For all its faults, The Fast and the Furious is living proof that genre filmmaking is alive and well. A Hollywood cookie-cutter thriller that overachieves by virtue of a good cast, reasonable direction, and irresistable action scenes, this is the kind of movie that succeeds because it gives the public a double dose of exactly what it came for.
The Fast and the Furious was originally called Race Wars, a pun on the fact that the illegal racers fight amongst each other in racially-divided groups. But instead Universal wisely reached back and appropriated the title of an early Roger Corman feature. If it sounds familiar, there was a Road Runner cartoon with the parody title, The Fast and the Furrious. Unlike the previous year's dull remake of Gone in 60 Seconds, this vroom-vroom epic delivers the goods in crisply edited, flashy racing scenes.
You know you're watching a genre picture when the details and assumptions of the 'world' presented in the movie have no relationship whatsoever to anything in real life. Although the cops like to stress how successfully they're breaking them up, there are indeed large-scale illegal racing 'raves' in the greater Los Angeles area. Every week on the late news, we're treated to the mangled aftermath of some drag race that ends up with a shiny candy-colored late model car wrapped around a telephone pole or other handy obstacle.
The Fast and the Furious hypes the image by showing the races drawing dozens of cars and thousands of spectators. Naturally, the cars are all brand-new custom jobs costing upwards of 100,000 dollars; all driven by people who don't look as though they can afford them. These car jockeys also behave like high-rollers from Vegas, as the minimum bet on a race seems to be '2 large.' Streetwise gunslinger attitudes and ghetto-chic is taken to extremes: the trackside social action looks like it belongs in a fashion video. The screen crawls with sexy young babes in halter tops whose idea of fun is to get giggly over all the cute shiny cars. Part of the buzz for a movie like this is the obvious contemplation of how steamy the behind the scenes action must have been on a set as sexed-up as this one.
Arrayed in gangs by race, the whites are our heroes, the Latins provide local color, the Asians make convenient enemies to wipe out, and blacks are nowhere to be seen. In a movie as schematic as this one, that's a racial statement even when it's true that blacks don't seem to figure much in racing car culture. Besides Dom Toretto's little hijacking habit, it's never stated that drugs or crime pay for any of what we see. It's a gang-banger's paradise. Everyone's wealthy, clean, very young and very focused, the cops are rarely if ever around and totally ineffective anyway. Well, that much is true.
The Fast and the Furious wins its audience because there's a good balance between the attractive cast, the smart direction, and the generic but functional script. The Dominic character is the center of the show, and Vin Diesel's impressive presence and commanding voice (he's the The Iron Giant) hold the center well, making up for the no-depth hero Paul Walker and the lightly sketched supporting cast. The story may be a pile of ridiculous cliches, but the dialogue is never stupid, and the chemistry at work in, for instance, the Brian / Mia / Vince triangle is nicely handled. As dumb as the movie might be, actors like Matt Schulze, who plays Vince, must be thrilled about the showcase aspect of the movie. Vin Diesel, a taller and better-looking version of Telly Savalas, is now being groomed as a star instead of just remaining a character face exploited by Spielberg in Saving Private Ryan.
The power of genre filmmaking has never been so clear as it is in this movie. The Fast and the Furious makes good on the promise of hot racing scenes and breathtaking stunts, with attractive people getting into soap-opera scrapes in between. The fact that the entire crime angle of the movie is a joke, is irrelevant, as it sets up the conflicts and the major Road Warrior-inflected action. And the emotional basis of the film is around the formation of a Howard Hawks-like impromptu 'family', to which our hero develops a compelling loyalty. The genre staple of the police spy is so strong, that in 'movie terms', even the ridiculous Brian O'Conner undercover character is acceptable. Next, they'll show the US Army training rap stars to infiltrate the Taliban, to pop a cap on the Bin Laden dude.
Genre 'thrills', when combined with the political muscle of a major studio, also pay off when it comes time to pass the film through the MPAA censors. There's no nudity (a bit of groping, yes), almost no profanity, and neither bloody death nor gory disfigurement in any of the machine gunnings, explosions, fistfights or crashes. As is the editorial fashion nowadays, being riddled with machine gun bullets means slo-mo tumbling amid attractive plumes of smoke and flying splinters, and maybe getting a spot or two of blood on your face. The Fast and the Furious is a great example of what's wrong with the rating system. Protected by the ability to pretend that all the very attractive illegal and antisocial activity on view is just harmless fun, we end up with a film that ends up being a 106 minute public service message for reckless driving. Nobody can get behind the wheel without driving in a manner that in real life would quickly result in dead pedestrians and mangled passengers. They're all cool and they all get away with it. Mia giggles while speeding through 50 mph U turns. As the two heroes clearly relate through their driving, Brian pulls a very cool-looking stunt while dragging with a Ferrari. The MPAA refuses to give production seals to horror movies that don't emasculate their extreme scenes, with the excuse that the films promote serial killers and suchsame. The Fast and the Furious has the rapt attention of every kid from 12 to 25 who feels insignificant, and the message is that breaking the law in a fast car is both Cool and Mandatory. 1
Directed with restraint and intelligence, and with racing scenes augmented with just enough digital effects to not be insultingly false, The Fast and the Furious is slick and smart and knows what it's up to. The moral protectors of the young will wax apoplectic at the conclusion, where the lesson is taught that if you just stay cool, there are no consequences for anything, even major felonies. Even the cops will let you go free.
Universal's DVD package of The Fast and the Furious is as slick as the movie. The picture is a perfection-plus example of excellent disc-making, and for audio there's a choice of Dolby Digital and DTS. The graphics on the packaging and in the menus are first-rate.
The disc is packed with extras that promote the film as a technical wonder (no contest), and make claims for its importance as a serious film (spare me). The 'literary' basis for the show is a magazine article reprinted as an extra. Director Rob Cohen begins his feature commentary by comparing the first truck hijack scene to John Ford's Stagecoach chase. Yep, I always think of Rob Cohen when I watch a John Ford movie, they're peas from the same pod. This grasping for legitimacy-by-association shows the bind modern directors are in - you either get the opportunity to make serious pictures, or you are stuck doing trash, profitable or unprofitable. So any spin compensation to try and push yourself into the other category is a career must.
The standard extras are all there: the fistful of music videos to back up the heavy-duty music cross-pollination marketing, the trailers, promos and other marketing hype. There's also a major helping of deleted scenes, along with the tedious explanations why some scenes that play just fine need to be cut out of the movie. Nowadays, DVD is doing a service to directors by giving them a good excuse to shoot more material than they can use - they can always say that it'll be a bonus on the DVD.
Two stunts are examined in multiple angle deconstructions, where you get to see as many as eight separate camera views of the action. The train crossing shows how plates were digitally combined to put the dragracing cars into close proximity to a speeding locomotive (hey that's a great idea, let's race the train to the crossing, guys!). The stunt arrangers must be purring over the perfectly-executed flip-the-musclecar stunt, as every one of the eight cameras captured an almost perfect useable shot.
The very well-made making-of docu covers all the bases from a narrow studio point of view, and can be considered yet another promo. And there's an 'effects montage' cut to rock music that compares storyboards to final scenes, the implied message being that if your final shots line up perfectly with the storyboard, then it's a good movie.
A special added bonus is a featurette showing director Cohen trimming frames from a bloody shot to help achieve the needed PG-13 rating. It's probably staged, but that doesn't matter as this is exactly how trims like this get made. 2 The film gets to a certain point where the MPAA declares in vague terms that the violence or sex is too intense, and the filmmakers, at so many dollars a pass, go back and trim off shots bit by bit until the MPAA gives in. Usually this is handled like a negotiation on many levels, with the director politely offering new cuts that do the least damage yet fulfill the MPAA reviewers' subjective notions of compliance. Meanwhile, studio execs bend the ears of whoever they can in the MPAA hierarchy to get the most lenient decision. Since independents don't have the negotiating power, can't claim that hurting them hurts the industry, and are discriminated against by the MPAA, smaller companies tend to be held to the hard and fast guidelines much more than the big studios.
Never is any of this referred to as censorship, based on the hilarious idea that nobody cuts your film, you do ... but unless they like it, no seal of approval is granted and your picture will play only in independent art houses. So we see the editor dutifully trimming frames and whole shots of Vince's arm being cut by a tight wire. This is exactly how violent scenes are passed. Director Cohen probably shot full blood-spurt coverage of every scene of mayhem. The violent action, intent, and emotions remain, but the blood and suffering is minimized, resulting in an inoffensive fantasy that shows aggression and wilful mayhem without consequences. The perfect American entertainment.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. And don't tell Savant that kids don't imitate this kind of behavior.
I was a fairly mature teenager, but I can credit foolish adulation of Sean Connery and Steve McQueen
with inspiring me to take stupid chances trying to be cool behind the wheel. Heck, The Fast and the Furious
has one scene (the groping one) where there's an instant equation made between being fast
and getting laid.
2. I base my opinion on hearing producer Jon Davison wrangling
with the MPAA over the feature and advertising for RoboCop 2, eleven years ago. In general,
things haven't changed much.