When thinking back on the pleasures of this first film in what would become a dependable car-based franchise, it must be said that the plot ranks pretty low. A gang of thieves in impressive racing cars is hijacking trucks laden with valuable electronics, so blond-haired undercover police officer Brian (played by Paul Walker) is sent to infiltrate a notorious group of autoracers headed by Dominic Toretto (played by Vin Diesel) in the hopes of finding out whether he or one of the crews he races against is behind the thefts. That’s pretty much it.
Luckily, that’s not really what the film is about, as it’s based on a magazine article about the subculture of city street racing in souped-up cars. The plot is a flimsy excuse on which to hang all this vehicular frippery, and like some kind of automotive porn, there are duly scenes with lingering discussions over car specs, engines, nitrous oxide injectors, and the like. The Wikipedia entry on the film also charmingly details every make and model of car that is of significance, for truly these are characters to rank alongside the (human) actors.
Which isn’t to say the acting is bad, just that it does what it needs to. Walker is largely forgettable in the central role: he has a nice, if rather telegraphed, romance with Dominic’s sister Mia (Jordana Brewster), who like her brother has a headstrong streak. Neither she nor Michelle Rodriguez, as Dom’s girlfriend Letty, accept background roles in this culture of fuel-injected mayhem, and more than hold their own amongst all the testosterone (though there’s still room around the edges for scantily-clad gyrating women when there’s call for a big racing setpiece). In fact, it’s Diesel, with his pensive looks and oddly melancholic disposition, who speeds away with the film as a man with a shady background and a lost father who looks to the furious burst of speed that comes from streetracing as a means of (all too brief) escape. He has the personal charisma to hold together and control his disparate crew, and (as my friend Andrew points out) doesn’t personally resort to inflicting any violence himself throughout the film.
The script does well to balance the quieter interpersonal scenes with big, loud vehicular action, and the actors (including Rick Yune as Dominic’s Korean nemesis) are capable enough to pull these off without undue reliance on special effects or explosions. And speaking as one who has never owned a car and holds no particular interest in them, even the automotive ogling is a fascinating glimpse into a distinct subculture that’s never really impinged on my life; there’s almost a tenderness to some of the autoshop scenes and the value placed in good engineering. It is, after all, a car which stands in for the relationship between Dominic and his absent father, and this generous spirit is carried over to the final confrontation between Brian and Dominic.
It may not be a profound film, yet in its way it’s sweet and charming, but with enough in the way of kinetic action sequences to please those who thrill to that kind of thing too.
Next up: The series finds its nadir with the sequel, 2 Fast 2 Furious.
Director Rob Cohen; Writers Gary Scott Thompson, Erik Bergquist and David Ayer; Cinematographer Ericson Core; Starring Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Michelle Rodriguez, Jordana Brewster; Length 106 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Saturday 11 May 2013.