Around the Los Angeles area, big rigs are getting hijacked by black Honda Civics. They work as a team, heavily modified and steered by precision drivers. LAPD detective Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker) is sent in to the underground world of LA’s street racing scene to find the perpetrators – believed to be notorious street racer Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and his crew. Hot headed and addicted to speed, Brian infiltrates the crew with ease, but soon falls for Dominic’s sister Mia (Jordana Brewster). He also falls for Dom and company, jeopardizing his standing with the LAPD, the FBI, and endangering his mission.
I don’t know much about cars, and I’ve heard tell that a lot of the moto-speak in this film is either outdated or wrong. I couldn’t tell you either way. I can tell you why it’s so damn entertaining, and that’s because The Fast and the Furious revels in its love of fastness and furiousness.
The Fast and the Furious, as with any subsequent film in the series, doesn’t really need too much review or explanation. It’s a movie about people who drive cars, it’s somewhat about cops & robbers, it’s a little bit about love, it’s even kind of about class divides. Mostly it’s about driving cars really fast and spritzing their insides with nitrous oxide (which makes them go even faster, and furiouser).
There are two ways to grade Fast & Furious movies, the first as a fan of the series and second as a quasi-objective film reviewer. If we’re talking the first method there are no rules whatsoever. I have met as many fans who love Tokyo Drift as loathe it, and even I’ll admit that 2 Fast 2 Furious is, dare I say it, fun. But using the second method, the high points of the series are probably 1 and 5. It’s difficult to say which is better because they’re two completely different films. (Somewhat literally, since Fast Five was originally a sequel to The Italian Job.)
There are two distinctions that make this first installment separate from its successors. One, the direction and lighting from Rob Cohen, and two, the character of Dominic Toretto.
This next point I’m going to make deserves longer explanation, but I’m pressed for time and I don’t need to waste yours geeking out about streetlights. Basically, Los Angeles is yellow at night. They’re actually changing this, which I think is an artistic crime – but it’s probably to prevent real crime, so fair enough. The reason I bring this up is because director Rob Cohen knows what LA looks like and he makes that clear in the way he shoots it. It’s yellow, and its days are a burnt yellow, and the characters of FF live and drive under those burning lights.
This first film not only has a look that distinguishes it from the next five (and presumably six), but the overall direction is also different. Justin Lin, who took over the series with Tokyo Drift and unquestionably made it his own after Fast & Furious, is a master at filming vehicular action, but his movies very much feel like links in a chain. Cohen wasn’t making a franchise when he put this one together and though he made it in 2001 it very much feels like the last hurrah of ’90s film chic. I can’t quite explain that phrase because I’m not entirely sure what it means, but it sounds right.
In terms of Dom, Vin Diesel plays him the same way Cohen is directing him: As a character in a movie, not an extension of a franchise. The Toretto of this first movie is very different from the Toretto of Fast & Furious and beyond. From a storyline perspective we can say that it’s because he’s spent the intervening years on the run and become a more calloused character. From a cynical perspective we can say that in the intervening years Vin Diesel gave up on trying to be taken seriously as an actor and plays Toretto as “Vin Diesel IS Dominic Toretto.”
And what makes him so different? He’s vulnerable, he’s loved, he has responsibilities, people who look up to him and depend on him, and he has a semi-legitimate reputation. After this film Dom is an outlaw and persona non grata in LA. If the series was willing to get more nuanced the transition from the brash, tough but still jocular Dom to the cold, humorless and ruthless Dom would be interesting to critique. But this series is not a nuanced one and that’s part of its charm.
Our number two of the dual protagonists of this series, Brian O’Conner, is actually granted a little more character development as the series progresses, but he is more or less the same guy from start to finish. That Paul Walker died last year in a car crash is not only a tragedy, it has also robbed his series of its signature heart. He will be greatly missed.
And what of the film itself? Well it’s about dudes drinking Corona, hot chicks who like cars and hot chicks who drive cars, dudes getting punched in the face, chicks punching guys in the face, winning street cred, losing street cred, betrayal and the FBI.
It also features some truly excellent stunt work on a semi-truck in the penultimate chase scene with Dom’s crew.
I’ve loved these movies for a long time now and I’ve realized that the more I love a flick the sloppier its review. Unlike a film I love for its technical merits or eloquent story, Fast films are just good gut pictures: Fast food, heavy on the hot sauce, quickly squirted through the system. So I’ll take a napkin and tidy up, and I’ll meet you for part 2 next week.
Based on “Racer X” by Ken Li
The Fast and the Furious (2001)
Directed by Rob Cohen
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