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How the hell did The Fast And The Furious launch one of cinema’s biggest franchises?

Photo: Universal/Getty Images
Photo: Universal/Getty Images

With A History Of Violence, Tom Breihan picks the most important action movie of every year, starting with the genre’s birth and moving right up to whatever Vin Diesel’s doing this very minute.

The Fast And The Furious (2001)

Wheels within wheels within wheels: The surprise hit of summer 2001 was The Fast And The Furious, a goofy low-stakes B-movie with a not-huge budget and no stars. The movie told the story of a team of mysterious truck hijackers coming from L.A.’s street-racing community and about the undercover cop tasked with taking them down. It was inspired by a Vibe article about the New York street-racing scene, and its title came from a 1955 Roger Corman B-movie. (Universal licensed the title from Corman, paying him in discarded stock footage.) But the real source material for The Fast And The Furious was obvious to anyone who’d been watching action movies for long enough.

The Fast And The Furious was practically a beat-for-beat remake of Point Break, Kathryn Bigelow’s near-perfect 1991 surfing-bank-robber movie. The similarities went right down to the dazed, Keanu-esque look in perma-chill undercover cop Paul Walker’s dreamy, ice-blue eyes. But on that seemingly flimsy foundation, a whole empire was built. The Fast And The Furious would spawn its own immediate rip-offs, movies like Torque and Biker Boyz, as well as its own string of ever-bigger, ever-more-ridiculous sequels. Seven movies later, the ongoing Fast And The Furious saga is now the most consistent, lovable, and bankable summer blockbuster franchise that we’ve got going right now (even if the movies don’t always open in the summer). And when the inevitable Point Break remake came along in 2015, the new movie came out as a rip-off of the Fast And The Furious series. The biter had become the bitten.

Everything about The Fast And The Furious was unlikely. Vin Diesel had only just come off of his first action-star role, in the low-budget Aliens bite Pitch Black, and while he certainly had a forbidding charisma, there was no guarantee that he would be anything. Paul Walker, like Point Break-era Keanu Reeves, had only just stopped playing high schoolers, and he seemed hopelessly bland and wooden except in this one role, where he found a weird way to turn that blandness and woodenness into zen thrill-seeker cool. Director Rob Cohen was the veteran schlockmeister who’d made Dragonheart and Daylight and The Skulls and who would go on to make Stealth and Alex Cross and The Boy Next Door; nothing in his filmography, before or since, suggests that he could pull off a scene as cool and visceral as the climactic Fast truck heist. But he pulled it off. They all pulled it off.

But if the movie’s success was unlikely in 2001, its staying power is downright astonishing. So much of the movie seems absolutely trapped in its moment, from the goofy CGI shot where the camera disappears into the car’s engine to the sight of Ja Rule, hair in cornrows, yelling about ménages. The soundtrack is full of replacement-level rap and rap-metal, the sort of stuff that shows up in straight-to-DVD movies because it’s cheap to license, but every once in a while, you’ll hear a few seconds of the déjà-vu-inducing likes of Limp Bizkit’s “Rollin’” or Ludacris’ “Area Codes.” The squelching, hammering score comes from BT, the dance DJ who produced ’N Sync’s “Pop” and then pretty much disappeared from the face of the Earth. Also, apparently nobody thought it would be a bad idea to use the name Race Wars for the big street-racer party in the desert. None of this was built to last.

And the characters themselves had some evolving to do. These days, the organic diversity of Dom Toretto’s crew is a huge part of what’s given the series iconic status. But though the characters all live in the diverse L.A. street-racing circuit, alongside Asian and Latino gangs, the original crew was just Diesel, Walker, Michelle Rodriguez, and three generic white guys who had made tragic decisions about tattoos, facial hair, and chipped nail polish. (Thanks to real death, character death, the shifting sands of time, and the fact that nobody ever cared about walking goatee Leon, Diesel and Rodriguez are now the only original members who are still in the band.) And while Diesel does finally peel off in his father’s old muscle car at the end of the movie, he and his team spend most of the film charging around in souped-up imports with glowing neon lights underneath; the Dom Toretto of today would rather race in a falling-apart Cuban relic.

These days, we’re used to seeing Dom Toretto as a superhero, as the guy who jumps the experimental sports-car prototype from one Abu Dhabi tower to the next. But the Dom Toretto of that first movie was a bit of a fuckup. He made bad decisions, trusted the wrong people, failed to protect the most fragile member of his crew, and nearly killed himself when he smashed his father’s car to smithereens after driving it for, like, five minutes. He spent the whole movie planning to steal DVD players from a truck, and he ultimately couldn’t even pull that off; in the climactic scene, the faceless trucker got away unscathed.

Still, Diesel’s growly, glowering presence is what makes the movie and what set the stage for the sequels (even if Diesel himself wouldn’t fully return until movie four). Diesel is, to put things lightly, a limited actor, but in Dom Toretto, he found his perfect role. He’s the guy who runs the L.A. underground through pure skill and charisma, muttering racer aphorisms and pledging eternal fealty to his makeshift family. Before the role went to Diesel, Timothy Olyphant reportedly turned it down. And while Olyphant is probably a better actor than Diesel—and while he’s brought great badass charisma of his own to TV shows like Deadwood and Justifiedthere’s just no way Olyphant would’ve been as good as Diesel. The movie would’ve turned him into one more white guy with shitty tattoos and a goatee. Diesel luxuriated in that character. He didn’t just inhabit Dom Toretto. He made Dom Toretto real.

The scene where Diesel presides over a down-home barbeque has become a series mainstay for a reason: It’s the most resonant thing in that first movie. The Fast And The Furious is nowhere near as good a movie as Point Break, a true classic of early-’90s action cinema, but the chemistry between Diesel and Walker was just as strong, from the beginning, as the bond between Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze. Diesel didn’t even start talking about family in that first movie, but that family element was still there. (Walker’s commanding officer is the one who memorably says the word: “There’s all kinds of family, Brian. That’s a choice you’re going to have to make.” Watching him make that choice for the first time is one of the movie’s great joys.)

And as a pure action movie, The Fast And The Furious delivers. For most of its running time, it’s a hangout movie. It lets us get attached to these characters, no matter how thinly drawn they might be. (Diesel and Rodriguez, then fresh off of her debut in the impressive boxing indie Girlfight, seem to barely know each other, though their relationship now feels like the realest thing about the series.) But the movie’s action scenes are full of real stunts and real explosions—notable things at the time when CGI was coming into omnipresence. And that final heist truck scene is just great car-chase filmmaking; the image of hulking Matt Schulze hanging off of the truck’s hood, ducking the driver’s shotgun, could’ve come straight out of The Road Warrior.

So that first Fast And The Furious movie has aged in some strange ways, but it still holds up. And if you watch it now, you can bring to it an affection for the whole series and for the characters who have endured to populate a whole series. It’s a minor miracle that The Fast And The Furious made any money or spawned any sequels. But it hasn’t just done that; it’s gone on to absolutely lap classier franchises like Bond and Bourne. Think of all the movies that never got that chance. Try to imagine Point Break becoming a long-running ’90s franchise, one where Bodhi and Johnny Utah travel the world, engaging in surfing-based superheroics with Rowdy Roddy Piper and Q-Tip and Montell Jordan. We didn’t get that, sadly. But we did get the Fast And The Furious series, and that is a glorious thing.

Other notable 2001 action movies: Antoine Fuqua’s Training Day, the movie that finally won Denzel Washington his Best Actor Oscar, is more of a corrupt-cop thriller than a straight-up action movie. But if you just watch it as an action movie, it’s a motherfucker. Its gunfights are tense and grisly and expertly staged, and the ratcheting-tension scenes that come before the gunfights are even better. So I say Training Day counts, and I say it gets runner-up honors for 2001.

As in almost every other year this century, many of 2001’s most interesting action movies don’t come from Hollywood. Brotherhood Of The Wolf, from France, is a beautifully insane hybrid of bodice-ripping romance, creature-feature monster movie, and paranoid conspiracy thriller, and it’s also got Hawaiian martial artist Mark Dacascos as a Native American who beats a whole lot of motherfuckers up. Johnnie To’s Fulltime Killer, from Hong Kong, is a gleefully silly shoot-’em-up melodrama about two feuding hitmen, one of whom is unhealthily obsessed with action movies. (Hong Kong also gave us the reliably fun Jackie Chan vehicle The Accidental Spy.) Musa, from South Korea, is a sweeping historical epic about Korean diplomats fighting their way across Mongol-controlled China. And then there are the movies that may or may not count as action cinema—like Wasabi, the French action-comedy where Jean Reno plays a cop looking for revenge in Tokyo, or Ichi The Killer, the Japanese gore-fest where director Takashi Miike somehow topped all the nonsensical sick shit he’d done in the Dead Or Alive movies.

Hollywood was still full of Hong Kong legends, some of whom were getting chances to do good work. Rush Hour 2 continued Jackie Chan’s winning streak, bringing Chan and Chris Tucker to Hong Kong and roping in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon star Zhang Ziyi. Jet Li got to make the first real Matrix rip-off, fighting an alternate-universe version of himself in the truly goofy parallel-worlds sci-fi head-scratcher The One. (That one also had Jason Statham, but directors hadn’t quite figured out how good he was at kicking people yet.) Li also teamed up with Bridget Fonda in the relatively forgettable Kiss Of The Dragon. And Ringo Lam once again directed Jean-Claude Van Damme in Replicant, as Van Damme, like Li in The One, fought another version of himself. (This time, it’s a clone, not an interdimensional traveler.)

But otherwise, Hollywood just didn’t have that much going on. With Ghosts Of Mars, John Carpenter attempted to re-stage Assault On Precinct 13 in space, which was not a good idea. The movie tried to make action stars out of Ice Cube and Natasha Henstridge, and it failed. Meanwhile, with Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Simon West translated a video game into a CGI-heavy Raiders Of The Lost Ark pastiche. That one tried to make an action star out of Angelina Jolie, and, at least by computer-blockbuster standards, it succeeded. And while Steven Seagal staged a brief comeback in Andrzej Bartkowiak’s flashy, dumber-than-fuck Exit Wounds, the real story of that movie is that it tried and, however briefly, succeeded in making an action star out of DMX, who just blew the not-really-trying-anymore Seagal off the screen.

Spy Game was generic action-thriller stuff with Brad Pitt and Robert Redford, and it was an early sign that the once-great Tony Scott was losing his fastball. Swordfish was a techno-thriller with Matrix-esque overtones and a topless Halle Berry scene that easily overshadowed any action that might’ve been taking place. The Mummy Returns was a piece of shit that’s only really worth mentioning for one reason: It marked the big-screen debut of transcendent pro-wrestling star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who would make his own impact on action movies soon enough. And I suppose I should mention The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring, which fit more into the special-effects blockbuster category than into the history of action movies but which really did have some great action scenes.

Next time: With The Bourne Identity, Hollywood action flicks make the transition to a post-9/11 moment when everything we knew started to feel like a lie.