THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS (2001)

  • Director: Rob Cohen
  • Writers: Screenplay by Gary Scott Thompson, Erik Bergquist, and David Ayer, Story by Gary Scott Thompson
  • Starring: Paul Walker, Vin Diesel, Jordana Brewster, Michelle Rodriguez, Rick Yune, Chad Lindberg, Johnny Strong, Matt Schulze, Ted Levine, Thom Barry, Noel Gugliemi, Vyto Ruginis, Reggie Lee, and Ja Rule
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on HBO Max, Buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

The Fast and the Furious was a minor hit in 2001 (with the rights to the title bought from an unrelated 1950s Roger Corman movie, which was also about street racing but otherwise entirely unrelated), standing as the 19th-highest-grossing movie of the year at the US box office. This was enough to merit the production of a direct sequel, with the suitably ridiculous title of 2 Fast 2 Furious, which was a slightly bigger financial success, and this has, somehow, led to 8 further sequels to date, along with a spin-off movie, with at least three more sequels and spin-offs currently planned or in production. The Fast & Furious franchise has become one of the most popular of the past few decades. It always somehow involves action sequences with cars or vehicles, but makes every effort to top itself in every movie. Recent installments have featured car chases on ice sheets with submarines, cars jumping out of planes, and, as described in the Wikipedia article for the most recent sequel, “Using the rocket car, Tej and Roman enter orbit and destroy the satellite.” 

All of the billions of dollars and also rocket cars came out of this medium-sized car-based action movie that is, in the end, basically about stealing DVD players, a movie that is very, very 2001 in basically every way. Paul Walker, frosted tips and all, plays Brian O’Connor, a police officer sent undercover into a “street racing world” centering around Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and his gang (“We don’t call it a gang. It’s a family”) to solve a series of hijackings of trucks carrying electronics, because that is a thing. Literally harpoon guns are involved. A few races and/or car chases later, O’Connor successfully ingratiates himself with the group, which includes falling hard for Toretto’s sister, Mia (Jordana Brewster). But of course, if you have watched a movie before, you know that in fact Toretto is behind the truck-jackings, and O’Connor will be forced to decide between his new “family” and his job.

You also may have noticed, if you’ve been watching along with us, that this is 100% beat for beat the plot of Point Break, but with more cars, way more techno music, and worse actors, and that is very accurate. The primary difference between the plots of the two movies is that this one keeps back the information that O’Connor is an undercover cop for about the first half hour, then plays it as a reveal. Which is an interesting tack to take, because really without that reveal there’s no movie. In any case, the movie is interested almost entirely in its style and its individual action bits, and almost zero in having some kind of originality. And also in seeing just how 2001 it can get in its soundtrack choices. There are some absolutely spectacular soundtracks in our Film Odyssey, but this one features not one but several rap-rock tracks.

And yet, despite all of this, the movie somehow works fairly well in spite of itself. To some degree, the relationship between these two massive bros actually carries emotional weight, and despite the fact that our leads would have trouble acting their way out of a paper bag, they are somehow believable as these two specific people. And the movie is, unusually for even this era, somewhat effortlessly set in a multicultural Los Angeles world. Paul Walker’s white-boy nonsense stands out like a sore thumb, which thankfully the movie seems to fully understand. This has turned out to be one of the franchise’s real success stories, that it is able to have all these different characters that help it appeal to people all over the world, hence, you know, the billions of dollars and so on. Anyway, what I’m trying to say is, this movie should be so, so terrible, and somehow it is mostly fine and engrossing, and this makes at least some of the parts that actually are terrible more, y’know, endearing than anything.

This movie was helmed by Rob Cohen, who may be the least likely director to have a movie featured on this website. He became known in Hollywood when, as a lowly script-reader, he picked a script off a pile and proclaimed to anyone who would listen that it would be an award-winning hit, telling his boss he could fire him if he was wrong. That script was made into The Sting, which was in fact a massive hit and won the 1973 Best Picture Oscar. Cohen went on to become a very successful producer, but then he made the move into directing. Other than this movie, which despite its pleasures I would argue is hardly a masterpiece, Cohen has directed a long series of lifeless action movies, often with bloated budgets that they had no idea how to spend. Cohen’s other films include xXx (also starring Diesel), Stealth, and The Hurricane Heist, all of which have led to very full episodes of my favorite podcast about terrible movies, How Did This Get Made? Unfortunately, Cohen has more recently become the center of a long series of truly awful sexual misconduct allegations, including by his own daughter, who claims he not only assaulted her, but also took her to several sex workers as young as the age of 12 in an effort to “turn her straight.” Cohen vehemently denies all the allegations, but, I mean, there are a bunch of them, so… you can figure it out.

Today most of these actors are much more famous than they were at the time, and while several, including Vin Diesel, skipped the next sequel, most would see the money train for what it was and jump back on at one time or another. Diesel, Brewster, and Michelle Rodriguez, who plays Diesel’s love interest, all appeared in F9 and are scheduled to appear in subsequent installments as far as I know. One member of the cast who was unavailable, sadly, is Paul Walker. Ironically, from one point of view, Walker died in a car crash, of the sort his character in this movie seems to get into repeatedly and walk away from without a scratch. He was apparently driving over 80 mph in a 45 mph zone in Santa Clarita, when he crashed his Porsche into a pole, killing both himself and his passenger. The crash happened in 2013, in the middle of shooting Furious 7, and Walker’s part therein had to be finished with with a mix of outtakes, body doubles, and CGI. 

Hollywood today, for better or worse, is a land held together by its tentpole franchises. They use the word “tentpole” for a reason, those are the movies that hold up everything else, and without them it would all come falling down. Now more than ever, as they say. Most of these franchises, however, start either from adapting an already existing story (say, from a bunch of books, like the Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter movies we’ll feature over the next week or so), or from trying to recapture the lightning in a bottle of some initial megahit, often to diminishing returns. The Fast and the Furious is almost unique in being not something to particularly write home about in and of itself, yet somehow serving as the basis of a long set of increasingly popular sequels and spin-offs. The Fast & Furious movies have, to date, continuously been an exercise in topping themselves. A side effect of this practice is that this movie is the least spectacular and least exciting of the bunch.

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