The Fast and the Furious

2001 | dir: Rob Cohen | 106 m

Though The Fast and the Furious has left an indelible mark on the cinematic landscape as the progenitor of one of the most successful and well-known action blockbuster franchises in the world, when it was released in 2001, it was simply a fun movie about street racing, a criminal underworld, undercover cops, and the shameless promotion of undying brand loyalty to Corona. I use “simply” here not in the pejorative sense but in the nostalgic. Now that the franchise that The Fast and the Furious spawned – seven sequels, a spin off, an animated show, and an eighth sequel being released this year – has become so ubiquitous in pop culture, it has become increasingly difficult to separate The Fast and the Furious the movie from The Fast and the Furious the cultural phenomenon. It’s nearly impossible to watch the movie now without seeing it through the filter of the incredible success of its sequels and the iconic status the entire series currently enjoys among audiences who watch these movies with the right eyes. It’s also so far removed narratively from what its sequels have evolved into, and the connective tissue between this and later entries in the series is so malleable, that it’s also still entirely possible to enjoy the film on its own merits. Watching The Fast and the Furious now is almost like watching two different movies simultaneously, which, depending on your point of view, is either incredibly tiring or worth its weight in nitrous oxide.

The first version of The Fast and the Furious is an early-2000s action/crime movie, and one that can legitimately lay claim to the descriptor “high-octane.” The parallels to 1991’s Point Break are painfully apparent, but the similarities in the stories fall squarely in the camp of homage, and never cross the line from inspiration to plagiarism. The Fast and the Furious is the story of undercover police officer Brian O’Connor (Paul Walker) who infiltrates the high-octane (See? It fits perfectly.) world of street racing as part of an investigation into a gang of thieves who conduct precision, high-speed robberies of transport trailers in souped-up sports cars. As part of this undercover operation, Brian is able to befriend one of the gangs involved in the street racing scene, led by the no-nonsense Domenic Toretto (Vin Diesel), whose skills at driving are matched only by his propensity for violence and his loyalty to his friends, family, and Corona beer. Things are complicated by Brian’s growing emotional connection to the crew, which includes Dom’s equally talented girlfriend Letty (Michelle Rodrigues), and his romantic connection to Domenic’s sister Mia Toretto (Jordana Brewster), that call into question where his true loyalties lie, both to the people in his life and to his choice of brew.

There’s actually a lot more going on here that makes The Fast and the Furious greater than the sum of its parts. One of those things is the cast, which is not only perfect, but also perfectly committed to the affair. There’s definitely no granny shifting when it comes to the performances. They play everything in the movie completely straight, lending gravitas to a story that could have easily succumbed to its more ridiculous elements. Paul Walker and Vin Diesel have the kind of on-screen chemistry that even Paul Newman and Robert Redford would have envied. Walker and Diesel both embrace their respective roles with such dedication that it’s difficult not to be drawn into their orbit through the sheer force of their combined charm. Diesel has become iconic in the role Domenic Toretto, a role that, to his credit, he owned from the very beginning. Dom is an inherently compelling character, but I think we take it for granted that he’s a sympathetic character specifically because of how well Vin Diesel tackled the role. Dom is the sort of natural born leader that has the innate ability to pull other people into his orbit. He’s gruff and paternal, but with an undercurrent of danger. He’s a wolf used to being in charge of the pack, but isn’t afraid to bare his teeth and claws to any perspective challenger or predator to show why he’s to be respected or feared, depending on their relationship to him. Vin Diesel finds the right balance of quiet (and sometimes not-so-quiet) menace and macho charisma to make audiences empathize and sympathize with a character that could have easily turned into an unlikeable jerk in less capable hands. Dom’s motivations in later sequels are far more virtuous than in the original The Fast and the Furious, but it’s a testament to Vin Diesel’s portrayal of the character that it’s so easy to forget that he’s the villain of this movie.

Paul Walker as Brian O’Connor is more obviously likeable than Domenic Toretto, and that’s due in large part to Walker’s boyish charm, which seems virtually limitless. Walker has always reminded me at least a little of Keanu Reeves, and especially in this case with the obvious narrative connection between The Fast and the Furious and Point Break and the similarities between their undercover cop characters. Both actors also have a very distinctive affectation and acting style, which I think earned unfair criticism, and in extreme cases, outright mockery in certain circles. 

It reminds me of an excellent article written by Film Crit Hulk called “Keanu Reeves and What We Consider ‘Good Acting’”, in which he breaks down both the criticisms of Keanu Reeves’ acting and the underlying metrics that pervade the popular dialogue when audiences evaluate the relative quality (or lack thereof) of a particular actor or performance. As he points out, modern dialogue surrounding performance has been dominated by the concept of method acting, and how much “range” an actor might have or how convincingly they “disappear” into a role. Film Crit Hulk goes into much greater detail dissecting these evaluative matrices, but I think he hit the nail on the head when he expressed himself thusly:

“In the end, it doesn’t matter how much range the actor has; there are better questions we can ask. Such as: Does the character convincingly bring the moment itself to life? Does the moment of drama work in the film? Are you moved by it?”

I can’t help but think about this when reflecting on Paul Walker’s performance in The Fast and the Furious, and his resume of films in general. He’s not the actor to gain or lose a tonne of weight, or pay a dentist to wreck his teeth, or get a tattoo, or eat raw liver in the middle of an arctic tundra, or put on a crazy accent to get into character. But what he brings to the role of Brian O’Connor is exactly the right sense of honesty and earnestness that allows the character to bring each moment in the movie to life. So much of the movie hinges on the degree to which the audience is invested in O’Connor being torn between his duties and responsibilities as a police officer and his emotional connection and genuine relationships that he establishes with Dom’s crew. Paul Walker really is, in essence, the engine at the heart of the nitrous-infused ride that is The Fast and the Furious, and he never once shows any sign of stalling. 

It’s a little difficult watching any of the first seven movies in The Fast and the Furious franchise without feeling the loss of Paul Walker, whose untimely passing in 2013 shocked friends, family, and audiences alike. Watching the series, though, feels less like mourning, and more like a celebration of Walker’s life and his talents, which thankfully have been inscribed in celluloid to be enjoyed by audiences both present and future. 

Another aspect of the movie that draws audiences in is so obvious that it’s almost overlooked. The Fast and the Furious is sexy as hell. Not just the actors, but the LA setting and the entire setting of illegal street racing. There’s the air of the forbidden that such a scene is naturally imbued with that draws people in. Even as someone who isn’t a “car person” (The extent of my automotive expertise includes filling up at the gas station, topping up the windshield wiper fluid, and changing a flat tire.), I have to admit that I’m captivated by the world of cars and racing any time they’re depicted on-screen. There’s an underlying association of cars as symbols of freedom and self-reliance, but there’s also something alluring, even to someone as admittedly risk-averse as myself, about pushing these machines to their limits and the thrill that comes from flirting with potential destruction (as vicarious as that thrill might be for audiences of a movie). The Fast and the Furious also sets the tone for many of its later sequels in emphasizing exactly how sexy the racing scene is by associating it with good-looking people, including, yes, probably more than its fair share of scantily clad women and a certain proclivity for the human posterior in particular.

I don’t think that one could successfully argue that The Fast and the Furious is some kind of feminist manifesto, and I also don’t think it’s necessary. Some stories are told to explore the deeper meanings of human existence and the intricacies of the human condition, and some are told as escapist fantasies where good-looking people race their cars as a sometimes thinly veiled metaphor for sexual potency. The Fast and the Furious definitely falls into the latter category, and I can’t find any fault with the movie for accomplishing what it set out to do. A huge part of the sex appeal comes from the movie’s indulgence in almost carnival-like excess when depicting the groups of people gathered to partake or merely spectate the races (including at an event by the name of Race Wars, a double-entendre so obvious it’s border-line brilliant), making these events feel like some kind of modern remnant of a Dionysian festival or Roman orgy.

Underlying all of this is a more fundamental, more universal narrative structure that’s been baked into the Western narrative DNA. One of the key ingredients of The Fast and the Furious that makes it so enduring and so compelling is the almost Shakespearean story at its heart. Some would scoff at any comparison between The Fast and the Furious and Shakespeare’s iconic plays, which are regarded as some of the most important and influential works in all of Western literature. To these skeptics, I might reply in some thematically appropriate way, like, eat my dust. However, I would also politely point out that the story of the undercover cop who falls in love with the sister of the man he’s chasing has more than a few shades of Romeo and Juliet. There are two star crossed lovers – Brian and Mia – whose blossoming romance is at odds with the conflict between their warring houses, though instead of the Montagues and Capulets, its thieves in high-performance sports cars and the FBI/LAPD task force trying to bring them to justice. 

Movies about undercover police officers infiltrating various criminal enterprises have evolved into a genre in and of themselves, partly because of the inherent conflict with which that scenario imbues a story (Donnie Brasco, The Departed, Eastern Promises, etc., etc., etc.). As an officer of the law in the real world, no doubt the task seems much more straightforward. But in terms of storytelling, it’s a concept ripe with possibilities: a man with a virtuous mission but whose loyalties are divided because of the emotional bonds he makes with the very criminals he’s supposed to be chasing and his duty to his aforementioned mission to bring them to justice. There’s a reason we keep coming back to this trope, and I don’t doubt for a second that the Bard would see something of his own works reflected in this kind of story structure were he alive today. This compelling, universally understandable narrative structure is no doubt one of the reasons that made The Fast and the Furious so successful not just as a standalone film, but also as  a stable foundation on which to build an entire franchise.

And this is the second version of The Fast and the Furious that audiences can see when they watch the movie: the first entry in a billion-dollar franchise. Perhaps even more amazing in retrospect isn’t that The Fast and the Furious, which would have stood on its own merits perfectly fine had a sequel never been greenlit, spawned an entire series from a seemingly standalone concept. It’s how that series has been able to evolve to survive not just the constantly changing cinematic landscape but its own internal growing pains as it slowly discovered its own identity. It’s so rare that we get to watch the metamorphosis of a movie franchise as it occurs on-screen, almost like watching a teenager try to figure out what they want to be when they grow up, and then they finally pick a career as impractical and seemingly unachievable as intergalactic bounty hunter, with the surprise twist that not only is this a viable line of work, but an incredible profitable one. 

The Fast and the Furious started out as an action movie about undercover police officers and street gangs stealing shipments of goods, including DVD players, which seems almost quaint in comparison to later entries in the series. I don’t think anybody in 2001 would have ever guessed that the series would eventually morph into a series of globetrotting spy-for-hire adventure films, like the James Bond series if it was sponsored by, and infused with, Monster Energy. Even by 2009, when the fourth entry in the series was released, nobody outside of a very select circle (including director/visionary Justin Lin) would have been able to guess exactly where the series was ultimately headed.

Perhaps it’s the slow and steady nature of the series’ transmogrification that’s a key ingredient to its success. By the time the fifth entry in the franchise, Fast Five, was released in 2011, the lens through which audiences would watch the original The Fast and the Furious was changed forever.

Now, it isn’t just the story of undercover police and street gangs; it’s also a retroactive superhero origin story.

As The Fast and the Furious franchise has evolved, it has incorporated increasingly insane levels of action and set pieces that defy belief as surely as they defy the laws of physics. In order for any of the wild stunts (automotive and otherwise) pulled in the later movies to be even remotely possible, the abilities of the protagonists can only be interpreted as superhuman. The sheer extent of their reflexes, level of physical strength and durability, and talents for pushing the capabilities of their cars beyond the limits of all known natural laws have no basis or place in our reality. At one point watching these movies, I remember being struck by an epiphany, and it suddenly all became clear; Dom, Brian, and the rest of their crew were wizards – automancers – whose carefully crafted cars are actually powerful talismans that allow them to channel their magical powers.

I jest, of course, but only in part. This ongoing and gleeful doubling down on the ridiculousness of the action and plot of The Fast and the Furious sequels to increasingly incredulous proportions doesn’t take away from the enjoyability of the enterprise at all; in fact, it’s become a key ingredient for appreciating the series. The key, as always, is context. On a narrative and tonal level, these movies deliver exactly what they promise: no more, and no less. The series’ greatest strength is its ability to clearly establish these expectations, so audiences know exactly what kind of ride that they’re in for. It’s to the benefit of The Fast and the Furious movies that the collaborators both behind and in front of the camera follow the template of the original, and play all of the proceedings with utter seriousness. Between the reliance on easy-to-understand themes like family, loyalty, and a moral code of honour among thieves and the obvious relish and joy with which the actors embrace the characters and the material, it’s easy to see how audiences are invited to come along for the ride.

These are serious films that don’t take themselves seriously at all.

It’s a difficult race to run, and The Fast and the Furious sequels, particularly the later ones, manage this balance with the precision that would make any Formula 1 driver jealous. There’s nary a car ride where I don’t turn to whoever is sitting beside me in the passenger seat, and grumble in my best Vin Diesel impersonation, “I live my life a quarter mile at a time. Nothing else matters. For those ten seconds or less, I’m free.” But it’s never entirely a joke. I mean, in the context of driving, I’m not breaking any land speed records any time soon, but there’s still something that rings true about finding that thing that gets your engine revving (so to speak) and helps you to find those moments of transcendence that resonates with me on a personal level. It might not be philosophically complex enough to base an entire undergraduate philosophy course around, but there’s still enough of a hint at some greater truth that I can’t help feel my foot get just a little heavier on the accelerator, both literally and metaphorically.

I always hate the way some people describe having to “turn their brains off” to enjoy a movie. I don’t see it as a compromise of one’s mental faculties to enjoy the kind of visceral thrills of watching a sports car jumping between two skyscrapers, or a good, old-fashioned submarine chase. The visceral thrill of these high-octane thrills (OK, still works, but three times in the same review might be pushing it) doesn’t require you to stop thinking; it merely requires you to think in a particular way. There’s a craft to writing, filming, and editing action scenes that’s every bit as difficult and as intricate as any dramatic moment that awards shows seem to love so much. The Fast and the Furious has reached iconic status at least partly because of the legacy of the film series it spawned, but it’s still able to stand on its own merits as a genuinely engaging action powerhouse. Watching the film through either of these lenses, or both simultaneously, one can’t help but think that as far removed as the sequels are now from the original, none of them would have been possible without the full tank of fuel supplied by the original The Fast and the Furious. It’s a movie that is both completely stuck in the time it was made, but also wonderfully timeless because of its story archetype and the passion of the creative forces driving the project. 

To people that aren’t attuned to the particular frequency of The Fast and the Furious, both the movie and the franchise, there’s likely little value to be gleaned from the experience. But for those of us who are dialed in, there’s a very specific kind of thrill in buckling up and cracking open a Corona in anticipation for the next wild ride with this crew of loveable misfits we’ve shared so many adventures with that one can’t help but smile – at least a little – at the thought of being a part of The Fast and the Furious family.    

Rating: 5/5