I don’t know if you can tell, but us here on this merry ol’ bus to Lewton love the Fast and the Furious franchise. It’s big, it’s silly, but dammit, it’s got heart. A whole damn bunch of it, especially in the more recent entries, aka Fast Five through Furious Seven.
Which makes re-watching the earlier films that much weirder, because this is a franchise that was all over the place before hitting its stride in earnest with Five. 2009’s Fast and Furious was an attempt at a post-Transformers Bay-esque take on the series that sadly ended up more grim than fun. 2006’s Tokyo Drift broke away from everything that was previously established about the series and we ended up with a really solid (from what I’ve heard, at least. It remains the only film in this wonderful series that I have yet to see) teen movie. 2003’s 2 Fast 2 Furious was a pre-Five attempt at leaning into the silliness inherent in the very premise of the franchise, and I feel that it succeeded more on that front than a lot of people (including this site’s own Tanner Volz) give it credit for.
But then we get to The Fast and the Furious, the first and, honestly, the worst of the whole series. Rob Cohen’s unlikely series starter is an absolute mess on a number of levels, but I already knew that. The rewatch directly preceding the writing of this article, however, led me to a revelation:
The Fast and the Furious is David Ayer’s dry run for Suicide Squad.
I always knew that Ayer had a writing credit on the film (along with TV writer Gary Scott Thompson and someone who’s never had anything produced since named “Erik Bergquist”), but it wasn’t until this watch where it really sank in how similar the two are, not just on a script level, but aesthetically as well. The dialogue in this film is pure, unrestrained Ayer. “Bro” is dropped more frequently than the word “the”, it’s packed to the gills with as much swearing as a PG-13 film is allowed to have, and some lines are so bad that they reach the heights of this gem from 2016’s worst waste of Jai Courtney:
Specifically, those lines are “I smell… skanks. Why don’t you girls just pack it up before I leave tread marks on your face?” and “Brian Earl Spilner. Sounds like a serial killer. Is that what you are? Don’t come around here again!”
Another surface-level similarity between the films is the soundtrack. Suicide Squad’s soundtrack deservedly got a lot of guff, with songs placed into scenes with seemingly no relation to what is happening on-screen, but The Fast and the Furious is arguably worse at this. During an early scene where drivers and their entourages are meeting before the Big Street Race™, the establishing shots are scored with not one, not two, but three separate needle drops. The drops don’t separately accompany different drivers or worked naturally into the scene, either — it just goes from ten seconds of one song, which fades into ten seconds of another song, which fades yet again into ten seconds of another song.
But I’m not going to blame that particular bit of incompetence on Ayer, because he was not the director. However, I am more than happy to blame the actual director, Rob Cohen. Cohen was a film producer who managed to get his way into directing, and while his early films, such as Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story and Dragonheart, showed promise, it appears that he completely forgot how to direct movies afterwards. Of his post-2000 filmography, the only film he’s directed that’s really worth a damn is 2002’s xXx, which managed to rise above his directorial incompetency (including his “cubist” way of editing action) to become truly fun early-aughts action schlock. The rest of it includes 2005’s Stealth, a failed attempt at making a spiritual successor to xXx, 2012’s Alex Cross, a failed attempt at making Tyler Perry into an action star, and 2015’s The Boy Next Door, a failed attempt at… I actually don’t know what it was trying to attempt.
Cohen’s failures at competent direction in this film start at the very beginning, with a title card that takes a full twenty seconds of spinning zoom-outs in order to make itself visible. It follows that with an astoundingly poorly-lit bit of vehicle chase action that we don’t even get to see the resolution to before heading straight to the introduction of Paul Walker’s Brian O’Connor. The poor lighting is consistent throughout the film, with some scenes set before and during the final heist having characters straight-up blend into the background thanks to how little light there is.
The races and chases themselves are also rather bad. Outside of the lighting, the cinematography by Ericson Core (who hilariously went on to direct the now-forgotten remake of Kathryn Bigelow’s Point Break, which undoubtedly served as the template that this film followed) is fucking terrible, relying on shaky-cam to get any sense of urgency through, thanks to Cohen directing the scenes in a way that renders them utterly lethargic.
The editing doesn’t help in this regard. But while Suicide Squad has the excuse of being forced into bad editing thanks to the magic of studio interference, The Fast and the Furious seems to have been edited this way on purpose. Putting some of the more egregious bits of bad form aside, such as a sequence that features four different shots of the same car exploding that has the explosion sound effect play all four times, scenes go on for far too long, with too many pauses in the dialogue kept in for scenes to play naturally. The chases/races/other various sequences of vehicular stunt-play get so cut-riddled at points that it just leaves it all so un-fun to watch.
And I haven’t even talked about the color grade yet! This may be the worst color grade I have ever seen in a major motion picture: underlit browns, glaring overlit neons, and one of the more egregious examples of the much-bemoaned orange-and-teal color scheme that I know of. This movie is so ugly that it could only have come out in the year that it did… well, at least until we saw Suicide Squad’s similarly ugly color grade.
But despite me considering this to be the worst of the whole lot… I still kind of enjoy it? Don’t get me wrong, it’s incompetent and sometimes very annoying, but it really does have a sort of dated charm that other movies in this vein from the era, such as John McTiernan’s abominable Rollerball remake, simply don’t have. And a lot of this movie’s imagery and dialogue has become iconic simply thanks to director Justin Lin and writer Chris Morgan’s referencing to them in later films: Dom’s “quarter mile at a time” speech, the Toretto fambly house, the endless speeches about fambly and teamwork. This is the kind of emotional core that Suicide Squad lacks, and it’s also what will probably make The Fast and The Furious age better than Suicide Squad in the long run, despite the film being as dated as it is. It’s the heart that counts.
The idea that this kinda terrible little movie looking to cash-in on a trend would become the launchpin for one of the most beloved franchises on the planet would have been laughable ten years ago, but here we are, in a world where casual audiences and film geeks alike are stoked out of their minds for the eighth film in the series with complete sincerity.
Spirit, thank you for direct-port nitrous, injection, four-core intercoolers, ball-bearing turbos, and titanium valve springs. Thank you.