By Jeremiah Kipp
With its title lifted from a Roger Corman cheapie, The Fast and the Furious would be the perfect film for the drive-in. Cars, girls and a hot rod "break the rules" cop hero versus anti-hero adrenaline junkie racing thieves—all the ingredients are present and accounted for, in a narrative pared down to simplicity itself (good guy has to infiltrate the bad guys, befriends them, then decides if he wants to bust them or join them). Young hotshot Brian O'Conner (Paul Walker) takes part in a race on the streets of Los Angeles—and words like "turbo-charged" and "nitro-boosted" take on a macho, sexual allure as muscle cars line up on the streets that are as colorful and distinctive as an array of butterflies, or the wings of exotic peacocks. As he takes part in his first race, what would amount to twenty seconds of real time are expanded into a two minute aria of fuel injection, spinning wheels, and, most important, the headlong rush of speed as a car defies physics and takes on a quality director Rob Cohen described as "science fiction." Anyone stupid enough to drive 110mph down the road as a teenager will understand the feeling, and anyone who hasn't might glean some of the energy and excitement of such a moment all the same.
The Fast and the Furious might seem like a movie for guys—a saga about men's men and their cars. The women who take part in the races are more ornamental, all midriffs and naval rings and long legs and stiletto shoes. What's surprising is how many women, particularly teenagers, respond in kind, fascinated more by the cars than the men. A stand-in for these real-life girls can be found in the character of Michelle Rodriguez, who is a sex object for the boys and an aggressive, take-no-shit persona for the girls. In other words, she's self-aware. A member of the street thief gang who steals cars, second only to the leader (Vin Diesel, as iconic as Steve McQueen or Marlon Brando, but definitive in his own right as an enigmatic, multicultural presence), she seems to have a familiarity and comfort with the boys who hang out with her, but also the necessary edge that protects her. You might be able to ogle her (and in fact, it seems encouraged), but don't start shit with her.
But fisticuffs are a boy's game. Eight minutes into the movie, Brian is already getting into a messy brawl in the dirt outside of what resembles a 1950s Archie's comic book style diner. Lingering quietly in the background is Dominic Toretto (Diesel), who mutters to his waitress sister Mia (Jordana Brewster), "What did you put in his sandwich?" It's all kid stuff, really—a little something to get the heart beating faster before the big race that night. And what a night it is, with neon lights glistening and low angle shots that idolize the cars, tracking shots that take in the space and wide angles that show what feels like hundreds of young people wide-eyed and ready to play. While there's something to be said for the mix of races in attendance, the movie can't be called politically correct—it's B-movie pulp and isn't really concerned with making statements. Yet I think that very same youth culture responds to the film because (a) the cars are cool, (b) the movie stars are cool, but most importantly (c) there's a kind of code of brotherhood in the movie, which says the bonds of friendship are connected with a sense of common purpose and respect for whatever it is you're doing, in this case a fascination with state of the art, speed-fuel injected autos.
Paul Walker is perfectly cast as an eager and definitively American hot dog motor-head. He's likable even though he turns out to be an undercover cop out to bust the so-called bad guys, mostly because he takes on the controversial opinion that a human bond is stronger than the law. (Dare I say The Fast and the Furious, a mega-budgeted Hollywood movie where they drop in blatant product placement lines about how you can have any beer you want as long as it's a Corona, is an anti-establishment movie? Certainly, it's anti-cop in that teenager way, where you just hate the fact that you got pulled over for going over the speed limit.) But the heart of the movie is not found in Walker, nor in the car engines, but in Vin Diesel.
It's amazing to me that Diesel did not become a mega-star on the level of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, especially considering how much better an actor he is than either of those 1980s action movie icons. (Diesel's performance as Riddick in Pitch Black is right up there with Mel Gibson's Mad Max and Kurt Russell's Snake Plissken.) Diesel has a quiet, easy intensity about him, a weight that seems to follow him as surely as his own shadow. Unlike Walker, who seems like he grew up in the suburbs driving around on the motor bike his parents bought for him, Diesel seems to have actually lived a little, and is in many ways an old soul worn down by life—a quality that we think of in a McQueen or a Charles Bronson. It's the character actor as movie star, not pretty but sure of himself in his own skin. Walker flashes a pearly white smile and shakes his golden locks when he's in a scene with a girl (or a car he likes), but Diesel doesn't. He simply takes it in.
That first race scene has at least three different plot threads going—maybe more. We're being introduced to a brave new world through the eyes of Walker (Sample dialogue: "What you running under there, man?" "Amateurs don't use nitrous oxide!"; "It's not how you stand by your car—it's how you race your car!", etc.), rapper Ja Rule as a rival competitor who, if he wins, will score a ménage a trios, and Dominic having to fend off his jealous girlfriend Letty (Rodriguez) when she catches him chatting up a few blonde girls (to his credit, she and we believe him when he says "I was just talking," because ain't no harm in looking). What really sings about the pre-race scene is the look in Diesel's eyes after Walker says some hokey line about how if he wins, he gets respect—it's so cornball it'd be easy to write it off, and yet something about Vin Diesel's admiration of this simple credo makes us go along with it. The notion of self-respect seems hard-wired into the idea of taking care of your car, and even during the race, there's brotherhood in the idea of letting the best man win.
In the party scene after the race, which is set in a two-story house where they serve product placement Corona's (but you can just imagine the keg in the back yard and a bathtub filled with ice and bottles), there's an insert shot of two gorgeous women kissing that tries too hard to please the horny teenager crowd (as if they wouldn't be satisfied by all the PG-13 level T&A on display throughout), but what I find more pleasing is the shot of Dominic's sister doing her homework upstairs, the music blasting through the wall, then immediately running to her mirror to change her shirt and brush her hair when Brian shows up with Dominic. Again, the success of The Fast and the Furious with boys and girls has to do with nostalgia for those high school moments, and even though the characters are at least late twenty-something (Diesel, on the other hand, seems 33 going on late 40s), there's a Peter Pan quality of arrested development—a delight the characters have in refusing to grow up. "You break her heart," Dominic warns Brian when he makes eyes at his sister, "I break your neck." The well-timed response: "Ain't gonna happen."
Not long ago, I was talking with House Next Door editor-in-chief Keith Uhlich about the ADD cinema of today, which in some cases he considers to be vaguely immoral. Specifically, we were talking about the high-speed action movie Crank, which takes the adrenaline-fueled rapid cutting of modern cinema (image flopping and herky-jerky camera movement and snap zooms) to new heights, to the point where you feel like your neck might be breaking as you sit there watching the film. Crank is very successful at what it's trying to do, immoral or otherwise, but The Fast and the Furious is not part of that school of moviemaking. The car chases are kinetic, yes, but never incomprehensible. The first time I saw the movie was on a Chinatown bus with the volume turned off, and I had no trouble following the story without sound design, music or even dialogue—and it was so visually rich I couldn't tear my eyes away.
There's rapid cutting only after it's established where we are, and we tend to understand why we're cutting to shots during the race—the visual storytelling seems more like Roger Corman style, where you get a lot of shots, but they all keep you going in the direction of the story, not the dizzying hyperactive mania of what we've come to expect from ADD cinema. The Fast and the Furious is more Samuel Fuller (please us with every shot, every scene, and don't waste our time) than Michael Bay (where sometimes I'm confused about spatial relationships so much that when key characters get killed off I'm completely unaware). Even though it seems like they shot the movie with four different cameras going at once, The Fast and the Furious seems more unified in its visual style than The Bourne Identity and its ilk. Or maybe cinema has devolved into chaos so much since 2001 that this action flick seems downright classical in its design a mere eight years later.
Genre films are required to give fresh twists on old stories, and The Fast and the Furious does well when it explores the fresh new locales of street racing, but feels somewhat hackneyed in its police procedural narrative. Even an actor as superb as Ted Levine, who plays the role of Brian's superior officer as fully as he did the serial killer Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs (you feel like this cop subscribes to car magazines and can probably be found under the hood of his mid-life crisis car purchase on weekends) can't really mine the depths of a cliché line like, "You going native on me, Brian?" But the cop story does manage to set up the climax, which we know will be a race between hero Brian and anti-hero Dominic. The Levine character, who is a stand-in for a distant father figure, acknowledges that his star pupil has been lying to him, but doesn't push one way or the other. "There's all kinds of family," he says, "and that's the choice you're going to have to make."
Sentimental, sure—but it also sets up the emotional stakes for that final car chase. We really want to see these two guys race, man to man, and in a perfect world one of them will win, the other will lose, and they'll shake hands on it. What's most effective in The Fast and the Furious is that the movie gets us there, allows the two men their operatic final pursuit, and then, after a final look is exchanged, one of them drives away, the other stays behind, and the movie immediately ends without a drawn-out, philosophical denouement. Remember the good old days of Frankenstein and Dracula, the Universal Pictures versions, where as soon as they killed off the monster the movie was over? The Fast and the Furious similarly says that once we've seen what we paid our good, hard-earned dollars to see, they're not going to waste even another 60 seconds of our time. The movie reaches its peak moment, then ends, and we leave The Fast and the Furious coasting on that headlong rush, reminded of that hot fission movies can give off—it's not beer, it's not drugs, it's just a film, and yet we leave elated, having been taken for a ride.
Jeremiah Kipp's writing has appeared in Slant Magazine, Filmmaker, Fangoria and other publications.