The Fast and the Furious series has always been concerned about the joy and pathos of family. The series and actors themselves have certainly felt the weight of loss with the real life death of co-star Paul Walker in 2013, who received an emotional send-off at the end of Furious 7, and whose real-life relationship with Vin Diesel echoed the brotherhood that their characters Dom and Brian shared. With the passing of Walker, it was difficult to see how the series could–or should–reasonably continue.
With The Fate of the Furious now in theaters, it feels as if Furious 7 should indeed have been the last outing for the franchise. The Fate of the Furious never manages to fully justify its existence; the plot is flimsy, the jokes feel strained and obligatory, and worst of all, in trying to create an everlasting franchise, the film doubles back on what it claimed was its core tenet. Nowhere is this more clear than with the acceptance and rehabilitation of Deckard Shaw, who murdered Han Seoul-Oh, Dom’s friend and a member of his so-called “mi familia.”
Deckard Shaw, played by Jason Statham, was the villain of Furious 7. A former Special Forces agent, he attempted to assassinate all of Dom’s team as revenge for them hurting–hurting, mind you, not killing–his brother Owen Shaw, the villain in Fast and Furious 6. Deckard was ruthless in his pursuit. He murdered Han in Tokyo during a street race because he knew it would hurt Dom, and he even showed up at the funeral to gloat.
Over the course of Furious 7, Deckard murdered dozens of government agents, terrorized a hospital, sent a bomb to Dom’s house–where Mia and her child could’ve been killed in the blast–and repeatedly shot into crowds of unarmed civilians.
The killing of Han in cold blood aside, Furious 7 showed us that Deckard is just not a good guy, you guys. And yet The Fate of the Furious spends a good half of its runtime trying to convince the audience of that very fact. I get it; Statham is a popular actor, whose kinetic energy and gruff humor often add an inimitable spark. I can see why the creators would want to bring him back into a series that feels as if it has lost its purpose. But with Deckard’s history in this franchise, Statham’s inclusion means wholly undervaluing how much Han means to Dom and the team, which kind of goes against everything the franchise claimed it stood for.
The Fate of the Furious wants us to believe that Deckard, Han’s actual murderer, is just a misunderstood, rough-around-the-edges hero. We learn that Deckard is a decorated war vet who was unjustly arrested while undercover. When Dom and Cipher attack the group, we see it’s Deckard who jumps to shield hacker Ramsey’s body. We learn Deckard has a mother who cares deeply for him and who vouches on his behalf. And we watch as Dom himself suddenly–and I do mean quite suddenly–trusts Deckard to rescue and protect his newborn son, in a highly choreographed scene that’s clearly meant to be the highlight of the entire movie. The film ends with Dom inviting Deckard over for beers and BBQ, which is The Fast and the Furious speak for “you’re one of the family now.” By the end of the film, the fact that Deckard murdered Han simply to hurt Dom doesn’t even warrant a side comment.
This newfound acceptance of Deckard all sums up to the erasure of Han. It’s particularly irritating when you consider Han’s legacy and what he meant for the series. The original The Fast and the Furious film was inspired by a 1998 Vibe article by Ken Li titled “Racer X,” which provided a look into NYC’s multicultural racing scene. The article describes the Japanese cars and the young Asian American men who kept the scene thriving, and yet, up until Tokyo Drift, The Fast and the Furious franchise hadn’t integrated any Asian American actor into its core cast in any meaningful way. And Tokyo Drift would have continued that legacy, if not for director Justin Lin.
According to a Crave Online interview with Sung Kang, Han’s actor, Lin had to fight the studio to include any Asian actor as one of the protagonists. When Lin asked if an Asian American could play the role of “Phoenix,” the suave character who would eventually become Han Seoul-Oh, Kang reports the studio heads laughed and said, “How can an Asian-American be cool like this?”
(Yes, you read that right. In a film taking place in Tokyo, centered entirely around drifting, a driving technique created by Japanese motorcyclist Kunimitsu Takahashi and popularized by “Drift King” Keiichi Tsuchiya, the studio was entirely prepared to move ahead without a single Asian American actor starring as one of the good guys. They were entirely fine with having all the bad guys be played by Asians, of course.)
Lin and Kang’s persistence ended up paying off, as Han ended up being more popular than the actual protagonist of Tokyo Drift, going on to star in three more The Fast and the Furious films alongside Diesel and Walker. It’s hard to understate the significance of this: Han was everything studios hadn’t allowed Asian male characters to be up until that point. Before Glenn Rhee on The Walking Dead normalized having an Asian male as a three-dimensional protagonist and a love interest, there was Han.
Han was the suave and laid back character of the group, contrasted against the quick-talking Roman or the brainy hacker Tej. Whereas the other men in the group often fumbled when it came to romance, Han was the one character among the core crew who we saw successfully and effortlessly nab the attention of numerous women: two women he drives donuts around in Tokyo Drift, Cara in the Vin Diesel directed short Los Bandeleros, and Gal Gadot’s Gisele in films four through six. Han was all smirks, calm advice, and effortless flirting. He showed us that Asian Americans could indeed “be cool like that.”
For many people, Han was a truly significant character, one who helped to make The Fast and the Furious franchise into the multicultural juggernaut that it’s known as today. It’s just a terrible shame that with The Fate of the Furious, his legacy gets shuffled aside to lift up another generic angry white guy.