Even guys who can’t parallel park seem to appreciate the vague, retro masculinity at the heart of the gearhead franchise.
Who's your daddy? Vin Diesel, obviously.
I don't know how to change the oil in my car. My wife drives our 1995 Toyota Camry almost everywhere, and she sure as hell parallel parks when it comes to that. Yet I've almost unintentionally seen every one of the half-dozen Fast & Furious films released between 2001 and 2013. Statistically speaking, many of the ticket buyers to this nearly billion-dollar-box-office franchise must fall a lot closer to me on the alpha male spectrum than they do to Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) or Brian O'Connor (Paul Walker), the chest-thumping, gearhead street racers at the heart of most of the Fast & Furious movies. That disparity may very well be the key to the films’ appeal.
Portrayed by Diesel and Walker (who makes his final appearance in the franchise following his death in a single-car accident) with brooding muscle-bound method intensity, these are our “Men with No Name” for the new millennium—near-blank canvases onto which we paint our ideas of what it used to mean to be a man. “Used to” being the operative phrase, as to strive for manliness of the tersely scripted, action-flick variety is to be borne back ceaselessly into the past, chasing an elusive green light through world wars, back to the revolutionaries, the settlers, the cavemen, Kubrick's unevolved Moon Watcher brutally clubbing the desert dirt. But what, if anything, does all this male “fury” signify?
“Hey Dom, what do you remember about your father?” Brian asks in Fast Five, in one of the rare lines of dialogue that isn't technical jargon being yelled over a revved-up engine. After patiently waiting for Dom to finish describing a near caricature of the dedicated family man, Brian gets to the point. “I don't remember shit about my dad. I don't remember him yelling, I don't remember him smiling. To be honest with you, I don't even remember what the hell he looked like. … He was just never there.” In the absence of a male role model, Brian, as well as the rest of the team/“family” has clearly appointed Dom the father they wish they had.
Describing what he respects so much about Dom in 2009's Fast & Furious (that the franchise’s comic-book-complicated storyline continuity and anarchic approach to naming its sequels can be alienating to the uninitiated probably only adds to the franchise’s appeal to obsessive fans), Brian says, “What I've learned from Dom is that nothing really matters unless you have a code.” Mia (Jordana Brewster), probably intrigued to be talking about something besides engine blocks for once, asks, “And what's your code Brian?” He replies: “I’m working on it.”
Maybe he is, and maybe he isn't. In the grand tradition of the testosterone-soaked action flick, we learn about these men—female characters like Mia and Michelle Rodriguez’s Letty see plenty of action, but even less character development than their love interests—only from watching them at work. Considering this work almost exclusively consists of spinning steering wheels, stomping pedals, and mashing that all-important NOS button to activate the factory-installed deus-ex-machina feature, we can hardly blame Brian for not piecing together a more coherent moral code from observing Dom over the course of oh-so-many movies.
Despite claiming to remember “everything” about his father, Dom is not much clearer than Brian on what it means to be a man. At least he seems to have inherited his dad’s rabid devotion to “family” (in this case, the refreshingly diverse revolving cast of characters that makes up Dom's team). The plot of Fast & Furious 6, for example, hinges on him putting everyone and everything at risk because an untrusted rival shows him a single picture of an ex-teammate believed to be dead and Dom can't resist the urge to “make his family whole.” The equally aggressive form of religious devotion he remembers in his father—who would barbecue every Sunday afternoon for the whole neighborhood but refuse to feed anyone who didn't attend church—manifests itself more mildly in Dom, who merely insists that whoever reaches for the food first say grace. Other than those vague guideposts, however, Dom seems to be mostly pulling levers and pushing buttons while hoping for the best, a copy of a copy of a copy becoming less and less defined even as the resolution improves. (A criticism that could be leveled at the film franchise as a whole.)
Dom's most cherished belief, above family, above religion, really seems to be in the supremacy of “American Muscle,” like his souped-up Dodge Charger that, not incidentally, his dad died driving. Considering the long-term, global effects of cars like that tearing ass unregulated along America’s highways and byways this century and last, maybe we should be looking to establish an entirely new code instead of trying to figure out what exactly the old one was. Green lights, after all, have an almost universal habit of eventually turning red.