I’ma Go For It: Elevating (Vehicular) Bodies in Justin Lin’s ‘Fast and Furious’ Movies Pt. 1


When Justin Lin took over the Fast and Furious franchise back in 2006 with Tokyo Drift, he was handed a story about some punk American kid trying to make a name for himself in the racing world of Japan’s most happening city. The problem was, the kid couldn’t handle a car all that well. In the world of the Fast and the Furious movies, the cars are extensions of the human body – elegant, streamlined bodies that maneuver around airplanes speeding down a runway as easily as through a traffic jam. Knowing how to drive, like knowing how to walk, isn’t enough to turn a person into a nuanced racer or a Gene Kelly-level dancer. You need to exert a certain amount of control, a certain level of physical dexterity to become a pro. Vin Diesel isn’t a very elegant or even traditionally attractive man, but the finesse he exudes while driving his precious American muscle cars alludes not only to his level of professionalism, but to the particular kind of mastery one might find in the back seat of a car, not behind the driver’s wheel.

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Lin has been steadily building on this idea of body precision with each addition to the series. Tokyo Drift, which is essentially a teen drama, is about learning how to use the body, how to make a car drift with effortless panache and no insecurity. At the beginning of the movie, Lucas Black’s character is as clunky as the totaled car he drives in the first Tokyo race. Like a shaky-handed boy trying to unhook a girl’s bra for the first time, he has no skill, no sense of physicality and no relationship to his vehicular body extensions, let alone to himself or even the world around him. To him, a car is as much a fetish object as the hot ladies in the periphery of the races. Something fun to look at, use and toss aside after. The Toretto clan admires cars, sure, but they’re mostly work and very little play when it comes to driving. They use their cars like how cowboys use horses in western movies – as essential life tools.

The first race in Tokyo Drift, Tabasco and all, shows Black’s character can drive, but he can’t phase into being one with his vehicle. He’d rather drive straight-through a building than take the time to maneuver around it. Black spends most of the movie learning how to take his time, how to take it slow and steady. The opening sequence of the film might as well be underlined, it’s so direct in its statement about individuality and bodily sovereignty. Black has to walk through a metal detector and get patted down just to gain access to his school. The choice was made here – daily we trade our bodily sovereignty for the illusion of safety and the ability to pay lip service to our freedom. This sacrifice means nothing. Inside the school, cruelty is meted out via crudely perverted objects (paint guns, baseballs, etc.) found within the school. It’s like a prison where even casual speech with the wrong people can be met with swift reprisal. After Black enters the school, he witnesses bullying, he’s bullied and later loses the rear window of his car when he makes the mistake of exchanging sentences with a cute cheerleader who doesn’t belong to him.

As an American, Black’s character is accustomed to having plenty of space to drive and crash on. We Americans take for granted how much space we have to play around in. Americans are not used to utilizing limitations to their advantage, even worse we’re told limitations don’t exist. In Tokyo, however, space is at a premium. There are no vacant subdivisions in the desert waiting to be destroyed just for the fun of it. There are only city structures, which are meant to be used by everyone. Within them,  you are not rewarded for the force of your personality, rather for the efficient use of the same space allotted to everyone else. As Black’s father says, “The Japanese have a saying, The nail that sticks out gets hammered.” Nails are only part of a much larger structure, like we are. Everything works better if there is unity toward a common goal.

As anyone who plays Mario Kart can tell you, speed isn’t enough. It’s the same in Tokyo Drift. Only with the combined mastery of speed, control, timing and humility before space can one be victorious. Once he gets a handle on things, Black’s officially in the drift club and can partake in group fun. There are few scenes lovelier than the group of candy-colored cars drifting along the back highways of Tokyo’s cityscape in the dead of night. These teens don’t want to party, they want to glide on the road like a school of angel fish swirling around a coral reef.

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The harmony Lin created explodes into a million different melodramatic pieces in Fast & Furious. After Han’s (Sung Kang) death at the end of Tokyo Drift (1) and later Letty’s (Michelle Rodriguez), the Toretto clan is broken. Dom (Vin Diesel), Mia (Jordanna Brewster) and Brian (Paul Walker) all share the same air, but their connection is lost, which makes Fast & Furious an oddly isolated movie. Outside of the incredible opening where Dom confidently drives head-on through an exploding, tumbling-through-the-air semi-trailer with Letty at his side (again the timing of Mario Kart is important to understand), the movie just doesn’t have the zip, fizz or kinship of the other Lin’s in the series. However, the film does begin to toy with the idea of elevating the body, the vehicles, into something greater than they were before.

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In the last three Fast and Furious movies, there are several scenes that feature characters jumping, almost falling inside the frame. It started with Fast & Furious – Letty jumps from the semi-truck onto Dom’s car when it’s about to crash at the beginning of the movie. It’s a short jump, one that takes place in close proximity from the jumping point to the landing point, and one that is somewhat mimicked in the amazing scene in Furious 6 where Dom sails through the air to catch Letty when she’s about to fall to her death. It’s also the beginning of something I’ll call auto aerials. The characters use their vehicular body extensions to become almost superhuman. They push their rides as far as they’ll go and then use the momentum they’ve built up to practically fly out of the vehicles as either a means of self-preservation or as a display of physical mastery. In Fast & Furious, these brief scenes almost feel like accidents, uncertain jumbles where a character, Letty in this case and Brian in another later in the film, quickly flies horizontally from the right side of the frame to the left. They’re not superhuman in these cases, they’re just lucky to be alive.

Being rewarded for your ability to fit in, as in Tokyo Drift, is an easily adaptable idea. In Fast & Furious, both Dom and Brian go undercover in a drug cartel in order to both find out what happened to Letty and avenge her death. They have to fit in to stay alive and accomplish their task. By submitting to this group of drug smugglers, they are, in effect, lending their bodies to something greater than themselves. For a brief period they have no identities, they don’t exist. This idea is something like a repudiation towards our media’s cult of personality and reinforces the irony of the opening of Tokyo Drift. It’s not always beneficial to be an individual.

(1) Of course, in Fast & Furious Han isn’t dead yet, but knowing that he will die in the later in the series makes it all the more painful to see him on screen at the beginning of the film.