When I tell people I’m really into the Fast and the Furious movies, I usually get a bewildered look, followed by people asking if I mean that I’m into them ironically. When I inform people that I don’t really buy into liking things ironically, the baffled looks get even worse. Maybe this isn’t as true after Fast Five walked away with a whole boat-full of money in 2011, but I’ve been on board since Tokyo Drift and I’ve been waiting for a good excuse to talk about what exactly I like about this most-unfairly-maligned and under-watched of modern cinematic franchises.
So welcome to Raging Rapidity, the season of Serious About Series where I get down on Vin Diesel and Paul Walker and the gang of street racers, cops, thieves, and other sundry ne’er-do-wells. Not just to crack wise about how dumb Paul Walker is in general, but also to try to explain exactly why I’m so into this series and why I’ll be the first in line for Fast Six whenever it decides to come out this year.
Strap in, put on some sunglasses, and get ready to let those who are fast and those who are furious (don’t worry, I’m sure there’ll be a chart) drift their way into your heart, one last job and one last quarter mile at a time.
The Fast and the Furious (2001)
The Fast and the Furious was never destined to be a great movie. Inspired by an article he read about street racing, director Rob Cohen was coming right off that bangin’ generational classic The Skulls when he decided that the kids who weren’t rich enough to be into Ivy League conspiracies were probably into street racing instead. So why not make a movie to appeal to them, pack it full of hot young stars, and make a supposedly infinite amount of money?
Honestly, it’s not a bad idea, no matter how much I poke fun at the inspiration. Car movies will always appeal to a broad, young audience, especially in periods where street racing is in some sort of cultural resurgence. And let’s be honest, the Willennium as a weird time for teen-focused movies, as what would work in a PG-13 versus an R film went back and forth, and comedies and thrillers mostly dominated the landscape after the slow death of the bloated action movie behemoth that was the 90s at large.
So in some ways it isn’t that surprising at all that people actually dug The Fast and the Furious, because it really did find itself in a market where there wasn’t much else like it. It’s PG-13, it’s mostly friendly, it has a lot of not-actually-young-but-we-can-pretend actors driving cool cars, and by and large manages to coast on attitude more than big expensive set-pieces. It’s a racing movie with three races, an action movie with two gun fights, and a star-crossed lovers tale with zero sex scenes. Of course it made entire truckloads of money. Of course it would inspire sequels.
And that’s despite the movie not being very good. Vin Diesel’s got a ton of charisma, so casting him as street racer/gang leader Dom makes a lot of sense. But casting the void of charisma that is Paul Walker opposite him as the young up-and-coming racer, who also happens to be an undercover cop investigating him? It’s a ridiculous juxtaposition, almost hilariously so, as Paul Walker struggles to just look competent compared to everyone else around him in this movie. That’ll be a recurring theme in all the movies he’s in, so you might as well get used to it.
What’s most interesting about that is that since Paul Walker can’t match Vin Diesel’s intensity, the movie never really actually has a sense of danger. Maybe that’s just Rob Cohen, I don’t know, but the entire movie just kind of lazes its way through the plot. And it’s not for a lack of trying, because Vin Diesel even acts his heart out about his father’s horrific death in a race crash during one scene where he plays against the brick wall that is Paul Walker’s carefully tanned face. The whole emotional resonance slams against it just like poor Dom’s dad hit that retaining wall in the plot, and likewise all real investment goes right out the window for us. Thank god they dropped shit like this in later movies, because it just doesn’t play.
Even the whole plot about Dom being a criminal and Paul Walker hunting him down is silly. I mean, it plays out with all the beats, including Paul Walker deciding Dom isn’t such a bad guy after all but Dom feeling betrayed when he finds out about the whole cop thing, but honestly it seems almost totally amicable. There’s just zero tension, so when they have one last race at the end to decide whether or not Dom’s going to jail, it seems less life and death and more like ‘hey, whatever, of course we’re ending on a race.’
Which I think would be death to a movie like this, and if this was the only movie in the series probably would have lead to nobody giving a shit forever. These movies are light and almost innocent in how lacking in emotion and edge they are, even as they strive to posture their way into capturing some sort of phantom of a teen fad. And to be honest, I caught The Fast and the Furious on cable when it was new and was so unmoved that I stopped caring until someone put a bird in my ear to watch Tokyo Drift years later. This is not the kind of movie you would expect to spawn a franchise worth a damn, no matter how much money it made. It’s just too slight and too formulaic. But when there’s a dearth of formula genre pictures? Hey, anything can happen.
Most Unintentionally Funny Bullshit, Bro
I went ahead and titled this one after the first movie, because I feel like the first movie more than any movie in this series is the most unintentionally funny. I mean, 2 Fast is pretty dumb, but The Fast and the Furious pretends like it’s an actual serious movie. And Justin Lin (bless) came into the third movie with tongue planted firmly in cheek and said to himself ‘let’s fuck up this shit with some self-awareness.’ And there was much rejoicing.
So from the painfully 2001 clothing to the douchiest hairstyles (Paul Walker is a doctoral thesis in ‘I’m not a surfer, but I could probably play one in your khaki shorts ad’), The Fast and the Furious rolls deep in unintentionally funny bullshit. That includes tribal tattoos and the most unironic use of calling unrelated human beings ‘brother’ since Hulk Hogan last slobbered over a microphone. It’s fast and furious (Hey, get it, huh?) early in the movie, where Paul Walker gets into a fistfight that is predicated on him and Vince “Tribal Sleeve” McBroDog calling each other ‘bro’ and ‘man’ so much that the rest of the dialogue becomes the dull creaking of your eyeballs rolling into the back of your head.
Add to this the absolutely unnecessary inclusion of Michelle Rodriguez, playing what I can only assume it herself, going by the street name of Letty, who spends the entire movie rubbing on Vin Diesel like she isn’t the only woman in the movie that he isn’t related to who doesn’t come across like she’d stab him or give him some sort of disease. She’s even introduced sniffing the women hanging around Vin and saying “Smells like … *sniff* skanks.” That’s pretty classy, Michelle. That’s not the kind of happy go lucky line reading one would expect from the main hero’s girlfriend, but I guess if you’ve been playing along with the entire series it actually isn’t that out of character.
I’m No Expert, But Cars Probably Don’t Do That
This movie is full of really specious and outright fanciful racing hijinks, starting early on in the big race that Paul Walker talks his way into. From the minute every takes off and suddenly turns into bad CG, the movie goes out of its way to remind you that you aren’t watching real stunts as it zooms inside engines to watch fuel spray and explosions happen and any number of other things. This is years before Speed Racer, but it manages to look as if it’s aiming for that level of cartoonishness.
It only gets worse once everyone hits their NOS buttons and their cars suddenly go so fast that they actually put in a stretching effect and warp speed the very obviously fake process shot of the street around them, as suddenly the cars start traveling at what I can only imagine are near relativistic speeds to cause that sort of stretching. Which means that in the very unrealistic 5 minutes it takes them to drive that ‘quarter mile’, they probably actually go around the world a couple of times. Which would be cool if this were Wacky Racers, but it isn’t. Instead it just makes that whole sequence incredibly dumb and lacking in any real impact.
But hey, there’s that super cool, not-CG crash at the end of the movie where Dom’s big muscle car does that crazy flip over the top of Paul Walker’s car, and that thing is genuinely awesome. So you’ve gotta take the good with the bad, sometimes. Included above for your viewing pleasure is that great stunt, which seems (on my informed but not expert opinion) to be practical aside from the CG replacement of the ramp Dom’s Charger obviously went off of with the truck he supposedly clipped.
The Slashfic Award for Best Homoerotic Moment (presented by Tumblr)
One of the things I appreciate about the Fast & the Furious series is that it goes out of its way to always have two dudes being incredibly dude-y in some fashion as their leads. Sure, they usually have love interests that are more heteronormative, but if you want some Top Gun style slashfic then F&F has got you covered in spades in every single one of its incarnations. And never is that more true than in this first incarnation, where the testosterone is at its peak and the various forces at play seem seconds away from dropping all pretense and just going for sloppy open-mounted kisses. Talk about your ten second races! I’ll be over here fanning myself, overcome with possibility.
The worst of these has to be during the bonding period between Dom and Paul Walker, though, where they go out joyriding wearing amazing sunglasses. They pull up next to a rich LA type with his trophy girlfriend driving a very expensive sports car, and suddenly it’s the square straight guy versus the cool street racer couple, all bursting muscles and hot octane. And of course they smoke the guy, though sadly the movie edits out the part where they hold hands and ride off into the California sunset together. It’s probably in the director’s cut, which sadly wasn’t included in the netflix version I watched for writing this article. Oh well. In my dreams!
Which Ones Are Fast And Which Ones are Furious Again?