There is no car-filled franchise more widely known, widely loved and even widely reviled than the Fast and the Furious movies. Everyone has seen at least a couple of them. And today, the first film of the franchise celebrates its 15th anniversary. (You can catch it one more time on the big screen tonight.) Fifteen years later, through all its ridiculousness, it has no equal in modern car films.
There hasn’t been a shortage of Fast & Furious jokes made over the years. Most of them are hilariously on point. Who needs to slam through 3,382 gears in a single quarter-mile run? Is a Corona really Dominic Toretto’s choice beer? Does physics, or any other discipline of science, actually play a role in these films? How many more sequels is Universal going to make?
That last one doesn’t actually have an answer, because as of May 2015, it has become the film studio’s biggest franchise of all time. They’ll probably stop making these movies when people stop going to see them. Which, if I’m going to be honest, is something that I’m never going to stop doing.
So, listen up, Universal: If you make Fast & Furious 17: Prison Escape from Saturn, you can be damned sure that I will get off my ass and go see it.
But no amount of CGI, no amount of international stunts, and no amount of Lykan Hypersports, can compare with the pure and humble goodness that was the first film. The one that hit theaters on June 22, 2001.
Back before the series transitioned to inexplicable international heist escapades—probably because the writers and marketers figured out that it isn’t the best idea to glamorize dangerous and illegal street racing—you had a movie with a simple conflict that never really left the greater Los Angeles area. It was about gangs, family, cars, and young love—real bread and butter stuff.
You had your group of street racers who stuck together like a family. By day, they hijacked moving trucks. By night, they ruled the LA streets. You had your undercover cop who infiltrated their ranks to put a stop to them, but wound up falling in love with them, and ultimately chose their lifestyle over his own. And your patriarchal figure was none other than Vin Diesel. Loyalty was important to him and he didn’t take shit from anybody. He made the movie.
Its importance to car culture cannot be overstated. Those 1990s tuner cars were our generation’s hot rods. They were the Cool Things. You watched that movie and instantly understood that a yawning exhaust pipe was definitely the answer to all your problems. You built your street cred around an Integra with an unpainted front body kit and a catback exhaust and you were set.
And the quotes. My god, the quotes. The Fast and the Furious was chock-full of wonderful lines and questionable life advice that somehow resonated with a huge cop of young people. You could whip these out at any car meet and you’d make instant friends:
“I live my life a quarter mile at a time . . . For those ten seconds or less, I’m free.”
“Ask any racer. Any real racer. It don’t matter if you win by an inch or a mile. Winning’s winning.”
“More than you can afford, pal. Ferrari.” Followed, of course, by “Smoke ‘em.”
“Spirit. Thank you. Thank you for providing us with the direct-port nitrous . . . uh . . . injection, four-core intercoolers, and ball-bearing turbos, and . . . um . . . titanium valve springs. Thank you.”
“I smell . . . skanks.” (That one probably hasn’t held up so well.)
The film made you root for the gearheads and the street racers. You didn’t care that they pulled some highly illegal shit. The point was that they loved cars and so did you and that’s why this whole thing matters in the first place.
And, of course, there was Paul.
Is there anything as majestic as early-2000s Paul Walker? With baby blue eyes, a winning smile, a penchant for using the word “dude” and sun-bleached hair, he was basically perfection.
We were there when his character went on his first date with Mia Toretto and when he sat down to his first Toretto barbecue. He busted Dom out of jail. He had a son with Mia. We were there for all of it; we grew up with him.
Off screen, Walker was just as immersed in car culture as his character. He loved BMWs. He was an avid car collector. He participated in track days. Watching the films just isn’t the same when you know that he’s gone. Every time I watch the tribute at the end of Furious 7, I cry like a goddamn baby. It’s why it hit people who love cars so hard when he died. We didn’t just lose some actor. We lost one of our own.
Weave through the topical silliness of the movie and you suddenly hit upon a film that impeccably balances its sentiment with its characters: That family will always have your back. That just because you might not always have a home to return to, there will be people who will let you into theirs. It was the right film for the right time because it had absolutely nothing to prove to anyone. It didn’t need to outdo anything. And none of its sequels—not even Tokyo Drift, which may in fact be the greatest film of all time—can match its resonance.
Go see the movie tonight, if you can. It’s a good way to relive some of the old magic. See where it all began. And if we could, we’d have the tuna. No crust.