There appear to be a lot of films in the Fast and the Furious franchise and only a global pandemic has paused their proliferation. There is a point where natural curiosity overcomes my overall lack of interest in cars. So if I have to start somewhere then it makes sense to start at the first film.
Before hand I knew that the film was about a cop infiltrating a gang of street racers who are involved in robberies. If that sounds a bit like the film Point Break with Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze and “surfers” swapped out for “street racers” then, well, I haven’t watched Point Break either. I also know that the star of the film died much later in the franchise and that didn’t stop the films somehow evolving later into an action thriller with Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham.
Released in 2001 the film looks and sounds like a product of at least the previous decade and at times feels like it belongs in the 1980s or even the 1950s. The title, of course, is literally borrowed from a 1954 film but there is a definite 1950s pulp book feel to the way story frames the central street racing gang as all a bit scandalous and dangerous. It’s a macho culture and aside from two characters, women are portrayed primarily as sexual rewards. The first exception to that is Michelle Rodriguez’s character Letty, who is the girlfriend of gang leader Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) but also an equal member of the close knit gang and an adept driver. The second exception is Dominic Toretto’s sister Mia (Jordana Brewster) who is the primary love interest but still sort of falls into an ‘innocent young woman caught up in a criminal subculture’ archetype. Both women are definied in terms of the relationship to Dominic but that is sort of true of the whole movie. Vin Diesel gets to be centre of everything and only Paul Walker’s cop character Brian O’Conner ever gets to be defined in terms of any other relationships.
The street racing sequences are surprisingly quite dull. Each race is basically down a straight road between two cars. In the first race between Walker and Diesel they even have a kind of trippy visual effect when the characters press a go-faster button, as if they engaged warp speed. The more exciting actions sequences are confined to the first heist (which opens the film) and the second (which begins the final stage of the film).
Diesel and Rodriguez are the most convincing in their roles. Walker, not so much. The plot makes it obvious he’s a cop even before the surprise reveal but at the same time he’s never convincingly a cop even when talking to his boss and the FBI. His undercover role makes little sense and the obvious route for busting Dominic Toretto’s criminal operation is tax fraud, as he clearly is spending a lot more money than his garage could generate.
The four street racing factions we meet are split on ethnic lines with the Vietnamese Johnny Tran (Rick Yune) being the main bad guy. Despite his gang frequently shooting at cars and people on motorbikes, the police are less interested in that and focused on the lorry hijacking scheme. Aside from that the ethnic divisions don’t play a role in the plot.
I wouldn’t have guessed this was a franchise spawning film if I didn’t already know. Walker is wooden, the car sequences are OK but it’s not Mad Max. The writing is weak: Dominic and Brian bond because the plot says so, Mia and Brian fall in love because the plot says so. The characters feel like action figures being moved around. The lorry heist plans makes no sense and the surprise the gang faces when the lorry drivers start packing shotguns really shouldn’t have been a surprise.
I’m going to watch the rest. I’m genuinely curious now.