Double Take is a series where Anna Swanson and Meg Shields sit down and yell at each other about the controversial, uncomfortable, and contentious corners of cinema. This go-round, Meg and Anna dig into the biggest point of disagreement in their friendship: the ‘Fast & Furious‘ franchise. Anna loves it. Meg…does not.
Anna bullied Meg into watching every ‘Fast & Furious’ movie in anticipation of the latest entry: ‘Hobbs & Shaw.‘ The spinoff stars Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Jason Statham as Luke Hobbs and Deckard Shaw, enemies forced to unite when Deckard’s sister Hattie (Vanessa Kirby) becomes entangled in super-soldier bad guy Brixton’s (Idris Elba) plan to unleash a deadly virus upon the world. After watching the movie, Meg and Anna decided to unpack why they’re so divided on the ‘Fast & Furious’ franchise. This is the conversation that followed.
The following contains spoilers for the Fast & Furious franchise.
Meg Shields: Let me begin by saying that I am extremely happy right now because today marks the longest period of time before I have to watch another Fast & Furious movie.
Anna Swanson: Let’s do a little experiment; Meg, say something positive about the Fast & Furious franchise.
MS: I will praise the franchise for not totally woofing how they handled Paul Walker’s death. If there’s one thing this franchise is not good at it is tact, but I thought that what they did was genuinely respectful.
AS: I’ll take it.
MS: We agree on most things but this is actually something that we disagree on. You love this genre: these new-millennia macho action/crime movies like The Commuter, Den of Thieves, Taken, and The Expendables. These direct-to-video knock off Michael Mann films. And I don’t.
AS: They’re like Michael Mann meets Monster Energy drinks.
MS: I don’t like that sequence of words at all, but yes that’s exactly why I don’t like this genre.
AS: Can we call it the MCU? The Mann Cinematic Universe?
MS: [sigh] I think these films play better on the big screen. When I was watching Hobbs & Shaw last night, trapped in the theatre as I was, I was definitely more receptive to the vroom vroom shenanigans. But you love this shit, and I’ve even heard you push a feminist reading of these films. Explain yourself.
AS: Look, I’m not saying that they’re secret feminist diatribes. But I do think that they are so over the top in their presentations of masculinity that they become parody. I think they can be read as a critique, but I don’t think they were intended that way.
MS: You’re saying there is a universe where you can tilt your head in such a way that when the light passes through Den of Thieves, it’s actually a feminist film?
AS: I don’t think it’s a feminist film. I think it’s a film that exposes masculinity. Maybe that’s the same thing, I don’t know. I think Den of Thieves is a movie about men who can’t fit into the tropes that they think they should. They try to be these macho cops and robbers types but that’s a bullshit standard. It isn’t real. So they have all this anger because they can’t live up to it and they channel it into aggression towards each other. And they fall apart as a result.
MS: Hobbs & Shaw is like a generous two-star movie.
AS: I have it at three stars because there were parts that I really like. But I was surprised at how disappointing it was.
MS: Right, which is exactly what I, someone has been forced to watch these movies against my will, wanted to hear.
AS: [laughing] I don’t think they’re all perfect, I pitch Fast Five to people as the best, but I think the earlier ones are enjoyable. I think talking to someone who maybe views these films a little more objectively than I do might be helpful to figure out where Hobbs & Shaw went wrong for me.
MS: Was it when Idris Elba said “genocide shmenocide”?
AS: No. That was kind of great. See, it’s difficult because Dwayne Johnson is definitely very charming. But I don’t know if that’s what this franchise needs. When it comes to [Hobbs & Shaw director] David Leitch, I like John Wick. Atomic Blonde has its moments. I haven’t seen Deadpool 2 because I don’t care to, but I get the gist. I felt the Deadpool tone and humor permeating this film. The cameos were the worst. The Fast & Furious films have always been stupid. But they’ve always been sincere stupid. And this felt smarmy.
MS: When Johnson was introduced in Fast Five I immediately was not on board because he felt self-aware in a bad way. Meanwhile, even as someone who doesn’t love the franchise, I can tell that Vin Diesel puts his heart into his performance.
AS: He named his daughter after Paul Walker. As much as we can pull these films apart, Diesel is serious when he says “family.”
MS: Right. But with Johnson, there’s a tongue in the cheek that almost feels disrespectful to how much sincerity everyone else is putting into their performances. There’s a degree of “we all know what I’m doing here” that irks me. And Hobbs & Shaw was like: “what if that was a whole movie?”
AS: It’s that thing where the jokes aren’t actually in the film. The jokes are to the camera.
MS: And to the camera…to a specific person. [laughing] Who is not myself.
AS: I do think he works in Fast Five because he’s still very secondary and most of what he’s doing is being this oppositional force because he’s big enough that you can see him being capable of taking down Dom [Diesel’s character]. In The Fate of the Furious, it doesn’t surprise me that Diesel and Johnson started beefing because you could sort of feel Johnson wanting to have more control and make it more about him as “cool dad” The Rock.
MS: Even though I’m not super turned on by the cars and the guns, the emotional beats of this franchise didn’t fall flat for me. I’m not looking to these films for emotional depth, but Furious 7 surprised me! And a big part of why those emotional beats land is because everyone is being sincere. That’s kind of what you need to do when you’re in a telenovela! You can’t look to the camera, and that’s what Johnson does. He’s on a different frequency than everyone else.
AS: Something that just struck me is that Diesel wants to create an image through the films — but Johnson wants to take his image and put it in the films. He doesn’t want to work with the world, he wants to impose his own brand on it.
MS: And if you’re all into that then you’re having the time of your life. But If you’re not, then it’s extremely distracting. There is actually another actor in the Fast & Furious franchise who looks to the camera: Kurt Russell. But it makes sense for his character because he’s like an omniscient G-Man.
AS: Mr. Nobody! Kurt Russell is also just a better actor, though.
MS: This is true. Oh, I have something I wanted to bring up.
MS: Yeah. I think a big part of why the post-Mann genre doesn’t work for me has to do with stakes. In Mission: Impossible, the mission is impossible but you know they’re going to do it and it’s just a question of how they’re going to pull off the magic trick. But when the action starts, you forget that because Tom Cruise is willing to take a punch. You get involved in these action scenes because Cruise knows that what makes a good action scene is good stakes. There has to be the possibility that the hero won’t win. The bathroom scene in Fallout is a great example of this. Cruise gets punched in the throat, he’s taking a knee, he’s out of breath, and you’re worried for him because he’s a senior citizen with bad knees. Meanwhile, you don’t have the same effect with Henry Cavill, who could have been played by a log with a mustache super-glued on it.
MS: I know you love The Man From U.N.C.L.E., but I have yet to witness the star power of Henry Cavill.
AS: Ok, let me say, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. isn’t one of these types of action movies. Also, I never claimed Henry Cavill: good actor. But I do claim Henry Cavill: handsome man.
MS: Henry Cavill has the physical composition of an oak tree. And in the bathroom scene, I’m not worried about him. Even when he’s getting pushed around, I’m like, “You can’t hurt that man.” Whereas with Tom Cruise, I’m like, “Uh oh!” That’s also the reason Jackie Chan fight scenes are compelling. Because Jackie Chan is willing to get hurt to establish stakes to make the scene more compelling. Meanwhile, the men in the Fast & Furious franchise literally have clauses in their contracts saying they can’t lose fights. So when I’m watching a fight scene, I’m not worried about any of them. I feel like I’m just watching a child smash toy cars together.
AS: But I also don’t think you can say it’s just cars and guns — I’m there because I like the characters and I have that attachment.
MS: Sure! But I think these characters suffer because they’re played by men who are so unwilling to be emasculated that they’re undermining their own story.
AS: I would love to see them kinda work with that in the next films. Like take that as a joke and work it in and fix it.
MS: I will say, as much as I think Mia (Jordana Brewster) isn’t given enough to do and there’s a lot of objectification, these films offer good roles for women compared to other action movies.
AS: I love Suki (Devon Aoki) and I wish they would bring her back. Also, one of the things I love about Fast Five is Gisele. Gal Gadot is the star of these movies for me and I love her character so much. I think Vanessa Kirby is the highlight of Hobbs & Shaw.
MS: She deserves a lot better.
AS: Oh, she deserves the world.
AS: I’m not saying the movies are themselves critical of masculinity. I’m saying there’s something interesting about how they expose an extreme of masculine ideals.
MS: I don’t disagree, but why do you find that compelling to watch?
AS: I think there’s something fun to me about seeing the epitome of what so many dudes think they could be. I think a lot of men think they’re a good workout and a shaved head away from being able to fit in this world. It’s their fantasy. And that amuses me. The gulf between who these characters are and who men in real life are.
MS: I wish I could watch it the way you do. I’m feeling disengaged and you’re on safari.
AS: You know what I’m thinking of? There’s this part in Magic Mike XXL, where Mike is trying to convince Richie to drop the fireman routine because he hates fire and he doesn’t like the song he does. And he gets Richie to say that he’s not a fireman, he’s a fucking male entertainer. I feel like I’m watching a bunch of men trying to be firemen. And there’s something amusing about it and I don’t know why, but this heightened, extreme masculinity is so next level that it becomes comical to the point of kinda being endearing.
MS: I don’t know if the performative macho aspect of Fast & Furious is done in the spirit you’re describing. It has to do with ego, not entertainment. If it was for entertainment they would take hits. And men who won’t take hits scare me.
AS: I see that, and I agree about the fight scenes. Here’s the thing, generally speaking, I think intention matters and I think the attitude of “it doesn’t matter what the director wanted to do” comes from people when they don’t want to engage fully with a film.
MS: I’m with you. Like Žižek says, it’s all ideology.
[Authors’ note: at this point, Meg and Anna proceeded to spend five minutes impersonating Slavoj Žižek saying “Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw“]
AS: I’m not usually about throwing intention out the window, but I think that with these films, I definitely subscribe to interpretation and reading against the grain. Maybe it’s because I go into these knowing they aren’t for me. I know these films are made for dudes but I can’t deny that I enjoy them. So maybe what I do is read against the grain and pull out the things that I can point to and say, “This is why I like it.”
MS: I don’t know if I’m able to step out of a movie and flip it and reverse it for that long. I can sit here and talk things through after watching and see that your take holds water. But in the moment, I can’t do those interpretive backflips.
AS: While watching I just enjoy how over the top it is. I love how in Fast & Furious 6, for example, Dom just launches himself off a car and catches Letty, who has been launched off a tank, in mid-air. That’s great!
MS: This is where ideology stops and you just have to admit you like fast cars.
AS: Ok, maybe I do. But I think what I like is watching cars do what cars don’t do.
MS: Do you have a driver’s license, Anna?
AS: I do not.
MS: Just checking.
AS: [Laughs] Ok, but I don’t enjoy cars because I know anything about cars. That’s not why I care. There’s a line in Furious 7 where a news broadcast says that what is happening “can only be described as vehicular warfare.” I love that. It’s ridiculous. I think I like the insanity of how over the top the cars are. It’s bonkers but it’s kinda sincere in how much it commits. I don’t know if that sincerity happens in Hobbs & Shaw without a wink. But in the other films, the Vin Diesel-heavy films — or as I’ll call them, the Dom dommed films…
MS: I hate it. You’re so fucking pleased with yourself.
AS: I like that those Fast films feel sincere and there’s heart and they commit. And to your point about Johnson: I just want to point out that you’re watching these from a 2019 knowledge of Johnson. When Fast Five came out, Johnson was not Johnson as we know him. I think in Fast Five, he’s doing something different to the other actors, but it’s not pushing the same cool dad brand as he is now.
MS: Point taken, but I still think he is less sincere than the other characters. And I actually think it starts to infect other parts of the franchise. I’d argue after Fast Five the action scenes start to become self-aware. I don’t think Johnson is responsible for this shift, but this kind of self-aware ridiculousness takes me out of it. As the franchise progresses, the set pieces feel less connected to the narrative than a sense of obligation to heighten for heightening’s sake.
AS: I agree that we are at the point where they are unwilling to commit to the ridiculousness of it without protecting themselves from looking silly by also being glib about it. To make another comparison to Mission: Impossible, in Ghost Protocol Ethan actually says “mission accomplished!” It’s endearing, it’s goofy, it’s committed, and it’s silly! Even later when he makes fun of it, he’s laughing at himself.
MS: I love when people commit very hard to something at their own expense. I would totally flip my take if in the next film everyone throws themselves under the bus.
AS: There are so many action movies that do this stuff well. Keanu Reeves takes punches in John Wick. In Casino Royale, Daniel Craig takes lots of punches.
MS: Yes! Daniel Craig starts his Bond Tenure by getting hit in the nards by Mads Mikkelsen.
AS: To jump to Justin Lin for a second. He’s been with the films the longest. He’s made the best movies in the franchise and I like his style. I think spinoffs are a great opportunity to experiment with different tones, but it feels so glaring to me that Leitch isn’t right for this world. I think it’s going to be a relief to get back to Justin Lin.
MS: You can’t deny that Fast Five changed the rules. It made the characters into superheroes.
AS: Maybe you liked Fast & Furious 6 more than others because some main characters die.
MS: Yes! There’s some vulnerability. Finally!
AS: So what do you think they could do to improve? Where can they go from here? Space?
MS: They need to take hits. I want there to be consequences for things. Don’t heighten, go low! Get hurt! You can make mundane things feel as important as going to Mars if it feels like there’s something to lose here on Earth. I’ll give you a bet: if Vin Diesel loses a fight in the next film, I will eat an onion like an apple.
AS: We’re ending on that note.