hollow, something sticky to the touch, an exercise in cold-hearted commerce with performances now approximations of archetypes delivered with all the enthusiasm of an especially hungover civil servant, the Fast & Furious films manage to get more and more cohesive.

After the loss of Walker, it needed it more than ever: watched with knowledge of his death, the unit gets stronger, the bond between the cast set for life, the films taking on an oddly melancholic edge, even when Dom is driving a supercar through an Emirati skyscraper. The benefits of tropical locations, huge budgets, and Vin Diesel’s boundless optimism no doubt help when it comes to holding a large cast like this together, and even when a new personality like The Rock is introduced, it doesn’t slow things down. The series’ sheer lifespan actually seems to make the team stronger, coming together in solidarity amid the apparent on-set disagreements between Diesel and Rock. Like the “I’m Spartacus” finale of 2 Fast 2 Furious, where all of the state of Florida’s street-racers burst from a giant car park like a punctured cockroach nest, the world of Fast & Furious is all for one and one for all. This is a world of black and white. Family and enemies. First and last. The fast and the furious.

“Doesn’t matter if you win by an inch or a mile,” says Dom in the first movie. “Winning’s winning.”

When 7’s finale finally comes at the end of a breathless two hours in Los Angeles, Abu Dhabi, and Azerbaijan, Dom and the gang watch Brian and his wife playing with their little boy on the beach, and Dom gets up to leave.

“Aren’t you gonna say goodbye?” asks Michelle Rodriguez’s Letty Ortiz.

Dom looks to the surf, at the family at peace playing in the water, his own head now baked-bean’d by age, softened, its muscularity leading directly down into his neck, speeding past a jawline disappearing like red-lights in the rear-view. “It’s never goodbye,” he says.

Even Charlie Puth on the soundtrack can’t ruin this beautiful moment.

He catches up with Brian at a crossroads to reminisce about the good times and say, if not goodbye, then at least farewell, before the two friends, in the middle of a desert, drive their separate ways into the same horizon... that’s when it gets you: the overwhelming tide of sadness sweeping you over and under. I defy anyone to watch the end of that movie and not regress into a fetal state. This is a movie about cars (but not really about cars) and I am crying.

In the new movie, in its opening scene, Dom turns to an inconsequential Cuban baddie and says: “It’s not what’s under the hood that counts… It’s who’s behind the wheel.” before destroying him in a race that, even in this movie universe, ranks among its most unbelievable (and awesome).

On paper, the dialogue can all feel like the stuff of passive-aggressive Instagram quote cards (and, indeed, lines are often pilfered from the mouth of Dom and pasted over a picture of some mountains to make a vague snide remark about a cousin who didn’t attend a certain birthday or christening) but the chemistry between the cast makes it feel alive. It makes you believe their saccharine bullshit like you believe that two men can jump off a speeding convertible sports car as it careens off a Brazilian bridge before it hits the water. And the toxic masculinity these films are often accused of? Like speed cameras, seatbelts, and stops for petrol, it seems to barely exist in this universe; even with The Rock and Jason Statham rock-ing and statham-ing around the place screaming and doing back-breakers on people, it all comes from a place of love and respect.

When the Fast gang are robbing $100million from drug barons and taking down cyber terrorists or fending off car-tsunamis and stealing nuclear weapons – it’s never about the money. Even when they’re robbing money. Sometimes ESPECIALLY when they’re robbing or winning money, it’s not about the money: it’s about respect, but more than that, it’s about the unit. It’s about the family.

In Fast and Furious 6, when Dom and an amnesiac Letty are forced to race (stay with me), Dom says: “Ride or die, remember?” And truly, what is life if not a ride? And what are family if not passengers, occasionally annoying, but always there to make sure nobody falls asleep at the wheel.

Everything in this film is sincere, everything is meant and felt. In a culture that fetishises the lone-wolf, the maverick, the gang of Dom, Brian, Roman, Letty, Mia, and Tej – who is literally a tech genius extraordinaire played by Ludacris – are always, unshakably, together. Problems are addressed. Even when the new film’s poster claims “Family no more”, it shows Diesel and The Rock, knowing that nobody would ever believe he could truly turn his back on the gang proper. Fights are had. Nothing is bottled up to explode in the way so many men are dangerously prone to. Here, on this strip of tarmac that has run and run and run for 16 years now, teams are teams and family will always be family.

Follow Sam on Twitter, @SamDiss

[Main Image: Rex]

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