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The Glorious, Timeless Simplicity of ‘The Fast and the Furious’

The ‘Fast’ franchise has dropped cars out of planes, featured weapons of mass destruction, and even gone to space—but 20 years ago, it all started with a little, pitch-perfect movie about two inextricably bonded racers

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The most unforgettable monologue in the entirety of the Fast & Furious movie franchise—a franchise that has now spanned two decades, included 10 official films, and grossed over $6 billion—happens just 22 minutes into the very first movie. The way it goes is ...

Dominic Toretto, the centerpiece of everything, has just won an illegal street race against four other competitors, one of whom is Brian O’Conner, who bet his car on the race since he didn’t have the $2,000 he needed to gain entry. As the crowd gathers around Toretto to celebrate his victory, Brian, who overheated his car during the race, pulls up. He gets out, admires the moment, then watches in amusement as Toretto’s primary mechanic inspects the damage done to the engine. “What are you smiling about?” asks a confused Toretto. Brian, with a full smile on his face and with a real glee in his heart, responds, “Dude, I almost had you.” The crowd erupts in laughter as Toretto looks around to make sure he’s really heard what he thinks he’s just heard. And that’s when the monologue begins.

Toretto glides his way around the car, chest out far and chin out further, listing off all of the things that Brian did wrong in the race, interacting with the onlookers, and diagnosing exactly which parts of the engine are going to need to be fixed. By the time he’s done, he’s circled the car completely, at which point he finishes out his monologue with what remains to this day his marquee line. Toretto closes the hood, lets the playfulness evaporate from his voice, and then drops a fucking safe filled with concrete on Brian’s head: “Ask any racer—any real racer—it don’t matter if you win by an inch or a mile. Winning’s winning.”

Then he does this:

As the franchise has grown in popularity, so too have the scope of its adventures and the grandness of its set pieces. Toretto and O’Conner and their growing team have fought tanks and airplanes and submarines, jumped cars across skyscrapers, and run up the sides of buses as they’re falling off of cliffs. It’s been wonderful. The fact that the people who make these movies have consistently found ways to make things more and more outrageous is of great benefit to the series. But this article isn’t about those things. This article isn’t about the miles—it’s about the inches. It’s about the small things that made the franchise’s first and smallest movie so enjoyable, and so mesmerizing.

The Opening Title Sequence

Too many movies don’t care enough about how their titles are presented to the audience. It’s like they think of them as a hindrance; something to just get past or get through or get out of the way so that the real movie can actually start. The Fast and the Furious goes in the opposite direction. We get a piece of it literally as soon as the movie starts, this metallic unknown thing showing us a reflection of what looks like a shipping yard. Every couple seconds, there’s a swipe, and we get a look at the metallic unknown thing from a new angle, showing us a new part of the shipping yard. And it just keeps going like that, each swipe revealing more and more of the title, until eventually we get the whole thing. We spend 17 straight seconds with the title on the screen, zipping back and forth until it’s fully revealed. And then as soon as you see the full thing—The Fast and the Furious—It blasts right past you and you never think about it again. It’s awesome, and it fits the movie so perfectly.

The Shipping Yard

As mentioned in the point above, the movie opens at a shipping yard. We see someone make a phone call to someone else about an especially juicy shipment of electronics that are soon to depart for an unknown destination. We never see the guy who makes the call, which makes it all the more wild to think about how crucial he was to the creation of a string of events that would eventually lead to Ludacris and Tyrese flying a car in space.

That First Action Sequence

This is the one where the three souped-up Honda Civics hijack an 18-wheeler as it drives down a city street. There are a lot of pieces of the scene to like—the LED lights; the helmets that the group wears to hide their faces; the tranquilizer dart that they shoot the driver with—but the no. 1 best moment is when, as the four-vehicle convoy speeds its way toward an unexpected construction zone, one of the Civics realizes that it’s trapped alongside the 18-wheeler and is going to crash. The driver, rather than crash into all the safety barrels and bulldozers and construction workers, opts for something somehow even more dangerous: they steer the car up under the 18-wheeler. It’s an incredible stunt, something you’d probably never seen before, and something that had to be performed in real time at real speed, without the aid of CGI. Even all these years later, and after all these Drive A Car Out Of An Airplane And Parachute It Onto A Mountain type moments that the series has given us, this remains one of the four or five most exhilarating stunts they’ve pulled off. (We never find out who the driver was here, but I suspect it was Letty, given that she performs a similar move during the movie’s final big action sequence. And since we’re talking about Letty …)

Letty’s Boots

One time I wrote an entire article about why Letty Ortiz is such a fantastic movie character. Here’s the piece. Go read that. It’s 3,000 words about only her. And if you don’t want to read that, then at least look at this picture of Letty’s boot, which is the very first thing we see of her in the movie, which makes me very happy. (A quick sidebar: The red part of the flame on her boot is pretty much identical in color to the red leather jacket that we see Dominic, her longtime partner, wear later on in the movie. I have to assume that was not an accident.)

The Tuna Sandwich

By the time we get to the sixth, seventh, and eighth movies of the franchise, Dominic Toretto and his family are all invincible, globetrotting multimillionaires responsible for protecting the fate of the free world. In The Fast and the Furious, though, they’re street racing enthusiasts who fence stolen electronics and run a neighborhood corner store that sells a lackluster tuna sandwich that Brian uses to wiggle his way close to the team. It is, I would argue, the single most important sandwich that’s ever been. (In October 2019, I was doing press stuff to promote Movies (and Other Things). One of the interviews my publisher set up was with Jen Yamato of the L.A. Times. Yamato, who is also a big fan of the Fast franchise, had the idea to do our interview directly outside of the location that had been turned into the Toretto family store for The Fast and the Furious. I was way past excited when my Uber dropped me off and I realized where I was. It was like someone asked me if I wanted to play pickup basketball and then gave me the address to Madison Square Garden.)

“Street’s Closed, Pizza Boy. Find Another Way Home.”

This is the line that Leon says when a Pizza Hut driver happens across the illegal street race that’s about to occur. It always makes me laugh, though I’m not exactly certain why. I think it’s a combination of the timbre of his voice plus the dismissiveness of his index finger. Leon, a member of Toretto’s crew, disappeared from the franchise after the first movie. Nobody knows what happened to him. He just vanished. Nobody has ever even said his name again. (Here’s an especially wayward theory: The actor who played Leon is named Johnny Strong. The same year that The Fast and the Furious came out, Black Hawk Down also came out, which Strong was in as well. Strong’s character dies in that movie, and so maybe the reason Leon never came back for any of the Fast movies is because Toretto watched Black Hawk Down, thought it was a documentary, saw Leon in it, watched him die, and then that was that. And if you’re reading that theory like, “Shea, that sounds really preposterous,” then I’d like to remind you that we’re talking about a movie franchise in which the Rock redirects a missile with his bare hands, so, I mean, come on.)

What Speed Looks Like

Among the reasons that The Fast and the Furious was able to grab hold of pop culture in a way that no other racing or car movie ever has before is because it was able to convincingly capture and present exactly what it feels like to be going way too fast in a car. It’s such a unique feeling in real life, and one that you recognize as soon as you see it up on the screen, even if you’re not someone who races or even drives particularly fast on a regular basis.

Race Wars

That’s what they call the big race event that takes place in the desert outside of the city. It’s very funny to me that that’s the name they went with. Someone was like, “Oh, I know! Let’s call it Race Wars!” And someone else was like, “I … but what about actual race wars? Like, a race war is already a thing, and it’s pretty bad. It’s pretty, pretty bad.” And that first person was like, “Yeah, but this is gonna be bigger than that! We’re gonna be the first thing people think of when they hear the term ‘race war’!”

“I Never Narc’d on Nobody!”

That’s what Dominic Toretto shouts at Johnny Tran after he beats the hell out of Tran because Tran accused him of being the one who told the FBI that Tran was hijacking 18-wheelers. It’s an absolutely pristine line delivery by Vin Diesel. He’s so fucking pissed about Tran accussing him of working with the authorities that the words come out of his mouth covered in fire, and in hate, and in more fire, and in more hate.

Hector’s Hatchback

Hector is the bald-headed Mexican in the movie, and let me say three things about him here: (1) Hector is one of the few race-adjacent recurring characters in the Fast and Furious movies that we never actually see being fast or furious. In fact, we only ever see him being the opposite of those things. (They make it a special point to mention how slow a driver Hector is after Brian meets him for the first time, and then several movies later we see him get punched in the face by Letty when he tries to congratulate her after a race.) (2) I greatly enjoy that Hector drives a hatchback. That’s exactly the kind of car I would drive if I was in any of these movies. It’s not very stylish, but it’s certainly practical, which is as good of a mission statement as I’ve ever seen a movie character unintentionally make about the way I try to live my life. And (3) Hector is played by Noel Gugliemi. Gugliemi has one of my favorite Weird Movie Tidbits ever, which is: He has played someone named “Hector” in a movie or TV show more than a dozen times. It’s become a whole internet meme.

The Way Dominic Toretto Walks Out of the Shadows

He does it after Vince has caught Brian spying on Hector. (Brian was spying on Hector because Hector ordered a bunch of stuff for his cars that made Brian believe he was the one hijacking the 18-wheelers.) Vin Diesel has such a great Dominic Toretto face, and I know that kind of doesn’t make sense, but also I know that it absolutely makes sense. It just fits for him, and his character, and his ethos, and his everything. It’s like how Anthony Hopkins has a great Hannibal Lecter face, or how Arnold Schwarzenegger has a great Terminator face, or how Heath Ledger had a great Joker face.

Getting Beat Twice, Two Decades Apart

Two things here: (1) At the 66-minute mark of the movie, Dominic and Brian pull up to a light. There’s a guy in a Ferrari next to them. Brian compliments the guy on his car and asks him how much something like that costs. The guy, who you know is a dipshit because he has that facial hair where there’s only a patch on his chin and nowhere else, says, “More than you can afford, pal. Ferrari,” and then he revs his engine. They end up racing and Brian ends up winning, but that’s not the thing I want to mention here. The thing I want to mention here is that that particular Ferrari costs somewhere around $130,000. A version of the car that Brian drives in that scene sold at auction recently for $550,000. It makes me very happy to think about that guy sitting at the table eating breakfast and scrolling the news on his phone and seeing that Brian beat him yet again. (2) The guy driving the Ferrari is actually Neal Moritz, who produced the movie and also who got Paul Walker to play Brian after the two worked together on The Skulls the year before. And since we’re here …

The Casting Director

Ronna Kress was fucking all over it. Every single casting decision she made was exactly right. Vin Diesel is perfect as Dominic Toretto. Paul Walker is perfect as Brian O’Conner. Michelle Rodriguez is perfect as Letty Ortiz. On and on like that, all the way down the cast list. It was an incredible performance by the casting director. She was on some Klay Thompson’s 37-Point Quarter shit.

The Faces That Brian and Dominic Make at Each Other When Brian Calls for a Life Flight Service to Save Vince, Revealing to Dominic That He’s an Undercover Cop

They’re perfect. Paul Walker as Brian and Vin Diesel as Dominic give legitimately great, strong, compelling performances. It’s the role each of them will be remembered forever for. It’s why you’ve gotten to the end of this list and found yourself saying something like, “Wait. How’s he not gonna mention the I Live My Life A Quarter Mile At A Time scene, or the part before the first race where Brian says ‘You’re gonna win. I’m gonna win’ to psych himself up, or that final interaction when Brian gives Dom the 10-second car?!?!?!” They’re wonderful. As is this movie. As are all of the parts that I didn’t mention, and all of the parts that I didn’t even think about while I was writing this. But I’ll get to them eventually. I’ll arrive there on subsequent rewatches. Because that’s how excellence works.