As a celebration of both their 20th anniversary and the upcoming release of F9, Past of the Furious is a series of retrospectives going through the Fast and/or Furious film franchise, one by one, movie by movie. Together we will discover how a series that began about stealing DVD players became a modern-day GI Joe riff and Universal Pictures’ third biggest franchise ever (only behind Jurassic Park and Despicable Me/Minions).
Today, we start the journey with the first film in the series, Rob Cohen’s The Fast and the Furious. Released in 2001, the film was inspired by the growing underground racing scene in and around LA, and the car culture that surrounded it. Cohen specifically hired Gary Scott Thompson to write the script, which was originally titled Redline and hilariously at one point was reportedly going to just be called Race Wars before someone pointed out the issue with that. The final title was licensed from an older, unrelated Corman film.
The plot of the film may seem familiar to anyone who’s seen Kathryn Bigelow’s Point Break: A gang of illegal street racers have been pulling heists around Los Angeles, lifting and unloading shipments of Samsung DVD players, just so you know this film was made in the early 2000s. But with the LAPD unable to determine who is pulling the heists, they insert undercover cop Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker) to infiltrate the world of underground racers to determine who is being the robberies, specifically suspicious of Dominic “Dom” Toretto (Vin Diesel, one year after stealing the show in Pitch Black). But as Brian gets more and more immersed in the world of street racing in general and Toretto’s social circle in particular, will he able to separate his personal feelings from the job?
At the time of its release, the film was received critically as a fairly middle of the road cop action movie, but was a surprise financial success, grossing $200 million against a lean $38 million budget. Fairly quickly there was development of not just new entries in the franchise, but similarly minded vehicle-oriented programmers. Anyone else remember Torque? No? Just me? It had bike fights!
The film also cemented Vin Diesel as a legitimate action star of the early 2000s after a few years in impressive supporting roles, as well as lifted the profile of Walker and co-star Michelle Rodriguez. The film’s end, which while not ambiguous is certainly open-ended, leaves space for more stories to come. But these humble beginnings certainly do not suggest where this franchise will be launching off towards.
But what do we think about it?
Vin Diesel doesn’t appear to be trying very hard. Sure, that’s his bit, but for a street-racing, truck-boosting, certified badass, Diesel’s schtick can be a bit lethargic. Still, The Fast and the Furious makes up for the rest in revved-up action with a modicum of romance.
This is my first time with this series, and I can see how it sets up for more and more ridiculous action. Having a crew of ne’er-do-wells that are living with just a touch of chaos in their lives at all times means anything can happen at any time. Paul Walker’s surfer-ish cop is sincere with just a bit of goofiness. Ted Levine saves the otherwise lackluster police scenes, while Rick Yune plays a pretty impressive bad guy.
By the time the climax hits, Diesel lets off the brakes, and we get to see the manic energy he can bring to bear. The question is can he keep this up for seven (eight? nine?) more films?
I’m betting on it.
At the turn of the millennium, I was immersed in the Austin “car scene,” participating in internet forums and attending weekly parking lot meetups. The work week was for endless online discussions of car modifications and virtual fisticuffs. Weekend nights were filled with loud cars, the smell of tire smoke, and the settling/creation of grievances. It was with this cohort that I attended an early screening, several dozen tickets to which had been cleverly seeded to a popular figure in the group.
This retread of Point Break based on a 1998 article from Vibe magazine about street racing culture is easy to poke fun at. The audience exploded in laughter at each new outrageously incorrect bit of technical jargon or incorrectly used brand name. I was secretly hooked on the sincere melodrama that would come to define the franchise. The potent mix of analog car chase cinema, charismatic actors, and ludicrous rap/nu-metal/techno soundtrack made for many easy viewings in that summer of ‘01.
The film marks a moment in time before a national crackdown by police on street racing, and the end of a lighthearted era of cinema, before the events of that September changed film and life forever. It is my favorite movie.
A lot of Fast fans will tell you that the tone and structure of the series doesn’t really come together until Justin Lin and Chris Morgan got their hands on it. But I feel that undervalues this movie’s charms and influence on later entries. It has that trademark blend of knowingly silly and achingly sincere.
The thing that cements it is Diesel and Walker, who immediately have perfect on-screen chemistry, especially in this outsized world of fast cars and crazy parties. Diesel in particular is calling his shot here as a movie star. His sloped shoulders and practiced machismo is what pulls you through a fairly stock standard caper movie, and you can immediately see why Walker as Brian would be obsessed with him. He has his own gravity! He’s a force of nature! The world around Dom bends to him, and he knows it. What’s meant as a co-lead vehicle for the two of them is bent into a Vin Diesel movie, and why he became so omnipresent right then is fairly obvious.
Our Next Pit Stop: We catch up with Paul Walker in Miami for 2 Fast 2 Furious, the Fast series entry best remembered for its bombastic title. And while Dom is nowhere to be seen, two mainstay members of the cast make their first appearances.