20 June 2013

Furious Flashbacks: The Fast and the Furious

The Fast and the Furious (2001)
Directed by Rob Cohen. Starring Paul Walker, Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez, Jordana Brewster, Rick Yune, Chad Lindberg, Johnny Strong, Matt Schulze, Ted Levine.

When I performed my drive-by review of Furious 6 (which has already earned its place as one of the best films of this summer; it’s a better Superman film than Man of Steel), I got the idea to put the car in reverse and review all the films in this most unexpected of mega franchises. It promised a fresh experience, since until I sat down to watch the original film for this review, I had never seen any of the Fast and Furious movies more than once.

So far, I’ve gotten exactly what I got the first time. Almost. The Fast and the Furious is the same as I remembered it, only with the slight slant of hindsight from five more films and the inevitable sprinkle of nostalgia. Wow, Jordana Brewster sure was young! Wait, I was that young too! Ah, damn.

I brought up the time gap, so let’s do it that way:

Picture yourself back in the summer of 2001, when a mid-budget movie about street racers with no major stars suddenly became a big damn deal. And it really was. I was teaching high school at the time, and my students were all over this picture. They loved it. The girls and the boys.

The Fast and the Furious struck at the right time. Another racing film beat it to theaters in April, the Sylvester Stallone flick Driven, which boasted a big name and a budget twice the size of The Fast and the Furious. But it tanked, and the racing community loathed it. Summer started, and the first big blockbusters up to bat were The Mummy Returns and Pearl Harbor. Both received scathing reviews and audience derision, and people were already prepared to give up on the whole summer.

Then The Fast and the Furious zipped in. It paid just enough attention to character and reined in the action from slapping the audience senseless that it felt like a classy art film. I totally understand why it hit so big. Seeing it again, I still get it.

The Fast and the Furious looks even smaller now, not just within its own franchise but in the greater blockbuster universe where we have total destruction on the scale of Man of Steel. It’s interesting to see that the movie isn’t about cop-n-robbers at all, or even much about street racing. The caper is laughably thin: a crew of street thieves hijack and rob trucks carrying… wait for it… consumer electronics! Yes, that’s it. The big score is shipments of televisions and DVD players. That’s enough to bring in an enormous police task force and the FBI. As for the street racing, which was the marketing selling point: there’s only one major race, placed close to the beginning, and some occasional scenes of candy-colored car fetishizing. I recall that 2 Fast 2 Furious and Tokyo Drift went more gonzo with car worship.
But fast rides and cheap crime are only window dressing. The movie really wants to hang out with convict and racing machine Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel), undercover cop Brian O’Connor (Paul Walker), Dom’s cute sister Mia (Jordana Brewster), Dom’s squeeze Letty Ortiz (Michelle Rodriguez), and a few colorful folks on Dom’s team. The success of the sequels shows that viewers wanted to hang out with them, too. After O’Connor gets his introduction to Toretto and Family, the movie starts strolling, in no rush. It wants to have a few beers with its buddies, crank up the music now and then, let a few people flex and occasionally shout, but… hey, it’s cool. Just hang with us.

I hung with them. It was a good time. The Fast and the Furious is casual dining at that familiar spot that serves fantastic French fries.

Rob Cohen is at best a competent director, although people who have endured xXx might argue I’m being overly kind. But competent works in this case because Cohen attempts nothing visually spectacular with the dramatic scenes that take up the big chunk of the screen time. The actors relax into their roles, and even if no one gives a remarkable performance (the best on display comes from veteran Ted Levine as a police detective) they do work together as an ensemble. Hindsight affects this, both positively and negatively. I now have a twelve-year relationship with these fictional folks, and they’ve grown on me. But the actors feel less accomplished in these old school days. Paul Walker especially improved as a performed after his first two movies in this series. His performance in the utterly insane Running Scared (2007) pushed up his acting level, and he’s much more confident from Fast & Furious onward. He’s perfectly adequate here, however, and I enjoy watching him hang with Jordana Brewster: they are the perfect Abercrombie & Fitch couple.
We don’t get much action, and so its good that Cohen knows how to get out of the way and let what is on the page play out. After the first big race, which is a bland drive on a straightaway with glitzy CGI borrowed from TRON, there isn’t anything like a major “action” beat until Race Wars out in the desert, an hour later.

Then the big action sequence comes roaring out of nowhere. O’Connor finally “breaks” the case by striding right up to Mia and saying, “I’m a cop!” Then the two dash off to chase down Dom and his crew as they descend on a truck carrying more untold riches in Panasonic three-disc DVD/CD changers. It’s a slick action set-piece, very very Road Warrior with its premise and many of its shots. But when it starts getting bad for Dom and his bunch, he should ask himself if those televisions and DVD players are really worth it. At least wait a few years for Blu-rays and HD TVs to hit the market. Ah, I kid. Great driving, great stunt work, great scene. The foundation is laid for the epic action yet to come.

The truck chase blows up the rest of The Fast and the Furious, or what little remains. The leisurely character-driven pace opens up the NOS tanks and streaks toward the credits. The ADD tech-kid Jesse (Chad Lindberg), who previously drove out of the movie for some reason, drives back in just in time for semi-villain Johnny Tran (Rick Yune) to also re-enter the movie and gun him down. The closer sequence starts: a car chasing two motorcycles with a few shots swiped from Bullitt. (If you reference The Road Warrior with one chase, you have to either do a Bullitt or a French Connection one later.) Considering the sequels would feature climaxes where cars fly onto boats and O’Connor and Toretto demolish half of Rio de Janeiro using a bank vault, this is a scaled-down way to end. Not a terrible way, as it fits the movie’s scope, but nothing to remember. And then… “I owe you a ten-second car”… and wham! The film is over. (There is a post-credits scene to informs you that, yes, Dom made it across the border. There will be a sequel. But not with Dom until 2009.)
Something strange I noticed, and probably the only part of The Fast and the Furious that no longer works for me: the script tries to play coy with the identity of the highway hijackers, as if it might not be Toretto’s crew after all. The filmmakers lay it out as if it were a genuine mystery, which is dumbfounding. The story doesn’t work if Johnny Tran or the even the more minor Hector is behind these jobs; they don’t carry dramatic weight to make the reveal matter. Trying to obscure the obvious basis of the drama—an undercover cop gets too friendly with the crooks he’s trying to shake down—is a bizarre way to orchestrate the plot. I doubt anybody noticed the first time around the script was trying to hide the thieves’ identity; there was no way it couldn’t be Toretto and Co. Come on, we’ve all seen Point Break.

I watched The Fast and the Furious on plain-ol’ DVD, but the DTS mix is one of the best I’ve heard on a standard definition disc. Unfortunately, the film has a rotten soundtrack of poorly placed tunes that sound exactly like a record company putting together an album. The later films, I recall, did much better with this.

Next: 2 Fast 2 Furious, “The Miami Vice one without Vin Diesel.”