Note: Check out my original 2009 review to see how much of a better writer I am now
The dirty little secret of the Fast and Furious series is that they were never really about the cars they so proudly displayed. Writer Gary Scott Thompson used the Vibe Magazine article “Racer X” as an inspiration for the first installment, but the series has proven itself to be a strange and ever-changing beast since entering the pop culture landscape 14 years ago. And then there’s the popular, rather true notion that the original movie is basically just Point Break with cars instead of surfboards, and we never talk about Point Break as a surfing movie. The Fast movies are an often lost and yet bizarrely coherent collection of pieces that have adapted to extenuating circumstances over time into something bigger and altogether more interesting than originally envisioned.
However, to understand the context of its zigzagging evolution we need to return to the beginning. The characters of The Fast and the Furious live apart from the rest of us with their unique world that’s powered by magically ready-made rolls of cash, a little elbow grease, and a lot of attitude. The movie presents a clear distinction between the “normal” world and the nightlife racing culture as the sun sets and the flashy neon cars light up the streets. Director Rob Cohen lovingly pans his camera across these cars with as much fetishistic glee as he does the scantily clad women that cling to the drivers like rock band groupies. Cohen and Thompson create this insular microcosm of people that all know each other and the code of respect that defines them, so when Paul Walker’s Brian O’Connor presses his way into this circle he immediately stands out like bleached-blonde sore thumb.
Walker’s severe stiffness as an actor almost works for the character; sometimes it’s hard to tell in the early scenes whether Walker is just trying to pull off a convincing line delivery or if the actor is playing this up to emphasize the undercover cop’s weariness. Walker’s lack of screen presence, intentional or not, is put into perspective every time he shares a scene with Vin Diesel’s Dominic Toretto. Before we even get to know Dom, Cohen and Thompson lay the bricks for his legend status in the racing community. Cohen stages his introduction in such a way that we already understand the type of person he is before Diesel opens his mouth. With his back turned to the camera and two crossed shotguns adorning the office wall, Dom is immediately established as the outlaw figure who only enters trouble when absolutely necessary.
In Diesel’s hands Dom is the ideal image of macho bravado without the toxic impulsiveness that undoes many of the other characters in this society, including those in his own crew. Even as the Fast movies found their voice late in life, their baritone lead actor never quite recaptured the same level of charisma he displayed here. The hyper-macho attitude extends to everyone else in the movie, with every guy trying to one-up each other in races and insults. So pervasive is the movie’s manly nature that one of its few prominent females, Michelle Rodriguez’s Letty, is so masculine that she takes the phrase “just one of the guys” to another level.
The only sensible way for these people to vent themselves is through the thrill of underground street racing, a life so in-tuned to their desires that they might be able to describe the accessories of their cars faster than Cohen can montage them. But Cohen has a few tools of his own; his computer-assisted journeys into the car engines have become a trademark element of the series. A character’s press of the NOS button is more than just a little boost, it’s an intricate mini roller coaster that gets to the literal heart of these speed machines and provides the movie’s audience with an adrenaline shot of their own. Cohen pushes the effects to such a degree in the first drag race that the cars feel like they’re gliding more on pixels than pavement as he relies too much on green screen effects when real driving would have worked to better effect.
This is certainly true with the botched truck robbery that comes right as everything starts falling to pieces for both the characters and the increasingly haphazard plot momentum. When looking at the larger set pieces to follow in the sequels, this sequence is rather stripped back in comparison, and to its advantage. Dom, against his better judgment, tries to save resident asshole crewmate Vince from the shotgun-wielding driver, whose faceless presence gives him an otherworldly quality, recalling the sinister and also unseen villain of Steven Spielberg’s classic Duel. The entire sequence is accomplished with nary a trace of digital trickery, allowing the tension to build naturally through a series of close-calls, daring maneuvers, and Dom’s refusal to let his friend go.
This drives at the heart of what this tight knit group of people is all about, which is the binding force of family. For all it’s races and clashes, of which there’s surprisingly little of for an action movie, The Fast and the Furious is much more concerned with its bromantic bonds and attitude than it is about getting the adrenaline pumping, which works both for and against itself. Like any outlaws, Dom and his crew live by a code; it’s just that this code is often expressed through the simple pleasures of a Corona and some barbeque with mates. The outlandish world of street racing is made human, even as it retains its ridiculous nature with earnestly acted nonsensical dialogue such as, “I live my life a quarter mile at a time.” Try as it might, words and convincing emotion aren’t the movie’s strong suits.
This presents a problem later on when the drama feels like it should be hitting a peak and yet stalls out repeatedly in the third act. The plot continuously pivots around its multiple threads and never manages to bring them together in a cohesive fashion, leaving the disjointed climax to fizzle out before it can generate real excitement. The final drag race between Brian and Dom feels like a forced attempt to provide closure, especially when the impending threat of Brian’s LAPD superiors turns out to be a total non-starter. The perfect analogy for The Fast and the Furious is Brian’s first street race experience: he has the right tools and just enough bluster to carry himself through, but he sputters out wildly before hitting the finish line, leaving a trail of smoke and little else to show for it.