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When A Movie You Hated Spawns A Franchise You Love: ‘The Fast And The Furious’ At 15

15 years after the release of the original movie, even its worst haters would have to begrudgingly acknowledge the Fast and the Furious franchise as a cultural phenomenon. I know, because I once was one of those haters. I was eventually won over by the extended f-you to physics that was the most recent installment, but at the time the first came out I hated it so much that I remember not talking to an acquaintance for a week because he told me it seemed like something I’d enjoy.

Furious 7, by the way, came out in April of last year and went on to gross $1.5 billion dollars worldwide (sixth biggest of all time, not adjusted for inflation). Surely it benefited some from grief over Paul Walker (who died in 2013), but consider: A franchise that once felt almost painfully SoCal car culture specific made more than a billion dollars outside the U.S. Even more surprising, the movie was a moron masterpiece, the culmination of everything that came before it, the movie Michael Bay had been trying to make for years. How many franchises even see a seventh installment, let alone peak at seven?

Frankly, I never saw it coming. But someone had to have, right? The seed of the first movie (and by extension the franchise) was “Racer X,” an article Ken Li wrote for the May 1998 issue of Vibe.

The urban dragracing frenzy was started in the early ‘90s by a tightly-knit crew of Asian-American boys in Southern California and is now hitting hard on the East Coast. The hundreds of kids who line New York hot spots like Francis Lewis Boulevard in Queens or the Fountain Avenue strip in Brooklyn every weekend are an urban polyglot of Puerto Rican, Dominican, Chinese, Filipino, Jamaican, Italian and other ethnicities who have one thing in common: They love hurtling metal, meat and rubber through the concrete jungle at dangerous velocities.

Director Rob Cohen, so the story goes, heard about the article and attended a race in L.A., and convinced Universal to buy the rights. By 2015, that had evolved into a ridiculous action franchise starring Jason Statham and an ex pro wrestler. As I watched Dadbod Diesel take a sledgehammer to a Letty’s tombstone (oh yes, there was an amnesia subplot) I was fist pumping along with everyone else. 15 years ago though, I wasn’t so ready to cheer.

Toretto Don’t Surf

The Fast and the Furious is essentially a beat-for-beat remake of Point Break. There’s a cop and he goes undercover to foil a gang of XXXtreme criminals, only in the process, he meets a girl, falls under the spell of a charismatic leader, and eventually has to make a difficult choice about who he is, his brush with the XXXtreme lifestyle having changed him forever. Paul Walker plays officer Brian O’Connor/Spilner (aka Johnny Utah), Vin Diesel plays Dom Toretto (aka Bodhi), and Jordana Brewster plays O’Connor’s love interest, Toretto’s sister Mia (Lori Petty).

I didn’t mind so much that it was a ripoff (and there are countless other undercover-cop-gets-in-too-deep stories), but living in Southern California at the time, The Fast And The Furious felt like a paean to everything soulless and obnoxious about the culture. To the idea that the meaning of life was spending all your disposable income on bells and whistles and bullshit decals for what used to be a sensible commuter car you inherited from your mom so that you could one day annoy passersby and fellow travelers with your nasal revving.

At least when Point Break was being grandiose, it was all about Zen and adrenaline and nature, ideas that sort of made sense, even if you didn’t entirely buy in. The Fast And The Furious felt like a collection of ads for stuff. That “the only time I feel free” for Dom Toretto was when he was racing his silly Miata for pinks down a straight road didn’t quite translate to me at the time. Maybe surfing just lends itself better to grandiosity. Or maybe it’s the peculiar nature of “urban racing” where outsiders are forced to be a part of it even when we don’t want to be.

Wannabe Dom Torettos seemed to be everywhere in 2001 — revving next to you at stoplights, driving down your street drowning out your conversation, generally being assholes and ruining everyone’s time. Admittedly it’s not a great way to experience a culture. It’d be like if your only exposure to hockey was watching wannabe Gretzkies skate around Central Park cross checking little girls. It was hard to separate The Fast And the Furious from all that.

Is 15 years long enough to re-experience the original without the baggage? Would I be able to recognize some of the greatness to come in embryonic form? If not enjoy it, maybe I could at least understand it?

The World’s Most Unnecessarily Dangerous Heist

Watching The Fast And The Furious, it’s even more remarkable that elements of it have managed to endure considering it was such perfectly of-its-time fashion victim pandering. It’s an odd mix of prescient and obsolete. It feels like Rob Cohen hitched himself to a genuine phenomenon, while also adding his own (mostly terrible) ideas about what was hip and fresh and now. The best example I can offer here is the fact that in the midst of a movie about rave-happy urban racers there’s a scene where Matt Schulze’s “Vince” is shredding a Zakk Wylde signature Les Paul in the middle of a house party. You know, as ravers do.

This screencap kills me every time:

Even the original DVD menu screen (I bought it on DVD so I could listen to the commentary) is set to relentlessly grating, Prodigy-esque dance beatz — the musical equivalent of multiple tank tops. Was 2001 the worst era for music? The Fast and the Furious makes a strong case for it, a perfect time capsule of badness in every flavor, from to Limp Bizkit rap rock to Ja Rule.

Once you hit play, you get a pre-roll PSA starring Paul Walker, warning the viewer not to try any of the dangerous car stunts depicted in the film (sponsored by Castrol Syntec).

Yikes, so much for trying to watch this without baggage.

Right, so the movie: Just like Point Break, it opens with a heist. Only in Point Break, the heist was a bank robbery. A thing that, you know, people do. Here, a caravan of souped-up black Civics (spoiler alert: they all have big spoilers) try to corral a semi-trailer, like velociraptors attacking a T-Rex.

They surround it, at speed, and shoot a grappling hook through the front windshield. They yank out the window, then shoot another grappling hook into the seat, all so that one guy can climb out of his racecar, clamber down the tightrope, get inside the cab, and… convince the truck driver to stop, I guess? So that they can take the boxes of stuff in back?

Inside the cab, where the driver is fighting him off with a baseball bat, Vince — Brian O’Connor’s eventual rival in Dom Toretto’s gang — shoots the driver with some kind of tranquilizing paintball gun and takes control of the truck. Honestly, this seems like an insane amount of effort to steal some DVD players. It apparently requires three or four expensively customized cars, grappling hooks, a specialized tranq gun, and six to eight speed freaks risking certain death, all to perpetrate a theft that’s traditionally been accomplished by one fat Italian guy with a sandwich and a bribe. I mean couldn’t you just follow the truck and wait until the driver stops to take a pee? I’m just spitballing here.

In the director’s commentary, Cohen calls the scene an homage to John Ford’s Stagecoach, where the truck was supposed to represent the runaway stagecoach hurtling toward a cliff (in this case, a construction site). Which is sort of a perfect illustration of Rob Cohen’s particular ability to think himself stupid. “Hey, so what’s with this scene? It’s completely illogical on every level.”

“Yeah, but you have to imagine the cars are horses.”

“Oh, okay then.”

Dumb as this scene is, if I squint I think I can understand some of the appeal. Most of the effort involved can be traced back to the gang not wanting to use guns. In Point Break, Johnny Utah was seduced by Bodhi’s lifestyle. But for all Bodhi’s Zen talk about getting stoked, his gang eventually killed innocent people and kidnapped Johnny’s girl and became bad guys. In The Fast and the Furious, that never really happens. The “criminals” don’t even use real guns, just chloroform paintballs. It’s kind of quaint. They live to drive, man! It’s society that won’t let them!

When O’Connor’s bosses think he’s starting to “go native,” they show him a picture of a guy Dom Toretto almost beat to death with a wrench to illustrate what he’s capable of. “He’s got nitrous oxide in his blood and a gas tank for a brain!” warns O’Connor’s superior, played by Ted Levine. “Do not turn your back on him.”

Later, in a scene of tearful bonding, O’Connor finds out that Toretto only beat the guy up after the guy killed Toretto’s pa on the racetrack (#streetlaw). So, maybe not that bad a guy after all? It’s no wonder that later when it comes time for Brian to choose between being a cop and being Toretto’s pal, he chooses being a pal.

This twist seems like it grew out of a simple desire to have your cake and eat it too, narratively — what if Bodhi and Johnny Utah really could just quit their jobs and surf radical waves together forever? But it accidentally stumbles, Magoo-like, into a relevant idea: What if the cops weren’t the default good guys simply by virtue of being cops? What if cop morality wasn’t the default correct one? Maybe once you scrape away the decals and rap rock and nonsensical heists and ham-fisted construction, The Fast And The Furious was the perfect, proudly multicultural, revisionist Point Break for a post-Rodney King world.

Also, the cars were horses.


What’d You Put In That Sandwich?

All the obnoxious trappings definitely made me miss some of the humor the first time around. Immediately following the heist scene we’re introduced to O’Connor (undercover as Brian Earl Spilner), testing his sick Mitsubishi in the parking lot of Dodger stadium. Then there’s a weird transition, and we see him pulling up in his “work truck” (a Ford F-150 Lightning — so sick, bro!) to Toretto’s grocery store. That’s where Dom Toretto’s hottie sister Mia (Jordana Brewster) works the counter, and Paul Walker apparently goes every day.

“Every day for the last three weeks you’ve been coming in here asking how the tuna is,” she tells him.

Ha, nice, bro. Get that tuna.

Walker isn’t a very good actor, but my God is he a beautiful man. Not even nightmarish early 2000s hair and styling trends could distract from his cerulean eyes and Samson hair. He and Jordana Brewster are like Surfer Ken and Snow White.

Before they can flirt too much, Toretto’s crew pull-up in what Cohen in the commentary calls “the most off-the-hook idealized dope-ass rice rockets.” Yes, he really says that.

Anyway, the first rice rocket’s door opens, and we get our first shot of Letty, aka Michelle Rodriguez — a close-up of her steel-toed, flame-covered, platform raver boots, which made me break into spontaneous Jnco sweats.

A second later, “Vince” looks over to see Paul Walker’s truck and delivers the first line of an exchange that deserves its own display in the B-movie museum:

“What’s up with this fool, what is he, sandwich crazy?”

Then a few beats later, he confronts Brian. “Try Fatburger from now on. You can get yourself a double cheese with fries for $2.95, faggot!”

You think Fatburger paid for that placement?

“Yeah well I like the tuna here,” Paul Walker fires back. Ha, nice, bro.

“Bullsh*t, asshole, no one likes the tuna here!” Vince yells, a line that’s like a pop music melody you can’t shake once you’ve heard it. Bullsh*t, asshole, no one likes the tuna here. Bullsh*t, asshole, no one likes the tuna here….

Vince and Brian O’Connor get in a terribly-filmed fight where you can’t quite tell what’s happening, all set to an unbelievably bad Benny Cassette song called “Watch Your Back.” The song is actually playing from the time the gang pulls up all the way through the fight. In fact 90% of The Fast and The Furious seems to be set to non-diegetic DJ scratching, like Crazy Town was hiding in the cupboard.

The raver boots, the choker necklaces, the rap rock, the giant leather man bracelets — if early aughts fashion ever comes back the way ’80s fashion did I’m moving to Greenland. And the dialogue sounds like a golf dad’s conception of urban youth. It’s easy to see why I hated this. A shame, because there’s some delicious B-movie cheese hiding underneath all that overworked leather.

Predictably, critics at the time were sort of split on whether The Fast and the Furious was a charming throwback to B-movie exploitation films or a dopey ripoff. “Point Break on Hot Wheels,” EW‘s Owen Gleiberman called it, while the New York TimesElvis Mitchell wrote it made you “long for the soulless professionalism of a Jerry Bruckheimer movie.” Speaking for the pro contingent, Variety‘s Todd McCarthy wrote “Unlike last year’s arch, phony and sentimental Gone in Sixty Seconds remake, Fast gets down in an honest and direct manner and at least gives the feel of being rooted in a certain subculture’s genuine obsession for hot wheels.”

Lots of critics singled out the (deliberate, I would argue) cheesiness of lines like “I live my life a quarter mile at a time,” but few the laughable homeboy-isms of the rest of Dom’s crew. Like Johnny Strong’s “Leon” (“Nah, V, he ain’t here for the food, dog”), who feels like an unironic version of Seth Green’s “Special K” character in Can’t Hardly Wait, doing all his lines as a Ja Rule impression.

But as much as it’s easy to imagine Cohen as the ultimate dork wannabe, he did succeed in one area: Making L.A. look tight-knit and neighborhoody (also, everyone looks really sweaty, which has a way of connecting them all). A place that’s normally depicted as a cesspool of alienation and new money transplants is shot lovingly, like Spike Lee’s New York or countless folksy Southern crab boils and barbecue scenes. L.A. gets depicted on film all the time, but rarely with any sense of tradition or community. That’s pretty rare, and had to be appealing for the 10 million or so people that live there.

Lots of elements from The Fast And The Furious (thankfully) didn’t survive through the most recent installment, from rap rock to Jnco pants to Cohen’s shaky direction (he left after the first film). One that remained was the idea that you could create your own multi-ethnic family out of one mutual interest. That part I can understand, even if I hope my own single-interest family drives less obnoxious cars.


I Need NOS!

After the fight, Brian O’Connor drives back to the performance shop, where his boss, Harry, is pissed because Toretto demanded O’Connor be fired. O’Connor just sort of interrupts him mid rant to spout “I need NOS!”

 

Watching this with the director’s commentary on is interesting, because Cohen talks about how he tried to shoot every scene as if it was a race, so that even the dialogue scenes had “energy, and dynamism.” Which makes sense, but glosses right over some of the more glaring questions. Like, is Brian fired? Does Harry know he’s a cop? Why did he suddenly start treating his boss like an employee in the middle of a conversation? WHO CARES, IT LOOKS FAST!

The next scene takes place at the big street race (“an operatic scene, with homages to West Side Story,” according to consummate bullshitter Cohen). If I had to point to one scene that made this movie a phenomenon, it’d be this one. Brian shows up in his hot Mitsubishi, where people of all races, including the cholo from Training Day†, are gathered and ready to rev.

“The name’s Hector,” he tells Brian. “I got a last name too, but I can’t pronounce it.” (Another terrible golf dad joke)

After that, Ja Rule shows up to dispense some life advice. “It’s not how you stand by your car, it’s how you race your car.” Gee, thanks, Ja Rule. Did I mention Limp Bizkit’s “Rollin'” is playing throughout this scene? “Rollin'” during a race scene and “Watch Ya Back” during a fight scene, it’s all very literal.

Finally, Dom and the crew show up, and Letty has to shoo the skanks away from her man. She actually meows, sniffs the air and says “I smell skank.” “Now why don’t you girls pack it up before I leave tread marks on your face?”

Letty’s presence certainly adds a Grrrl Power element, but overall, The Fast and the Furious‘s treatment of women isn’t quite exemplary. As Cohen explains it, “Here they were just interested in who had the best car, who had the best paint job, who was the best driver or the best designer, or who had the prettiest girlfriend,” Cohen says.

Directly comparing women to inanimate objects probably wouldn’t fly in a 2016 commentary, and in fact, right after the race, Vin Diesel holds up Letty and says “You’re my trophy.”

Later, at a house party, Dom tells a guy “Yo, Einstein, take it upstairs,” he says. “Everyone knows you can’t detail a car with the cover on it.”

It’s left to the imagination whether Einstein did indeed get lucky upstairs, but I have to imagine so, because nothing gets a lady hotter than comparing making love to waxing a car. These guys treat objects like women, man.

Anyway, Brian O’Connor/Spilner puts his pink slip on the line to weasel his way into a race with Dom. Ja Rule’s character is also in the race, and his girlfriend shows up just before it starts to let him fondle her breast and promise him a threesome if he wins. It’s neither here nor there, but Cohen’s bit about this character was too much of a nugget not to include:

Now this girl, she was not an actress. She actually was just in Ja’s trailer. I liked her, so I asked her if she wanted to try it, and she gave it a whirl. And since she knew Ja quite well anyway, it all worked out… Ja has a good life.

Once again, if you can look past how dumb the scene is and how terrible the music, a few things about it stand out. First, the fact that it actually depicts people of color, and in a reasonably naturalistic way (the extras were real characters from the street-racing world, according to Cohen). That was actually a big departure in 2001. It’s a big departure now, and a big reason, I would argue, for the franchise’s continued success.

Latinos make up 25% of ticket buyers and go to the movies more often than any other ethnic group, yet remain the most underrepresented group onscreen. In the Furious franchise, where Latinos were a notable presence (along with Asians, black people, and mixed race people like Vin Diesel and The Rock), non-white people made up 75% of Furious 7‘s audience. That was all evident from the beginning, and trying to include as many real people from the street racing world as he could without restyling them turned out to be the smartest thing Rob Cohen did.

This is exactly my experience that night — this multi-ethnic, multi-culti, as I call it, multi-cultural world of Asian-Americans, Hispanic Americans, Afro-Americans, white Americans — all these inner-city guys and girls, hanging out. And without racial tension, speaking the common language of the car. […] That knocked me over.

Racial Dynamics And The Curious Morality Of The #Streets

Of course, The Fast and the Furious isn’t perfect, and Cohen seems like a bit of a dope even if his heart was in the right place. It’s hard not to laugh when, during this climactic first street race, between Vin, Ja Rule, Paul Walker, and an Asian driver played by real-life street racer RJ De Vera, the action cuts between Vin Diesel adjusting his NOS, Paul Walker fine tuning his timing on his computer, and De Vera… playing video games? Just #AsianGuyThings, I guess.

The whole movie seems to have a split personality with regard to Asians. Unlike Point Break, where Bodhi is the bad guy, in Fast/Furious, the way Cohen describes it, Brian O’Connor is the hero, and Dom Toretto is the anti-hero. Which means the villain role falls to a weirdly developed “South Vietnamese-American gang member” named Johnny Tran. He’s played by Ricky Yune, who at the time was fresh off a breakout turn in Snow Falling On CedarsCohen says:

A very interesting character, Ricky Yune, very handsome, 6’2″, very strong. Actually Korean-American [playing a Vietnamese character], but, you know, a choice that I thought might be controversial in using an Asian-American to play the villain. But having done Dragon: The Bruce Lee story, I felt that I could free Asian-American actors up to play anything. Villains, heroes, lovers, whatever. So, once I met Rick, I saw no reason not to take such an incredible talent and not use him for some thought of being politically correct. The key to actors is that they should be free to play anything based on their talent.

Once again I find myself agreeing with everything Rob Cohen says, and acknowledging how ahead of his time he was in making an effort to go against old Hollywood stereotypes of Asian men as desexualized or nerdy, something we’re still talking about in 2016.

But then there’s the actual movie he made. I mean, if you were trying to defy Asian stereotypes, maybe don’t have the Asian villain ride in with his motorcycle gang and shoot up a car with uzis? And maybe don’t begin the scene with an establishing shot of a Confucius statue?

Ricky Yune’s masculine presence might defy some stereotypes, but the movie might as well have introduced him with “Kung Fu Fighting” and his gang might as well be called the Foot Clan. It’s also ambiguous why Johnny Tran is even the villain and not just some guy. (Side note, where the hell did Johnny’s cousin pull that gun from at 35 seconds?)

Here are some of the “bad guy” things Tran does in the film:

1 . He blows up Brian’s Mitsubishi — apparently over some past business between Tran and Toretto that Toretto never explains

2. He tortures a guy in his warehouse by pouring oil in his mouth. That said, the guy is a fence, and Tran is just trying to find out who stole the engines out of his garage. (Having snuck in, O’Connor and Toretto and crew witness this whole scene. O’Connor sees some boxes of DVDs in the warehouse, and assumes Tran is responsible for the truck robberies. So the cops burst in Tran’s house and arrest him in front of his parents. Only it turns out, all the DVDs were bought legally! At which point we’re left to assume… maybe Tran is just a guy who likes to project the gangster image around his underground race pals but isn’t an actual gangster?)

3. He punches Toretto at the big race (the bizarrely-named “Race Wars,” which was called “Drag Wars” in real life) and starts a big fight. In fairness, it was because he thought Toretto got him arrested in front of his family. (Notable dialogue, Vin Diesel shouting “I never narc’d on nobody!” while being dragged away — #streetlaw)

4. He and his gang shoot up Toretto’s house, killing Jesse (the nerdy one). This was because Jesse raced him for pinks and lost, and then drove off with the car Jesse owed him.

I still don’t know if Johnny Tran was an actual gang leader or just a racing enthusiast who tended to overreact a bit when people tried to rob him or get him arrested. He seems to have a code, just like Toretto. The main difference between Tran’s gang and Toretto’s (other than that Tran’s gang are Asian and ride motorcycles and are distinctively “other,” while Toretto’s gang doesn’t have any Asians) is that Tran’s uses guns.

Best I can tell, Fast and the Furious morality is a unique form of macho traditionalist socialism, where the worst crime is snitching, disrespect is grounds for a rightful beating, stealing is okay as long as it’s accomplished an in an incredibly complex way involving cars and is thus a pure expression of the NOS lifestyle, and using guns is cheating.

Was that intentional or just the product of inconsistent execution?

In any case, going back to why it works, Brian O’Connor hits the NOS on his Mitsubishi in his first big race against Toretto, and nuts and bolts start to shoot off into the middle of the floor. (I’m not a car guy, but I’m pretty sure this took some liberties, engineering-wise.) He cooks his entire engine, Toretto wins the race, and O’Connor drives his smoking wreck back to the winner’s circle anyway.

This part’s important, because the usual narrative choice here would’ve been for O’Connor to slink off, defeated, vowing to let this never happen again. Instead he drives right up to Toretto, smirking, even as Toretto shakes his head sadly.

“Dude, I almost had you,” Paul Walker says, and you can understand why this is the Fast and the Furious line most often quoted on the strange phenomenon of Paul Walker tribute decals. It’s probably the most successful Paul Walker acting moment of the entire franchise.

That going fast made him so giddy that he didn’t care about frying a car he spent ten grand in aftermarket parts on or being ridiculed in front of a crowd of people explains the appeal of street racing so much more effectively than Dom’s dopey trailer lines about living his life a quarter mile at a time or “It’s the only time I feel free.” Show don’t tell, after all.

Toretto still chastises O’Connor for being an idiot, but it’s almost in a big brotherly way. You can tell from Toretto’s face that he can’t help but be won over by O’Connor’s enthusiasm, which was either wonderful acting by Diesel or a happy accident caused by him playing to the giant crowd of extras. (Diesel is clearly a ham, one of his most endearing qualities.)

When Diesel growls “I don’t have friends… I have family,” in the Furious 7 promos, it sounds… well, about as heavy-handed and overwrought as most lines growled by Vin Diesel. But in this scene he and Walker actually achieve a familial chemistry. And shooting the whole thing in front of a giant peanut gallery of real street racing people gives it an energy and a naturalness most of the rest of the movie lacks. Toretto keeps lecturing, but the vibe of the scene is much more important than anything he says — and there’s a truism in it, too: Winning respect is more about putting yourself out there and not being afraid to make a fool of yourself than taking yourself seriously. In his own dopey, idiosyncratic way, Cohen depicts L.A. as one big ball-busting multi-ethnic family. And even if that’s not true, you can see why people would want it to be.

Sure, right after that, an Asian motorcycle gang shows up to blow up the car with Uzis, but appreciating what The Fast and the Furious did right, I think I can understand why people at the time were willing to overlook some things it did badly. Like, say, setting a key scene to a song by the band “Saliva.”

R.I.P., Paul Walker. And let us never forget 2001, lest we be doomed to repeat it.

†Played by Noel Guglielmi. A brief list of Noel Guglielmi’s character names include: Hector, Chico, Snuffy, Joker, Rico, Paco, Flaco, Santos, Gio, Dusty, Diablo, Caesar, Cholo, Chino, Quicks…

Vince Mancini is a writer, comedian, and podcaster. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.

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