Principal Cast : Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Michelle Rodriguez, Jordana Brewster, Rick Yune, Chad Lindberg, Johnny Strong, Matt Schulze, Ted Levine, Thom Barry, Ja Rule, Noel Gugliemi, Vyto Ruginis, Reggie Lee.
Synopsis: An undercover cop infiltrates the underground street-racing fraternity to break a case involving hijacked trucks.
Vroom vroom, baby.
Cast your mind back, to 2001. Better known as the year of the World Trade Center attacks, 2001 also brought us the action flick “classic”, The Fast & The Furious, a film borne of a magazine article about the underground street-racing subculture. Directed by Rob Cohen, the man behind films such as Dragonheart, Daylight and xXx, the original Furious film kick-started the careers of Paul Walker and – to a lesser extent – Michelle Rodriguez, and placed lead actor Vin Diesel on the path to action hero stardom. While the death of Paul Walker in 2013 has cast a long shadow over the Furious franchise, looking at this film after almost a decade and a half, I can easily see why this series of films simply will not die. At the time of writing, Furious 7 (filming at the time Walker was killed in a car accident) is yet to debut, but it’s a testament to the foundation set here by Cohen that the characters, the premise and the cars all created a legacy of entertainment that has befuddled serious critics and enraptured the millions who have gone to see it. The Fast & The Furious was merely another summer action flick, the kind of fast-food cinematic junk designed to wash over you without eliciting much movement from the brain patterns of its audience. Yet, considering many other franchises (most of which with considerably larger budgets, too) have fallen by the wayside in the years since, yet Furious continues to go from strength to strength. Perhaps there’s something here, in the original, that sets the tone for what’s to come, or is it – as I suspect – a magnificent case of lightning striking at just the perfect moment?
Brian O’Connor (Paul Walker) is an undercover cop, trying to infiltrate the underground street-racing community. A number of big-rigs have recently been hijacked, and their cargo stolen, leading both the LAPD and the FBI to send O’Connor in as a mole, to root out the culprits. O’Connor meets local street-racing kingpin Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel), his sister Mia (Jordana Brewster) and Toretto’s gang – Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), Jesse (Chad Lindberg), Vince (Matt Schulze) and Leon (Johnny Strong). Suspecting Toretto of masterminding the truck hijackings, O’Connor ingratiates himself into their inner-circle by losing a street race to them, leaving him “in Toretto’s debt”. Toretto’s arch rival, an Asian gang leader named Johnny Tran (Rick Yune – Die Another Day), whose gang operates with mercenary precision. O’Connor is pressured by his LAPD sergeant Tanner (Ted Levine) and FBI agent Bilkins (Thom Barry), who need to make the bust on the hijacking before the local truckers start taking matters into their own hands. As O’Connor falls for Mia, and Toretto begins to trust him more, the young undercover cop finds himself in the cross-hairs of his loyalty and friendship, with his career potentially on the line.
The Fast & The Furious is hardly intelligent cinema. Without trying to sound condescending, the script and plot plays like a second-grade police-crim fantasy, with the undercover cop going “native” and actually siding with those he’s trying to put away. The characters in the film, nearly without exception, are poorly written, and performed even worse (yes, even Diesel, folks!), and the dialogue more often than not falls flat with the clunky, wooden, manufactured feel of a high-school play. Now, you wouldn’t even go into a film with a title like Fast & The Furious thinking you’re gonna get high art, but looking back at this film after a few years, it stuck me as a rather wobbly movie when all is said and done. However – and here’s the rub – the film soars whenever the cars take center stage, and thankfully, that’s often. The Fast & The Furious certainly delivers on its promise of fast cars, fast girls, fast action, and fast stunt-work. Watching this for the story is like watching football for the half-time break. The “story”, as thinly developed as it is, is designed purely to keep the cast in their cars as often, and as long, as possible. When it does that, it all works.
Rob Cohen is a director I have mixed feelings about. On the one hand, he’s capable of films with genuine soul, like Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, or solid action flicks like Sly Stallone’s Daylight. Then again, he’s also known for overblown action spectacle like xXx, one of the worst films to feature Vin Diesel in living memory, and a film that makes Michael Bay look like Woody Allen by comparison. I didn’t mind Stealth, but I can see how most might have hated it. Ahem. The Fast & The Furious is easily his most accomplished work, in terms of really inhabiting a world and providing a solid glimpse into it. Furious, which was made after producer Neal Moritz read an article about underground street-racing in a magazine, captures the adrenaline, the rush, the loyalty and the uninhibited nature of a subculture that continues to grow across the globe. Furious latches onto the perceived freedom of taking your pride and joy, hotted-up with all manner of gizmos and chromed parts, and racing it against others of a similar intent. Sure, it shoehorns some bogus criminality throughout its narrative, and tries to make Paul Walker (and Diesel himself) into stars via a dire script, but there’s no argument that it delivers the action fans come to see. For that, Cohen is to be commended.
The story rankled me initially, when I saw this in the cinema back in the day. I admit, watching it now, over a decade on (Walker’s death notwithstanding), moments of this film still stick in my craw. Primarily it’s the acting, most of which ranges from barely manageable (Walker, Brewster and Diesel) to insipid (Rick Yune, Chad Lindberg) to outright pantomime (Matt Schulze). Scenes of “brotherhood” and “loyalty” and “friendship” are simplistic, testosterone-driven fantasy-land brushstrokes of death, inane rantings about family and “having each others’ backs” coupled with glaring, pouting and varying amounts of sweating. The script is cartoonish, a caricature of reality, which is probably apropos considering the setting and the premise. Toretto’s criminal behavior is justified by some sympathetic outpouring of grief towards the latter third, although Diesel never really makes Toretto a character we can sympathize with, let alone find in any way redeemable. He’s a thug, really, although the film revels in glorifying his sense of honour to the point where we have no choice but to root for him to succeed.
Walker’s O’Connor, meanwhile, has about as much character depth as one of those shiny plastic cars racing the streets of downtown LA. O’Connor isn’t given any back-story, other than his repeated protestations that he’s a cop (which I guess if you’re going to make a point of mentioning so often, means that it’s supposed to somehow fill in the gaps on its own), and his romance with Mia is unconvincing and bereft of chemistry. Walker is all about looks and attitude, of which he provides plenty. The dude looks like a surfer, the kind of blonde-haired sandy-beach guy who would rather catch a wave than race a car, and he honestly seems far too young to be any kind of undercover cop (although Walker was nearly 30 at the time the film was released); his role is merely to provide context for the plot machinations of Toretto and his crew, all of whom seem to tribalize their actions around the thrumm of car engines and the pulse of NOS explosions. Walker – bless his cotton socks – tries hard, but he’s hardly the crucial actor in this film, although he’s definitely pretty to look at. It’s amazing just how similar his look of concern, and happiness and fear manage to be virtually identical, though.
The real star isn’t even Vin Diesel, who, along with his rippling triceps and carved-from-granite voice, evokes classic old-school action heroes with his delivery of such immortal dialogue: “I live my life one quarter-mile at a time,” like he’s reciting Shakespeare. He’s no Stallone, Arnie or Eastwood, but for The Fast & The Furious’ 2001 era cinema, it was a new age of heroes. Michelle Rodriguez does her best to act like a man for most of the film, scowling and stalking through the movie like an angry unsatisfied fetishist. Her character achieves little, has little humour, and adds only minimal entertainment to the overall film. Jordana Brewster, as Mia, looks nice (although her face does resemble some kind of angular post-modern sculpture) and adds some sex appeal, but the moment she opens her mouth to speak, it’s clear acting is (or was) never going to be her primary life achievement. Brewster’s performance here is woefully under-skilled, a lot like co-star Matt Schulze, whose Vince is a brutish, antagonistic douche against which there is never a clear motivation.
The real star of the film, or should I say stars, are the cars and the action scenes, and boy howdy do they set the bar high. Although since overshadowed by stunts in the sequels (especially Fast 5’s Safe-chase finale), The Fast & The Furious puts you right into the drivers seat of a high-powered sports car and pushes the accelerator into the floor. The films sparkles visually whenever the vehicles are up on the screen, and the action sequences – particularly an early set-piece involving Brian racing three other cars, including Toretto – set the tone for the adrenaline pumping fun to be had. Cohen’s camera not only travels at high speed with the vehicles, but it swoops down into the engines and shows us the NOS injections, the engines firing up, and the sheer power and awesomesauce of having a front-row seat in these mind-blowing cars. It’s skin-tingling stuff, and a lot of it filmed for realsies, which only adds to the tension. The Fast & The Furious might fail dramatically or coherently, but as an action film, it’s still a whole shit-ton of fun.
The Fast & The Furious set in motion the franchise for car-loving hoon drivers around the world. Accepting it for what it is, it’s a silly, enjoyable action flick that never tries to overreach its potential, and focuses instead on what works best – fast cars doing insane stuff on the road. While I found much to annoy me throughout, with its immature script and weak casting performances, the film’s boundless enthusiasm and identifiably street-savvy adrenaline-junkie action mandate makes for a loud, bombastic, occasionally-thrilling Big Mac of a movie, one with limited nutritional value but plenty of that special sauce we all love. It’s hardly ground-breaking, but it is a fun ride.