Cars dragging enormous vaults through crowded city streets, roadsters leaping between towering skyscrapers, and government agents redirecting launched submarine torpedoes with their bare hands—the Fast & Furious films have long since devolved into outright cartoonishness. Thus, it’s only fitting that the series has now made the transition to the animated realm with Fast & Furious: Spy Racers, a new eight-part CGI Netflix show that revels in the franchise’s action-packed auto-absurdity.
If there’s a bold choice made by Tim Hedrick and Bret Haaland’s streaming-service affair (premiering Dec. 26), it’s that it features no one from the original Fast & Furious cast—save, that is, for Vin Diesel’s Dominic Toretto, who pops up at the start of the opening episode to convince his cousin Tony (Tyler Posey) to do some government espionage work for Ms. Nobody (Renée Elise Goldsberry). Looking even more like an anthropomorphic thumb than he does in real life, Dom tells Tony, “You’re born to win. But remember, being a Toretto has nothing to do with what you do in that car. Being a Toretto is about what’s in here” [pointing to the kid’s heart]. Later, he offers up the sage advice, “Don’t just follow orders—follow your gut,” and with that, he’s basically gone, ceding the spotlight to Tony and his own misfit crew, which fans will be unsurprised to learn is the boy’s true “family.”
Thankfully, Fast & Furious: Spy Racers keeps monotonous talk about “family” to a relative minimum, instead choosing to place its focus on high-octane moto-mayhem. There are races galore throughout its eight installments, featuring a variety of outlandish rides outfitted with insane high-tech gadgetry. Tony, a blandly straightforward protagonist who just wants to follow in legendary cousin Dom’s footsteps, prefers a pure-muscle Ion Motors Thresher, while his crew boast their own distinctive vehicles, be it a souped-up racer for cocky artist Echo (Charlet Chung), a monster truck for meathead mechanic Cisco (Jorge Diaz), or a collection of remote-controlled drones for techie Frostee (Luke Youngblood). They’re a colorful collection of toy-ready rides that reflect their owners’ personalities, as do the sleek, hyper-powered cars owned by their adversaries—all of which come equipped with grappling hooks, buzzsaws, battering rams, spiked tires, and other assorted do-hickeys that would make 007’s M weep with jealousy.
Ms. Nowhere enlists Tony and company to track down Sashi Dhar (Manish Dayal), the leader of a criminal gang known as SH1FT3R that stages the crème de la crème of street races. Sashi is a target because he’s also been secretly stealing coveted “keys” that, Nowhere fears, unlock something terrible. Tony infiltrates Sashi’s clan by partaking in one of the bigwig’s many tire-burning bouts. That, in turn, pits him against Sashi’s right-hand woman Layla (Camille Ramsey), a self-described “lone wolf” who doesn’t back down from a challenge—or concede defeat even when her and Tony’s first face-off ends in a photo finish. Before long, she’s begrudgingly trusting undercover Tony as a fellow bad guy, although why Layla herself wants to be involved in such nefarious criminal activity remains, puzzlingly, underdeveloped.
Fast & Furious: Spy Racers’ narrative moves at a breakneck speed that helps obscure its lack of logic, but that’s hardly something to complain about when the proceedings are clearly designed to provide adrenalized cartoon thrills for a pre-teen audience. There’s very little depth to be found here, much less any of the adult-oriented inside jokes and profanity of DC Unlimited’s recent Harley Quinn. Hedrick and Haaland opt for a videogame-ish serialized narrative that’s comprised of various heist missions whose specific, convoluted details are largely beside the point; instead, most episodes find Tony and his buddies partaking in daring robberies and flashy races set in global locales in order to gain intel, acquire valuable devices, and/or thwart Sashi’s sinister plans.
In short, Fast & Furious: Spy Racers is Netflix’s attempt to deliver a high-profile holiday counterattack against Disney+, whose library is filled with such half-hour adventures for kids. Still, that primary aim doesn’t prevent it from taking some creative risks in tune with the franchise’s inclusive multicultural spirit. Those are most potently felt via the character of Frostee, whose androgynous appearance—female-ish facial features, a high-pitched voice, a giant afro, and a jacket with perpetually rolled-up sleeves—suggests a non-binary gender identity. That Frostee is later referred to as a “he” doesn’t change the overarching impression that the character has been deliberately crafted to imply gender fluidity. And the fact that the show doesn’t remark upon this issue in any overt way—even after revealing that Frostee is the child of a mixed-race lesbian couple—feels like a subtle stab at progressive characterization.
“The story posits both capitalists and socialists as alternately heroes and villains—a point-of-view that’s so confused, one wishes ‘Fast & Furious: Spy Racers’ hadn’t bothered gussying up its adolescent fantasy with political elements of any sort.”
Far more muddled is the material’s political slant. It’s eventually revealed that Sashi is driven by both a desire for vengeance, and for wealth redistribution; he wants to “level the playing field” by taking down a bunch of cretinous billionaires and, in the process, create an anarchist new world order ruled by outlaws. The thing is, Sashi wants to do this by using the most expensive, cutting-edge gear in the universe—tech that hero Tony and his compatriots also love and employ. Consequently, the story posits both capitalists and socialists as alternately heroes and villains—a point of view that’s so confused one wishes Fast & Furious: Spy Racers hadn’t bothered gussying up its adolescent fantasy with political elements of any sort and just stuck to staging large-scale scenes of cars attacking trains, spinning through tunnels, and zooming about in direct defiance of the laws of physics.
Such hot-button notions will nonetheless probably fly over the heads of most of Fast & Furious: Spy Racers’ target viewers, who’ll flock to it for its over-the-top racing craziness, here animated with likable fluidity and colorfulness, and scored to generic hip-hop. It won’t make anyone forget about its live-action counterparts, whose gargantuan centerpieces have a how’d-they-do-that oomph that no animated effort can quite replicate. But as a brand extension aimed at bringing new fans into the franchise fold—which, in the end, is the primarily purpose of this small-screen endeavor—it gets the job done with a moderate degree of speedy style.