Humble stories have humble origins. The Fast & the Furious, from director Rob Cohen, certainly qualifies for this arc. The iconic franchise kicked off with a surprise hit in 2001. Borrowing its plot from Kathryn Bigelow’s instantly iconic Point Break, The Fast & The Furious tapped into a void. The action stars of the past two decades had passed their prime, and street racing culture was at a new high point. While other storytellers embraced high-concept action spectacle, producer Neal H. Moritz made a bet on old-school grounded action. While it took a decade for audiences to buy into the vision, the plan culminated in one of the definitive franchises of the past twenty-five years.
The story of The Fast & The Furious plays on California tropes. A young cop Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker) goes undercover in an extreme sports scene. O’Conner infiltrates the Toretto racing family. As he gets close to Dominic (Vin Diesel), he falls in love with Mia (Jordana Brewster). Yet Dominic’s right-hand man Vince (Matt Schulze) grows distrustful. Other gangs, including the Tran family (led by Rick Yune), act out against the Toretto family.
Cohen’s direction emphasizes place and scene more than many of the sequels will. After all, The Fast & the Furious focuses on its Los Angeles setting. It quickly emerges as a unique spin on the street racing scene, a culture that had largely been ignored. It’s impossible to ignore the diverse world we enter from the first film, and it becomes clear white audiences mostly rejected these stories. Using O’Connor as the primary perspective opens the world and pushes Latin, black, and Asian characters to take over the screen. This became the backbone of the franchise as it expands and felt quietly revolutionary in 2001.
In the years since this film, Diesel fell into the mold of the action superstar forged by Sylvester Stallone. Yet in The Fast and the Furious, he crafts an intriguing performance. Rodriguez pops off the screen too. It’s obviously she would become a star in the future, with or without this franchise.
Walker also impresses, going toe to toe with Ted Levine and Thom Barry. The urge to place him in the “Keanu” role is wise. He brings out the best of any actor on screen, but you can also feel his torn allegiances. Walker showcases enough oddity and aloofness that he sells his cover as a washout surfer would take up street racing.
The two actors that do not get enough celebration are Rick Yune and Reggie Lee. Both play thankless antagonists, but they represent a genuine threat to Toretto. There’s a wildcard nature they bring out of the performances that draw your eye. Even when they appear calm in a scene, the entire mood swings instantly. Unlike many antagonists to follow, both Yune and Lee show incredible charisma. While the series would leave the street-level villain behind, they were true highlights.
Cohen’s direction also swings wildly depending on the scene. The Highway heist gone wrong remains one of the most visceral experiences in the series. The Jesse character fails most of the film, yet Cohen lands the drive-by shooting for its emotional heartbreak. At other times, The Fast and the Furious employs awful special effects. This most notably becomes a problem when NOS is used. Juxtaposing the bad CGI with the excellence of practical street racing creates the impetus for future installments to load up on practical stunt work.
Additionally, Brewster’s Mia is tragically underwritten. The poor character has no agency in this entry. This would continue to be an issue in future installments as well. Letty gets the short end of the stick for most of the film, but a few key sequences at Race Wars and during the heist redeem her. Overall, The Fast and the Furious struggles with its women while laying the groundwork for the characters to thrive in future releases.
Our first entry in The Fast and the Furious world hooks us with its awesome stunt work and enjoyable characters. Some future installments learn from the achievements of this one, while others drift towards its issues. While The Fast and the Furious could have stayed a cult favorite, the foundation provided the framework for a franchise revival in subsequent years.