Appreciating a Good Body (Regardless of the Make): Fast & Furious (2009)
The Fast and Furious franchise can be split into two eras: the first three more ordinary summer action movies and the late period huge blockbusters that premiere in April and rake in boatloads of money (except Fast and Furious 6, which came out in May). Right in the middle sits Fast & Furious, the 2009 movie that serves as a halfway point bridging the two eras of the series. Fast & Furious has elements of both halves, and it’s easy to track how the filmmakers and the cast morphed the franchise into the box office juggernaut and cultural touchstone the series would become.
After the success of The Fast and the Furious in 2001, a sequel was greenlit with the amazing name 2 Fast 2 Furious. Star Vin Diesel opted not to return in favor of his own solo starring vehicle xXx. Then the series did The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, a spin-off. None of the previous three movies were fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. They all did well at the box office, but mostly because they had modest budgets under $100 million. The first three movies also came out in June, positioning themselves as high-adrenaline, sun-kissed disposable action fare.
Fast & Furious had a budget of $85 million, and grossed $363 million worldwide - the biggest movie in the series at the time. Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez, and Jordana Brewster returned to the series, along with Paul Walker who was back after missing the third one. That is probably the reason why this fourth entry did so well, after a spotty 2nd and 3rd parts. Incidentally, the movie got the worst reviews of the series, scoring 28% on Rotten Tomatoes. Essentially, the movie was popular with audiences, but critics thought of it as more of the same.
In some ways, Fast & Furious was itching to become the larger-than-life spectacle that Fast Five resulted in being. The film opens with a bonkers chase scene where the gang robs a gas track. It’s the kind of confident action filmmaking that would come to define the series in the future. However, the set piece is on a smaller scale. Sadly, there are no cars flying between buildings. The characters work together like a good team, but with Rodriguez and Diesel taking the center spotlight. While the love story between the dearly departed Paul Walker and Vin Diesel is the central one throughout the franchise, the Diesel-Rodriguez romance is fun on its own. They are a good team, and I actually felt sad this time watching it when Diesel finds out she is dead.
Fast & Furious has a pretty standard story: Dominic Toretto helps Brian O'Conner catch some drug dealers, with lots of cool cars, beautiful girls, and zany chases. At the end of the movie, Brian makes the unsurprising decision to quit the FBI and join Dom’s crew, rescuing Dom from a prison van. This act is basically what sets up the next three movies. It’s the kind of “the team is finally together” cliffhanger that suggests a whole series of future adventures (like the end of Avengers: Age of Ultron, which sets up Captain America: Civil War). The only piece of the puzzle missing is Michelle Rodriguez, but we all knew she’d be back.
Looking back, I’m pretty sure this was the first movie I had seen of the series. At the time, it was just a random action movie with a likable cast and really set pieces. Justin Lin showed a lot of promise as an action director and he keeps track of all the characters and showcases all the awesome vehicles with respect and affection. That being said, Fast & Furious does not really emerge as a hidden gem of the series. It does work well enough that it seems reasonable that the filmmakers would want to up their game considerably for Fast Five. This movie does a good job of showing the action filmmaking potential, while keeping true to the vibe of the previous movies.