Letty is falling to her death.
She’s been launched from the front of a moving tank. Luckily, Dom flies through the air and catches her. The two of them land safely on the hood of a car as if it were a down-filled mattress.
But let’s go back a few years and a few movies.
I want to talk about how a movie series about street racing and petty crime started out strong, faded into a joke and ultimately became one of the highest-grossing and most diverse film series of all time. As quickly as street racing captured the imagination of the public it just as quickly disappeared. Obviously 2001 brought about a major cultural shift and the poor reception of the second film in the series basically dropped the franchise under the radar, only popping up occasionally as a punchline.
Secretly, thanks to a passionate creative team, the series was building a solid base that it would eventually explode from like a rocket. By the time the Marvel Cinematic Universe proved that the audience for superhero films was wider than previously expected the franchise was poised to take full advantage.
Every superhero needs an origin story though. The first two films in the series lay much of the groundwork and mythology that would come.
The first film in the series was 2001’s The Fast and the Furious. It was a lot of things when it first came out: a touchstone of the street racing culture, a retooling of Point Break, another building block in Vin Diesel’s early rise to stardom and, most importantly, a proper introduction to Paul Walker’s baby blue eyes.
The importance of the first movie rests in making us care for our characters — no, sorry — our family. Brian O’Connor (Paul Walker), the baby-faced undercover LAPD officer, is tasked with infiltrating the exciting and dangerous world of underground street racing. A team of racers are highjacking transport trucks (and stealing hilariously dated TV’s and DVD players) and Brian needs to figure out who the culprits are.
We get some half-assed red herrings, but the obvious answer is Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and his family. That family includes a younger sister named Mia (Jordana Brewster), his girlfriend and fellow racer Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), and aggro dickhead Vince (Matt Schulze). There’s also the young, twitchy genius Jesse (Chad Lindberg) and some other douchebag named Leon (Johnny Strong). Neither of those two matter much until the end though. From the beginning it’s obvious that this is the crew stealing the shipments, because it’s the most interesting outcome and because this movie wouldn’t be much of a Point Break remake if that weren’t true.
Brian — well, Paul Walker really — is the perfect stand-in for early-career Keanu Reeves. The accent is silly, the acting isn’t quite there yet, but they get by on their doofy, pretty boy charm. It makes sense that he’d ingratiate himself with this crew. He’s our audience insert, giving us a newcomers perspective as he joins Dom’s crew. He’s like Agent Myers in Hellboy, our entrypoint in a world of superheroes.
Don’t let this film being the first one fool you into thinking it’s not also a superhero movie. It’s more low-key and borrows more from other genres, but the trappings are still there. Hell, Dom’s crew even have their own colour-coding and logos on their vehicles.
Like most superhero teams there’s a standout member. The Justice League has Batman, the Avengers has Iron Man and this crew has Dom. Diesel plays Dom in this first outing with intense, understated swagger. He’s a little more playful and charming than what his character will eventually evolve into, but he’s still clearly the man in charge.
That’s what makes the movie similar to other superhero film franchises. What sets it apart is the focus on family. The X-Men are classmates, the Avengers are co-workers and the Justice League are crusaders. Even when these series try to add a dimension of familial closeness it comes off as phony. What’s usually missing, and what The Fast and the Furious has in spades, is unironic sincerity. There’s a straight-faced dedication to family that’s equal parts goofy, endearing and effective.
Which is why the ending is so bittersweet. The crew pull a job against what’s basically the trucker from Duel, which ends disastrously. Vince is badly injured, Letty is on the run, Brian reveals himself as an interloper, a rival crew kills Jesse, and Leon is delivering pizzas or whatever the hell he does while he remains totally unimportant to the story. The family is torn apart. When Dom makes his final run, crashing his prized Dodge Charger, it’s a true low point. The only bright side to the ending is Brian giving Dom the keys to his car and allowing him to escape. Even though the family is fractured, Brian has firmly taken a side. He’s sticking with family.
2 Fast 2 Furious is an interesting follow-up to the themes of the first film. Not great, but interesting. This entry loses Dom, but it adds Roman (Tyrese), a Dom-like stand-in who plays a very different role in Brian’s life. Both characters are antagonistic to Brian, but Dom was like a mentor/older brother/best friend and Roman is more like a jilted lover. The first thing they do when they meet is wrestle each other in a very sexually aggressive manner. It’s a great way to change up the dynamic of the leads and keep it from being a simple retread of the first film’s relationships.
The story itself is fairly rote. Since letting Dom go, Brian has become a fugitive himself, currently living and racing in Miami. He’s drawn back in by US Customs and the FBI to take down a drug lord by using his super power: cars. In order to do that he enlists the help of his old friend, Roman. There are car chases, some mild intrigue, a totally wasted Eva Mendes performance and a by-the-numbers finale. But the story isn’t the interesting part of 2 Fast 2 Furious, it’s the small details.
This film is the first one in the franchise to shoot for a heightened reality. During the opening street race, the drivers use of NOS is stylized like some sort of speed force or faster-than-light travel. US Customs agents use weird, sci-fi EMP guns to shut down cars. The drivers are all basically colour-coded, like branded uniforms. The colours in the film itself pop in a cartoon-y sort of way, similar to Dick Tracy or Mystery Men. Brian even gets his own Q or Alfred in the form of Chris “Ludacris” Bridges’s Tej character.
If The Fast and the Furious was a down-to-earth superhero film like Logan or Captain America: Winter Soldier then 2 Fast is the Batman & Robin of the franchise. Say what you will about the quality and the outcome, there’s no denying that there was a bombastic vision behind it all.
Ultimately, it all comes back to Brian and Roman. Their relationship is the single most interesting aspect of the movie. Lots of movies have done “long ago friends with a fractured relationship” without making it this homoerotic. It’s clearly supposed to be there. On more than one occasion the two men enter a party and immediately talk about the “quality” of women who will be there before never seeming to pay attention to the women at all. Any straight sexuality is played kind of awkwardly. But when it comes to Brian and Roman it’s natural, playful and interesting. Roman pointlessly removes his shirt to strut in front of Brian. Most tellingly is the relationship between Roman, Brian, and Eva Mendes’s Agent Fuentes. It’s like it was written to be like Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious when it comes to the spycraft and the love triangle but they got gun shy when it came to the execution.
Roman is legitimately pissed when he thinks Brian is attracted to Fuentes. There’s a scene where Fuentes visits the boat they’re staying on and tries to talk to Brian in his bedroom without Roman finding out that’s played exactly like a romcom. There’s a background to these characters which is hastily established, but they’re clearly meant to be former lovers.
Don’t take my word for it, here’s a direct quote from Brian:
All right, Rome. I got somethin’ for your ass.
Unfortunately this aspect of the Brian/Roman relationship will be almost completely dropped in later entries. It’s unfortunate because it’s a fun and unique angle to explore, but it’s kind of sidelined to make room for developing the crew as a whole.
Which is fine, because it’s all about family.
Important Things The Fast and the Furious Adds to the Franchise
-Dom, Brian, Letty, Mia, Vince
-That Dom almost beat a guy to death with a wrench
-Dom’s Dodge Charger
-The fact that Brian’s a buster
Important Things 2 Fast 2 Furious Adds to the Franchise
-Roman and Tej
-Customs Agent Monica Fuentes (arguably)
-Weird, sci-fi technology
The Fast and the Furious: 7.5 Coronas out of 10
2 Fast 2 Furious: 6 EMP guns out of 10
In Part 2: a trip to Japan where we meet the Drift King and then we return to LA and expand the family