Watching this movie now -- having seen the other four movies since, some of them on repeated viewings -- I couldn't help but notice a couple things. One is something that didn't even register for years after it was released. More on that later, but it involves the whole story being almost a complete rip-off of another cult classic from the early 1990s. The other thing, the bigger thing? The original is pretty bad overall, definitely a guilty pleasure that is a success because of its badness. It stays close to home with plenty of fast cars, gorgeous women, a rap and hip hop soundtrack, and fast cars. Oh, wait, I mentioned that already.
Working an undercover job, young police officer Brian O'Conner (Paul Walker) has been given a timetable to bring a case to court. A group of hijackers using premium, high end foreign cars are taking down 18-wheelers all over California, taking their shipments of everything from electronics to car parts and selling them on the black market. Posing as a mechanic at a car parts store, Brian is forced to become part of the underground street racing world. One of the biggest and most obvious suspects is Dom Torretto (Vin Diesel), an ex-con who has gained a reputation as one of the best racers around. Losing a race to Dom, Brian owes him a 10-second car and is quickly accepted into Dom's team. As the evidence mounts though, can Brian put aside his friendship with Dom and relationship with Dom's sister, Mia (Jordana Brewster), if he thinks they're the real masterminds behind the hijacking?
Does the basic story sound familiar at all? It didn't click at all on my first couple of viewings, but at some point it hit me like a bag of rocks. The story is basically a blatant rip-off of 1991's Point Break starring Patrick Swayze and Keanu Reeves. Instead of bank robbers we've got hijackers, Walker taking over for Reeves and Diesel stepping in for Swayze. The undercover agent must take down his new friends, balancing out the duty he feels with this legitimate friendship and bond that has developed as he goes undercover. It doesn't ruin the movie by any means, but it certainly is on your mind as you watch it.
Through all the bad lines and really hammy acting, the things that work well here are the things that work well in all the movies. Diesel is a solid lead as Dominic Torreto, an action star and a presence more than an actor. Walker has improved significantly as an actor over the last 10 years so here as undercover cop Brian he's not the most impressive actor around. Still, they have a good chemistry together, two opposites becoming fast friends through their love of cars and racing. The best moments -- like in Fast Five and the others -- are Dom, Brian and his crew shooting the breeze, hanging out in the garage, having a group BBQ. The team include Michelle Rodriguez as Letty, Dom's girlfriend, Chad Lindberg as Jessie, the computer/tech/engine expert, and Johnny Strong and Matt Schulze as Leon and Vince. Through all the fake, forced confrontations, the movie is at its best when it lets the characters relax and be themselves.
Enough with the acting conversation about a movie about street racers. Let's talk fast cars and street racing! Credit to director Rob Cohen for finding an appropriate middle ground for his racing sequences. They're heavily edited and lightning quick, but never to the point where you lose track of what's going on. For the most part, the story doesn't revolve too much on the racing sequences, focusing more on Brian's investigation and his friendship with Dom and relationship with Mia. A highlight is the final 30 minutes when all the stops are pulled out. Dom....brace for it....is leading the hijackers with Brian trying to stop them as the truckers go vigilante, arming themselves. A high-speed chase on a desert highway is crazy, and the following chase with a rival racer, Johnny Tran (Rick Yune in a truly bad performance), on motorcycles is a great finale.
Over the course of five movies, directors/producers/writers have figured out what works and what doesn't work with the story and characters. The first 45 minutes are pretty painful as the story just tries too hard to be currently hip or cool (and yes, I realize pointing that out and using 'hip' and 'cool' makes me just the opposite). There are some beyond cringe-inducing moments, line deliveries that make you wonder if a little kid wrote them. Thankfully the movie finds it rhythm pretty quickly once everything is established. Like any movie, just know what you're getting into. Some other supporting roles include Ted Levine as Brian's immediate supervisor, Thom Barry as Agent Bilkins, the FBI liaison on the case, and Noel Gugliemi as Hector, a possible suspect.
Fast Five and even Fast and Furious are better movies overall, 2 Fast 2 Furious probably on the same level, but the first movie in the series is still worth watching and a must-see for fans of racing movies. It is the rare franchise that got better -- not worse -- as the movies have been released. Still, it's the original. Enjoy it.
The Fast and the Furious <---trailer (2001): ***/****