An outsider’s take on the ‘Fast’ saga: ‘The Fast and the Furious’ (2001) (Movie review)

T

hrough the end of May, I’m looking back at the nine movies of the “Fast & Furious” franchise, watching most of them for the first time. First up is “The Fast and the Furious” (2001):

STRENGTHS

The original “F&F” imagines a world where street racing is the height of inner-city counterculture coolness, and the screenplay by Gary Scott Thompson and two others (based on a magazine article by Ken Li) brazenly sells it. Meanwhile, director Rob Cohen captures not only the racing action and highway stunts, but also the L.A. streets and heat. The film is specifically about illegal street racing and drivers who use their skills to make serious money as modern-day highway robbers, but it’s thematically about the cool people you couldn’t dream of fitting in with. Heck, even Paul Walker isn’t cool enough for this bunch.

“F&F’s” treatment of women is an intriguing mixed bag. They are scantily clad decorative objects, for sure, but they are also in control of their fate.

WEAKNESSES

The plot is stupid, but that’s more or less expected. A bigger problem is that the soundtrack and score are so unbearable that they almost undermine the pleasure of a dumb but fun movie. Aggressive hip-hop alternates with video-game techno, with turn-of-the-millennium butt rock peppered in.

COOLEST CHARACTER

Dom (Vin Diesel). With a name like that, this is the role Diesel was born to play. He actually already had a franchise at this point (“Pitch Black”) and other notable roles (the voice of “The Iron Giant”), but he’s super smooth here as the deep-voiced, good-hearted thief with a haunted past.

WOMEN’S ROLE

“F&F’s” treatment of women is an intriguing mixed bag. They are scantily clad decorative objects, for sure, but it’s because the women choose to attempt to hook up with men who are good drivers. They are in control of their fate: A woman promises herself and her friend up to Edwin (Ja Rule) if he wins a race; when he loses, she and other people laugh at him. Women aren’t the main characters, but nor are they damsels in distress. Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), effortlessly cool, is Dom’s girlfriend but also a valuable part of his thievery team. Mia (Jordana Brewster), Brian’s love interest, is unimpressed with her brother Dom’s scumbag culture and enjoys fast driving for her own reasons. When Brian (Walker) reveals he’s a cop, Mia openly calls him out as a two-faced jerk, which is rather gutsy if you think about it. (It’s easy to forget Brian is a cop in this movie, because he’s so bad at it.)

VILLAIN

Johnny Tran (Rick Yune). Although (surprise twist alert) he’s not the highway robber baron Brian is looking for, Tran is a murderer and a nasty dude. He’s particularly unhinged when pouring oil into a fence’s mouth to get information.

TOO GOOD FOR THIS MOVIE

Ted Levine as Sgt. Tanner. Levine has done classy work in TV shows like “Monk,” “The Bridge” and “The Alienist.” Here he’s the lead police investigator in the serial highway-robbery case that also involves the FBI. It’s a basic cop role, but the plot around Tanner is inane, and he has the impossible task of reigning in Brian, who ranks cracking this case well below his romance with Mia and friendship with Dom.

MOST THRILLING SEQUENCE

As ridiculous as it sounds, “F&F” actually treats the climactic highway robbery sequence in rather realistic fashion compared to something like “Lethal Weapon” or “Bad Boys.” There’s genuine peril as Vince (Matt Schulze) hangs from the semi’s grille while the trucker unloads on him with a shotgun. And unlike in many actioners, the other traffic wisely cedes the lanes to the semi and the three speed demons.

THAT’S RIDICULOUS

A SWAT team raids Tran’s people only to find their huge stash of electronics is legally purchased! What a crazy coincidence and bad break. (So to be clear: The murderers acquire their electronics legally, and the non-murderers are electronics thieves.)

What’s the deal with the Race Wars out in the desert? It’s hard to imagine all the proper permitting has gone through, yet it has official-looking security guards at the gate selling tickets and telling people to enjoy the races.

Dom tries to beat a train for no good reason. If the world truly operated like action movies, train conductor would be a particularly annoying job.

CHEESIEST DIALOGUE

Brian: “What’s the retail on one of those?”

Ferrari driver: “More than you can afford, pal. Ferrari.”

Dom (turning to Brian): “Smoke him.”

FAMILY VALUES

Dom recounts his tragic backstory about how his dad was killed in a stock-car crash and later Dom beat the driver who caused the crash within an inch of his life. Thus, Dom spent time in prison and is banned from legal racing. Diesel sells the scene, which establishes the franchise’s delicate portrayal of sympathetic criminals.

FINAL THOUGHTS/EXPECTATIONS

“The Fast and the Furious” is a stupid yet engaging and nice-looking film about an undercover cop’s unlikely – but oddly believable — bond with criminals. Brian will have a lot to answer for if his bosses find out he let Dom off scot-free and even gave him his car. Then again, maybe he’ll just flat-out quit the force and join Dom’s group.

Schedule of reviews:

Saturday, May 16: “The Fast and the Furious” (2001)

Sunday, May 17: “2 Fast 2 Furious” (2003)

Wednesday, May 20: “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift” (2006)

Thursday, May 21: “Fast & Furious” (2009)

Saturday, May 23: “Fast Five” (2011)

Sunday, May 24: “Fast & Furious 6” (2013)

Wednesday, May 27: “Furious 7” (2015)

Thursday, May 28: “The Fate of the Furious” (2017)

Saturday, May 30: “Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw” (2019)