I first saw The Fast and the Furious on a VHS rental with my best friend, what, fifteen, sixteen years ago. And I liked it; but I liked most movies that I saw that way – movies were a treat in my household. And sniffily, in my early twenties, I would see the reviews of the various sequels, and sneer at the desperation of an irrelevant franchise (because the only thing more foolish than a teenage boy, is a twenty-something man). But after seeing Fast Five, I realised that this was the most exciting, multicultural action franchise of the twenty-first century, whose focus on physical action made it stand in direct contrast to the barely coherent, vapid superhero movies that dominate the genre. In this series, we’ll look at each film in the franchise in storyline chronological order.
Would you murder someone over a DVD player? It’s important to note that The Fast and the Furious seems as intrinsically linked to the year in which it was made, as much as those sweaty, unsettling thrillers of the seventies (such as The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973 – Peter Yates)) seem linked to theirs. The Fast and the Furious is set in a world of desirable DVD players, floppy discs and smoking inside. It’s sun-kissed cinematography recalls a brighter, simpler time; with the only hint of danger coming from the very Matrix-y neon green undercarriages of the heist cars (the hyper-neon aesthetic of the films isn’t fully established yet). The Fast and the Furious takes its superficiality in its stride; product placement is clear, no more so than in Dom Toretto’s preference for Coronas (the world’s second least pleasant beer after Fosters).
The movie finds its roots in a teen-friendly recast of Point Break (1991 – Kathryn Bigelow). It is a familiar story of a rookie cop going deep undercover in the criminal underworld, until he is morally compromised by the acceptance he finds in that world. Whilst this movie files down the queer romance of that film (significantly through the gregarious, charisma of Jordana Brewster), the cool tolerance of the surfer’s paradise is replaced by the exhilaration of street racing. But The Fast and the Furious improves on its progenitor, by holding back the reveal of Brian O’Conner’s true profession until the half-hour mark. It comes as a bolt out of the blue – and reveals our nominal lead to be Zelig of sorts, transforming his personality to suit the culture in which he moves.
Paul Walker is an actor clearly following in the zen-like naturalism tradition of Keanu Reeves. His pretty-boy looks mask a man terrified of failure – and perhaps his transformative personality is a symptom of not wanting to seem dislikeable (a failure of acceptance) to anyone around him. He is marked as coming from wealth (as are the Chinese antagonists of the film), a reality that is nearly always identified as obnoxious in the series (see the poser at the traffic lights in the film), but it is essential to his pretty white boy character that he has always been a winner – a personality Walker was quick to establish given his past career of jocks in films such as the masterful She’s All That (1999 – Richard Iscove). Despite this, he is a man of integrity, and one who clearly rejects the hyper-masculine culture of the police force for a more accepting life.
In opposition/collaboration is Vin Diesel’s portrayal of Dominic Toretto. Diesel’s screen presence is one of the more disruptive performances in modern Hollywood, so committed is he to sexually and racially ambiguous roles – the former is more coded in this series, despite his relatively chaste romance with Letty. Even his fairly rote tough-guy act, masks a nobility and commitment to family that come to define his character. Diesel sympathetically plays Toretto as a man terrified of going bad. He is driven by a failure to control his anger, that led to deaths of those he cares about. His trauma is healed when he steps into the role of surrogate father (represented physically by the 1970 Dodge Charger) for the constructed family he has built around him, where he is free to dispense his fortune-cookie bon-mots as wisdom. His accomplice Jesse, dies because he places hope in a father other than Dom. He also invents Catfish hunting five years early, such is his commitment to using Google.
The world Toretto represents – initially the street-racing scene, and then the more recognisable family within it – is a true multiculture. Racial identity is sublimated within it (as typified by Diesel’s deliberately nonspecific identity) and it features a degree of sexual freedom that society represses. Yet, sex is problematic within the culture from the start. Women are objectified and treated like prizes on the one hand, and then exist in the servitude of domestic chores on the other. It takes Michelle Rodriguez, a true unheralded screen presence, to interrupt this portrayal. Her Letty is instantly and magnetically attractive, grimacing, capable and clearly smarter than the world in which she inhabits. It is she who knows when to stop fighting, and she who proves her capability on the heist.
And it is an extraordinary heist. Whilst some of the street racing scenes suffer from the pedestrian CGI that hampers this period’s (and if we’re honest, today’s) blockbusters, the final heist is an engaging, tense sequence that wrings an enormous amount of terror from a single shotgun. Whilst the motorway is conspicuous in its lack of other vehicles other than the truck and those driven by Diesel’s crew, the camera is effectively placed low to the road surface in order to emphasise the dangerous speeds in which they are operating. There is a real physical weight to the action; arms are shredded, tyres burn, and hands grip steering wheels with a necessary intensity needed to control such a vehicle in such a dangerous situation. It is a genuinely thrilling sequence.
There is a tendency to present The Fast and the Furious as a small Point Break remake that somehow spawned an ongoing franchise. But rewatching the film, I was gripped by how engaging the performances were and how remarkable the final heist sequence was. Whilst it lacks some of the scale of the subsequent movies, that’s no bad thing, and it is a brilliantly engaging film.
Fast & Furious rankings:
- The Fast and the Furious
Brian & Dom street racing scorecard:
Brian: I (I’m declaring the final sequence as a deliberate draw, and thus giving them a point each)