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The Family Values of ‘Fast & Furious’

More than anything, the ‘Fast’ films are about family — but what exactly does that mean in a world of potentially lethal heists and impossible car stunts?

(Universal Pictures/Ringer illustration)
(Universal Pictures/Ringer illustration)

For more than a decade and a half, the Fast & Furious franchise has ripped, roared, and pressed every last NOS button on its way to action-franchise preeminence. To mark the release of The Fate of the Furious, the series’ eighth installment, we’re declaring it Fast 8 Week. Please join us in living life one quarter-mile at a time.

The Fast & Furious franchise began as nothing more than a loud and brash illegal street-racing chamber drama coanchored by the unequivocal handsomeness of Paul Walker and the inscrutable mumbly charisma of Vin Diesel. It was a series about cars, and so it relied heavily on the crutches of the vehicle-centric action flick: the elegant squeal of urgent rubber, the enhanced rumble of artisanal engines, the frantic close-ups of white-knuckle gear shifting, the sight of dishonorable cars careening through the air as various civilians scream and flee from bombastic explosions. But since those early days, the franchise has seamlessly rebooted itself as an increasingly byzantine epic, eschewing quaint tropes like racing cars on entry-level terrain in favor of heists that involve dragging a massive safe through the streets of Rio or parachuting armored cars into Azerbaijan as the last line of defense against a terrorist obtaining a Patriot Act–but-on-meth surveillance-state skeleton key. It’s been quite the journey, to put it mildly. And yet, for all these different iterations and evolutions and mutations, the franchise — spanning eight movies and at least four central character swaps — is at heart a story about community. Relationships. "Family," as they so often put it.

Yeah, of course, ridiculous car things still happen, and there’s not much in the way of restraint. But even the cynics and the film snobs among us cannot be totally immune to the franchise’s clunky but sincere warmth. The befuddling triumph of the Fast & Furious films is that — despite every single character’s Sisyphean addiction to driving recklessly and crashing into shit and then doing it again in an even bigger and more absurd way — they are a love story. "Family epic" no longer means melodramatic period piece about three horny brothers all in love with the same lady of high society, or mafia films about mafia dads really upset with their sensitive mafia sons. Family means something bigger and altogether more intricate than a high percentage of shared DNA or court documents proving a state-sanctioned marriage. "Family epic" means … racing cars and punishing evil. It means Fast & Furious.

Of course, like any family, certain values reveal themselves as particularly essential to the unit functioning optimally. Below, we’ve attempted to track a few of these values so that you too may benefit from the lessons of Fast & Furious, America’s preeminent family-friendly franchise.

Family Value No. 1: Absurdly Extreme Trust

A healthy amount of internal discord is always excellent kindling for drama, and there’s usually just a bit of that going around in the extended family of Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel). (Though with the exception of Paul Walker’s Brian sneakily infiltrating the crew in the first film, Matt Schulze’s Vince generally being jealous and grumpy, and Michelle Rodriguez’s Letty’s weird, amnesia-induced heel-turn, these guys pretty much keep the discord levels to schoolyard banter.) There’s a reason — other than the screenplay — that this family can drive cars off bridges, out-duel tanks on the freeway, and allow itself to parachute armored cars out of planes. That’s due to trust.

True "family" trust goes deeper than professional respect for a colleague’s abilities. In Dom’s crew, this absolute trust is frequently epitomized by the "take the wheel" postulate, in which one member of the family has a passenger take the wheel, literally putting their own life in someone else’s hands — usually so they can do some insane, dangerous nonsense like jump onto a moving truck or onto an airplane that’s taking off.

(Universal Pictures)
(Universal Pictures)

Here’s an early example from The Fast and the Furious: During an attempt to rescue Vince while he is hanging off a truck slowly bleeding out from a shotgun blast, Brian tells Mia (Jordana Brewster) to take the wheel. Yes, Vince is a curmudgeon who doesn’t much like Brian, but even at this early stage, Brian has been beguiled by and begun to absorb Dom’s philosophy on family. He wants to help; he instinctively trusts Mia, and also possibly has a crush on her, which is a different kind of family instinct, but we’ll count it for these purposes. Mia takes the wheel and together they save Vince’s life.

There’s a harmony to a unit that can subsume its egos and trust one another absolutely. Some families are "all strangers that share the same last name," as Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie writes in Half a Yellow Sun. Dom’s family is basically the inverse of this.

Family Value No. 2: The Necessity of Shared Activities

Though Miami was a big hit with Roman (Tyrese Gibson), mostly due to a nonstop, decadent party atmosphere, it is the family vacation to Rio de Janeiro in Fast Five that kicks the Fast & Furious world-building into high gear (a racing joke). A city where extreme wealth and extreme poverty often sidle up uncomfortably close to one another, Rio is where Dom and the gang cement their newfound commitment to spending quality time together by robbing from the rich, which generally always makes everyone feel better and indeed, closer. From thence, the group does not stray.

Simply put, the family that plays together, stays together. Whether it is drag racing or taking trips abroad to Brazil, the United Kingdom, Azerbaijan, the United Arab Emirates, Tokyo, Spain, and, uh, Florida, shared experiences forge communal memories and tighten bonds. Yes, sometimes these shared experiences of family bonding come with their own unique stress-inducers — like, say, an extremely angry and virtually unstoppable Jason Statham trying to destroy everything you hold dear — but there’s nothing like an external threat that brings a family closer together. In times of stress, the healthiest of families don’t buckle. They close ranks and look for solutions … together.

Family Value No. 3: Eating a Chicken Together on a Beautiful Day

Dom speaks with reverence of the BBQs his father threw: "If you didn’t go to church, you didn’t get any barbecue," he tells Brian in Fast Five. Routines and rituals provide structure for families; this is where commitment, communication, and camaraderie are honed. A family dinner, in the case of Dom’s extended family, is a ritual allowing a group of people to come together, after a long day of saving lives and making cars do impossible things, and reaffirm their commitment to each other. The communal meal, as introduced in the first Fast & Furious film, comes with its own set of rules: Whoever first reaches for the food must to say Grace. Corona is the only beverage of choice. Food must be consumed outside. Watch as Brian, the newcomer, is seduced by the idea of just a little bit of love. Bearing witness to the intimacy of something as simple as eating chicken together on a beautiful day more or less put him on a path to being an international fugitive. Totally worth it.

Five films later, after avoiding countless bullets and somehow surviving dozens of explosions in multiple time zones and vanquishing increasingly powerful villains, there’s something singularly rejuvenating about sitting down in a backyard and stuffing your face with BBQ surrounded by the people you love most.

Dom’s concerns may be global, but the values that inform his idea of family are simple, humble. Family isn’t about throwing huge ostentatious declarations of strength. Family is breaking bread with the most important people in your life at dusk, and sipping any brew you want … as long as it is a Corona.

Family Value No. 4: Death to Male Hegemony

This is not exactly a nuclear family of businessmen dads and stay-at-home moms. As the old saying goes, behind every great man driving between skyscrapers in the United Arab Emirates, there is an even greater woman doing something just as ridiculous. Letty Ortiz has been kicking ass and taking names since the first Fast & Furious film. Yes, Dom saved her from falling to her death, but she’d do the same for him. There’s no reductive, damsel-in-distress shit when it comes to the Fast and the Furious Family. The ladies aren’t arm candy; they’re in pretty much every case just as formidable as or more formidable than their male counterparts, a few of whom are just pure clowns. (Looking at you, Roman.)

Take Elena (Elsa Pataky), a woman whose reaction to her husband’s murder was to join the police force and become apparently the only police officer in Rio who wasn’t crooked. When Letty is revealed to be alive in Fast 6, Elena urges Dom to go after his former love, even though she and Dom themselves are in a relationship. It doesn’t feel canned or cheap, or as a way to remove Elena from the picture because the franchise is no longer interested in this side character. Instead, Elena presents a shockingly mature and adult take on the complexities of modern relationships.

(Universal Pictures)
(Universal Pictures)

Giselle, who is the most willing to overtly use her sexuality to achieve the aims of the collective, sacrifices her life to save Han. Even Mia, who generally is too level-headed to get into Dom’s various schemes, has no problems walking the walk when she must. Although yes, when Mia and Brian start breeding the next generation of the family, there is a bit of physical distance put between her and the action, and she’s forced to check in from afar while the gang is off dealing with new cycles of cataclysmic shenanigans. None of this is to say there aren’t problematic attitudes about gender sprinkled throughout this cinematic universe, and also that drag racing in general could stand to rethink its attitude to who starts or watches an event. But in the family, women are indispensable, which is refreshing as hell, especially considering women in action films are often portrayed as having as much power as unpaid interns. Without them, there is no family, and this is not meant to imply a crude biological truth.

Family Value No. 5: Knowing Your Code

"Your code is about family. … It makes you predictable. And in our line of work, predictable means vulnerable. And that means I can break you whenever I want." With these words, Owen Shaw, the central antagonist of the franchise’s sixth film, indicates to both Dom and the audience that he believes all this family is actually good talk to be sentimental nonsense. Shaw, who in this moment is working with Dom’s estranged, amnesiac endgame love Letty, is offering Dom one last chance to get out of the U.K. alive. He is also giving Dom some callous advice about his own code, which revolves around precision. (Shaw is a bit like Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey, it’s all movable pieces and efficiency and cold, hard spreadsheets.) Dom is different; he gives a shit. But Shaw is right that Dom is predictable and vulnerable as a result of having the audacity to love his family. Dom’s reply, unruffled and in control, is embarrassingly uplifting: "Well, when I go at least I know what it’s for." It’s something — in the midst of a bonkers film saga about racing cars and blowing things up — that appeals to the better angels of our nature. Protecting your family is a principle that’s worth losing the battle to uphold, which is not something they tend to teach you when you are getting your MBA or starting your new job at the Pentagon, but of course to Dom, this is what the French would call his raison d’etre, and having to explain family to Owen Shaw is beneath him.

(Universal Pictures)
(Universal Pictures)

A lot of stuff happens in the Fast & Furious universe. Some of it is dumb and most of it is loud. (Also, some things don’t make any sense, such as how exactly Ludacris becomes a master hacker and all-around tech expert after being introduced as the humble owner of a garage.) But the occasionally ham-fisted dialogue and increasingly unhinged action sequences are background noise. If Dom and his buddies taught us anything throughout these films, besides the most socially acceptable time to use NOS, it’s that family is an ideal worth dying for, as well as living for. The word "family" is a hefty one, with its own intrinsic gravitas and baggage, and you wouldn’t necessarily guess Fast & Furious is just as much a family epic as The Godfather or King Lear. However, the real motor of this universe was always a simple story of a less-than-simple American family, rooted both in the nostalgia of an idealized past and ever looking ahead toward a storybook ending, that refuses to be torn apart and defeated. And most of us would rather be part of that family than fight against it. Because we’d lose, of course.