Some movies are knowingly stupid. They wink at the audience, reveling in the absurdity, the silly characters, the moronic plot points. Everybody’s in on it.
The Fast and the Furious is not one of those movies.
In fact it’s possible that The Fast and the Furious is one of the most earnestly stupid movies ever made. Right from the start it’s bone-chillingly dumb, opening with a heist that makes no sense. Why would any gang try to hijack a moving truck using some sort of crossbow/harpoon device to climb into the cab, at great personal risk? Why would they do it to heist DVD players?
This premise is so dumb that I spent the entire film thinking it was a fake out, that the heist crew was actually building up to steal missile parts or state secrets. But nope, they’re pretty much just stealing low end consumer electronics. And why is the law in such a lather about it? Because the truck drivers are thinking about arming themselves, and there could be bloodshed.
Paul Walker is the fleshbeing the law sends to infiltrate the world of illegal street racers, which is where the heisters hang out. I like Walker, but his performance in this film defies the use of the word performance. It’s more like an existence - he just is, existing, being. It’s like he’s some kind of Zen master, detached from all reality around him.
The gang he’s infiltrating is headed by Vin Diesel, and like all good gangs is centered at a sandwich shop. This feels like one of the ur-Diesel performances, a primal version of the actor. Sweaty, of no determined race, switching between flip and overly serious without provocation, Diesel appears to be stuffed with hamburger. He has the vocal stylings of Lou Ferrigno, but is not known to be deaf.
The joke is that there’s homoerotic tension between Diesel and Walker, but to me there seemed to be no chemistry at all. Or if there was chemistry it was the slackjawed, wide-eyed Walker just sort of being caught in Diesel’s wake. Walker also has no palpable chemistry with Jordana Brewster, playing Diesel’s sister. Brewster has a post-modern Ali McGraw thing going on and is beautiful, but mostly spends the movie standing around in revealing (yet not quite slutty) outfits.
Walker earns his way into the gang by almost beating Vin Diesel in a semi-psychedelic street race; at one point the racers appear to attain the speed of light. The cars all look like die cast models of real cars, and I imagine that’s a big part of the appeal of the series - a chance for people to look at cool vehicles. There’s some engine talk in the film, but it all feels like the same kind of technobabble that fuels Star Trek: The Next Generation. What I did love about the cars, though, is that their secret ingredient is nitrous oxide, which is delivered via red buttons in the steering wheel - exactly like a driving game in an arcade. And I love the prevalence of nitrous because I used to huff so much of it. One time in the parking lot of Randall’s Island after Lollapalooza I huffed so much that I escaped this reality and may have experienced the hyperspace where the cars in this film race.
I don’t know if real street racers do any of the things these guys do, but I doubt it. And I only doubt it because nothing else these guys do reflect the real world in any way. There’s a party at Vin Diesel’s house that comes across like a party designed to impress audience members who have never been to a party. Few of the characters behave in ways that are recognizably human, either. The entire film plays like a 1950s teen movie made by 60 year olds and then updated into the 21st century by aliens. Which is pretty great, and which makes the film so entertaining.
Because it certainly isn’t the story that’s entertaining. The Fast and the Furious has one of the most slackadaisical stories I’ve ever seen in a blockbuster film. It takes forever to make the reveal that Walker is a cop, and from there his investigating style is mostly just hanging around. The film presents a world of humorously race-specific gangs as suspects in the heists, and throws a couple of red herrings your way before revealing what you knew all along - it was Diesel and friends hijacking DVD players. That revelation comes during ‘Race War,’ a huge race in the desert that, given the race-specific gangs, should have been a little more literal. It leads to a big dumb chase scene that’s kind of thrilling in its own brainless way.
But the film’s plot doesn’t truly coalesce until that point; it’s mostly just running on sweat and car exhaust. Which for some reason works. The last few minutes are jammed with stuff happening - all of it woefully obvious - and then the film comes to a really silly conclusion. Basically The Fast and the Furious is a ripoff of Point Break that doesn’t have the balls to kill Bodhi at the end. And that features two leads who have no chemistry, making the ‘letting the bad guy get away’ ending feel all the more forced.
Director Rob Cohen is the foremost auteur of moron movies, and this is one of the highlights of his CV (although to be fair, The Fast and the Furious feels like he’s just warming up for the exquisite stupidity of Stealth). While there’s no momentum to the plot, the film itself just keeps moving forward from one scene to the next, stopping only so characters can deliver exposition to each other, share homoerotic looks and deliver a couple of lines that are ‘meaningful.’ Diesel actually gets a whole speech about his dead dad that’s one punchline away from a Frank Drebin bit. But Cohen can shoot some cars in motion, and he makes the final truck chase work.
The whole film feels more than a little hokey. The first big race scene ends when the cops show up, and it’s like a scene from American Graffiti with collagen injections and huffing gasoline; The Fast and the Furious is trying to make these street racers into a rebellious but not entirely threatening subculture. What it really accomplishes, though, is making the street racers feel entirely fake. I don’t believe any of this stuff - from the culture to the lingo - exists in the real world.
The film ends with a post-credits sting that has Diesel’s character driving around Baja, Mexico. I know he comes back to the wild world of nitrous (they call it NOS, and it sounds like Nas to me. I like to imagine a rapper is boosting their speed); I’m curious how Agent Paul Walker will explain to his superiors that he let a huge sack of ground beef get away from him. The Fast and the Furious was moronic, silly and bad… but in the best ways possible, and left me hungry for 2 Fast 2 Furious. Which promises to be even worse.