Franchise Expansion (Or Implosion): ‘The Fast And The Furious’ (2001)
by Ben Martin
Franchise Expansion (or Implosion) is a column that looks at franchises that have new installments or releases forthcoming. In looking at a franchise, each entry in a franchise will be given a review and then be examined as part of the bigger franchise. (i.e., Was this sequel a worthy expansion of this franchise or was it an implosion of sorts?)
If you had told me when I initially saw the original The Fast and The Furious at age twelve that it would inspire a massive franchise, now dubbed The Fast Saga, I wouldn’t have believed you. Nevertheless, it did just that, spanning eight sequels and one spin-off (thus far). I’ll be racing a quarter-mile at a time from the beginning of this franchise to its current finish line of F9, slated for release June 25th. Of course, this time around, I’ll be going back twenty years to the film that spawned a franchise that will go on to gross over one billion dollars — The Fast and The Furious (2001)!
I won’t even try to deny it; back in the day, when I rented The Fast and The Furious, I thought it was just about the coolest movie I’d ever seen. After adding the it to my collection, I watched it to death. And every time I did, despite knowing the crucial differences between reality and filmic fiction, I thought that once I got my driver’s license in a few years, I, too, would get myself a pimped out ride and race. Unlike that adolescent notion, though, I never have abandoned the Fast franchise as they all remind me of a simpler time. Still, I had not watched this original entry in years before re-watching it for this column. How does The Fast and The Furious hold up? Grab your SoBe and turn up some Ja Rule or Limp Bizkit in the background as I get into it!
Unlike the majority of movies released today, this one was inspired by a magazine article. See, the idea of making a movie set in the world of street racing was sparked by the 1998 Vibe article, “Racer X” by Kenneth Li. In the story, Li profiles an early twenty-something man who rules the streets; pulling in thousands by winning illegal street races. Upon re-reading this article (for the first time since its inclusion on the original DVD release of The Fast and The Furious), I thought you could easily make a movie that was a more straightforward adaptation of the aforementioned source material. But, you know the movies — there’s always this industry notion of more is better. Therefore, when Universal Studios optioned the movie rights to “Racer X” from Vibe, they did so with the idea of a layered picture with all elements that audiences expect from the action genre.
The studio chose director Rob Cohen, who was nearly an in-house director for them at that point. Throughout the 1990s, the director made a trifecta of hits for the studio with Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story (1993), DragonHeart, and Daylight (both released in 1996). Then the director kicked off the aughts by making a modest hit for Universal with The Skulls (2000), which spawned a duo of direct-to-video sequels. When Cohen came onto the “Racer X” project, along with producer Neal H. Moritz (Preachert), working titles for the film were Racer X, Race Wars, and Redline.
All of which I think would have made the film far less of a success. Plus, why would they have ever considered titling a film Race Wars? That title would be a helluva’ tricky sale for obvious reasons. Thankfully, though, they ultimately settled on The Fast and The Furious. It’s worth noting that Universal did have to pay legendary low-budget producer Roger Corman for the rights to use the title of his 1954 film of the same name.
Cohen recruited writers Gary Scott Thompson (Hollow Man, Knight Rider ‘08) and Erik Berquist to develop a screenplay, which then had rewrites by David Ayer (Training Day, Suicide Squad). The director and scribes cited Point Break (1991) and Donnie Brasco (1997) as inspirations for the story. Frankly, Point Break was clearly the primary inspiration as the following plot essentially substitutes surfing and bank robberies with cars, illegal street racing, and jacking trucks.
Following a number of trucks getting robbed by conspicuously souped-up Honda Civics, the LAPD and the FBI enter into a partnership to find the perpetrators. As such, they put young and eager LAPD officer Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker) on the job. Going undercover as Brian Spillner, the cop soon proves his worth in the world of street racing. In doing so, he crosses paths with the best racer around, Dominic Torretto (Vin Diesel), and his crew. But in the process of getting close to this cobbled-together family and falling for Don’s sister, Mia (Jordana Brewster), Brian discovers these people may be the thieves he’s trying to bring down. Soon enough, events escalate as everything gets Fast and Furious!
Despite the aforementioned fact that The Fast and The Furious is essentially a remake — or more accurately a rip-off — of Point Break, the movie in review is still quite entertaining. But, had the director been allowed to follow his original creative impulse, I doubt we would have gotten the film as we know it, much less the eventual billion-dollar Fast franchise. Supposedly, Cohen wanted to cast all the principal male leads from Saved by the Bell (1989-1992) and plug them into their “obvious” roles for this picture. Understandably, the studio nipped this foolish notion in the bud. To be fair, this initial casting idea should be taken with a grain of salt. But even if it’s not true, the idea that Cohen essentially wanted to start “The Bayside High Racing Team” was too funny to ignore.
Thus, the director approached Walker, whom he’d worked with a mere year before on The Skulls. For the likable anti-hero who is Dominic Toretto, Universal offered the role to another up-and-comer — Timothy Olyphant. Olyphant declined, however, having just finished working on Gone in 60 Seconds (2000), the other big car movie of the era. Now, as much as I love Mr. Olyphantastic, I’m glad he turned the part down as I can’t see him being right for it. Upon the actor’s refusal, Universal and Cohen made both a more obvious and appropriate casting choice in Diesel (Guardians of the Galaxy, Bloodshot). With the two principal leads in place, the rest of the cast fell into place.
And it is a cast that deserves some praise because the characters (and the actors who portray them) are a large part of why the movie and the eventual sequels work as well as they do. Yes, indeed, this is not a cast of nuanced thespians. Walker, for example, is pretty much just channeling himself and a young Keanu Reeves. Most of the performances are nothing more than perfectly adequate. But, you what? Adequate acting is perfect in this case because the ensemble brings something much more important than Oscar-worthy characterizations to the table. Instead, they bring absolute chemistry to the screen! Their characters feel like real people who have formed a surrogate family — a key theme to the future of this franchise.
The other key, of course, is all the car racing, stunts, and action! Twenty years on, most of the car sequences here still hold up and are very fun to watch. They work so well that this first film arguably created the street racing movie subgenre as we know it. Any other examples of said subgenre in the years since have been nothing more than cheap attempts (generally of the non-theatrical variety) to ape all the car work that this movie gets right. One exception: the Gone in 60 Seconds remake I mentioned earlier, as they it predates the film and I don’t find that picture to be comparable. If anything, I think The Fast and The Furious may not have enough car sequences. After all, 40 minutes of the runtime do not feature cars or street racing.
However, where all the elements mentioned above work quite well, there’s one that does not. Folks, the crime film subplot that runs throughout this flick is simply ridiculous. Sure, when I was a kid, the criminal aspects of The Fast and The Furious seemed edgy — much, if not all of which I’d imagine can be attributed to Ayer’s input on the screenplay. Think about it, why would you knock off trucks and fence the cargo within them for the cash to buy parts and technology for these cars when there’s a much simpler criminal enterprise for these characters to pursue? Steal the parts or even the cars themselves! Now, admittedly, the highway robbery sequences are scintillating, but not enough to forget how nonsensical the scheme really is.
There’s also one thing I would be remiss if I didn’t address here: The Fast and The Furious is decidedly a product of the early-2000s. If you’ve read any number of my other reviews, you know I’ve stressed that a movie needs to be viewed in the context of its time — a sentiment that I’ll always maintain. In some instances, though, movies recall too much of the eras in which they were made. Such is the case with The Fast and The Furious; a movie so steeped in ’01 that it almost hurts at times. Frankly, the first film is a bit of a nostalgia piece upon rewatching it. So much so, in fact, that if you didn’t grow up with this movie or don’t watch this franchise in release order, I’m sure how well it’ll work for you despite the entertainment value.
Yes, the flaws that were often hitched to this era of mainstream movies are present here. However, there’s no denying that The Fast and The Furious (2001) is a Franchise Expansion. The movie connected with audiences enough to create a long-running and insanely profitable franchise. Furthermore, it introduced many of us to the world of underground racing and created a subgenre in the process. If that’s enough to win in the world of movies, I don’t know what could be.
The Fast and The Furious (2001) is available on all home video formats.
F9 will be released in theaters June 25th
Next time, we’ll race to Miami with one key cast member in tow for 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003)!