Thursday, April 28, 2011

2 Fast 2 Furious — Retrospective Review

(In preparation for the release of Fast Five, I'm going to be rewatching and reviewing the two movies in the franchise that are on Netflix Watch Instantly, The Fast and the Furious and 2 Fast 2 Furious. Since these are the entries I remember next to nothing about, this works out perfectly.)

In contrast to The Fast and the Furious, it turns out that 2 Fast 2 Furious is actually better than I remembered it. Which isn't to say it even approaches goodness, but to my shock the two movies are actually pretty even, quality-wise — the first one was a bad movie I remembered as mediocre, this one is a bad movie I remembered as an abomination. How time distorts things.

I don't doubt that my sour impression at the time was in part a reaction to Vin Diesel's absence. Which is a bummer, don't get me wrong, but it's a much easier pill to swallow knowing that he would return for a cameo in Tokyo Drift and then again as a lead in the next two (or more) movies after that. It's funny that despite Paul Walker's Brian O'Conner technically being the first film's protagonist, this one still ends up feeling like a spin-off rather than a proper sequel simply due to the lack of Dominic Toretto, the franchise's iconic central figure.

The filmmakers attempt to fill the Diesel-sized hole with Tyrese Gibson as a new partner for Brian O'Conner (with Eva Mendes, Ludacris, and Devon Aoki standing in for the absent supporting cast of Jordana Brewster, Michelle Rodriguez, and Matt Schulze), but although Tyrese is likable enough as the brash and impulsive but ultimately goodhearted ex-criminal Roman Pearce and has decent chemistry with Walker, it's just not the same. Diesel is singular.

On the plot level, it's kind of doing the same damn thing as the last movie. Brian O'Conner is now an ex-cop, fired after the events of the first film, but that's only relevant for the first fifteen or so minutes (just long enough for him to get into a race through the curiously empty streets of nighttime Miami). Soon the cops bring him back in and send him undercover as a driver once again to infiltrate yet another criminal's crew and get to the heart of his illegal activities (with Tyrese's Roman Pearce joining in the undercover gig). The difference is that this time, rather than a lovable lughead and secondary hero, the sting target is the slimy, rich, vile and murderous Carter Verone, the movie's villain.

In this respect the film trumps the original. I mean, Carter Verone is just your typical cheeseball 80s action bad guy twenty years late to the party, but compared to the original film's Johnny Tran he may as well be Darth Vader. He actually has meaningful screentime and interactions with the protagonists and character traits. In one scene he tortures a guy by pinning a rat to the guy's stomach with a metal bucket then heating the bucket with a blowtorch so the rat has to chew through him to escape. That's some hardcore nasty shit!

The film is also better-paced than the original. If you'll recall, I griped that The Fast and the Furious goes out with a sad little whimper in its climactic action scene, a chase between two cars and two motorcycles. 2 Fast 2 Furious, on the other hand, comes to an appropriately big and noisy culmination in a scene with fifty-someodd cars leading cops on a chase and then Paul Walker and Tyrese jumping their car off a ramp onto a moving boat. I'm not saying any of this is great filmmaking by any stretch, but at least it isn't anticlimactic.

But the movie is much blander than the original in terms of personality and setting. While I may find drag races in quarter mile straight lines to be insanely boring, the first film still had a somewhat unique and entertaining flavor as a look into that culture and the competitiveness and family and sheer love of cars surrounding it. This one recaptures that just a little in its opening race sequence, but as soon as O'Conner and his new partner Roman take back up with the cops it just turns into a pretty straight Miami Vice riff, right down to the rich drug lord bad guy. There's that spin-off vibe again: lose Dominic and substantially up the cop movie feel and suddenly the spirit is missing.

The movie also suffers from overbadass syndrome. Of course, this franchise revolves around impossibly tough, impossibly cool, impossibly talented drivers, so some badassery is expected and required. But the first movie at least had Brian lose his initial race, one of Dom's crew get killed off, the botched truck heist sequence, and so on. All the rest of the movies have a mix of lost races, dead allies, and setbacks for our heroes. But in this one, Brian and Roman are basically having a great time infiltrating and bringing down Verone's operation, succeeding at every single task, suffering no loses or setbacks, and effortlessly overcoming every obstacle set in their way with grins on their faces.

In one early sequence where Verone has tryouts for his precision driving crew, Brian and Roman are not only miles ahead, but so confident in their victory that they're laughing and trying to one-up each other with fancy driving stunts along the way, such as Brian spinning around and tooling down the freeway in reverse. And there's no twist or anything either — they're just that much better than every other driver, and they win by miles, period. The movie pretty well maintains that tension-free tone for its entirety.

It's because of that flavorlessness and smugness, even more so than Toretto's absence, that 2 Fast 2 Furious is still the franchise's worst film, and not something I could recommend to anyone with a straight face unless they're marathoning the series as I am. But I'm man enough to admit that I had condemned it just a little too harshly over these last eight years. Having recently suffered through the likes of The Mechanic, I'm familiar with just how much worse an action movie can be. Reap the benefits of lowered standards, 2 Fast 2 Furious.

2 Stars out of 5

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