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MV5BMTQwNDA2MTg3Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNTg3MzIyMg@@._V1__SX1234_SY552_Every time one of the last three Fast and the Furious movies has come out, everyone starts talking about their favorites and inevitably dismisses the fourth film, Fast & Furious as the worst. And every year, I may quietly speak up and say I love that one, but I usually don’t push. As long as people love the series, they can have their own favorites. Fast & Furious actually was my favorite for a while. It’s not any more but it’s still the most underrated. So in honor of Furious Seven, now might finally be the time to explain why I love Fast & Furious so much. Maybe people will give it another chance or be able to see it in a different light.

It mostly comes down to having such outstanding opening and closing sequences that whatever is in the middle, it begins and ends on such high notes they dominate my memory. The opening gas tanker heist is such a beautiful sequence. It builds up to three tankers where the first one is easy. At the second tanker, the driver catches them and starts fighting back. By the end of the sequences they’re speeding downhill and the tanker driver has bailed. When Dom and Letty drive under the flaming tanker, that’s their Raiders of the Lost Ark boulder moment. The film ends with the promise of breaking Dom out of a prison transport leaving you cheering, “Yeah!” while Dom just shrugs.

The body of the movie speaks to me in more ways than I ever hear discussed. The fact is, it’s a generic revenge plot. Dom returns to avenge Letty’s death, and ends up having to go undercover with Brian to get the drug kingpin she was working for. The plot can be this simple, because on it hangs all the unspoken history between the first and fourth Fast and the Furious movies. We haven’t seen Dom in mostly two films, and when we saw Brian in 2 Fast 2 Furious, his relationship with Roman informed his decision to let Dom go at the end of The Fast and the Furious. So now working through this undercover revenge plot is incidental. It’s really about dealing with Dom and Brian, and Mia.

Case in point: Brian’s introduction in Fast & Furious. It’s an elaborate foot chase that culminates in Brian screaming, “Gimme a name!” That’s it. There was no larger purpose to chasing this suspect. He was just someone who might have a name. There is nothing new about “gimme a name” but the sequence serves to build Brian up to be a badass. By the time he beats the crap out of an FBI superior in the movie, that’s this movie thumbing its nose at archetypes. These boys are so tough, they don’t even abide by the usual cop movie formula of a superior officer who can dress down the rogue hero.

MV5BMTU3NzgxMTgyNl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNjU0OTIxMw@@._V1__SX1234_SY552_Fast & Furious gives all the relationships more weight. When Dom and Brian are trying to keep it together undercover, the villain comments, “Do you know each other?” All the unspoken bitterness of betrayal and time are there. Dom says, “He used to date my sister.” That says one thing to new acquaintances but lets the audience in on something more. Dom’s not just bitter a cop infiltrated his operation. He’s bitter a man betrayed his family, and since we see Mia confronting Brian earlier, we have some hint at what this has done to Mia over the years. But now Dom and Brian are forced to keep each other’s secrets, after secrets both brought them together and tore them apart in the first place.

The film brought back all the key elements: Dom’s car sitting in the garage, family dinners saying grace, owing each other a 10 second car. There are still parties with scantily clad women but Dom and Brian are older now. Now they’re not just hanging out. They’re driven and they have to play the old scene. In a way, Fast & Furious is a version of the first movie but all grown up, before the series becomes James Bond, which is a great development to come in the future. Furious Seven does a similar thing. It’s essentially Deckard Shaw out for revenge, but on that skeleton the film hangs much more meaningful history and forward momentum.

It’s fine if some people don’t like the two chases through the tunnels. That was an experiment and the series moved on after that. Be sure to notice that the first tunnel chase sets up the stuff that happens in the second. I still think jumping from car to car underground is awesome. I like the GPS race too, and the desert chase has some solid practical stunt work. So the action works for me, my favorites of course being the Raiders of the Lost on NOS prologue and the mere tease of a mobile prison break at the end. Dom turning himself in was huge, but they’re not really going to let him go down like that. It so embodies the Fast and the Furious attitude, saying, “All right, we tried to do the right thing. If you don’t accept that, we’re still doing this our way.” Frankly, when they shot the actual prison break in Fast Five, it was a disappointment. You’d think hijacking an armed prison transport would be more elaborate than flipping one bus over. It might’ve been better to just leave the breakout to our imaginations.

Of course, this was the first film in the series to establish itself as a prequel to Tokyo Drift. The luster on that might have worn off now that the two subsequent sequels were also prequels to Tokyo Drift, but I still think it’s pretty special. When I first saw Fast & Furious, I was sure Letty was in on it. I mean, she dies 15 minutes into her reunion movie? I expected her to have faked her death to set Dom up, which would have served her better in this film, but the stinger in Fast Five and her full role in the last two films was much better.

MV5BMTQyNTQwNDE5Ml5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMzc4MDkzMg@@._V1__SX1234_SY552_People forget how big a hit Fast & Furious was in 2009. Tokyo Drift had been a huge blow to the franchise financially, no matter how highly regarded it’s become. The return of Diesel was greeted with revelry, a $70 million opening and $150 million total gross. Now that the series has grown another three films, I see it feels more like a stepping stone to more greatness, but it was not a disappointment in its day.

The great thing is we now have seven Fast and the Furious films to choose from. Or don’t choose. They make a great binge marathon. But that’s enough films to get a few different experiences. Whether you’re in the mood for the pseudo-gravitas of 1 and 4, the fun lark of 2 Fast 2 Furious, the coming of age story of Tokyo Drift or the full on epics of Fast Five and beyond, there’s a good reason to watch any of them. Fast & Furious will always have a special place in my heart for tying the first three films together in a way that made them all a whole. The beauty of the series has been that each sequel retroactively makes its predecessors better. Now that Letty’s crash, Braga and Gisele have paid of so greatly, there’s no souring Fast & Furious for me.