Film theory Politics

Fast and Furious Biopolitics

Andreas Petrossiants brings us on a swift ride through the Fast and Furious franchise, reflecting on 21st century developments of western surveillance and policing cultures.

For months, I’ve been trying to write a para-academic essay about Fast and Furious, and its fast allusions to the development of slow, epistemic violence. More appropriately, the process has mostly consisted of riffing on the very premise. The first time I told the idea to my partner, she laughed with me, said I should do it, and mentioned those movies were “my thing”: that one preposterous element of mainstream cinematic culture that many writers carry around, analysing—raw data waiting for a faux-Mark Fisherian analysis couched in a genuine appreciation for the sordid content.

I’ve considered a lot of approaches to it, growing numerous in a series of docs. Here are some of them.

  1. It’s the campiest series of films of this century. Both “deliberately exaggerated and theatrical in style, typically for humorous effect,” (and humorous it is) and “ostentatiously and extravagantly effeminate” (per Google’s definitions). The same crypto-homophobia nested in much use of that word apply to the saga’s politics as well. In the latest spin-off, Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw, co-stars Jason Statham and Dwanye “The Rock” Johnson had stipulations in their contracts that neither of them could lose a fight—this was true of Vin Diesel’s alpha male character in prior movies as well.
  2. It documents how the aura of 90s idealisms—a collection of radically different subjectivities responding to the fragmentation of the internationalist left and globalization, erroneously grouped as one—were mythologized and made commercially viable after 9/11. In the first film, aesthetic choices (from wardrobe to character arcs) are somewhere between Hot Wheels, cyberpunk, skater boy, and Spaghetti Western. The subtextual political fuel goes from libertarian comradery to Patriot Act to Zuckerberg testifying at the Capital in just a few films.
  3. It’s a roadmap to the development of neoliberal forms of surveillance, policing, and supra-statist politics exemplified in new forms and representations of statist violence, occupation, “justice,” and legitimacy. The films document an important shift in political discourse over the last decade: the development of a highly profitable simulacrum of populism premised on heighted surveillance apparatuses, algorithmic policing, and extra-statist violence—Ayn Rand meets Hal 9000. How to sell populism without doing the dirty work of materially propping up some segments of the undercommons? Get Vin Diesel to talk about “familia,” while busting every union you see and individualising the workspace.
  4. It’s a “fat and stupid” description of neoliberal biopower becoming individualized self-policing biopolitics. It’s no accident that every central law enforcement figure in the franchise reappears in the next film as a class collaborator until they’re all rogue cops, nor that every villain, from the sixth movie onwards follows the same trajectory, until the saga uncovers that they were never villains at all, but rather so virtuous that they took the rap for the state’s cavalier militarisms.

Some ruminations on the fourth point. Once, when trying to type out Fast and Furious, my phone autocorrected the title to “Fat and Stupid.” I imagined this misspelling as a riff on a segment by liberal US late-night darling John Oliver titled “dumb Watergate,” in which he compared Trump’s Russian scandals to Nixon’s treason. We’d do best to avoid his logic which venerates fundamentally undemocratic systems that perpetuate systems of power (courts e.g.), not to mention that it plays into a sophisticated fearmongering. Fast and Furious does, however, act out the same “making stupid” of certain politics, without meaning to, to be sure.

Cast from The Fast and the Furious (2001)

In the early films, head “precision driver” and patriarch Dominic Toretto’s crew are a small gang of self-declared thieves. Their motto: “We ride together, we die together,” identities a small and tightly-knit band. It’s campier corollary, a recurring quip that demonstrates Dom is always on the run: “I live my life a quarter-mile at a time.” The next few films serve to build up this criminality, but exit the small Los Angeles backyard barbeque locale. In the ensuing films, they become criminals in the eyes of local police, federal drug enforcement agencies, the CIA, drug cartels, and so on. There was a feeble attempt to paint them as valiant Robin Hoods taking commodity redistribution into their own hands in Los Bandoleros (2009) a short film (with great music) connecting the story arcs of 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003) to Fast and Furious (2009). For this short, Dom and his crew are found in Puerto Rico—avoiding extradition—stealing oil and giving it to poor locals. This attempt was short-lived—it’s harder to sell micro-redistribution than cops who look like crooks who run from the cops and do crimes with the cops’ permission.

By the middle of the fifth film (to Ludacris’ great malaise), they have become complicit with the police, they’re hired guns, and are bringing down the “dirty cops” of Rio. (This, ubiquitous in the action genre in general, does much to enforce the “bad cop” myth, that a cop can be anything but an enforcer of violent, racialised power).[1] By the beginning of the seventh, they’re not just class collaborators or mercenaries of the state, but rather an elite, supra-state paramilitary force, out for hire by intelligence apparatuses so secret, so fat and stupid, that even the US military believes them to be terrorists.

Roman (Tyrese Gibson) pretending to be a cop in Fast Five (2011) to infiltrate a police station. This is the first time any of the crew pretend to be cops, before becoming them in the next film.

A revealing characteristic adage in contemporary neoliberal drama, that this franchise is best poised to identify, then: if you can’t run from the cops, join them, or if you can’t avoid being policed, start to police others. Though reminiscent, in this formulation at least, of how Foucault and later Negri and Hardt conceive of biopolitics, there are moralist caveats (the fat and stupid variants):

  1. Surveillance is omnipresent, sure, but it must be in the “right hands.”
  2. There is always a power struggle playing out, but it isn’t a class struggle. It’s a struggle of “values”—among them integrity, fidelity, and so on.

The shift to heroes becoming rouge agents in the “eyes of the law” is a staple of 2010s action films: Tom Cruise’s mission becomes so impossible that even the government becomes his enemy; he must restore integrity to militarism by weeding out the dirty cops. Bond too. He fights a rouge element of the state that seeks to use surveillance for bad deeds, not for the good stuff. The point is venerating the state’s functionality while lamenting its current leadership. Trump bad, USA good. Surveillance in my back yard? Bad. Surveillance used by ICE? Good.

The crew (now elite agents) are told that they’re all on Interpol’s Top Ten most-wanted list in The Fate of the Furious (2017)

As we prepare for the ninth film in the Fast Saga, the opportunity to see how policing is sold to us by the culture industry remains ever present. As more and more urban centres employ surveillance to aid in the violent policing of precarious groups, perhaps its mainstream caricature can help us organize ourselves and disseminate political education. Maybe, Dom and his crew (among them cops, soldiers, hackers, and espionage bureaucrats) can be once again considered the “criminals” they were at the start, but with the added enlightenment that their crimes are propping up the military and carceral complexes, rather than driving sweet rides a quarter-mile at a time.

[1] Sacking Rome: A Magazine for Vandals no. 1.

Further readings:

Andreas Petrossiants is a writer and editor living in NY. His writing has appeared in ‘The Brooklyn Rail’, ‘Hyperallergic’, ‘View. Theories and Practices of Visual Culture’, ‘nuart journal’, ‘Exhibition Reviews Annual’, and elsewhere. He is the editorial assistant of ‘e-flux journal’. in 2019, he co-curated ‘Inventing Dance: In and Around Judson’, New York, 1959–1970 at MAMAC in Nice, France.