The Fast and the Furious at 20: The Humble Beginnings of a Blockbuster Franchise

Two things can be true at the same time. 2001’s The Fast and the Furious is, in some inarguable ways, a bad movie. Consider it with clear eyes, and the characters are paper-thin, the villains are arguably an embodiment of racist cliches, and the split-loyalties narrative isn’t particularly tense. Contemporaneous reviews were nearly universally dismissive, lambasting the film as “Rebel Without a Cause without a cause” or “neither fast nor furious”; “familiar” was some of the kindest praise it received. 

Looking for subterfuge in The Fast and the Furious (which was inspired by a 1998 Vibe article, “Racer X,” about “a growing legion of young speed junkies terrorizing the back alleys, highways, and legal racetracks around New York City”) is a fool’s errand. There are two points of no return in this plot—Paul Walker’s Brian and Vin Diesel’s Tom getting into a souped-up car together, and Walker’s Brian and Jordana Brewster’s Mia getting in bed together—and the film doesn’t mask their importance in terms of Brian’s “good cop gone bad” progression. This is a film that unapologetically wore its heart on its sleeve, and that lives and breathes in the gaps between unspoken fragility, declarative loyalty, and performative masculinity. And the second thing that is true about The Fast and the Furious is that it is, for all its silliness, a goddamn great movie, a refreshingly uncomplicated offering of slick entertainment and hyperreal emotional grandeur. 

There is no artifice to any of this. Not to the goofy lines from Gary Scott Thompson, Erik Bergquist, and David Ayer’s screenplay that the cast members deliver with full commitment: Mia’s description of a restaurant as having “food all over the place”; Rick Yune’s villain Johnny Tran coyly asking his white, middle-aged fence, “Ted, kiss my shoes?”; or Ja Rule’s many-memed “Let’s go, ménage à!” Nor to Diesel’s performance as Dom, a man who lives with regret every day but can only give himself freedom a quarter mile at a time. And certainly not to the high-octane action sequences, which required dozens of stunt performers and immersive sound editing work; the film won five Taurus World Stunt Awards that year, including for Best Driving and Best Work with a Vehicle. 

Sure, it is undoubtedly a mimicry of Point Break, arriving in theaters a decade after Kathryn Bigelow’s Bodhi-and-Johnny Utah romance and recreating the former’s California location, blonde/brunette protagonist duo, and use of death-defying criminal activity as masculine bonding ritual. But it pulses, vibrates, and throbs (take of those descriptors whatever sexual energy you would like; this cast is very attractive) with a propulsive energy that has turned the word “family” into its own cinematic identity. If “For those 10 seconds or less, I’m free” doesn’t hit you right in the gut, do you even like the movies, as Diesel so charmingly growled in an ad for F9? Who knew that 20 years after The Fast and the Furious roared into theaters, Diesel would have shouldered his way alongside the likes of Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, and Christopher Nolan as our greatest defenders of cinema. “There’s nothing like that moment when the light goes down, the projector ignites, and we believe,” Diesel said, and excuse my sentimentality, but: He’s right. 

*

“On green, I’m going for it.”

The Fast and the Furious doesn’t introduce us to its scrappy, segmented-along-ethnic-lines, and car-obsessed Los Angeles underworld so much as it shoves us into the passenger seat of a car going 160 mph and smirks at us, “Strap in.” The film begins with a tightly coordinated heist that includes a spear gun shot through an 18-wheeler’s windshield, all-black Honda Civics with glowing neon green lights swishing back and forth under the truck, and DJ BT’s score carrying us on the waves of its bombastic rhythm, created by a 70-piece ensemble and percussionists banging on a car’s chassis, or supporting frame. This crew is using precision driving to rob truckers of the electronics and other valuables they’re transporting across California, and LAPD officer Brian O’Conner (Walker) has gone undercover to investigate.

Every day for three weeks, “Brian Earl Spilner” of Tucson, Ariz., who works at The Racer’s Edge high-performance auto parts store, has visited Toretto’s Market & Café for a tuna sandwich on white bread, no crust, and every day, he’s lightly flirted with college student Mia Toretto (Brewster) and been lightly ignored by her older brother Dom (Diesel). O’Conner’s superiors, Sgt. Tanner (Ted Levine, unrecognizable a decade after The Silence of the Lambs) and FBI Agent Bilkins (Thom Barry), are convinced that mechanic whiz and underground racer king Dom is behind the thefts, alongside a team of drivers who are also his closest friends: Girlfriend Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), who has been into cars since the age of 10 and with Dom since she was 16. High school dropout and “mad scientist” Jesse (Chad Lindberg), who uses floppy disks and computer programs to imagine under-the-hood updates and can “find anything on the web, anything about anybody.” Lusting-after-Mia second-in-command Vince (Matt Schulze), who wears not one, not two, but three different mesh tank tops over the course of the film and immediately distrusts Brian. And loyal soldier Leon (Johnny Strong), who often serves as the lookout during the races between Dom, his crew, and the other drivers that shut down LA’s streets. 

Most of these fellow racers (and the scantily clad women who hang around them) treat Dom with a mixture of reverence, affection, desire, and amusement. During the film’s first race, Diesel is all swaggering charisma, wielding the confidence of a man who has never been effectively challenged. There is a universe in which Timothy Olyphant played Dominic Toretto, and although Olyphant is a gloriously talented actor who has given us the iconic cowboy Raylan Givens, it’s impossible to imagine him as this kind of outlaw. In mannerisms, Diesel is not at all the same kind of actor Patrick Swayze was as the analogous Bodhi in Point Break—Diesel isn’t as physically fluid, nor as emotionally open. But he carries in his body a kind of menace tempered by melancholy, and a tightly controlled temper that flares hot, bright, and reckless. To race against Dom is an honor, even if his competitors almost always lose—which Brian experiences the first time facing off against Dom in an $80,000 car he convinced the LAPD and FBI to fund with premium upgrades and two nitrous oxide, or nos, tanks. The pink slips Brian offers up as a buy-in to the race, and the fact that he loses, means that he’s now in debt to Dom. But when the police swarm on the race, it’s Brian who steps up to save Dom rather than leave him to be arrested. He drifts through an intersection, he speeds down an alley, and he earns Dom’s trust by standing tall against Dom’s only detractors, former business associate Johnny Tran (Yune) and his trigger-happy cousin Lance (Reggie Lee). 

That gesture of camaraderie is what finally gets Brian into Dom’s good graces. Friendship with Dom includes a surprising amount of domesticity: Coronas together at a house party pumping lilting techno and a movie night; family dinner where someone always says grace, even if it’s in prayer to the “car gods.” Brian, in his surfer-cool Chuck Taylors and baggy jeans, doesn’t exactly fit in with the industrial-chic uniforms of Dom’s crew (leather jackets and pants, sleeveless shirts, and nail polish on the men, and even more leather and uniformly exposed midriffs on the women), and he pisses off Vince further when he starts dating Mia. But Brian can’t believe that Dom, so tightly controlled, could be the guy pulling off these heists. The money certainly isn’t going into his garage, which is barely hanging on, or the Toretto family home, which is sliding into slight decay. Would Dom really risk going back to prison for a couple storage units of DVD players? 

Vin Diesel and Paul Walker in a scene from the film ‘The Fast And The Furious’, 2001. (Photo by Universal/Getty Images)

We know the answer to this, of course, because again: The Fast and the Furious does not do deception. Brian’s suspicion of Johnny and Lance is lightly tinged with his assumption that the successful, wealthy Chinese-American family must be laundering money, but the film never really sells this suggestion to us. (“Race Wars” in the desert means two things, did you get it?) Instead, Dom and his “family” being the criminals is clear from the first moment, and underscored during Dom’s big speech to Brian about his father’s death, his attack on the man who caused that crash, and his fear of getting trapped into a life that is constrained to this neighborhood and this city. This is Diesel’s finest acting moment in the entire franchise to date, with director Rob Cohen’s camera abandoning all its trickery during the racing scenes—blurred-out backgrounds, melting transitions—to instead push closer and closer to this man baring his entire soul. Earlier in the film, when Dom met his racing subjects, he was a king holding court: arms outstretched, smile smug. But in that garage with Brian, next to the 1970 Dodge Charger that he restored with his father and that “scares the shit out of me,” Dom is quiet, candid, and vulnerable. “He’s like gravity … everything just gets pulled to him,” Mia would later say of her brother, but the reality is that if Dom could escape himself, he would. 

*

“I’m not running.”

Brian’s transformation into Dom’s best friend in The Fast and the Furious is built on the fact that each of them offers something to the other that they’re not finding in their lives before they meet. Brian doesn’t have the personality for a cop—he’s too addicted to thrills, and too interested in vigilante justice over bureaucracy, to stay very long in uniform. Dom opens the door to a world that Brian embraces easily, fights against for a few sequels as he tries to go back to law enforcement (2 Fast 2 Furious and Fast & Furious), and then eventually falls back into when he reunites with Mia. And in Brian, Dom finds the ally who pushes up against him, who pokes holes in his plans, and who heckles and negs him as no one else can. A trio of scenes in the film’s concluding act capture this combative, and then fond, dynamic: Brian stepping in to save Vince from a murderous trucker during a heist gone wrong; the look of rage on Dom’s face during that dialogue-less scene after Brian admits that he’s a cop and the police helicopter comes to fetch the grievously injured Vince; and the race against each other and an oncoming train that ends with Brian letting Dom drive away from the absolute clusterfuck that just went down. The straight-male friendships that Anthony Mackie recently said don’t exist onscreen anymore absolutely do, and they’re found in The Fast and the Furious and each of its subsequent sequels. 

To revisit The Fast and the Furious now is to realize how brightly this film has shone as a guiding light for where the franchise has gone. An amusing way to spend some time is to remember the scathing reviews it received and wonder how those critics have since reacted to the Fast and Furious franchise’s two-decade-long omnipresence. The promise of home, and of building your own family, has guided these movies forward through 20 years, eight sequels, and one spinoff. The Dom/Brian friendship, and the Mia/Brian love story, became increasingly central to the films until Walker’s tragic death in 2013, which the franchise addresses in Furious 7. Nearly every protagonist from this first film has returned for future installments—except for Leon; what happened to that guy?—and Letty’s and Mia’s roles have grown as the films have made more significant room for female characters. Years before the Avengers or the Justice League started defending the world from extraterrestrial threats, the Fast & Furious franchise was putting together a multicultural, multiracial, and multiethnic team of working-class men and women to fight against drug lords and crime lords, mercenaries and terrorists, hackers and nuclear weapons. (Each sequel’s international location and incorporation of various allies of different nationalities, like Sung Kang’s fan favorite Han, seems like a repudiation of the casual racism that ran through the first film.) 

Compared with the MCU’s and the DCEU’s superheroes, demigods, and super-rich, Dom’s family is just a scrappy crew whose members are really good at driving really fast in really amazing cars: while towing a bank vault through the streets of Rio, outracing a missile in Russia, underneath the Mexican/US border in a series of tunnels, leaping between skyscrapers in Dubai. This franchise’s timeline has twisted back and forth on itself, its characters are brought back from the dead more than once, and it rejects linearity with every given opportunity. But what matters more than logic in this franchise is also what mattered more than logic in the film that started it all. Even as these hijinks grow more ludicrous with each installment, the consistency of this message is a sort of promise. You can choose the people you love, and those people can choose to love you back, and through your combined efforts—your tenacity and gumption, your resourcefulness and hard work, and your wildness and sacrifice—you’re able to make the world a slightly better place, no superpowers needed. “There’s all kinds of family, Brian,” Sgt. Tanner had said. The Fast and the Furious invited us into theirs, and for 20 years, we’ve gladly stayed there. 

“The Fast and the Furious” is now streaming on HBO Max.

Roxana Hadadi writes about film, television, and culture with sides of judgment and thirst. She is a Tomatometer-approved critic on Rotten Tomatoes and a member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association, the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, and the Online Film Critics Society. She holds an MA in literature and lives outside Baltimore, Maryland.

Back to top