On Loving The Fast & The Furious Like Family
by Joe Hackett
The most quintessential scene in The Fast & The Furious series centers around a car crash. Given that the lives of nearly 1,000 cars were lost over the course of six films bearing this brand’s name, that comes as no surprise. What makes this moment more ecstatically fast & furious than any other though, is that the crash doesn’t occur on a ridge cliff in Tokyo or in an underground tunnel on the USA-Mexico border or even on a boat off the port of Miami. No, it exists almost entirely in Vin Diesel’s fucking mind. Or rather, the mind of lead character Dominic Toretto, but really distinguishing between the two has become nigh impossible since Diesel took on Executive Producer duties with the fourth entry of the series, Fast & Furious (2009). It is in that film we find Torretto mulling over the crime scene where his on-off-on lover Letty Ortiz (Michelle Rodriguez) was recently murdered, pondering not only the clues at hand, but the loss of love in his life. What makes this different from say, Tony Stark recreating the aftermath of a bomb explosion in his basement using $6 billion worth of tech, is that Toretto is visualizing instinctively off a collage of hearsay and pure emotion. It’s unsettlingly moving in a minor way and patently absurd in a major way, one that makes you question what Universal Studios considers “money well spent” – the central car crash not only shares the frame with Toretto, who is standing in the middle of the street where his girlfriend was subsequently gunned down, but (expensive CG work) shows the tumbling wreck of her final resting place pass right through him, in one clean shot. It’s a moment that finds an outwardly resilient, but internally fraught Diesel at the heart of carnage that threatens to tear his family unit apart. The end result is the purest distillation of F&F figurehead and Director Justin Lin’s primary thesis statement: Reveal the true nature of a character through action, not dialogue.
Emotional shorthand couched in a megaton explosion of visceral eyecandy.
The whole series exists on this level; the first trio films by happenstance, the latter trilogy ever so purposefully. It’s this stubborn insistence on character that has carried The Fast & The Furious on a 12 year journey from misbegotten Paul Walker star vehicle to the most widely embraced original franchise Hollywood has to offer. Furious Six(2013), the latest installment, is laden with scenes of horizontal plot movement that only really exist to give all of its major players a chance to shine. It is the series’ longest film by 20 minutes, or about the length of a network television comedy, which is what seems to be slotted between the film’s effervescent action sequences. It has significantly more room to breathe than the wall to wall action of the preceding movie, Fast Five (2011), which can make for a convoluted drag or an ecstatic glee depending on your investment in the series and tolerance for breezy improvisational one-liners.
This excess, even at its most expendable, is undeniably hard earned. Nowhere is it crystallized better than by a Furious Six scene supported solely by former(ly great) rapper Ludacris, on-off-on-off wrestler The Rock and ex-MMA fighter Gina Carano. Three far from classically trained actors taking a meaty chunk of time out of a $160 million studio tentpole & still nailing the bullseye without dragging the energy down one iota. It’s all the more fascinating once you factor in how practically none of them could be considered in the top four most important characters in the film and yet, in this short & significant moment, they carry the movie without breaking it. This would be a good time to contemplate how they all arrived at this place in life, saved from weak career choices and allowed be their ideal selves for an enthralled audience. Consider the weight of their life long investments and gather a clear sense of how unlikely it was that they ever paid off. Soak in that complete feeling…then octuple the sensation. Now, you have an idea as to how truly miraculous it is that The Fast & The Furious series, with its hodgepodge of malleable mythology, over torqued direction and vacuous actors, has persevered to greater success than any other series of its kind in modern cinema.
How did we get here? The series’ saving grace lies in its beginning, a film that is far less a movie than a blueprint. Paul Walker plays the lead, but Vin Diesel plays the star. Personifying a black hole of charisma, he sucks in all of the best lines much like how we would go on to do in other (more intentional) franchise starters like Chronicles of Riddick & xXx. The Fast & The Furious (2001) had its hooks in the untapped street racing market of the era, but something less to be desired for the viewing audiences of today. The plot is sturdy and not without its engaging quirks, but the most memorable non-Diesel moments lie in humor derived from amateurish acting underserved by director Rob Cohen. If it were released few years out of its time (or a few months later, post-9/11),this startlingly swift studio vehicle would have been a flash in the pan, a spark in time that never ignited. Time heals all wounds though and it’s now easier than ever to view The Fast & The Furious endearingly as a document of its time rather a blemish on the career of famous marine biologist Paul Walker.
Money was made in Hollywood though, so money has to be spent: 2 Fast 2 Furious *(2003) arrived without its star and with Paul Walker back in the lead, this time with the relationship structure taking more stock from buddy action-comedies rather than a master/apprentice relationship a la Point Break. Roman Pierce (Tyrese Gibson) is introduced into the fold as Brian O’Conner’s old friend (any character who isn’t a villain in this series is an old friend) and after a brotherly slap fight outside of demolition derby arena, their familial bond is solidified forevermore. Much like how The Fast & The Furious’ explosive intensity mirrored the style of O’Conner’s foil, Dominic Toretto, 2F2F accomplishes effectively the same with Roman Pierce. The film, directed by John Singleton, is flamboyant, loud, cocky and either sticks on ya or grates to the point of where you have to laugh at the silliness to stop from crying. Ludacris’ Tej Parker (another old friend of O’Conner’s) is introduced in this one too, as a streetwise hustler with a fear of driving in the wake of a traumatic car accident. Remarkably, this character trait is subtly not forgotten by the time he returns in later films (now reincarnated as a computer smart hustler), where he is the only member of the crew who never gets behind the wheel on a job. Even with these little details in mind, it’s the least substantial film in the series’ canon. This supreme failing is very forgivable however, as 2 Fast 2 Furious’ infectiously silly charisma and dream logic plotting would go on to become staples of the series. Its most lasting legacy of all though, is its phenomenal title.
* A 6 minute prelude explaining ex-cop Brian O’Conner’s fleeing from L.A. to Miami between features was also produced; it was composed with the care & visual style of a late night commercial for a sex hotline, it has about the same worth to the average person.
A film that is more influential on The Fast & The Furious’ twisted mythology though, is one that is not even officially a part of it: Justin Lin’s fourth film, Better Luck Tomorrow (2002). It’s the first appearance of Han, as a secondary character in a gang of overachieving drug dealers in a SoCal high school. Han, played by 30 year old Sung Kang around the time of shooting, fits the part of a disaffected teen in spirit, if not in appearance. The same goes for BLT’s place in TF&TF universe: There are no fast cars or mob bosses or undercover cops, but it holds to many of the thematic principles Lin would pursue during his official four film tenure. Among them: The everlasting pursuit of one’s self, a commitment to being part of chosen family unit and heightened moments of impactful violence that punctuate character truths. The film has very little of the early 00s tackiness that weigh down TF&TF and 2F2F (everyone’s commitment to khakis is admirable though) and it side steps Asian-American stereotypes in a way that would inspire Roger Ebert to yell in its defense at 2003 Sundance Q&A , thus launch Lin himself into the spotlight. At 99 minutes, it feels forgivably long in the same way Furious Six does, purposefully making room for all its characters to get their time to play in the sun.
A nagging question of what really happened to those characters after the open ending of Better Luck Tomorrow would cause the sun to come out once more for Han. He returns in Fast & Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006), taking a Dominic Toretto-ish role as the incredibly reserved, “I’ve seen some shit” mentor to Lucas Black’s Sean Boswell, a spiritual successor to Paul Walker’s stilted white guy / wrong culture lead. A seemingly one-off film that, on paper, is somehow even more explicitly cash-grabby than 2 Fast 2 Furious, Tokyo Drift is the series’ greatest success story and its most overlooked entry. Some would argue its dispensability: It’s set in a foreign land with the gimmicky title, stars none of the principal cast from previous films and has a markedly lower budget, all details that point to an American Pie-style ‘direct to DVD’ property made to take easy money from unassuming fans. Those are all surface levels details however, in support of a strawman argument. What Justin Lin crafts in this entry from the scraps of the underachieving first film & enthusiastic, but less purposeful second, is something that adheres to the values & highlights of both without surrendering its own vividly distinct identity. Tokyo as a setting is the most comfortably aliens of the series yet – it’s neither majorly absent like Los Angeles, nor unforgettably schticky like Miami. The necessary races have more variety and are peppered with character moments that engage the viewer between the start & finish lines. The antagonists resist falling completely into pastiche as well and, at their most empowered, stand tall with a mannered self-respect that minimizes any comical mustache twirling the script offers. It’s the film in the series with the most to prove and it largely succeeds thanks to Lin’s eye for detail and solid character arc construction. It also brings to the forefront many of the dead-simple spiritual ideas that were touched on in the films before and grounded in the ones after:
“There’s no ‘wax on wax off’ with drifting. You learn by doing it. The first drifters invented drifting out here in the mountains by feeling it. So feel it.”
Many of these ancient idioms are doled out by Han, who errs even closer to the Zen cool of Point Break Swayze than the smoldering Vin Diesel did. This dialogue is rare, but lends the film a breathability not far from what was found in the looser sections of Better Luck Tomorrow.
The legacy of Tokyo Drift is the most debated in all of The Fast & The Furious lineage and generally breaks into two sides: For those here for pure racing (which was growing harder to differentiate even by the time it peaks in this entry) this is the worst film in the series, one that overloads its plot on the shoulders of a lead half as engaging as the ham splatter that anchored the prior two entries. For the savvier filmgoer though, this graceful & grounded picture can be very easily seen as top tier, making the most of its emotional beats without grinding their worth down with over the top action. It earns it’s Dominic Toretto cameo at the end, the only shame in it being that Han never lived long enough to see it.
Or did he? With Fast & Furious, the series officially begins its self-referential path towards the truly weird. Justin Lin returns more confident than ever with himself and it shows when he unnecessarily brings Han back for a third film in what’s effectively a cameo role within the opening action sequence. He’s subsequently given a Poochie-esque “I must return to my home planet of Tokyo” send off, thus setting up one of the many confounding mythological grace notes that litter the next three films in the series. Fast & Furious even has this idea of reintroduction embedded in its title; The film works like a remake without being one, forming muscle around the skeletal structure left behind by the first film in the series. Brian O’Conner, despite breaking a thousand laws in LA & poorly cooperating with the police in Miami, is back as a hotheaded FBI agent in pursuit of Dominic Toretto, who is merely just back from an extended vacation in the Dominican Republic (as shown in this passable 20 minute short film directed by Vin Diesel himself titled Los Bandoleros (2009)). Their prior history drives their chemistry and enriches the film as it finds refreshing ways to ground their budding friendship. The police presence featured here is as marginal as ever though, crowded out of the picture by our reckless protagonists and the ruthless criminals they aim to take down. It’s one of F&F’s weaker points, literally reducing cops to a punching bag in the case of Ben Stasiak, O’Conner’s fellow FBI agent. He’s played with shit eating glee by Shea Wigham, but it’s a casting choice that is so on the nose that his character becomes too easy to hate, in a way where you end up almost feeling bad when O’Conner let’s steam off on him (because he sure as hell can’t do so on Torretto). Much of Fast & Furious has this spiteful streak, which is rather in keeping with the trappings of the mystery-revenge flick that it is, but out of step with the more fun tone all other entries in the series gladly take on. These missteps are highlighted by many scenes often taking place at night (sometimes even in unappealingly murky, claustrophobic tunnels) and the villains, who are inevitably dispatched in the end with a touch too extreme brutality. Even on paper the plot is distinctly darker than all the others: it revolves around heroin running across the US-Mexican border, a scheme that gets one of the principal players featured on the poster murdered in the first 15 minutes of the movie.
For all its brooding and harsh judgment calls, Fast & Furious still has its heart in the right place. It’s the one entry most dedicated to establishing a fair relationship on all sides for its main characters. O’Conner, while “still a buster”, is given the respect a guy who actually stuck around for a full sequel deserves. Toretto finds more gravity with the plot through his relationship with Letty, giving life to a romance that (including 60% of the Los Bandeleros short film) was given maybe 14 minutes of screentime prior to. Together, with Jordana’s Brewster’s Mia Toretto (in an actually notable, if not all too significant role as Brian’s renewed love interest), they form a reliably warm & fuzzy core that nearly dulls the rest of the film’s jagged edges. Justin Lin brings the most diverse visual palette of the series here, bathing his boilerplate revenge plot in every hue on the color wheel. As for the racing, it’s slyly updated through a weird GPS conceit that is more indebted to the gaming culture of 2009 than the car clubs of 2001. Lin is given a longer leash on this picture and, with the exception of a prelude that features a logic/budget busting climax, he uses it carefully to lasso in all the central characters closer than ever.
This contraction sets up the unlikely expansion in Fast Five, a tonal pendulum swing from Fast & Furious and arguably the most crowd pleasing film in the series (or all of human history depending on how drunk you are when watching it). There isn’t much of another way to put this: everything about Fast Five works at its maximum potential. Not only is its impoverished setting in Brazil paid respect visually, it’s also touted as a distinct advantage worth championing by our protagonists. The action, more varied and intuitively imaginative than ever before, is unrelenting without being completely overwhelming thanks to Justin Lin’s insistence on creating space for true character moments. All of the best cast members from the previous films return on some serious Tommy Westphall type shit (welcome back from imminent death AGAIN, Han) to play a part that is much bigger than sympathetic winks to their past films. Through this, Fast Five haphazardly creates one of the most diverse American blockbuster casts ever assembled, which would be remarkable even if they weren’t all given purposeful roles to play that lent to their value as characters over their currency as easy stereotypes or sex objects. The most crucial casting decision of all though, is Dwayne Johnson as Diplomatic Security Agent Luke Hobbs. It’s an addition that not only comes as a relief to The Fast & The Furious fans who have gone four films without an antagonist possessing true bite, but to action film fans everywhere who had been waiting almost 8 years since Walking Tall for The Rock to assume his mantle as the king of action cinema.
Fast Five’s plot, a steroid juiced blend of Ocean’s 13 style fantasy heist film & The Fugitive with Muscles chase film, is the series’ most bulletproof by virtue of not giving one single fuck. This is all thanks to Justin Lin’s confidence and sheer audacity, built on the foundation of 10 solid years in filmmaking. This growth allows him to go for broke selling a scene where Ludacris lifts fingerprints directly off a girl’s bikini bottom & not have the audience bat an eye. The film has absolutely no bummer drag or convoluted sag – characters are enriched by their history together, rather than weighed down with guilt from their past mistakes like in Fast & Furious. It also invokes the series’ most valuable theme of family, bringing the audience in close on each character’s lives with a soft focus: Brian & Mia are having a baby, Han & Gisele are flirting and Tej & Roman hit each other back and forth with brotherly one liners. Most wild of all though, is the return of Matt Schultz’s Vince from the first film, brought in to contrast how Dom & Brian’s relationship has changed entirely over time. Fast Five smartly side steps using Vince as a rift in the Dom/Brian dynamic though, while also not shortchanging him as a person with tangible motivations. It’s incredible how brisk all of these interactions (now spanning five films) can be without losing any of their vitality, keeping things simple without forgetting them entirely. It’s what keeps this series’ head above water in ways that most viewers never give the films credit for, because it all feels so smooth. You can say Fast Five is a dumb film very easily by focusing on the preponderance of absurd action scenes it piles on, but that would also be ignoring its highest dedication to maintaining characters that are more than rubber toys that shoot and smash into each other without identity or purpose.
This idea is most evident in how, in a two hour film stuffed with characters old and new, there’s still time allotted for multiple failures in the crafting of their plans. This is where Fast Five excels above many modern heist films – the mistakes aren’t built in, and they become real obstacles for the characters to overcome. For example, an extensive amount of time is spent showing each individual of the team fail to make a proper drift that would allow them to avoid being seen by security cameras during their heist. It’s absurd that any time at all is spent showing this when the film has so much else to juggle and the solution to the problem is so easy (just drive some cop cars in innocuously, duh). What’s more preposterous is that the sequence, with its lack of any real necessity, never bores. This is another moment that highlight’s Lin’s ability to both keep action and character moving in step together, forward, allowing Fast Five to hurtle full force into an insane climax through the streets of Rio de Janeiro that sees O’Conner & Toretto use a massive bank vault to literally wipe out every last corrupt cop in town before making off with the cash themselves in a twist that could make Ocean’s 12 jealous. Its denouement is deservedly ecstatic, a montage that plucks every character out of Rio & drops them off safely into a familial place, more fulfilled than ever. It’s as feel good as it gets, and speaks to the greater themes of the series that commits to characters that chase after their ideal self far more than they compete with the car beside of them.
How could the door be left open for a sequel when everyone walks away with what they want? Like all simple hooks that have kept The Fast & The Furious franchise thriving after all this time, it’s about giving the people what they didn’t know they could have. In Furious Six, Letty Ortiz is brought back from an ambiguous Fast & Furious death and used as a hook to yank the loyal members of the Toretto family unit back into play. More than that, the film finds a solid jumping off point for other dilemmas: the gang has money, but now that they’re on the run, they no longer have a home. Toretto’s team take on a job from a desperate Hobbs for full pardons and to save Letty from some soap operatic amnesia haze that’s left her in the clutches of a heartless Owen Shaw (Luke Evans), who heads up a bizarro world team of mercenaries that pull off jobs much like Toretto’s crew, but with far more ruthless efficiency and disregard for human life.
This is all starting to look not far from Tokyo Drift, in that the bare surface level cash grabbiness of it all threatens to suck the life from the proceedings. Furious Six exceeds expectations by cutting those worries down at the knees with sharply self-aware one-liners, often delivered by Roman Pierce with overwhelming enthusiasm that not only gets the audience to feel ‘in’ on the absurdity of it all, but buy into it the stakes of the film wholesale. It would be enough to just chuckle at these thin excuses to reunite the squad and move along with the adventure, but Justin Lin takes it another step this time around, mining the mirror version of Shaw’s crew for a thematic richness that was never as whole in the other entries of the series. Note how the highlighted faults in Shaw’s team match those leveraged against the series: that all members are thought of as inconsequential, interchangeable components replaceable like a car part. You could say the same of any The Fast & The Furious film: change the locale, tweak the plot, switch out the characters just to get a humanoid shape into a fast car and you’re on your way with your big dumb action movie. What makes Toretto’s crew different is what Diesel wanted most when he signed on as Executive Producer of the series and started playing Dungeons & Dragons with its greatest hits: emotional equity. The bond built by Toretto’s chosen family over the course of six films is what makes them stronger, and gives the audience reason to believe in the superhuman things people can achieve when they work together (friendship is M A G I C). Shaw’s crew believes it can win by willing to die any moment for the cause, but history shows they’ve already lost. Like many action sequences over the years that you’ve already forgotten you’ve seen, there isn’t much point in putting people in a life threatening situation when they have no reason to live.
All of this is savory undercurrent to the proceedings though, which are less a victory lap and more lapping the competition. Furious Six achieves a similar sensationalist fervor to Fast Five without feeling as though they simple added the word “more” before all of that film’s best traits. Justin Lin looked to Robert Altman as the biggest influence on this picture and, in the context of The Fast & The Furious series, he nailed that aspiration. Furious Six breaks off a piece for all 13 of its major players, allowing for an incredible amount of loose, improvisational one on one time with each other that never fails to stimulate. Even better still, is that the protagonists aren’t the only ones given such care - Joe Taslim, lifted from recent foreign action film success in The Raid: Redemption, brings his A game with a hilarious whooping he puts on both Han and Roman in front of an awe struck crowd in a London tube station. After he’s made short work of two series mainstays, he calmly walks away, achieving a status of cool on par with both characters in a fraction of their screen time. It’s absolutely effortless how Lin is able to weave these scenes of pure comedy simultaneously with direct plot movement while still hitting the mark with audience every step of the way. Put up against any artery clogged Michael Bay picture of the past decade, and Furious Six’s one liners, that notably don’t rely on racist/sexist beats, begin to feel like heaven on Earth.
The action sequences here are arguably fewer than Fast Five, but their sparseness in the film is more than made up for by their density when they do arrive. The climax, taking place on a military cargo jet rolling down the longest runway in human history, is an absolute marvel of editing. If you’re one of the 20 people who saw Cloud Atlas, you might have felt atleast impressed at the ambition it had to tell six complete movies at once; Furious Six’s main event surpasses that sensation by threading six distinct action scenes on together at once, without hedging any comprehensibility. It’s a peerless jewel fit for Lin’s crowning achievement, climaxing in a moment that earns rare unanimous cheers from its overstimulated audience.
Experiencing The Fast & The Furious franchise all the way up to this point has been like watching a child grow from student to world class master, earning its scars and stripes all the way up to the top. Standing on the shoulders of previous entries, Furious Six is no longer simply content with just being a breath of fresh air in the action picture genre; it wants to gives you a full pool to lie about and swim laps in. Pick almost any more ‘prestigious’ movie series out of a hat – odds are fairly good that it doesn’t have the luxury of reaching for the sky without having one foot tied to the ground by hollow explanations that adhere to a dreaded “realism”. The Fast & The Furious (almost mercifully) features no such restraints, having successfully taught its audience that its gummi worm plotting and raw meat action scenes are a perfectly balanced meal. In Furious Six, the MacGuffin is worth a kajillion dollars, the bad guys want it and Hobbs can’t stop them alone: These are all the essential facts, no further muss nor fuss. Thanks to its thin Saturday morning cartoon worthy scripts, this universe is colored in by the viewer’s imagination in a way that has to make the folks operating other more rigidly cohesive franchises totally jealous. Take Marvel, which (now that it’s escaped its introductory phase) is finally starting to get weird in a Fast & Furious way. What’s unfortunate though, is that the connected universe had to push out five solid to completely forgotten films before reaching their nexus point in The Avengers. Worse still, audiences will probably suffer more clunkers en route to that super team reunites to make a worthwhile impact again. Furious Six, by comparison, *is* that Avengers 2, giving its fans ice cream for desert right after they just had their cookies for dinner with Fast Five.
All of this is so unprecedented and improbable that one can’t help but marvel at the strange complexity of human life that lead all of this to fruition:
If Rob Cohen never stepped off, we might have had very basic, staid sequels instead of the ones he bitterly seems to wish he was part of today.
If MC Hammer never pulled through with funding for critical hit Better Luck Tomorrow, Justin Lin might never have spun around this particular globe five times, much less would we have the mind boggling mythology thanks to that special character of Lin’s imagination, Han.
If Tokyo Drift had been shortchanged in any way by less faithful producers than Neil H. Moritz, Vin Diesel might never have been convinced to jump in a 70s Charger ever again.
If Diesel didn’t have such a prominent Facebook presence, we might have gotten Tommy Lee Jones in place of The Rock and the series might have never truly crossed over.
If this had been treated like any other franchise under the strict watch of a studio (like Sony), we probably wouldn’t have half the gonzo creative decisions that lead to a plane climactically ejaculating a car to uproarious applause from audiences the world over.
Most importantly though, is that this series would be nothing without the attention to detail and enthusiasm for the material so clearly shared by everyone on set. In a chaotic world of calculated studio franchises with interchangeable parts threatening to take hold, The Fast & The Furious is a rare candle that retains its eternal flame in the wind.
Which brings us to the latest development: Justin Lin is stepping down from director duties on Fast & Furious 7, a rushed 2014 release date making way for a new voice in James Wan. After the titillating end credits teaser Furious Six popped its viewers with, many are worried that without Justin Lin, the series that reached full bloom after six films will soon begin to wilt. Such grievances can be alleviated though – all of the principal players are game to return, from Dungeon Master Vin Diesel, to unheralded scriptwriter Chris Morgan, all the way down to the reliable second unit crews making magic a reality with the franchise’s hallmark action sequences. The Fast & The Furious, like Han, has improbably returned from the dead before, so leaving things to fresh blood is far from the worst case scenario. Given the perspective the whole of the series grants, it would be best to silence those worries and let Fast & Furious 7 do what the series has always done best: Speak for itself through action, not words.
Nuit Blanche [Sleepless Night] (2011) could have taken a few lessons from the many Tony Scott master classes on how to craft a film about a less than lawful man wanting one thing and willing to burn the world down to get it. Particularly the one detailing how an environment can enhance a narrative by remaining intensely at odds with what the character, and the audience, expect from it (Man on Fire comes to mind quickly when thinking about this). Nuit Blanche ignores this philosophy in favor of something less sensational, taking an almost documentary-like plainness to the typical genre fare of bad cop gone to hell and back. The commitment to realism here hollows out almost every opportunity for the kinds of eccentricity that allows films in this vein to be distinctive, leaving the biggest thing to set it apart (possibly not even intentionally) being how many of Chekov’s Guns it leaves cold. Some cases this is for the better (a stashed away gun is set up in a way that seems as though the director cleverly wants the audience to forget about it, and then he subsequently does too) and some times it’s for the worse (a new woman for our lonely leading man is flirted with momentarily, then dropped entirely just when things could have used some spice). Others are more middling - an off hand remark about burning the building to the ground is spoken like a bad omen and ends up being one of many prayers Nuit Blanche leaves unanswered as it constantly pushes our lead from one room to the next with no real concern for what it’ll be like when he gets there.
What engages the viewer the most here lies in what tropes the film chooses to side step - the characters aren’t overwrought stereotypes, but instead tip toe onto the right side of being simple and grounded enough to avoid pulling you out of the scene. This helps to better bring the viewer into the seemingly straightforward narrative, which often knows how to swerve just before reaching it’s expected destination. That said, much of the runtime will leave some listening too close, waiting for the director to truly speak up. This is exactly the kind of film that rewards an experimental touch, with meaty scenery & willing actors to eat it up, and Nuit Blanche avoids these exciting creative liberties altogether. The main location, a night club, is the most normal of any film that has cared to make one a focal point (even the short club scene in Collateral garners more palpable tension from it’s single setting than the variety of levels presented here). Nothing about the place reflects the main character’s struggle or challenges him in any relevant way outside of casually blocking him from his singular goal - take away the drug dealing hustler that runs it and the entire movie could’ve taken place in a elementary school with our lead Vincent trying to rescue his son from detention.
While the direction isn’t pedestrian, it does feel surprisingly restrained and handcuffed to the narrative. The film hits a peak with a left turn into a drag out kitchen brawl between our lead and a subplot who just won’t stop giving him shit until they’re both beat nearly to death. The well staged fight makes use of it’s setting in an active way, whereas the rest of the film before and after treats this night club like it was made of glass, never threatening to break the realistic exterior lest it find something more interesting underneath than the small set of players it chooses to take off the bench.
Nuit Blanche sufficiently overcomes its staid style in the end to amount to something just above decent because the skeletal structure of the main plot is built so well. It’s only a great blueprint though, and that’s why it was such an easy call for American studios to jump on remaking it. A director with flair and a louder voice could bring this film to life and make it talk. For now, we’re left with a film that director/writer Frédéric Jardin was just happy to have make it out alive.