In a continuing theme of dipping into my need for … early 2000s film nostalgia (even I can’t go for the low-hanging pun fruit) while also satiating my curiosity to re-experience the Fast & Furious franchise, I went back to the pre-9/11 world, which it’s crazy to think these films started in that time, and watched June 2001’s The Fast and the Furious. I’m offering up a motion to the executive producers of the franchise to retcon the title to, The Fast and the Furious: Babies Edition because of how young everyone looks! I know, I know, I harp on time all of the time and it’s obviously been 20 years since this film came out, but it was tripping me out how young everyone looked.
For a cool $38 million and only clocking in at 106 minutes — by comparison, the ninth installment in the franchise released this year had a budget between $200 and $225 million and a runtime of 143 minutes — the first installment was a roaring success, making $144 million domestic and $207 million overall. Quite the return on investment.
Another interesting comparison between the first and the latest films in the franchise is that the first is classified, rightly, as an “action crime thriller,” whereas the latter is “action adventure crime thriller.” I will get more into the evolving aspect of the franchise as I go through the films and I’ll pinpoint when that switch happens.
The first film follows Brian O’Conner (played by the charming Paul Walker), who is an LAPD police officer working undercover to stop a string of highway robberies of semi-trailers hauling DVD players. That sentence cracks me up. That is how this franchise, given what it’s become, started. And that in 2001, stealing DVD players was profitable! The FBI guy says they’re making away with millions of dollars worth of property!
And the person leading the robberies, although we don’t find out until later, is Dominic Toretto (played by Vin Diesel), with his love interest Letty Ortiz (played by Michelle Rodriguez) and the rest of his crew. In the crew, but not the crew doing the robberies, is Dominic’s sister, Mia (played by Jordana Brewster).
Something I can’t help but point out is how Hollywood does casting. At the time of this movie, Walker would have been around 28. Diesel would have been 34! Yet, their love interests, Rodriguez and Brewster, were 23 and 21, respectively.
As the film progresses, despite being an undercover cop, Brian falls in love with Mia and not only ingratiates himself into Dom’s crew on false pretenses, but actually genuinely seems to … enjoy being with the crew and drag racing. It’s scratching an itch Brian didn’t know he needed scratching.
That’s the other thing. This first film actually leans into the “fast and furious” theme with a lot of high-octane racing scenes, with a heck of late 1990s and early 2000s soundtrack blasting through the stereos, including quite the nostalgic throwback for me, Limp Bizkit’s, “Rollin’,” released in 2000.
At first, it seems like the bad guys are the Vietnamese gang, led by Johnny Tran (played by Rick Yune). And to be sure, they are the bad guys; it’s just, they aren’t the guys doing the highway robberies.
Going back and watching this, knowing what I know would become recurring themes in the franchise, here are some items I jotted down that made me jazzed to see have still been a feature of this franchise 20 years later:
- Corona! These guys sure do love Corona. At the house party scene where the crew is celebrating after evading the police post-drag racing, Dom offers Brian a beer for saving him from handcuffs and notes, “You can have any beer you like, as long as it’s Corona.” Which, doesn’t make sense, but, you know.
- The cop who is leading Brian’s investigation actually mentions to Brian that Dom beat a guy nearly half to death and Dom later tells the story about his dad’s death from racing due to another racer. They brought all of that back up for F9!
- Of course, these films have to have a family gathered around the table for a BBQ.
- And the BBQ can never commence until grace has been said.
- Finally, from the start with this film, while this franchise has never taken itself too seriously, something that does get taken seriously and gets time devoted to it, is the heart of the matter. Family. Loyalty. Trust. All of those things. It’s not just high-octane racing; there’s some heart here.
Another notable item about the first film that jumped out to me is how unbiased it is along gender lines. That is, it’s not hard to imagine that in 2001, the people behind the film would make a purely heart-pounding, car-racing film for boys and men. There could be no girls involved at all, or if they are involved, it’s to be so-called eye candy.
But that’s not what happens here. To be sure, Mia and Letty are love interests, but they’re more than that. Letty is a kick-butt driver herself, who smokes someone being sexist to her in a race. And Mia has one of the best moments in the entire film when she puts down Vince (played by Matt Schulze), one of Dom’s crewmembers. So, Brian had just asked Mia out and she said she doesn’t date her brother’s friends. Vince, who has been beefing with Brian this whole time, strolls into the kitchen making fun of Brian. Mia, all seriously, asks Vince what was that place he wanted to take her out to. He responds. And she then twirls around and tells Brian, “You can take me there.” Vince was peeved, of course. Whew, what a burn.
After that date, Mia also gets a chance to get behind the wheel and drive like a maniac. So, again, I appreciated that a film in the early 2000s actually gave the women in the cast roles that were more than mere eye candy or love interests and they contradicted at multiple points the sexism of other characters who said women shouldn’t be involved in drag racing.
The action sequences in this film hold up extremely well. Each of the highway robbery scenes are fantastic, with action that seems almost done with practical effects. In particular, the last attempted highway robbery was a spectacular scene from start to finish. Vince attempts to get into the truck — and at this point, the truckers were taking things into their own hands to defend themselves, as the FBI guy kept foreshadowing — and instead, gets shot.
Dom then tries relentlessly to get Vince off the truck and back into the car, but keeps getting shot at by the trucker. Then Letty tries to help and is run off the road into a terrible crash. Finally, Brian saves the day and in so doing, to save Vince’s life, he outs himself as a cop to Dom.
Meanwhile, the Vietnamese gang are still beefing with Dom’s crew and come by and do a drive-by shooting, killing Jesse (played by Chad Lindberg), the braniac of Dom’s crew.
Dom and Brian give chase, eventually shooting and killing Tran.
After that, we get a final, awesome drag race between Brian and Dom, where they just barely beat an oncoming train across the tracks and then Dom clips another vehicle and totals his car. Brian gives Dom his keys, as sirens are heard approaching. In other words, Brian, a cop, threw away a chance at arresting someone who violently robbed millions of dollars from various truckers and would have been in line for a promotion to detective in so doing, to help Dom. Because family. Because heart!
Seriously though, that turn wasn’t in my above recurring theme list, but the idea of the person coming after Dom — in this case, Brian — flipping by the end to join Dom, is something the franchise would go on to do multiple times.
The franchise has come a long way and morphed into something else since this first film, but what a ride this one is. It doesn’t overstay its welcome. It has great action sequences. And a simple story that is easy to understand.
And the best part? Paul Walker. I got to enjoy Paul Walker and his charming self again. This first installment goes to prove just how vital he was to the franchise and how big a gaping hole is felt after his untimely passing. Him and Diesel’s chemistry was evident the moment they shared a scene together.
If it’s been a while since you’ve seen the first Fast and Furious film, I highly recommend hopping onto HBO Max and giving it a re-visit. It had also been years since I’ve seen it and it was like seeing it anew.