"Besides, we are men, and after all, it is our business to risk our lives."—Alexandre Dumas, The Three Musketeers
The Fast and the Furious franchise is one of those mystical cinema happenings that sometimes occurs; without any particularly rabid fanbase (Lord of the Rings it's not), it has broad appeal, and it has earned enough box-office clout that installments continue to appear at regular intervals. This summer's outing is the sixth.
Nestled comfortably at the center of a Bermuda Triangle of homoeroticism, CCTV car-accident footage, and Flash Gordon serials, these movies operate under the extremely handwavey rules of what Hollywood sometimes fever-dreams comics to be like, meaning that continuity and physics are flexible, but dammit, honor never is. In fact, out of a distinctly science-fictional examination of superhuman masculinity that forms the bulk of the plot points but is hardly unique in the action-bro genre, a particular and more distinct thematic arc emerges; The Fast and the Furious is the successor not to other modern action franchises, but to one far older—The Three Musketeers.
The Musketeers books, themselves serials (The Three Musketeers, Twenty Years Later, and The Vicomte of Brangelonne: Ten Years Later—Dumas predicted subtitled franchises with the best of them) tracked the friendship of the titular Three Musketeers—Athos, Porthos, and Aramis—sworn to defend the King for iterations of the oath that mostly include derring-do, and the reckless young d'Artagnan, who ends up angering them all while under cover of sorts (headed for training in the Musketeers, unbeknownst to them) and quickly proving his worth, at which point the quartet and their respective servants become inseparable, responding repeatedly to one another's calls for aid as adventuresome setups dictated.
The defining principle behind the Musketeers' friendship was a distinctive combination of masculinity and abstract Honor. Vocationally, Honor was to be found in the King, a recognizable allegory for nobility, authority, and patriotism, though worth defending only in the abstract. But the real core of this chivalric quadrangle was personal honor—the defense of one's reputation and one's friends—coded as paramount and as uniquely masculine. Devotion to Honor, in fact, was synonymous with expert physical abilities (sword-fighting, stealth, endurance) as much as it dictated one's moral code. This was reflected both in the friendships depicted among men and the stark mirror of the women: isolated, opaque. Women were virtuous and doomed, conniving and doomed, or Queen Anne. Most presented more plot opportunities than characterization. Almost all were disposable.
That same honorable, superhuman masculinity quite literally drives the Fast and the Furious film series, a franchise built around the extremely unsubtle and traditionally masculine arena of street racing (complete with countless symbolic close-ups of gear shifting), that has developed into a heist serial with a sprawling recurring cast, dangerous locales, questionable physics, and new challenges to the honor of its protagonists; the renaissance of high Romanticism within the pop-culture architecture of pulp action flicks.
In The Fast and the Furious, undercover cop Brian O'Conner (Paul Walker) has to prove his abilities as a street racer to his target, Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel); having secured his masculinity in the hierarchy of Toretto's own Musketeers, he's awarded respect and, obliquely, a girlfriend in Toretto's sister. (For the Musketeers, women were an object of chivalry; Toretto's sister Mia serves more as an object of heterosexual reassurance in a franchise where most dialogue is two men standing nostril-close and staring into one another's eyes.) When O'Conner acts on his personal ideals of honor and betrays his allegiance in order to save a fellow racer, he finds himself Toretto's enemy; however, they join forces against a common foe, after which O'Conner allows Toretto to escape oncoming police—a betrayal of authority in favor of that personal honor, and telegraphed in his first street race. Just as when d'Artaganan arranges three duels in a row, superhuman skill is indicative of eventual moral alignment.
The first movie also introduces one of the franchise's primary supporting cast: Letty Ortiz (Michelle Rodriguez), Toretto's girlfriend, possessed of the same masculine-coded superhuman skill which sets her apart from the swathes of unnamed women who pose and coo before races. In the second film (2 Fast 2 Furious), O'Conner gathers Roman, an old friend who sets aside his grudge in defense of friendship (nominally in the service of authority, in an undercover mission), and tech guru Tej who summons others to the aid of the worthy. Tokyo Drift introduces racing king Han, who proves so manfully honorable he realigns continuity—to include him, the subsequent installments take place in a nebulous timeline prior to his demise. And it's here that the series wholeheartedly embraces the high-drama Romantic ideals laid out by its thematic predecessor.
The fourth (Fast & Furious), fifth (Fast Five), and sixth (Fast and Furious 6) films, all written by Chris Morgan, act as a single ongoing serial, and shift the focus from road tests of hypermasculinity to double down on the idea of personal honor as superhuman. The episodic elements become distinctly more heist-oriented, and involve more enduring symbols of order and authority—particularly in the form of DSS agent Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson), masculine enough to be taken seriously by these narratives, and of that strain of authority that lets criminals go free because of personal loyalties and debts paid. His role hearkens back strongly to Musketeer Captain Treville, who ostensibly governed his charges, but was lionized only so far as he allowed them to pursue their own errands of honor.
These films also begin to demonstrate the full range of superhuman abilities that being manfully honorable bestows—even requires—as the scope of their work expands from avoiding oncoming trains to conducting high-speed heists within one. New additions to the crew have to match these new requirements for both abilities and honor; Gisele Yashar (Gal Gadot), who earns her place by turning on her criminal boss out of new loyalty to Toretto and his crew, is also conveniently ex-Mossad. (Not insignificantly, she performs more femininity than Ortiz, more than once; this becomes notable.)
To define the stakes of each episode and fuel the fires for the next, characters die at regular intervals, adding serial flair and providing further impetus for action-heavy revenge in the name of honor (though none reaches the historical significance of Charles I, murdered in the second Musketeers novel to spur a reunion). Letty Ortiz, who dies trying to restore Toretto's honor with the authorities, has enough superhuman masculinity to actually return from the dead in the sixth film once sufficient revenge has been exacted (though the more-feminine Yashar meets her demise in the sixth film hitting tarmac at high speed).
The sixth film is the most nimble callback to The Three Musketeers in a number of small ways—witness the montage in which Toretto calls the scattered back to the fold, and they all follow (in one case actually turning a plane around) before they've even heard the reason. The literal cross Toretto bears, a keepsake of Letty Ortiz, will come into play but also underscores an arc of penance that any Aramis would recognize, and O'Conner, who has in past episodes belonged nominally to organizations of justice and order (most recently the FBI), has now embraced that in the world he inhabits there's no law greater than personal honor. When Hobbs comes asking them to take down an infiltrating mastermind, he too is admitting their superiority to any channels of traditional authority, which have been and will be demonstrably corrupt or ineffectual; to get real justice, his presence implies, the story needs that particular superhuman family of sometimes-criminals whose honor never wavers.
It's interesting to note that Letty's immediate return is prevented both physically and thematically. Criminal mastermind Shaw (Luke Evans), her new employer, keeps a close eye on his team and immediately shoots anyone who wavers or fails, which prevents her from investigating her past—because she's an amnesiac. It's this, and not Shaw, which stymies her; her honor and loyalty have been erased and must be rediscovered before she can be restored to her place in the neo-Musketeers. In case the stakes are in doubt, Shaw and Toretto actually face off to define them; Shaw tells Toretto that his emphasis on family (and the implied honor within and thereof) will ultimately be his downfall. The audience, of course, knows better; Shaw's superhuman skills are enough to make him a respectable opponent, but his team operates from fear, not trust; it's a lack of honor among thieves, which in the world of Fast and Furious is a death knell. Perhaps the best parallel to be drawn here is that of Milady de Winter, whom Athos mistakenly thought he had killed but is revealed as alive and well (O'Conner's prison visit to a previously conquered druglord serves this function in the film); she returns to plague the four heroes, and even after her death, her son returns to exact his revenge.
It makes sense that every era has its serials of derring-do; it makes sense that the medium of that adventure story would have shifted to the most popular form of the day. (The next, one suspects, will take place online and/or in a brain implant.) It's somewhat telling that the definitions of masculinity as framed in the code of honor have changed so little that just to possess it is fictional shorthand for being superhuman (and that the code also applies to any woman who seeks respect from those who live by that particular code—you're either in, or you're standing next to the car in a miniskirt before the real action starts). More so than other action franchises, The Fast and the Furious is a celebration of these Romantic ideals, as much as it is a celebration of the masculine power of fast cars, heist plans, and honor among thieves.
A seventh installment of the series is planned; not coincidentally, in the coda of this year's film, the man who crashes into Han's car and manages to walk away without a scratch from Han's funeral pyre calls Toretto. He introduces himself as Shaw's brother, out to avenge what he's lost.
All for one, and one for all.