When you watch most action movies, it’s easy to get caught up in the car chases, explosions, and hot chicks that define them. But when you look beyond those, beyond the trite dialogue, beyond the contrived plots, is there anything there? In most action films, there isn’t. So they don’t last beyond a single picture. But the The Fast and the Furious franchise, the fifth installment of which opens today, which has no computer generated special effects, no costumed superheroes, is not based on a videogame or comic book, and has no spaceships or giant transforming robots, somehow continues to attract audiences. So what is the attraction?
Sometimes a car is not just a car.
1. The Ballad of the Post-Freudian Man
All four films released to date, The Fast and the Furious, 2 Fast 2 Furious, Tokyo Drift, and Fast and Furious have pretty standard cops-and-robbers plots that provide the backdrop for thrilling stunts and high-energy car chases. But that is only on the most superficial level.
Below the surface, in between the car chases, these films are about conflicts with fathers. More specifically, they are about a certain kind of postmodern male figure who grows-up in the absence of what is known in egghead philosophy circles as the Freudian Concept of Man. According to Freud, the father and father-dominated family are the primary agents of socialization. It was the role of the father (or the authority figure generally, it could be an uncle, priest, rabbi, grandfathers, etc.) to enforce the child’s subordination of his desires, pleasures, happiness (the id), to the rules and structures of reality (the superego). The socialization of the individual was, in Freud’s day, the work of the family. In the 19th century middle-class European society in which Freud developed the theory, adolescent rebellion and their subsequent maturity are stages of the youthful individual’s conflict with the father, with the authority. This is the foundation of the Oedipal complex (no, it’s not actually about wanting to bang your mom, sorry to disappoint.)
But what of our post-modern society, in which father are very often unknown, or simply absent.? Then there is no father with whom to have an Oedipal conflict, and no resulting internalization of the superego. And therefore no maturation. In The Obsolescence of the Freudian Concept of Man, Herbert Marcuse describes a world without Freudian fathers (i.e. without strong authority figures within the family): “The socially necessary repressions and the socially necessary behavior are no longer learned in the long struggle with the father.” If there is no father, who is there to oppose the adolescent id, to shape the adolescent ego and superego? No one, and the result, according to Marcuse, is that the ego never forms, and the socialization—the internalization of the Oedipal conflict between desire and reality–never takes place.
Marcuse goes on to say that when the superego is not internalized, it is sought externally. The individual opens themselves to messages from outside, from the media, peer groups, gangs, tribes etc. to serve this ego function. And the group seeks a master to impose the reality principle. They seek a leader. The leader imposes the ego, functions as the ego for the half-formed members of the group, navigating their collective desires through the rules and limitations of reality and society. Marcuse describes the result as a form of tribalism or pack behavior, where the members of the group converge around the tribal or pack leader, a sort of alpha male figure.
According to Marcuse, this is the society you live in, where rampant divorce results in fathers who are a distant or peripheral actor in the lives of their children, and where structure and authority have given way to immediate gratification, peer pressure, and groupthink.
2. “That’s My Dad.”
Marcuse’s theory may have problems in its application in the real world, but it accurately describes nearly every single male character in all four of the Fast and the Furious films.
The films make it a point to tell us about the childhoods of these characters. Vin Diesel’s character, Dominic Toretto, is the leader of the “team” of street racers that includes “mad scientist” mechanic Jesse and his sister Mia, among others. It is this team that undercover cop Brian O’Conner infiltrates. And in The Fast and the Furious, we learn quite a lot about Toretto’s father:
Toretto: Me and my dad built her. Nine hundred horses of Detroit muscle. You know what she ran in Palmdale?
O’Conner: No. What?
Toretto: Nine seconds flat. My dad was driving. So much torque, the chassis twisted coming off the line. Barely kept her on the track.
O’Conner: So, what’s your best time?
Toretto: I’ve never driven her. It scares the shit out of me. That’s my dad. He was coming up in the pro stock-car circuit. Last race of the season, a guy named Kenny Linder came up from inside, in the final turn. He clipped his bumper and put him into the wall at 120. I watched my dad burn to death. I remembered hearing him scream. But the people that were there said he had died before the tanks blew…They said it was me who was screaming. I saw Linder about a week later. I had a wrench, and I hit him. And I didn’t intend to keep hitting him, but when I finished, I couldn’t lift my arm. He’s a janitor at a high school. He has to take the bus to work every day. And they banned me from the tracks for life.
Then, he says, “I live my life a quarter-mile at a time. Nothing else matters. Not the mortgage, not the store, not my team and all their bullshit. For those 10 seconds or less, I’m free.”
Toretto has fond memories of his father, but when his father died, Toretto loses control and nearly kills the other driver. The absence of that regulating, socializing presence puts him at the mercy of his base and reflexive impulses. It wasn’t that Toretto had no father, it was that his father died before Dom’s Oedipal conflict was resolved, leaving Toretto with a half-formed psyche, alternately in control and out of control, alternately an immature adolescent racer and an adult with a mortgage and a store to worry about.
That last line is particularly revealing. Toretto is not a care-free rebel or outlaw criminal. He has a mortgage. He literally has to “mind the store.” These are the burdens of the head of a household, a man with responsibilities, who is father to his team in everything but name. Toretto is more than some alpha male head of a street gang. He sees himself as their father, and they see him that way too. Twice in the franchise we are shown the team sitting down to dinner. The first time, at his backyard barbecue, he slaps Jesse’s hand when he reaches in for food before saying grace. In the fourth film, he sits down to another dinner with his sister and Brian, and saying grace, thanks the Lord for food, family and friendship.
But Toretto’s father died before the Oedipal conflict was resolved. Toretto had these responsibilities forced on him, and in the first film struggles to pull away from them. He says he only feels free when he races., and that’s because he’s stuck in a state of limbo between adolescence and adulthood, in which he ages, but doesn’t grow up.
The muscle car he built with his Dad scares him, because it represents mortality; his father’s, of course, but also his own. As long as he remains an adolescent, driving the tuner import cars, Toretto is an invincible youth. Once he gets behind the wheel, he is vulnerable.
Likewise, the film gives us insight into Jesse’s relationship with his father:
JESSE: Throwing down the pink slip, just like you.
O’CONNER: The pink slip to what? The Jetta? You can’t bet your dad’s car.
JESSE: It’s all right. I ain’t losing. This fool is running a Honda 2000. I’ll win. That way, me and my dad can roll when he gets out of prison. It’s all good.
Now we know Jesse’s father is missing as well. But it isn’t “all good.” When Jesse loses this race, he is unable to cope with losing his real father’s car, and runs back to his surrogate father Toretto for help. “I’m so scared,” Jesse confesses to Dom. “I don’t know what I’m doing! Will you please help me?” Lacking a father, he has no mechanism for moderating his impulses or taking responsibility, so he turns to Toretto to do those things for him..
In the second film of the series, 2 Fast 2 Furious we are introduced to a new character, Roman Pearce, who we are told was O’Conner’s childhood friend. And once again, we learn that Roman did not have a strong authority figure growing up. Roman describes himself in his youth as “wild and out,” a “crazy man”, “riding solo.” Roman recalls, “no one could tell me nothing.” When Roman’s attitude is challenged by the drug dealer who hired him to deliver money, Roman responds with a cliche that happens to be true: “I got a problem with authority.” So no stern 19th century Viennese father figure in Roman’s childhood either.
The third film, Tokyo Drift, introduces an entirely new cast of characters to the franchise, and it is even more of a parade of unresolved Oedipal conflicts. Protagonist Sean Boswell is forced to leave the US and move in with his father, a naval officer stationed in Tokyo. At least he’ll have a decent military upbringing to straighten him out, right? “I ain’t no army brat,” Sean reminds us. When he shows up at his father’s house in Tokyo, Dad attempts to lay down the law. “You just can’t keep moving away every time you get into trouble,” he lectures. Sean replies. “Worked for you.” So in that brief 30 seconds of dialogue, we know that Sean’s father abandoned his family and has become a distant presence in Sean’s life, geographically and psychologically. Even though Sean is physically reunited with his dad, he rejects it. Halfway through the film, Sean moves out of his dad’s house and like Jesse with Toretto, he moves into the garage/workshop of Han, a US expatriate of Japanese descent, who organizes underground drift races and is himself a fugitive from the law.
Later in the film, in an attempt to identify with the film’s love interest Neela, Sean explains how he and she are alike. “Your mama and daddy was never home. So you walked around pissed off all the time. And now you found your family with these drift nuts.” During the course of the film, we learn that Neela’s mother was a gaijin “hostess” (i.e. escort/prostitute) and that she was raised by the grandmother of DK, who is her boyfriend and the star of the underground drifting subculture. But we learn nothing about her father, and can safely infer that he is out of the picture. Neela’s unresolved Electra complex mirrors Sean’s.
When Neela takes Sean on a midnight drive through the mountains, she relates a story from her childhood. “Even before we could drive we’d cut class, sneak out, come up here, and watch the older kids drift.” By “drift” she means the particular style of auto racing, but her use of the word in the context of her childhood has a double meaning. She would watch the older kids drift through adolescence playful and carefree. She describes the experience of drift racing as “everything else just disappears. No past and no future.” This echoes Toretto’s description of drag racing: “For those ten seconds or less, I’m free.”
It is in precisely this same way, Marcuse tells us, that the unsocialized Oedipal youth drifts through adolescence, looking for identification within a group and an externalized superego in the leader of that group–the father-figure they never had. For Neela, it became DK. And what does DK stand for? Drift King–King of the Drift Racers. King of those who are adrift.
In all these films we are presented with male character suffering from unresolved Oedipal conflicts do to the early death, absence, or abandonment by their fathers. But conspicuously absent from these four films is any description of Brian O’Conner’s father. Brian is ostensibly the main character of all of the films, and we know nothing about him. But given his long history with Roman Pearce, we can assume that Brian’s childhood is mirrors Roman’s. Youthful indiscretions to petty auto theft, constantly in trouble with the law. If there is any narrative consistency in these films, we should expect that Brian’s father had no presence in his life. And it is his search for an externalized superego that establishes the underlying conflict of the first, second, and fourth films—Brian’s drifting between two externalized superegos, the police force on one hand, and Dom Toretto on the other.
3. “There’s All Kinds of Family, Brian.”
Brian O’Conner is the archetypical Post-Freudian Man, who even in adulthood has no idea who he is or what rules to live by. And of all the racing teams in the LA racing underground that Brian comes across, it is Toretto’s that Brian is drawn to. Though Toretto still has his unresolved father issues, it is because his father died late in Dom’s adolescence. So Dom did have a father, and did internalize some of his superego. But his father died before the process was complete. So of all the characters, Dom is closest to resolving his issues, and that’s why he can serve as a strong father fuigure to others. “He’s like gravity,” his sister Mia describes. “Everything just gets pulled to him.” In Fast and Furious, O’Conner tells Mia “One thing I learned from Dom is that nothing really matters unless you have a code.” But when she asks Brian “What’s your code?” he simply replies “I’m working on it.” Code is the superego. And even in the fourth film, Brian’s is a work-in-progress.
Without an internalized superego, O’Conner can never make it as a cop. The role of the police is, after all, to enforce the law, to be society’s externalized superego-at-large. But how can Brian take on the role of society’s superego when his own ego is still unformed. How can he enforce the laws of other when he is is “still working on” his own?
His approaches the police force is more a hesitant and abortive attempt to join of the homogenous tribla groups Marcuse talks about. It’s easy to be a police officer, because other people are telling you what to do. But it lacks that strong leader, that external ego that he can attach himself to, and that’s why he is drawn to Toretto’s family. Dom tells Brian the story about him building the Charger with his Dad. Later in that first film, Brian builds the Supra with Dom. In the fourth film, O’Conner helps Toretto rebuild the Charger that was smashed at the end of the first film. These scenes echoes the memory Toretto related in his garage, only this time Toretto is the father figure, and Brian is the adolescent.
Brian is torn between the two families, establishing both the police force and Toretto in his mind as the paternal entities against which he wants to rebel. In the fourth film, O’Conner is once again on the side of the law, as an FBI undercover agent. As the FBI and cops track his driving, they rebuke him, “That’s your third traffic violation in less than three blocks. Slow it down, O’Conner.” He responds like a rebellious teenager, “Sure thing, Dad.”
He drifts between the two families. Police, to Toretto, and back again. Mia tells him in the fourth film, “Maybe you’re lying to yourself. Maybe you’re not the good guy pretending to be the bad guy, maybe you’re the bad guy pretending to be the good guy.”
In The Fast and the Furious, the LAPD detective running O’Conner’s undercover operation tells him “There’s all kinds of family, Brian. That’s a choice you’re going to have to make.” But O’Conner vacillates between his two possible families–the cops or the renegades on the street–never quite fitting into one or the other. When he’s out of the car, he’s a member of the police force. But once he is behind the wheel, he wants to rebel from the FBI family, and rejoin Toretto’s family on the streets. Brian never makes the choice.
But he is no more at home among the street racers. In that world, he finds himself as the outsider, the “buster”. O’Conner tries to prove his mettle a number of times throughout the films by racing Toretto over and over again, but he loses each time. Yet he always comes back for more, seeking the leader’s approval, even if it means risking his car and and his life just to finish a close second. In his first race with Toretto, he gambles his car for “the cash and the respect,” and when he loses, he laughingly reminds Toretto, “I almost had you.” At the conclusion of the climax of the fourth film, O’Conner reminds Toretto, “You know I would have won that race if you didn’t cheat, right?” He lets Toretto go free at the end of the first film, and breaks him out of prison in the fourth film. He recognizes Toretto as the leader, as the formed ego that could replace his unformed one. But Toretto never really accepts him–“Still a buster,” he remarks. Until he chooses, he will never fit in among either group.
These races between O’Conner and Toretto are very important. They symbolize the conflict between Toretto the father and O’Conner the impulsive youth. The race itself is the metaphor for Brian’s Oedipal conflict. O’Conner’s repeated losses to Toretto in these races symbolize the repression of his id by Toretto’s paternal superego.
Narratively speaking, the races are a concise measure of the current state of O’Conner’s Oedipal complex. Should O’Conner win one of these races in a future film, it would represent the “killing” of the father, the internalization of that paternal authority. It would mean O’Conner is an adult, ready to be the father of his own family.
4. “You Know You Still Owe Me a Ten-Second Car.”
So if Toretto is the father figure, the externalized ego/superego, and O’Conner and others are the Post-Freudian fatherless men looking for a leader, what’s with all the cars? Are they just window dressing to get people in the seats?
Notice that there are two kinds of cars in these films.
First, there are the high-performance, modified imports. They are Japanese compacts, with high-pitched engines tuned with the precision of a Swiss watch, decked out in logos and decals, painted shiny bright day-glow colors, with neon running lights underneath. These are the cars all the characters in the films race, from LA to Tokyo to Miami to Mexico. These are the cars Dom Toretto and his team drive in the first film.
Then there are the muscle cars. These are vintage 70’s and 80’s sedans, grey, black, and chrome, growling, dominating hulks. This is the 1970 Dodge Charger that Toretto built with his father that scares the hell out of him. And that nearly kills him in the climax of the first film/
In a world of
children ten second Japanese import cars, they are men the nine second American muscle cars.
The tuner imports look like Hot Wheels cars, which is appropriate, because they are driven by the movies’ metaphorical children. The muscle cars are driven by adults. Consider that Toretto races these ten second cars for considerable money, and yet never chooses to drive the sure thing in his garage. He drives imports throughout the first film, until his teammates end up in the hospital and Jesse ends up murdered. Then Toretto is forced to grow up, instead of clinging to his reckless youth. And only when he accepts this role, with all it’s burdens, when he accepts that he is not an invincible child but a vulnerable man, only then does he get behind the wheel of his dad’s seventies muscle car.
From this point on and throughout the rest of the franchise, Toretto never again drives a tuned import car. He drives only vintage muscle cars: a 1970 Chevrolet Chevell SS, a 1984 Buick Grand National, a 1970 Plymouth Road Runner, and a 1973 Chevrolet Camaro. (Though Brian gives him the keys to the Supra to flee the approaching police after the Chragers is crashed, we never see Dom drive it, and in the vingette after the credits of the first film, we see Dom driving through the deserts of Mexico in the Chevelle.) Toretto has accepted adulthood, and all the burdens and responsibilities that entails. He leaves behind his childhood for good.
The vintage muscle car is a metaphor for adulthood, responsibility and maturity that is repeated time and again throughout the series of films. In Tokyo Drift, Sean chooses to race one last time to avenge Han’s death and to assume responsibility for the chaos and trouble his impulsiveness caused. For this race, rather than drive the imports uses to master drifting throughout the film, he instead uses his father’s unfinished vintage Mustang, which he finishes building (using parts salvaged from those import drift cars). Accepting responsibility means growing out of the resentment he had for his absent dad. It means growing up. And therefore he earns the right to use his father’s car.
But O’Conner never grows up through the three films in which he appears. He never really takes steps up and takes responsibility. He never becomes a man of action, a man of will. In the first film, O’Conner drives the Supra he builds with Dom (just as Dom drives the Charger he built with his father). But in 2 Fast 2 Furious, he and Roman race two much older drivers for their muscle cars, and they ditch their imports for these muscle cars during the climatic chase scene. But this is a ruse, a flirtation with adulthood that doesn’t stick. At the end of 2 Fast 2 Furious he and Roman end up totaling the muscle cars. So in O’Conner’s next film, when he is back with the FBI, he chooses to rebuild a tuner import to use in an undercover operation, where he ends up running against and losing to Toretto, driving the ’70 Charger.
O’Conner spends the fourth film with the import, and as you’d expect, he spends this film in conflict with Toretto. Their conflict from the first film is not resolved. Toretto is firmly established in his role as father, and O’Conner is still the rebellious kid.
This is how O’Conner moves throughout his three films. He never grows beyond adolescence, never resolves his father issues, and never resolves this Oedipal conflict. He watns to be an adult, but he;s also afraid to be the adult. But at the end of Fast and Furious, O’Conner is forced to choose and makes the moral choice that lets him move beyond stunted adolescence and squarely into adulthood. O’Conner, ever the good FBI agent captures the bad guy and brings in Toretto. At Toretto’s sentencing, however, the judge doesn’t chooses not to consider O’Conner’s testimony vouching for Toretto’s assistance and good faith help in bringing down the drug dealer. When the judge sentences Toretto to 25 years without parole, O’Conner is shocked. He expected the law to be moral, to live up to a moral code. When it doesn’t, he abandons the law in favor of defending his newly formed moral code, the code he’d been working on for three films. Family, loyalty and friendship first and above all others.
O’Conner, having found his own code, now takes up the mantle left by his surrogate father. Metaphorically he becomes his surrogate father. In the epilogue of Fast and Furious when the team is reassembled to ambush the prison bus carrying Toretto, guess O’Conner leads the team from behind the wheel of the 1970 Charger, the car Toretto built with his dad, and which O’Conner built with Torreto, his surrogate dad.
5. “I’m Through Running”
So if Brian and Dom’s Oedipal conflicts are resolved, we are presented with something of a narrative conundrum. The conflict that drove the relationship between Brian and Dom, which was central to the franchise, is settled, so what could possibly happen in the fifth film, being released today?
This is one of those rare instances where Hollywood films can either transcend their plots and become art, or retreat to safe, bankable ground, and become B-grade, forgettable sequels.
Specifically, the new film must do at least two things or else risk becoming a parody of itself.
O’Conner needs to move forward in his maturation, and become the father he displaced in resolving the conflict. One way to do this would be for Brian to start a family with Mia, either marrying her or having a child with her. If this happens, there should be no more of the Oedipal drag racing between Toretto and O’Conner, and it should end conclusively (e.g. they have a race that Brian decides not to finish, realizing that he now has responsibilities).
If Toretto and O’Conner do have a drag race, then it means Brian still sees Dom as the father to be “killed”, and this in turn would be inconsistent with Brian assuming the mantle of fatherhood at the end of the previous film. It would mean that Brian’s character has slid back into the role of reckless man-child. There is no middle ground.
But it also means that Toretto’s maturity stalls out at the father stage, which brings up the second thing the film needs to do in order to push the franchise beyond hackneyed retread territory. The fifth film needs to evolve Toretto beyond father-figure. If Brian is now an adult, Toretto’s role isn’t needed. So he needs to evolve further, to confront the issues of his mortality that are at the heart of adulthood, and to confront the condition, the situation, that gave rise to the post-Freudian masses of men in both the racing scenes and the packed movie theaters. He needs to step in to the role of tribal elder–a diffuse and wise presence in the lives of many, not just his family. To become a strong presence moving regularly through the fatherless families that constitute much of the underclasses in Mexico and South America, where the films take place.
But Hollywood being Hollywood, I would bet my money on not taking the fifth film in this direction, choosing instead to pigeonhole O’Conner in the role of thrill-seeking man-child and Toretto in the role of racing dad. Because Hollywood knows that because there is always a new crop of post-Freudian adolescents driven libidinally by fast cars and hot chicks, there is no reason to push the story to get the grown-ups to come out.