Released: 22 June 2001
Director: Rob Cohen
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Budget: $38 million
Stars: Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Rick Yune, Jordana Brewster, Michelle Rodriguez, and Matt Schulze
Dominic Toretto (Diesel) enjoys the adrenaline of street car racing and his fans treat him like a rock star. After a blazing encounter with the ruthless Johnny Tran (Yune), Dom decides to take racing newcomer Brian (Paul Walker) under his wing, unaware that Brian is an undercover cop who’s investigating both Dom and Tran’s involvement in money laundering and hijacking.
It’s easy to forget nowadays that the outrageously bombastic Fast & Furious franchise (Various, 2001 to present) originally started out as a grounded thriller revolving round street racing and knock-off DVD recorders, but the film’s origins can actually be traced back to a Vibe magazine article about street racing titled “Racer X” and more than a few influences from the similarly-themed Point Break (Bigelow, 1991). After coming to an agreement with Roger Corman, who released a film of the same title back in 1954, the producers initially reached out to rapper Marshall Mathers III/Eminem and Timothy Olyphant for the lead roles before settling on rising musclebound star Vin Diesel (who later became a driving force behind the franchise) and the late Paul Walker. Director Rob Cohen was adamant about including the right cars to reflect the no-holds-barred nature of the street racing scene; the sheer amount of vehicular muscle involved for the film’s notable “Race Wars” scene attracted over 1500 import car owners and enthusiasts to San Bernardino International Airport, where the scene was shot. Bringing in nearly $210 million at the box office, The Fast and the Furious was a massive hit, a success it emulated when it became the second-highest single-day DVD release of all time. Critics were somewhat divided, however; while some lauded it as a mindless, high-octane action picture and praised Diesel’s performance, others criticised it as unexciting and idiotic, Still, The Fast and the Furious kicked off one of the most successful film franchises of the modern era; by going bigger and more brazen with each entry, transitioning into a heist series and even incorporating bombastic, almost sci-fi logic, the franchise has become almost unexpectedly popular despite criticisms regarding its later over-the-top nature.
If I’m being brutally honest, the Fast and the Furious franchise has never really been of much interest to me; I’m a big fan of Vin Diesel, especially his under-rated science-fiction efforts, despite his obvious limitations as an actor and bizarre off-camera antics, but cars and car racing just aren’t really my thing. The closest I come to enjoying anything about cars is watching old episodes of Top Gear (1977 to 2001; 2002 to 2012, specifically), though I was more interested in the hilarious shenanigans of its presenters than the cars themselves, and even the twist that this first film is more of an action/thriller as opposed to the more over-the-top nature of its sequels can’t really outweigh the fact that I’m just not all that thrilled by car-based action. For me, the franchise has always had its appeal in its outrageous action and stunts, the macho bravado on display, and for playing around with the genre in fun ways, such as inserting jump cuts to pedals being pressed and gears being changed instead of punches and kicks like in traditional action and fight scenes. Yet, I have had an on again/off again relationship with the franchise, mainly because two of my close friends are big fans, and I’ve had some enjoyment from it, but it’s always interesting coming back to this first, far more grounded entry after seeing how bonkers it became over time. For example, rather than opening in the sweltering heat of Brazil or a dramatic, high-speed escape from a prison van, The Fast and the Furious opens in the sweltering heat of downtown Los Angeles and with the dramatic, high-speed heist of a truck carrying a cargo full of electronics (televisions, DVD players, and the like). We don’t actually see the faces of any of the drivers involved in this heist, which creates an air of mystery surrounding the crime that is central to the main plot of the movie; Dom and his crew are extremely proficient high-speed drivers, after all, so they’re natural suspects for these types of unusual, road-based crimes.
Next, we’re introduced to Brian Spilner and given a taste of the film’s depiction of racing; basically, this involves a lot of shaky camera work, cutting to the actors inside their souped-up vehicles, and inserts of them changing gears and stamping on pedals while the cars race along, drift, and careen past gorgeous scenery. Although clearly skilled behind the wheel, Brian is frustrated at his inability to get up to top speed on the track, something he’ll need to improve at if he hopes to stand a chance in the city’s illegal drag races. To blow off steam, Brian heads to Toretto’s, a family-run diner where he regularly visits to order the same tuna sandwich from gorgeous proprietor Mia Toretto (Brewster). Although Brian is clearly flirting with Mia, who makes no bones about sugar-coating how mundane her job is but has little time for bullshit in her life, he’s oddly fascinated by her grim, musclebound brother. However, Brian’s constant presence at the diner and obvious fawning over Mia raises the ire of one of Dom’s crew, the abrasive Vince (Schulze), who clearly has a thing for Mia himself; unimpressed by Brian’s “faggot” attitude, Vince starts a brawl in the street and it’s up to Dom to separate the two. While Dom is embarrassed by his friend’s actions, he also takes an instant dislike to Brian; he not only orders him to stay away but his clout as a famed racer almost costs him his job at the Racer’s Edge garage, which supplies fuel, add-ons, and the famed Nitrous Oxide Systems (NOS) that can give even the slowest car an almost supernatural boost of speed at the twist of a valve. Luckily for Brian, the owner, Harry (Vyto Ruginis), plays peacemaker, though he advises Brian that he needs to work on his driving technique rather than pump his car full of NOS. However, Brian feels he needs the boost if he’s ever going to have a chance at competing in the night-time races and impressing the likes of Dom; though he sticks out against the other racers primarily for his fresh-faced good looks and lack of an entourage, he manages to ruffle a few feathers by inserting himself into the race by putting up his modified 1995 Mitsubishi Eclipse as collateral.
Dom’s reputation as an expert racer proceeds him; everyone at the races knows him, women drool over him, and men both respect and envy him. Dom’s such a prominent face at the events that he’s able to set the rules of engagement, the buy-in price, and the rewards for the participants; while Brian has to psyche himself up for a race and packs his car full of NOS to try and compete, Dom is cool as a cucumber and unnervingly confident, carefully unleashing his supply of NOS at just the right time to out-race his opponents. Victorious, Dom immediately shoots down Brian’s happiness at almost pipping him to the post; Dom offers a scathing criticism of Brian’s driving, his overreliance on NOS, and his arrogance to assume that he would’ve won had his car not failed him, delivering easily one of my favourite lines of the film (and the franchise) when he bluntly tells him that “almost” isn’t good enough in a street race. Luckily for Brian, Dom’s notoriety extends to the cops; when he’s spotted on the streets, Dom is forced to accept Brian’s offer of a ride to escape to safety, which is enough to get him in Dom’s good graces and invited into his social circle. Having served two years hard time in the past for almost beating a man to death, Dom has no desire to return to prison, but the Corona-loving brute can’t deny himself the thrill of street racing; banned from ever having the chance to race legitimately, the only true freedom Dom has left comes from the inescapable exhilaration of a quarter-mile drag race. Dom’s story about his troubled youth exposes layers to him that surprise even Brian; portrayed as a tough, methodical force with an unbridled rage seething beneath his muscles, it’s surprising to find a vulnerability to Dom, who’s been forced to set aside whatever dreams he might’ve had and become this paternal, inspirational figure who, as Mia describes, pulls people towards him “like gravity” through his sheer charisma. Of course, it turns out that Dom’s garage and diner are just the front for his real operation; to fund his racing projects, he and his crew have been pulling off death-defying heists and selling knock-off electronics on the side, an operation that is causing truckers across the city to start arming themselves for protection and has attracted more police attention than his nightly drag races.
Dom’s crew is comprised of hyperactive statistician Jesse (Chad Lindberg), glorified lookout Leon (Johnny Strong), the aforementioned Vince, and Dom’s main squeeze, the only one tough enough to match him on the road and in the bed who doesn’t have a dick, Letty Ortiz (Rodriguez). Jesse acts as the team’s primary mechanic and is generally there to spout off the specifics of different cars (probably to keep Vin Diesel from having to remember any complicated lines), but this is instrumental in convincing Dom to allow Brian to race since the car he wagers is an attractive prospect and also in relaying Brian’s “history” to Dom through a quick internet search that is vital to Brian infiltrating the crew. Letty is clearly enamoured by Dom and in awe of both his physical presence and his driving skills, but their relationship is a little more complex than you might think; Dom appears almost dismissive of her in their first interaction, but eventually intervenes in the fight between Vince and Brian when she and Mia yell at him long enough, yet he acts quite sheepish when Letty later warns off the “skanks” sidling up to him. While Dom’s frustration with his crew at running to the hills also extends to Letty, but she endures his ire and curries favour with him by offering her body as stress relief. While Vince is pissed to find Brian invited into their social circle, Dom vouches for Brian since he was the only one to step up when the cops came calling. Although Brian infiltrates the crew and finds himself “owned” by Dom since he owes him a ten-second car, he continues to butt heads with Vince, especially after Dom publicly humiliates the tattooed Neanderthal; he gives Brian evils at Dom’s sumptuous barbecue and throws a tantrum when Mia drops her rule about dating Dom’s friends to go out with Brian. Thus, Vince is naturally aggrieved when he finds Brian snooping around a garage and immediately pegs him as a cop, a situation that Brian is barely able to talk himself out of, but Vince is left with his life literally in Brian’s hands after he’s shot during a later heist.
Things look bad for Brian after he’s apprehended by the cops, but rather than being taken to prison, he’s taken to a cushty safe house and asked for an update by Sergeant Tanner (Ted Levine) and given a grilling by agent Bilkins (Thom Barry) of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for losing his Mitsubishi. Yes, it turns out that Brian Spilner is actually Brian O’Conner, a Los Angeles cop who’s been sent undercover to find out who’s behind the recent spate of hijackings, which have reached around $6 million worth of goods. Promised a promotion to detective for his efforts, Brian is faced with a ticking clock as the truckers are close to taking matters into their own hands but is confident that following Dom is the best way to figuring out whether he or someone else is the culprit. This reveal fundamentally alters the entire perception of Brian; previously quite aloof and a bit of a naïve goofball, he’s actually quite the snarky and intelligent cop. His longing to be part of Dom’s crew is reframed as the most efficient means of finding a lead, and his affection and interactions with his team, Mia especially, appear to simply be part of the job. Mia is intrigued by Brian; she’s surprised that he frequents the diner so much when their tuna is so famously bad and is aggravated by Vince’s dislike for the handsome goof yet is also clearly quietly impressed when he puts it all on the line to take part in the races in an effort to earn the respect of the other drivers. While she acts coy around him, Mia is clearly into Brian, and while Dom warns Brian not to break Mia’s heart, he doesn’t oppose their relationship; she’s genuinely happy to be put first for a change, and even showcases her own driving skills before ultimately ending up in bed with him. Mia is understandably hurt and angered when Brian is forced to reveal his true nature to her when Dom, Letty, and Vince head out on another heist, but begrudgingly agrees to lead him to them in order to protect her friends and family from being shot by armed truckers and hounded by every cop in the city.
After escaping from the cops when their drag race is interrupted, Dom and Brian accidentally drift into the territory of a rival racing gang led by Johnny Tran and his cousin, Lance Nguyen (Reggie Lee). Packing heat and favouring motorcycles, Tran’s gang has a tumultuous agreement with Dom to stay out of each other’s way and he delights in intimidating Dom by opening fire on Brian’s car and blowing it up. This first meeting is just a teaser for their upcoming showdown in the Race Wars, a massive drag race event for big money and fast cars that’s due to take place out in the desert, but the issues between Tran and Dom are as personal as they are professional since they fell out over a shady business deal and Dom getting a little too frisky with Tran’s sister. While investigating one of Tran’s garages, Brian watches as Tran and Lance sadistically torture Ted Gassner (Beau Holden) to get their engines for the Race Wars but is stunned when it turns out that Tran’s gang weren’t behind the hijackings. Indeed, when it’s confirmed that Dom and his crew are actually the culprits, these shady racers who we’ve been following and grown attached to throughout the film could actually be said to be the true villains of the piece. However, the term “anti-hero” is probably far more appropriate as they’re not out to maliciously hurt or kill anyone, and even the reprehensible Vince earns himself some sympathy when he’s shot by a trigger-happy trucker during what is meant to be the team’s last heist. Morality is further blurred when Tran, incensed by the bust at his house and the disrespect he feels has been thrown his way, publicly accuses Dom of being the one who called the cops on him; when he easily outraces Jesse at the Race Wars, Tran’s anger overflows when the heartbroken mechanic flees rather than part with his father’s MK3 Volkswagen Jetta and the two gangs get into a brief scuffle. Tran’s retribution is malicious and brutal; he and Lance ride past the Toretto home and viciously gun Jesse down, forcing Dom to face his fears and chase after them in his father’s Dodge Charger.
While themes of family eventually became so synonymous with the Fast and Furious franchise that it’s something of a running gag these days, it’s a reasonably subtle theme here; Dom’s crew is like his family and he acts as their undisputed patriarch, protecting, advising, and even scolding them when necessary. He issues orders with a gravelly tone and his word is the law since he’s the biggest and the best of them all; it’s very much a hybrid of a traditional, catholic Italian family unit and almost a mob situation as they look to him for guidance and direction and must follow his lead whether they agree with it or not. Of course, family is more explicitly represented in Dom’s protective relationship with his little sister, Mia; while showing off the pimped out 1970 Dodge Charger R/T he built with his father, Dom tell Brian how his father crashed and burned to death before his eyes, showcasing a vulnerability from the obvious trauma of this incident, which left him openly afraid to drive the Dodge Charger and driven into a mindless rage to punish the man responsible. Trust and loyalty are very important to Dom and key elements of the film; this, of course, makes things extremely difficult when it’s revealed that Brian is an undercover cop, something Vince takes great pleasure in learning since he had his suspicions about Brian from the start. However, while he realises that he’s jeopardised his relationships with Dom and Mia by deceiving them, Brian becomes so attached to the two that he’s forced to re-evaluate his position and set aside his orders to help Dom chase down Tran and Lance in the finale. One thing I do love about The Fast and the Furious is how utterly 2001 it is; this is reflected not just in the nausea-inducing shaky cam and perpetually sweaty, outrageously attractive cast and their loose-fitting clothes, but also the heavy rap-centric soundtrack (including one of my favourites, “Rollin’ (Urban Assault Vehicle” by Limp Bizkit). This hip-hop influence is reflected in the portrayal of many of the supporting characters, with rapper Ja Rule featuring in a small cameo, and in the thumping beats of the score; The Fast and the Furious even had the best of both worlds by releasing a second, more nu-metal-themed soundtrack that’s much more my jam.
The opening heist gives a taste of how versatile and proficient the drivers are; not only is Dom’s team capable of driving at high speeds in the dead of night in modified cars, but they’re also packing large grappling hooks to anchor and rappel themselves to other vehicles, and wield both regular and tranquilizer guns. Their skills at driving are so sharp that they’re able to outrace most regular cars and Letty slips between and under trucks when bombing along at breakneck speeds. In The Fast and the Furious, the city’s nightly street races are a commonplace annoyance for regular citizens; Leon monitors a police scanner, and the drivers immediately disperse when they’ve been discovered, adding an element of danger to the proceedings that makes things all the more thrilling. And yes, the film’s racing is very thrilling; the first drag race pits Dom against Brian, Edwin (Ja Rule), and Danny (R.J. de Vera) and sees their exhausts literally spitting fire (thanks to an atrocious CGI sequence where their engines explode like rockets!) as they barrel through the city streets on a makeshift track. Though it’s often painfully obvious that the actors aren’t actually blasting along at nearly two hundred miles per hour and it’s pretty hilarious when Brian engages his NOS and enters warp speed, there’s an exciting sense of speed here and things only get more intense as Harry’s warnings come to pass and Brian’s car literally breaks apart from the extreme speeds. Interestingly, actual car racing is more of a side plot than a selling point of the film; much of the middle portion revolves around Brian working with Dom’s crew to get his ride ready for the Race Wars event and the mystery of who’s behind the hijackings. Considering how much it’s built up throughout the film, you’d expect that the Race Wars would be the climactic finale but it’s actually little more than a means to escalate the tensions between Dom and Tran; Brian and Dom don’t even race in the event, instead it’s just Jesse stupidly ignoring Brian’s warnings and being outclassed by Tran’s coveted Honda S2000. This leaves the team one man short for their last heist, which sees Vince clinging to and hanging from a truck as the others desperately race around trying to help him, leading to Brian dramatically jumping to the truck from a speeding car and being forced to call in emergency medical aid for the wounded Vince, thus exposing himself to Dom and the others.
The Fast and the Furious is openly, unapologetically, and explicitly car porn. If you like your cars, then this is the film for you and the movie goes to great lengths to introduce and showcase them as being as important as any of its characters. Indeed, the cars are extensions of the characters, representing their ego, bravado, masculinity, and reputation on the streets; when you hear these cars coming and see them come bombing along, you’re supposed to look up in awe and be impressed, and nowhere is this more explicit that at the drag races, where drivers stand proudly by their cars, engines exposed, and boast about their tunings and refinements. It’s a very sexual and sordid presentation; semi-naked woman and well-cut men accompany these vehicles, and the camera lingers on both with a perverse fascination; they are both to be lusted after and coveted, and this is reflected in Brian’s admiration for certain cars and desperate need to have a car powerful and capable enough to impress in the races. This, by extension, would not only raise his stock amongst the thugs, lowlifes, and braggarts who take part in the races, but also earn him Dom’s respect and Mia’s eye; in this regard, the races are not only metaphorical dick-measuring contests, a way to prove how macho and capable each racer is, but also an almost ritualistic form of courting since it’s not enough to simply “stand by your car” and look cool. Indeed, sex and cars go hand-in-hand in The Fast and the Furious; a racer’s attractiveness is explicitly related to the type of car they drive and their skill behind the wheel; this is most obviously expressed when Edwin is promised sex with his sumptuous babe (Tammy Monica Gegamian) and is denied this (and a proposed threesome) when he loses the race. It’s also seen in Dom’s relationship with Letty, which is based as much on her ability to hang with her male counterparts as it is their intense sexual chemistry, and in the way Brian desperately longs for Dom’s approval and respect. There’s an undeniable homoerotic nature to their relationship; Brian gazes at Dom with a mixture of awe, admiration, and shyness and is desperate to show that he has what it takes to hang with him and his crew. Sure, it’s all part of his cover and part of his assignment to infiltrate Dom’s inner circle (not a euphemism…), but he develops a real kinship and sense of respect for the hulking racer that directly informs his more rebellious actions in the film’s final act.
Despite spending the entire film preparing for the Race Wars, Dom and his team never get the chance to race against anyone at the event, much less Tran and his lackeys. Instead, Jesse has a short and unsuccessful fun in the desert and ends up going into hiding rather than give up his father’s car. This leaves Dom a man down for his last heist, which sees an armed trucker open fire on him, totalling his car, Letty sent careening into the desert, Vince left severely wounded, and Brian’s cover completely blown. Although clearly seething at this revelation, Dom is forced to focus on keeping Vince alive and stable but gets into it with Brian when he goes to his house to confront him thinking that he’s going to go off half-cocked. However, after sending Letty and Leon to safety, Dom’s plan is to grab a gun and fire up his father’s Dodge Charger so he can find Jesse before Tran can get to him, but things get very heated between the two former friends before a desperate Jesse arrives begging for Dom’s protection and is gunned down by Tran and Lance. In that moment, Brian chooses to pursue the two rather than bring Dom in and he races after them through the hilly streets of suburban Los Angeles. Enraged by Jesse’s death, Dom joins the pursuit and sends Lance tumbling down a hillside while Brian manages to anti-climatically shoot and kill Tran; with the score settled, Brian immediately leaps back into his car and pursues Dom when he makes his big getaway. Dom challenges Brian to follow him in a quarter-mile drag race across a railroad line and, realising that Toretto would truly rather die than go to jail, Brian has no choice but to accept; thanks to his NOS, Brian’s able to keep up with the Dodge Charger and avoid being smashed by the train, but a spot of engine trouble and the sudden appearance of a truck see Dom taking what is clearly a life-ending barrel roll across the road. Of course, Dom survives with only minor injuries, but his beloved car is wrecked; with sirens closing in on them, Brian takes one last, lingering look at the man he’s come to admire so much and decides to hand over the keys to his car, thereby gifting Dom the ten-second car he owes him and allowing Dom to evade capture and head out to Mexico to start his life anew.
As I said up top, I’ve never really been a massive fan of the Fast and Furious franchise or car-based action films; hell, I’m not even really a big fan of Point Break, which kind of bored me by about hallway through. Injecting cars and high-octane races into the Point Break formula definitely makes it more appealing, though, and I’m surprised by how much I enjoyed The Fast and the Furious. It’s not a film I watch very often, even amongst the others in the franchise, but there’s something comforting about revisiting this simpler time in the series where character moments, low, far more personal stakes, and thrilling bursts of nonsense car action were the order of the day before physics-defying, superhuman feats. Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy the mindless nonsense of this action/car/spy mash-up franchise, but the first film hits a little different; maybe it’s the 2001 trappings such as the fashion and music, maybe it’s how young and slim (though still buff) Vin Diesel looks, and maybe it’s just that there’s a gritty tension to The Fast and the Furious that’s missing from later films. There’s a constant sense that everything could just explode at any moment; scenes between characters are charged with sexual and emotional tension that often results in heated exchanges and fist fights, the streets are depicted as a dangerous place to be because of gangs, shootings, illegal drag races, and armed truckers, but the real meat of the piece is the allure of Brian’s dual nature. Once it’s revealed that he’s a cop, the complexion of the movie and his interactions change and it’s interesting seeing his layers be revealed in this way, almost as much as realising there’s more to Dom than just being a rough, gruff brute. There’s definitely a sense of danger to everything, from the races to Brain’s investigation as the context provided is of a violent life and violent people, meaning characters can get hurt, shot, or even killed at a moment’s notice rather than just shrugging everything off. While some of the effects haven’t held up too well and I would’ve liked to see a bit more racing, especially at the Race Wars, there’s a surprising amount to like here; it’s sexy and sweaty when it needs to be, bursting with content for car aficionados, and a decent enough action/thriller to throw on with a few
beers Corona and a pizza barbecue when you have some friends over.
Are you a fan of The Fast and the Furious? How do you think it compares to later entries in the franchise? Do you prefer this more grounded, gritty approach or do you prefer the more outrageous, bombastic nature of the sequels? What did you think to the relationship between Brian and Dom? Did you enjoy the street races on show here and were you also disappointed by the Race Wars? Which of Dom’s crew is your favourite and what did you think to the rivalry between him and Tran? Let me know your thoughts in the comments and tell me your favourite Fast and Furious movie on my social media.