The Fast and the Furious: Remembering How the Fast Saga Earned Its Pop Culture Street Cred

When you watch the very first Fast & Furious movie (streaming now on Peacock!) these days, two seemingly contradictory things seem to happen at once. It’s like stepping in a time capsule to peek in, at a distance, on a place you can never go back to — and yet so much of what’s actually onscreen in The Fast and the Furious looks fresh enough to still fill seats in theaters today.

Directed by Rob Cohen (xXx, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor), the 2001 film that spawned one of the most successful franchises in box office history still rates with nostalgic fans as one of the Fast Saga’s most-cherished movies. In part, that’s because there’s so much sentiment wrapped up in the characters The Fast and the Furious introduced, in the actors who’ve come to define the Fast Saga, and in tracing the sprawling and beloved series of 10 mainline movie blockbusters (and one spinoff, so far) to a single point of easily-recognizable origin.

But it’s also because The Fast and the Furious itself is just a darn good movie in its own right — to this day, one of the best the franchise has ever produced. With Fast X currently in theaters and available on digital, let’s take a look back at the firm franchise roots established in the original.

Brian & Dom: Blurring the line between cops & crooks in The Fast and The Furious

Let’s say you’ve struck movie-unicorn gold and are somehow getting to show The Fast and the Furious to a complete Fast Saga newbie today (there’s still gotta be a couple of those out there, right?). Watching someone “get it” for the first time rates as the kind of voyeuristic thrill that propels the rich, century-old tradition of word-of-mouth movie culture. Nope, you can’t go back and experience it anew yourself, but at least you can steal back a little of the magic by watching it happen to someone else.

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The Fast and the Furious is that kind of movie, and it’s a huge testament to how fully-realized the franchise was from the very beginning — before the Fast Saga even was a franchise. Story creator Gary Scott Thompson collaborated with writers David Ayer (Training Day, Suicide Squad) and Erik Bergquist on a screenplay that took direct aim at exploring the grey area between clearly-defined definitions of good and bad, with undercover cop Brian O’Connor (Paul Walker) increasingly anguished at having to screw over the close-knit “family” of thieves, led by car-heist mastermind Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel), which he’s infiltrated.

Sure, Brian’s adept at leaping between worlds — that of Toretto’s street-level racing scene in Los Angeles, on the one hand, and the back-to-base sitrep reports he’s obliged to make to his LAPD and FBI law enforcement colleagues at an opulent midcentury-modern home (“Eddie Fisher built this house for Elizabeth Taylor in the ‘50s,” Ted Levine’s Sgt. Tanner offhandedly quips in one of the movie’s great, if apocryphal, throwaway lines.) But even early on, it’s clear Brian’s already gotten in too deep… the kind of thing that tends to happen when you fall hard for your criminal mark’s younger sister (Mia Toretto, played by Jordana Brewster).

Brian doesn’t just have stars in his eyes for Mia, though. From the beginning, Diesel plays Dom Toretto as the lynchpin character he’s meant to be, the kind of guy whom everyone else instinctively looks to for guidance. Brian’s no more immune than anyone else from the effect of Dom’s solid, alpha-dog aura, craving victory in the pair’s first street race not just because he needs to establish trust, but because he craves Dom’s genuine, authentic respect.

Brian and Dom; Dom and Brian: There’s a mutual intrigue built into these characters’ initially-uneasy rapport, and it’s there from the very beginning of the Fast & Furious franchise. Even without the full scoop on Brian’s true cop identity, Dom admires his upstart audacity as a newcomer who dares to think he belongs. And even though he knows where his undercover “friendship” with Dom is ultimately headed, Brian can’t shake the feeling that these bad guys live by a more consistent, honor-bound code than the one his police badge represents.

RELATED: Why Paul Walker Signed On to The Fast & The Furious Before a Screenplay Was Even Written

It’s a beguiling and reliable story setup that’s buoyed by all-time cop-movie classics like Heat and L.A. Confidential — and just as reliably, it works here, too. The larger Fast Saga, in fact, would go on to become an extended exercise in cop-movie wish fulfillment, at last answering a question that similar films had been content to leave hanging: What happens after two opposing forces stop fighting each other and finally unite?

The Fast and the Furious touched a deep pop culture nerve

If the Fast Saga has changed through the years (and it has), its signature mix of action with right-now pop aesthetics has remained enduringly constant. In 2001, burnouts and fistfights were framed in The Fast and the Furious against a musical collage of Ja Rule, Ashanti, Fat Joe, and more. In 2023’s Fast X, the action has of course leveled up, even as its backing bounce stays grounded, with the movie’s city-sized explosions and IMAX-worthy vehicle stunts getting the Skrillex, Kodak Black, and YoungBoy Never Broke Again treatment. Yes, everyone may be older, richer, and a little bit farther from the streets in the Fast franchise these days… but as the killer beats signal, they still know a real party when they see one.

Fans love to hold up the first Fast film as an example of how the franchise got its start by exploring legit street culture in a never-before-seen way, and so far as it goes, they’re completely right. The Fast and the Furious essentially did for the turn-of-the-millennium L.A. street scene what NBC’s Miami Vice had done, nearly two decades prior, for the fusion between pop culture and the illicit riches of the international drug trade. Like Miami Vice, the movie’s biggest set pieces felt like long-form music videos that told killer mini-stories through imagery. It’s a shared trait that’s more than mere coincidence, too; earlier in his creative career, director Cohen had himself directed a trio of Miami Vice episodes.

The Fast Saga’s street-meets-beats DNA is more than just an abstract way for fans to appreciate the larger franchise. It’s part of what makes even longtime cast members love the time they’ve spent playing these now-familiar characters since day one. “I think we started this being the hip-hop of the film industry,” founding Fast Saga star Michelle Rodriguez (Letty) recently shared from the big red carpet premiere for Fast X. “…We represent people who live on the other side of the tracks who might not necessarily be accepted by society. Just showing the world that they have a platform too, and that they can be seen around the world through us. We represent them.”

It’s a shame you can watch The Fast and the Furious for the very first time only once, but hey — that’s just the rules of the game. As Dom so learnedly states in Furious 7, “The street always wins,” making everyone a little more faded and jaded away from grasping the magic of seeing things unfold with fresh eyes. If ever there was a movie, though, with the power to take us back to a place we thought we’d left long in the distant past, The Fast and the Furious is it. Stream it here on Peacock, and bask in a brand of nostalgia that never really goes out of style.

Originally published Jun 21, 2023.