The nearly 4-minute Fast X trailer that dropped a few weeks ago had so much going on that it was hard to keep track of. Everyone is rightfully excited for Jason Momoa as the villain, as we learn five movies later that the Brazilian drug lord from Fast Five has a son who is hellbent on revenge and wants to, you’ll never guess it, tear Dominic Toretto’s family apart. There’s all kinds of callbacks — the bridge in Brazil, the tunnels in Mexico — and the returns of Charlize Theron, John Cena, Helen Mirren, Jason Statham, and all of our favorites from the crew.
However, what I’m most excited for in Fast X is to see what new area of expertise Tej Parker, played by the great Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, has developed. I would argue there is no character in film history that has had a more outrageous arc than Tej, which is made even more incredible because Ludacris was never even supposed to be in the Fast & Furious franchise. Ja Rule was meant to join Paul Walker as a returning character from the original (NO, MONICAAAAAA) in 2 Fast 2 Furious, but famously turned down the role, leading to Ludacris getting his foot in the door in what has now become the most lucrative action movie franchise on the planet.
When we first meet Tej Parker in 2 Fast, he’s a mechanic who also handles the money for underground jet ski races out back at his garage in Miami. Fast forward to F9, Ludacris’ sixth appearance in the franchise, and Parker is one of the world’s best hackers, a master of electromagnets, and knows the science behind what’s needed to go to space in a Pontiac Fiero. Of all the absurdities in the Fast & Furious universe, and there are many, there are none that I am more fascinated and enthralled by than the trajectory of one Tej Parker. This is in part because his counterpart from 2 Fast, Tyrese aka Roman Pierce, has more or less been the exact same character for two decades (comic relief, driver, hot head, now solo Greek Chorus) on his own journey to outer space.
Here, I will attempt to explore how we got to this place, and if nothing else, list out — movie by movie — all of the various roles and responsibilities Ludacris has held in the franchise, as the most versatile member of Dom’s crew, as we get ready for Fast X, where we can only hope to see Tej add another skill to his bag.
2 Fast 2 Furious
Responsibilities: Garage owner/mechanic, leader of street and jet ski races, organizer of car-related chaos, wearer of tremendous jumpsuits, a person who throughout the entire movie does not use a computer even one (1) time.
In his debut, Tej Parker does many things. He runs street and jet ski races, as one does being the owner of a waterfront car garage. He does mechanic things, like helping to put ejector seats into Brian and Roman’s cars. He is the best-connected man in Miami, per Brian, with his hands in “everything,” so he’s able to get literally hundreds of street racers to help them shake the cops by filling a garage and then scattering all at once. He pulls off looks like the one above.
He also exists in a world that Ludacris, the rapper, does as well, as evidenced by “Act a Fool” playing before the opening race as everyone dances around him. This isn’t really relevant to Tej, the character, but it is to my ongoing hope that one day Ludacris will play both Tej and himself in a Fast & Furious movie. Maybe make them long-lost twins or something. It would be a more realistic sibling reveal than John Cena being Vin Diesel’s brother. Sorry, I’m getting off track.
Back to Tej, who is the don of Miami street racing. He’s already an incredible character, and, I cannot stress this enough, at no point does he ever touch a computer. The most advanced technology we see him use in the whole movie is a flip phone and a walkie-talkie. At best, you would have expected that if Tej came back in another movie, it was as some kind of secondary character that helps them out in Miami at some point given his connections. However…
Responsibilities: Surveillance expert, hacker, general tech guy, mechanic (?)
At some point between 2003 and 2011, Tej learned a lot about computers and surveillance technology. This is never explained and honestly it’s one of my favorite things about the franchise. They’re often really good about offering at least some form of an explanation for their most ridiculous leaps — people dying and coming back, Dom Toretto having an evil brother we haven’t even heard of until the ninth movie of the franchise that is all about family, etc. — but Tej’s jump from a person who literally doesn’t touch a computer throughout the entire first movie he’s in to becoming a hacker extraordinaire in the second movie he shows up in is never explained.
My best rationalization of this shift is that cars started to become more automated and CPU focused, so it would make sense for a garage owner with street racing ties would start learning more about them and maybe become obsessed with it to the point of learning how to crack security cameras. That’d be helpful for someone who runs street races. A stretch? Sure, but let’s just go with it.
The real answer is, their whole plan for the movie was to bring back old favorites and Tej already had an explanation for why he didn’t drive — remember, he hit a wall going 120 — so he was the most logical person to become “the guy in the chair,” and goddammit if he doesn’t pull it off. After the initial shock of hearing that the jet ski race guy is now a computer expert, it’s actually incredible how well Ludacris plays this role. Like, it very well could’ve all gone wrong trying to make this thing work but we are now a decade into Tej Parker, elite international hacker, and it’s hard to remember what it was like before we had him in our lives.
Fast & Furious 6
Responsibilities: Surveillance expert, hacker, general tech guy, high-end car auctioneer embarrasser, harpoon gun expert
“See their version works cool, but mine? A masterpiece. See, I reversed the gears, torqued the motor, and added this tank to the back…”
This is a line that has been stuck in my head for eight years, as Tej explains to Roman how he took a harpoon gun from the bad guys and made it better by, what else, adding NOS. This is actually the thing Tej does in the post-2 Fast world that makes the most sense for his past. I 100 percent believe the mechanic who runs jet ski races in Florida would do something like trick out a harpoon gun with NOS. That is the most consistency the franchise has ever shown with Tej.
The rest of what he does in this movie is mostly in line with his role in the fifth. Having not-yet-rogue The Rock involved lets him gain access to London’s camera systems without having to hack into them. He also gets back to his roots as an organizer, serving as the play-by-play man for the crew in their highway chase scene in which he delivers the legendary line: “Uh guys, they’ve got a tank.” This is cinema.
Responsibilities: Surveillance expert, hacker extraordinaire, general tech guy, guy capable of wielding the greatest digital weapon known to man (God’s Eye), fighter
As my esteemed colleague Brian Grubb has written previously, the Fast & Furious franchise is best broken into three trilogies. The first three are, mostly, about cars and racing. The second trilogy are blockbuster action movies using cars to facilitate the action, with Fast Five being the shining example of how good the series can be as a standalone action movie. The most recent trilogy is simply about seeing how big they can go.
Tej follows that same trajectory. In the second movie, he’s all about the cars and the racing community. By the fifth and sixth movies, he is your stereotypical action movie tech genius, hacking into security systems and setting the table for everyone else to do what they do. He is the Benji to Dom’s Ethan Hunt, if we want to use a Mission Impossible analogy. (We do.) That leap in and of itself is hysterical but is nothing compared to what happens in the third trilogy.
In films 7-9, we are just pushing boundaries to see what people will go for, and the answer to everything since has been a resounding yes. Can we jump cars through the world’s tallest buildings? Yes. Can we take down a nuclear submarine with cars? Yes. Can we go to space in a car? You’re goddamn right.
Tej is the manifestation of that in character form. You were accepting of a mechanic becoming a tech guy? Alright, now he can work side-by-side with the person we are told is the most dangerous hacker on the planet without skipping a beat. Oh, and he also has martial arts training.
Look at Ludacris! This is an important development because this opens him up to no longer being “the guy behind the screen,” a la Benji in Mission Impossible. He can now venture out into the field for action scenes as well. Without this, I firmly believe we never get Ludacris in space, which might be the most important thing that happened in all of 2021.
Fate of the Furious
Responsibilities: Surveillance expert, hacker extraordinaire, general tech guy, nuclear submarine expert (!)
In Fate of the Furious, Tej is mostly the same guy up until the point they get to the nuclear submarine in Russia, where we learn that Mr. Parker has been studying up on foreign war machines and knows exactly what they need to be looking for to disable the nuclear sub — “it should be labeled ‘Guidance Go.’”
How does he know this? Don’t worry about that. This is just standard information your friendly auto mechanic turned hacker knows. He’s still helping outfit cars with NOS and roll cages and all the things that make him a valuable mechanic on the car superhero team, but he also is a quick study and can tell you how to disarm a nuclear sub, if you need that sort of thing.
Responsibilities: Surveillance expert, hacker extraordinaire, general tech guy, fighter, land mines expert, giant electromagnets expert (!!), space travel science expert/astronaut (!!!)
Tej really gets to stretch his legs and show his range in F9, as he gets to flash his knowledge in a variety of areas, from land mines to electromagnets to space travel. It’s really the pinnacle of his involvement in the franchise, as he helps outfit cars with giant magnets so they can attract and repel other cars — and eventually, flip the unstoppable tank tractor-trailer thing that the bad guys are in.
While all of that is happening, though, Tej and Roman are in space, taking out a satellite. For years the running joke was that the Fast Saga would eventually end up in space, and in the ninth move, they finally did it, with Roman and Tej becoming the first astronauts of the Fast & Furious crew. They do this by reuniting with the fellas from Tokyo Drift, as Twinkie and Sean now build rocket engines (which, to be clear, is something I would watch an entire spinoff about), and have figured out how to strap one to a Pontiac Fiero.
Why do they have to go to space, you ask? Well, because they need to take out a satellite, of course. (Reminder: this franchise started with Dom’s crew stealing DVD players.) And Tej knows how to turn old scuba suits into space gear and all “the numbers” — as Roman keeps saying — behind what it’s going to take to destroy the satellite, which, sure. And, naturally, the initial plan doesn’t work, so Roman just drives the space Fiero into the satellite, with the help of what appears to be rocket fuel NOS.
A perfect movie scene, really. I don’t know how they can possibly one-up this for Tej and Roman, but seeing those two together in the Fast X trailer has me very excited for whatever shenanigans they get into. My only hope is that, whenever this ends, we go full circle and Tej is just running his garage — and jet ski races — in peace in Miami.