On June 22, 2001, my buddy and I decided to take a trip to the movies. The school year had just ended (in fact June 22nd, a Friday, kicked off our summer vacation and the end of our junior year of high school). Our movie picks that day were Doctor Doolittle 2 and The Fast and the Furious. To be honest, neither film was really enticing to us so it felt like we were picking between the lesser of two evils. We decided to see what we thought would be the dumb yet fun action movie that we would forget about a week after we saw it.
Despite our decidedly low expectations, we came out of The Fast and the Furious absolutely loving it. It could’ve just been us being teenagers but from start to finish we were sufficiently entertained and we enjoyed it so much that we told our other friends about it and saw it with them again later that night. What I thought would be a throwaway action film ended up being my most fun movie going experience of the summer and even though I enjoyed it I had no idea that it would spark a franchise that has become a true box office behemoth that any studio would love to have in their back pocket.
The franchise has stepped away from the simplicity of this first outing but this $38 million endeavor tapped into the world of street racing that hadn’t quite been tapped at this point and time. The film’s concept was inspired by “Racer X”, a Vibe magazine article by journalist Ken Li about street racing in New York City. There were no true hints of the heist movie future the franchise would begin going down by the time the film reached its fifth installment. The Fast and the Furious was essentially a Los Angeles film that embraced its superficial appeal. The film featured a charismatic and attractive cast, a bevy of vehicles that would make any car enthusiast salivate and the right amount of action to make it stand out.
The film tells the story of an undercover cop, Brian (Paul Walker), who infiltrates a street racing team headed by Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel). But racing isn’t all Dominic is suspected of – the cops believe he’s the leader of a gang that hijacks trucks. It’s Brian’s job to earn Dominic’s trust, then bust open the crime ring. Unfortunately for Brian, he falls for Dominic’s sister, Mia (Jordana Brewster) and he begins to be enticed by the lifestyle he’s supposed to be infiltrating.
The story is a familiar one. The film doesn’t win points for originality. In fact, many have called this movie Point Break with cars. Paul Walker is the Keanu Reeves/Johnny Utah of the film while Vin Diesel is a harder edged Patrick Swayze/Bodhi. Normally I would attack a film for strolling down familiar territory but it ends up being one of the appeals of The Fast and the Furious. It’s fully aware of what it is and makes no apologies for it. It rides the line of being serious enough without taking itself too seriously. That’s a hard line for some action films to walk but The Fast and the Furious does it very well.
With many of the major sequels of the franchise, director Justin Lin has become the true voice of the series. His direction brought the core four back in the fourth installment and he was there for the reinvention of the franchise with Fast Five. Lin has done so well with the franchise that many sometimes forget that director, Rob Cohen, was the first man behind the lens to set the tone. The films have become known for their elaborate action set pieces so it would be easy to dismiss the simplistic action of the first film, but Cohen handles himself well here. He does utilize the MTV-inspired quick cuts that still continue to be used today but he gives the film a visual vitality that still continues to resonate. The first major race is a true centerpiece of the film giving your pulse a jolt and the freeway climax, where cars zip under semi-trucks, are still my favorite action sequences of the franchise. The films have utilized more CGI to deliver the action but this first go-round feels a bit more natural and that’s why it works.
Discussing the acting in The Fast and the Furious is a tricky business. No one is winning awards here but charisma and likability are also valuable in any film and the performers possess that in spades. The late Paul Walker was always more likable than a true thespian but I honestly can’t see anyone else playing Brian O’Conner. You’re in his corner from start to finish and even though it’s not a difficult role to play, Walker makes it his own and runs with it. Vin Diesel, who was a bit of a rising star by the time he appeared in this film, introduces us to a bravado that has served his career greatly over the years. He has a great presence and he commands the screen. The chemistry between Diesel and Walker, which became a cornerstone of the later sequels, is evident from the start and it’s clear why fans have responded to it. On the female side of things, Jordana Brewster is suitably sensual yet innocent in the role of Mia while Michelle Rodriguez stands out in the fairly limited role of Letty. It’s interesting that Rodriguez has turned this role into something much bigger in the recent films because her screen time isn’t abundant but her badass charm is definitely welcomed when she’s on screen.
It would be easy to view The Fast and the Furious as a guilty pleasure. It is a bit of a check your brain at the door kind of movie but it does take skill to make these films effective. It was what we needed in the summer of 2001 and while I would have never imagined we’d be eight films deep in this saga, I have to give all involved credit from taking such a simplistic idea expanding it into what it is today. Humble beginnings don’t get much better than this.