The Fast and the Furious
Screenplay : Gary Scott Thompson and Erik Bergquist and David Ayer (screen story by Gary Scott Thompson)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2001
Stars : Vin Diesel (Dominic Toretto), Paul Walker (Brian Spindler), Michelle Rodriguez (Letty), Jordana Brewster (Mia Toretto), Rick Yune (Johnny Tran)
The Fast and the Furious is loud and dumb, but it's also entertaining and, at times, even exhilarating. But, most importantly, it earns that excitement the old-fashioned way. In a summer of CGI-heavy action movies in which actors run around battling with highly detailed three-dimensional cartoons, it's almost refreshing to see a flick in which virtually everything is real.
Granted, director Rob Cohen (The Skulls, Daylight) throws in a few effects here and there, and his camera is often too jittery and restless for its own good, but the majority of the action sequences were done for real, with actual cars and live stunt people. He doesn't make the mistake Dominic Sena made last summer with Gone in 60 Seconds, in which Sena utterly ruined the big climax by having a computer-generated car pull off the final stunt, which in essence goes against everything race-and-crash movies are all about.
Taking a page (actually, several pages) from Kathryn Bigelow's Point Break (1991), The Fast and the Furious uses an undercover cop story to dive deep into a distinctive California subculture, in this case, car culture. It gives us adrenaline-addicted young men spending thousands and thousands of dollars souping up and tricking out their cars with elaborate engines, nitrous-oxide boosters, special tires, and detailed paint jobs, then illegally racing them through the streets of Los Angeles. Cohen has obviously absorbed a lot of the car-race movies from the 1970s and '80s, as he knows how to get his camera into the midst of all the chrome and exhaust, fetishizing every last bit of metal and making it clear how these machines function as not so much an extension of their owners' manhood, but literally as their manhood itself--their very being.
Into this world walks Brian Spindler, an undercover cop in his late 20s played by Paul Walker, who has the same kind of vacant good looks and slightly stoned cadence of Keanu Reeves. Some may remember him from his role opposite Joshua Jackson in The Skulls (2000), but he got his start playing the air-headed basketball jock in Pleasantville (1998), which expertly utilized his magazine-cover blandness. Walker is custom fit for this role, just as Keanu Reeves was custom fit for virtually the same role in Point Break--it requires an actor who can seem both completely in control and utterly clueless at the same time.
Filling in the Patrick Swayze role of subculture shaman is Vin Diesel as Dominic Toretto, who is the de facto head of the L.A. car scene because his car is the fastest, and everything he has on it becomes the envy of everyone else. Diesel was a perfect choice for the role in the way he exudes power and confidence just in the way he walks. His character requires him to be utterly compelling to all those around him--one character describes him as being "like gravity." Swayze did a better job of conveying that sense of absolute mastery of his world through dialogue and swagger, but Diesel holds his own mainly by his sheer physical presence. When the screenplay puts explanatory and philosophical words in his mouth, such as when he describes the 10 seconds when he's racing a quarter-mile as the only time he feels "free," the whole thing falls apart. Luckily, such moments are few and far between.
The narrative revolves around Brian's becoming enmeshed in Toretto's world of fast cars and illegal racing, and how attractive it all becomes to him. Brian is undercover because an unknown group of street racers have been hijacking 18-wheelers in elaborate high-speed heists. The feds believe that Toretto is behind it, but Brian is confident that it's someone else, although his judgment may be skewed because he not only admires and grows to like Toretto, but because he is romantically involved with Toretto's sister, Mia (Jordana Brewster).
The climax of the movie is a wild chase sequence on an open highway in the middle of the Nevada desert as the hijackers Brian are after try to pull off another heist. It is here that the movie drops all pretenses of being about car racing and becomes a Road Warrior clone (anybody remember when they were a dime a dozen?), complete with the trucker blasting a shotgun out the window, cars racing around and underneath the truck, people jumping from to vehicle to vehicle, and one guy who gets caught up in a wire and is dragging along the side of the truck, all at 80 miles per hour.
It's a rush of a sequence, and the fact that it was done for real makes it that much more exciting. The actual vehicles thundering down the road have a weight and force that even the best CGI effects simply cannot match. It isn't enough to make The Fast and the Furious a great action flick like The Road Warrior, but it is enough to set it apart from much of what has been playing in theaters lately.
©2001 James Kendrick