With the ninth film in the franchise out this week, let’s head back in time to where it all began.
That’s right, folks, The Fast and the Furious series is twenty years old. As such, they qualify for a retro review! When the film first came out, I gave it a pass. I’ve never been into muscle car culture, and despite enjoying Pitch Black, I was not a giant fan of Vin Diesel. I did watch parts of the next two films in the series, and they seemed to confirm that the films were not going to be my cup of tea. That’s unfortunate, because the original film, while it has issues, is much smarter and more focused than the immediate sequels. Looking back twenty years later, you can see how The Fast and the Furious created the mold that the films would adopt from the fourth film onward, a formula that has created a billion dollar franchise.
The Fast and the Furious (2001)
Los Angeles police officer Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker) must decide where his loyalty really lies when he becomes enamored with the street racing world, and its no-nonsense champion, Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel), that he has been sent undercover to destroy.
One thing I immediately noticed about The Fast and the Furious is that the movie wasn’t playing in the genre I expected. The latter F&F movies feel like Ocean’s Eleven for gear heads. The first movie is more Point Break with muscle car racing instead of skydiving. Paul Walker is certainly doing his best to channel Keanu Reeves, that’s for sure.
The film is less concerned with the mechanics of the big heists that most of the entries revolve around, and more concerned with Brian trying to navigate becoming part of Dom’s (potentially criminal) family, and all of the moral dilemmas that ensue. It’s nicely nuanced. As the double agent, Walker gets lots of opportunities to show Brian being pulled in different directions. The nice surprise is that Vin Diesel’s Dom also has a lot going on under the hood. He’s a tough guy, more than willing to solve problems with his muscles. He’s also a devoted family man, including the adopted family of racing enthusiasts who surround him. His past has given him a code he lives by when it comes to his crew, and its fueled his wariness of outsiders. When it’s revealed that he is the person behind a string of daring robberies, it actually came as a bit of a shock. Not only had he convinced Brian that he’s too principled to be the culprit, he’d convinced me.
This focus on a make-shift family, sudden betrayals, and accepting a stray member back into the fold to get the job done went on to become the bedrock of the franchise, especially from the fourth movie onward. You can see the germ of what the series would grow into here in the first movie, even if the franchise would move on from its street racing focus.
Rev it Up.
Another thing that the first F&F movie did better than its successors was grounding the action in practical effects. It’s all the more remarkable as I watched 2Fast 2Furious immediately after finishing this film, and the CG tomfoolery in that movie is glaring.
There’s not a lot of computer chicanery, just good old stunt driving. It may not have the bravado of dropping a tank out of a plane or outracing a submarine, but each race and stunt in this outing feels physically dangerous and immediate. The penultimate sequence where three cars are trying to rescue a team member clinging desperately to the front grill of a speeding tractor trailer was electric, and all practical effects. Call me old fashioned, but I’d rather watch a real car fly three feet in the air than watch a dozen CG cars fly a hundred feet in the air.
There are some problems with the film, some expected and some not. Despite having two strong female leads, this movie is still dripping with toxic masculinity that reduces most women to love interests or sex objects to ogle. It’s got more juvenile testosterone pumping through its engine than Nitrous…which is another thing.
This film (and to a greater extent the immediate sequels) leans on NOS as a miracle cure. It’s the magic button from a video game. Yeah, Nitrous Oxide will give you a very noticeable, short boost of speed, but it’s not the “jump to hyperspace!” effect we see in most of the movies. It cheapens the races a bit with Mario Kart mechanics, and even the script calls it out for being a crutch that Brian uses because he’s not as strong a driver as the others.
That being said, The Fast and the Furious is probably the most realistic depiction of it in the franchise, as we do see its other side effect: putting a ton of force on your car’s insides, leading to potentially catastrophic failure. The movie shows an example of this early and uses it to drive tension every time our protagonist leans on the big red fun button.
Part of me feels chagrined that I judged The Fast and the Furious by its cover way back in 2001. Yeah, I know that the series struggled to nail down its identity for a few movies before finding the winning edge in F4, but the first movie is certainly much better than I anticipated. Paul Walker’s Brian is probably at his most engaging in this first film, and Vin Diesel’s Dom had yet to become a body-slamming, one-note character. The practical effects are solid, resulting in some white-knuckled driving sequences. While it still is not my favorite car chase movie, I can say it sits pretty high in the pecking order now. The trailer for F9 has got me excited for this series, so it was cool to go back and experience the original while the energy is high.