Over the next several weeks, Game of Nerds will be looking back at our greatest modern soap opera. Each installment of the main Fast and Furious franchise will be covered in preparation for the release of F9 on June 25, 2021.
A young, brash, and overzealous law enforcement officer goes undercover to investigate a series of robberies. In order to solve the case, he must befriend a group of jocks involved in a unique lifestyle that requires him to learn a new skill. However, the group’s charismatic leader has such a profound impact on the detective that it complicates the mission and forces the detective to reconsider his values.
That’s the plot of Point Break (1991), the Katheryn Bigelow-directed action thriller which cemented the legacy of the late Patrick Swayze, and course-corrected Keanu Reeves’ career, from goofy comic actor, to the path of action superstar. Despite 30 years, and one poorly received remake later, it looms large as an iconic 90s action film, filled with kinetic direction, over-the-top performances, and a memorable story. It looms so largely, that it casts a shadow over The Fast and the Furious (2001). Long before it established itself as a billion-dollar franchise, the original entry in the “Fast Saga” became a blockbuster by enticing audiences with state-of-the-art (for 2001) special effects and wrapping it in a familiar plot.
The film introduces us to Brian O’Conner (the late Paul Walker), a seemingly docile guy “working” at a local auto parts shop. He comes into “Toretto’s Market” every day and asks about the tuna sandwich while hitting on the store’s owner – Mia Toretto (Jordana Brewster). However, Brian’s real interest in Mia doubles as a convenient cover for his professional interest – he’s an undercover cop, investigating a ring of cargo theft potentially perpetrated by a group of street racers. And Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel), a legendary street racer, is the prime suspect as the leader of this criminal enterprise. But Dom is also Mia’s older brother, acting as an obstacle for the would-be couple’s potential relationship, and providing a conflict of interest for Brian’s case.
While the franchise has gradually increased in scope, the original stands out strictly as a star-making vehicle for Vin Diesel. Just a couple of years prior, Diesel broke out in the 1999 sleeper hit Pitch Black. However, The Fast and the Furious used the momentum of Pitch Black to turn Diesel into a leading man for the first time. And it works – Diesel makes this movie. While many of the series’ mainstays were underwritten and underutilized in the first film (more on that later), Dominic Toretto essentially saves the movie with his unique charm and energy. Diesel is playing a version of the jock archetype, but one that’s likable, establishing himself as sort of a “man of the people.”
This becomes apparent when Brian, in an attempt to earn Dom’s respect, challenges Toretto and several others to a nighttime drag race in front of throngs of spectators. Dom, after a narrow victory, tears Brian down in front of the crowd, teasing him and his performance like a professional wrestler dressing down an adversary in front of screaming fans. But the scene doesn’t evoke animosity- the back and forth between the two leads is humorous, inspiring a series of “OHHHHHH!”s from the hyped-up crowd.
They’re so into Dom, the crowd keeps going “OHHHHHH!” even after Dom has started using car terminology that’s probably going over everyone’s head. This is an interesting similarity with the film’s audience, like The Fast and the Furious doesn’t really expect you to know much about cars. Instead, the movie breezes through the automotive lingo, making sure the audience just needs the basics – Brian needs an engine mod that allows his car to go impossibly fast, but he also needs a car that can handle that speed without stalling. This gets us quickly to the races so the film can showcase its special effects. At the time, audiences had never seen a car drive as fast on film before. When these characters hammer the accelerator, it’s as if they’re traveling in a different dimension. While the racing scenes may seem brief, watching it in the theater was considered imperative to experience the full effect.
However, what’s great about the action in the film is purely driven by its digital effects. The practical action, the stuntwork, the editing, and direction, is all solid but nothing memorable. The climactic car chase is essentially a less violent, less intense version of the chases in the original Mad Max films; the film is borrowing from that visual language but doing nothing to expand upon it. It’s here where Point Break extends its lead, as Bigelow is a much more skilled action director than Rob Cohen. The amount of times you’ll wonder how Bigelow obtained a certain shot dwarfs the level of wonder in Cohen’s film.
In addition, Bigelow and her cast elevate a pretty flawed script, whereas The Fast and the Furious often succumbs to its screenwriting shortcomings. While Dom is, for the most part, a well-realized character, Brian leaves much to be desired. His motivations, like Keanu Reeves’ Johnny Utah in Point Break, are pretty obvious, but missing a layer of depth and characterization that was present in Utah. We know Brian wants the girl and he wants to crack the case, but then his character pivots to one motivated primarily by money. Specifically, he wants some of the ridiculous amounts of cash that the Toretto’s are stealing.
We realize he lacks funds, but without proper context, his desperation seems over the top. He confesses to Dom during lunch that he can’t even afford his meal. So let me get this straight: Brian works for the LAPD and he can’t afford a burger and fries?! IN 2001??!! Stop the protests, apparently, they’ve already defunded the police. He envies the Toretto’s, but this is hardly Wolf of Wall Street; the Toretto family doesn’t even seem to live that lavishly. They…. own a house…. that’s about it. In failing to really flesh out Brian’s predicament, or his backstory, his motivations seem oddly ephemeral, changing whenever the movie finds it convenient.
But the character that gets it the worst is, by far, Letty (Michelle Rodriguez). While she would grow into a fan favorite, her initial debut as Dom’s squeeze was a rough one, through no fault of Rodriguez. To put it bluntly, she was done dirty. I don’t know who could have made “I smell skanks” work as a line, but it’s no one involved in this production. When Letty isn’t delivering the dialogue from a 70s exploitation film, she upgrades to generic interchanges that would feel at home in a Playstation 1 cutscene. Here’s one exchange she has with Dom during a party:
Letty: I think you should go upstairs and give me a massage.
Dom: Look at all our guests!
Letty: How about we go upstairs and you give me a massage.
Riveting. Eat your heart out, Aaron Sorkin.
While the script is trying its damnest to end this franchise before it even begins, The Fast and the Furious is lucky it struck oil with its casting. Ultimately, people connect to these movies due to the chemistry between the main actors. When Dom discovers a big secret near the end, while Brian is having a conversation on the phone, you can feel every emotion Dom is experiencing. Forget the fact that Dom should have come to this conclusion about 40 minutes earlier and the movie can’t be bothered to provide you a legitimate reason for why he doesn’t – Vin Diesel is going to make you forget about this movie’s bad script! Yes, Letty and Mia both get the short end of the stick because they’re poorly written female characters crowbarred into a story about a bromance. But Rodriguez and Brewster do their best to make up for this, rising up to be worthy foils for their often prideful significant others.
There’s a scene, in the middle of the film, where the characters just sit down to have lunch at the Toretto house. Dom forces one of his loud-mouth friends to say grace, and it’s the first time in the movie we get a peek at Dom’s familial values. This was long before the franchise re-engineered its entire theme to be about family. As a result, the film sticks to the Point Break template, even copying the ending. It really shows that the filmmakers didn’t fully understand what The Fast and the Furious should be. Bad writing can end any would-be franchise, but this film was lucky enough that the box office haul made a sequel a lucrative possibility. In doing so, those kernels of what the franchise should be, ever so brief, would only grow from here.