released June 22nd, 2001
10 years ago today!
Wow, I never would’ve predicted this: THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS has aged well. Or maybe I just wasn’t ready for it back when I first saw it. Skimming over my intentionally pretentious and off-topic original review I can see that I saw it as an attempt to exploit a fad. This is supported by all the old dvd extras (now on blu-ray) which make a huge deal about it being based on a Vibe article about street racing, and how they went to watch races and ran from the cops and all the cars and extras in the car show scenes are real racers who responded to a web posting. They wanted us to know this “street racing” was a real thing happening somewhere at night, and director Rob Cohen and friends are on the front lines ready to show us what’s going down.
That shit (and the music on the soundtrack – “Rollin'” by Limp Bizkit!?) is still goofy, but watching it with ten years and four sequels of distance it seems like the street racing is a relatively small part of the movie, not worth fixating on. It’s a story about these men who happen to be obsessed with fixing up cars to go fast, and who use those skills to hijack shipments of DVD players. But it’s more about them as characters than about the specifics of their engines. It’s way more based on POINT BREAK than on that Vibe article, and I never got hung up on the portrayal of surf culture in POINT BREAK. It’s just the world that the story takes place in.
There’s one major street racing scene, the one where Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker) puts his $80,000 car on the line and loses it to Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel). I always thought it was a funny idea, they’re just driving in a straight line and their winning seems to mainly depend on pushing the button that kicks in the nitrous oxide, or as I would call it “the go-faster button.” Cohen tried to come up with a new way of showing speed on film, so it’s all very artificial, the actors driving fake cars with blurry, pulsating surroundings, and the famous camera-move-through-CGI-engine that was in a couple of these and then became standard in movies for a while in the early 2000s.
Watching it now it’s more of a special effects sequence than an action one. It reminds me of the speeder bike chase in The Return of the Jedis. But in my 2011 wisdom I can just smile at that silliness and appreciate the scene for its place in the story and characterization. I like it for Brian smiling like a stoner (or like Keanu?) after the catastrophic loss of his car, because he knows he’s earned some kind of respect with his impressive showing; for Dom’s macho and overly-competitive rebuttal to Brian’s claim of “Dude, I almost had you!”; for the way the outcome of the bet sets up their relationship and the perfect ending to the movie.
The stunt coordinator and second unit director is Mic Rodgers, director of UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: THE RETURN. Alot of his career has been spent with Mel Gibson, as his personal stunt double, stunt coordinator on alot of the movies he was in, and second unit director on APOCALYPTO, among other things. He also performed stunts in ROAD HOUSE and ON DEADLY GROUND, making him an important part of our nation’s great cultural history. And he does his job well here. Despite the digital slickness of that street race scene the rest of the movie feels very organic. It’s real car stunts, lots of crazy car flips and people climbing on and off of speeding vehicles, getting shot at. They’ve made this type of scene more elaborate over the course of the series, but the original ones still work great, sold by great stuntwork and the conviction in Diesel’s face and arms.
The filmatism is better than what I associate with Cohen. Although I don’t care for the song I like the musical montage of the police raiding Johnny Tran (Rick Yune) and his people. Busting in, humiliating a guy in front of his family, the guy’s father slaps him. And he didn’t even do the crime. (Although he did blow up the car Dom won from Brian, and later shoots one of their friends.)
One thing that hasn’t changed in ten years: the movie lives or dies on Diesel’s charisma. His type of macho confidence was a rarity in the pop culture of 2001 and arguably even moreso now, although averaging in THE EXPENDABLES might fuck up the statistics on that one. Dom is introduced behind chain link fencing in the back room of Toretto’s, the cafe and mini-mart that his sister Mia (Jordana Brewster) runs. Brian sits there eating his tuna fish sandwich and sees Dom’s bald head and muscular shoulders from the back. He doesn’t get to meet him until getting in a fist fight with Vince (Matt Schulze) and Mia begging Dom to intervene.
Dom is a great character, or at least Diesel makes him great. Brian’s boss, in a car movie variation on the “just how badass is he?” scene, says Dom’s “got nitrous oxide in his blood and a gas tank for a brain.” But Mia describes him as “gravity,” attracting everyone to him. We see this at the street races, where he doesn’t really have conversations, more like makes speeches to the crowd, like he thinks he’s Maximus from GLADIATOR, or Cyrus from THE WARRIORS, or The Humungus in MAD MAX 2. They hang on his every word, “ooooooohhh” on his every dis, cheer for his macho proclamations like “Ask any racer, any real racer. It don’t matter if you win by an inch or a mile. Winning’s winning.”
I mean really, is that supposed to be a great piece of real racer wisdom there? Why would you cheer for that? Because Dom said it, that’s the only reason. He can sell it like a preacher.
Not many actors could’ve pulled that part off. I know there’s a long list of all the people who were supposedly considered for Brian (Academy Award winner Christian Bale) and Mia (Academy Award winner Natalie Portman). I’m not sure who else was up for Dom, but I know Diesel had to leave John Frankenheimer’s REINDEER GAMES to take the part. You can describe that kind of presence, but you can’t simulate it. If it was phony the movie would be nothing. Obviously Diesel returning to the series is a big part of its growing success, but I think if it hadn’t been him in the first place there never would’ve been any sequels anyway, because nobody would’ve gave a shit.
There’s been some talk lately, some positive talk, about this series being “post-racial” and admirably diverse, the way it brings together all different races and nationalities in its cast. FAST FIVE has a super team of African-Americans, Latin Americans, Asian Americans, Puerto Ricans, Brazilians, some Samoan in The Rock, and one white guy. I would add that TOKYO DRIFT has a hick from Alabama who tries to graciously ingrain himself in Japanese culture, doesn’t drag his feet about it, doesn’t complain about having to take his shoes off.
But I gotta credit part 1 (and the Vibe article) for this approach. The street racing culture seems to be primarily Asian. You’ve got an Asian team, you’ve got a Hispanic team, and you’ve got our lead team which is 3 white guys, Jordana Brewster and Vin Diesel. They all have rivalries, sometimes with machine guns, sometimes with deadly results. But nobody ever calls anybody a racial slur, or seems like they have a problem with race, or notices it. Nobody even brings race up, it’s not about that.
This becomes more interesting when all the racers converge for a big convention that’s called “Race Wars.” That’s what they fucking call it! And you gotta wonder… didn’t they know what that sounds like? They had to’ve. Or maybe not. To them “race” means cars driving fast, what else would it mean? They’re not whites or blacks or Asians, they’re not a race, they’re people who race cars. Racists.
In a way it’s the same as that scene that had to be explained to me in the Coen Brothers version of TRUE GRIT. The little white girl and the little black boy talk about what a great name “Little Blackie” is for a pony, and it’s sweet because they’re both too innocent to be uncomfortable about any racial connotations in this conversation. Race Wars is the same thing. People from all walks of life can come together and have a Race War and still be brothers.
But then again they’re not all good people. Some of them are killers. Dom and his friends are behind a string of truck hijackings, that’s the whole reason why undercover cop Brian had to get acquainted with them in the first place. But why are they doing these robberies? What are they spending the money on? Mia isn’t going to medical school like she wishes, Jesse isn’t going to MIT like Brian says he should, the house is not real fancy. In a deleted scene we learn that Vince is paying medical expenses for his mom or grandma or somebody, but I’m not sure that counts since it’s not in the movie. As far as we know all this money goes into their cars. If so that’s kind of an accidental condemnation of the sport, isn’t it, if that’s what you gotta do to afford the equipment? You don’t gotta commit grand larceny to play basketball. You just gotta beat up somebody your size and steal their shoes.
Despite their crimes you like these guys because they’re like a family, and Dom is like their dad. He even brings them together for a fried chicken backyard picnic and he makes them say grace. Afterwards they lay around in the living room and watch DRAGON: THE BRUCE LEE STORY.
(By the way, I wonder whatever happened to Leon [Johnny Strong]? He was the guy on the racing team who didn’t get anything to do. He wasn’t Vin Diesel, he wasn’t the guy who’s jealous of Brian, he wasn’t the ADD computer expert, he was the other guy. They should bring him back in part 6, have him do something.)
Watching it now it doesn’t seem like a movie about racing (or “racism”) as much as it’s about macho bonding. The family doesn’t always take care of each other. Dom gets abandoned and almost picked up by the cops and can’t believe it when it’s Brian that saves him. He comes home and the people that should’ve been looking out for him are having a party. Vince is playing guitar. Letty is playing video games. Girls are making out. Nobody gave a shit about Dad, except Brian, so he’s in.
Of course, he’s an undercover cop, he has ulterior motives to get in with Dom. So the key moment is toward the end when Brian and Dom are in a field tending to the wounded Vince, and Brian calls for a medevac, calling himself “Officer Brian O’Conner” right in front of Dom. Dom gives him the ice cold “you motherfucker” stare. At this moment he could easily bash Brian’s skull in with a wrench like he did to the guy who caused his dad’s death. But he has to eventually come to understand what Brian has done. He found out when Dom was going to hijack a truck, didn’t want the cops to catch him or for the truck driver to kill him, so he went to help. He had Dom’s cell phone traced to get his location. Why didn’t he just call him and say the cops were onto him? I don’t know, but I’m glad he didn’t because everybody had failed to get Vince safely off the side of the truck, but Brian swooped in and did it. And Vince fucking hated him, so this is a supreme act of grace, like Babe saving the pitbull that tried to kill him in Babe part 2: Rise of Babe.
In summary, O’Conner has blown his cover, betrayed his people, risked his life and performed incredible stunts, all to save the life of an asshole that tried to beat him up and (at first) refused to even eat chicken with him. Brian did that because the guy was Dom’s friend. And all of that’s in the air while he’s looking down at the wounds trying not to blush from Dom’s “I’m gonna fucking tear your throat out” stare.
A whole lot of movies have squeezed drama out of the undercover cop forming a bond and then feeling like Benedict Arnold. Sometimes they just relate to the guy, sometimes they actually switch sides like this, and now they’re a rat to the crooks and to the cops. We’ve seen it a million times. But somehow this dumb racing movie pulled off a really good one, an almost mythic take on this classic situation, and not with dialogue – just with the expressions and physicality of two actors whose skills are generally shat upon.
Something occurred to me about the title. I always thought of “the fast and the furious” as being a lurid description of this group of people, or this subculture, or this generation or something. Like “the young and the restless.” But could it have been intended like THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY? Brian is “the fast” because of his driving, Dom (despite being equally fast) is “the furious” because of his anger about what happened to his father and what that did to his life. I don’t know, maybe that’s not what they meant, but I kind of like it.
This one cost about $38 million, less than half a MUMMY RETURNS, but they got way more for their investment. It’s a hi-octane thrill ride, a rubber-burning action vehicle, a nitrous-injected race car thingy, and other Peter Travers type quotes. This isn’t the type of movie I think of when I’m talking about the sons of JAWS and the Big Summer Popcorn Movie and all that shit, but it’s by far the best and most entertaining movie in this retrospective so far. It’s silly and it’s derivative of a better silly action movie, but it’s got heart, it’s got screen presence, it’s got codes of honor, and it’s got a hell of a car crash. That poor Dodge Charger, man. It’s been through so much over the last decade.
Happy birthday THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS. And many more.
* * *
legacy: 4 sequels so far and giving inspiration to other movies such as TORQUE.
Summer ’01-’11 connections: the best movie of the summer so far is FAST FIVE, sequel to this sleeper hit of ’01, and reuniting most of the original cast (even Matt Schulze).
would they make a movie like this today? The music would probly be better. And I would say the stunts would be more digital, except FAST FIVE has gone back to the glory of the real car stunt. FAST FIVE has also drifted away from the souped up Japanese cars to the classic ’70s muscle cars many of us prefer to see on screen (here just used as Dom’s dad’s car).
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.