Once upon a time in New Jersey, I went on a date with a friend of Paul Walker, the actor who had costarred in the previous summer’s car soap opera fantasia The Fast and the Furious. Brett (not his real name) was surprised I hadn’t seen the movie, which he claimed “totally sucked.” It would be nearly two decades before I found out how wrong he was.
My first viewing of The Fast and the Furious is where we’re headed in this essay, and we’ll get there, I promise. But first, we need to take some detours. Buckle up or strap in or do whatever you need to ride out any urge to hit that ejector seat, family. We won’t stop at every scenic overlook and fetid cesspool along the way. But I want to provide some context for where I was when the fast car series commenced its loving grip on the collective American psyche, and why my individual psyche was otherwise engaged.
I like going to the movies, but I was otherwise occupied for most of 2001. Specifically, I spent a lot of that year wanting to kill myself and/or being afraid to leave my apartment. It wasn’t exactly a hobby, but it kept me busy enough.
My suicidal ideation was unconnected to the summer debut of The Fast and the Furious, though some film critics seemed to feel a certain desire for the sweet relief of death after sitting through it. As for my agoraphobia, well, even on my best days in 2001, I would not have been inclined to pay to see a feature-length meditation on vehicular transport. Some days I had panic attacks just stepping outside my apartment building.
The movie was a hit, but so were other summer movies, and I didn’t pay any attention. June passed, and my anxiety and depression worsened, and then August, and things got worse still, and then came September 2001.
For some families in Boston, where I lived, and in New Jersey, where I grew up, nothing would ever be the same. This would be true, too, for the people abroad whose lives were destroyed by the so-called War on Terror, that multitentacled beast funded for the next twenty years by the American people and our elected officials.
When I moved to Los Angeles a decade later, I would see the big downtown tent city clogged with unhoused people, some of whom fought in Iraq and Afghanistan and came home to suffer in new ways. The tent cities have multiplied, and I do not live in Los Angeles anymore.
Our troops are still in Afghanistan, today, although the new president says he will take them away soon. In 2001, who would’ve predicted we’d still have a presence there? Anyone with even a passing familiarity with American history, I assume.
I think I remember a few people dressing as characters from The Fast and the Furious at a Halloween party in October 2001. I knew these twins who dressed as the Twin Towers. We didn’t have as much Internet back then as we do now, which probably saved their lives, or at least their scholarships.
By December of 2001, a lot of people I knew were depressed, or scared to go out, or drinking too hard, or using drugs they wouldn’t have chosen before. I was hardly leaving my bedroom. I needed help, and thank God I had parents who took me in when I dropped out of school. I moved from Boston back to New Jersey. I kept my head covered for parts of that drive, riding shotgun next to my mom. The broken painted lines and blinking tail lights and smell of exhaust made me sick. I was already very sick.
That winter, outpatient cognitive behavioral therapy started to work almost as soon as the Prozac did. When mentally ill people get the right treatment, our recovery can be a marvel to behold.
I learned how to drive again. I don’t mean that I had forgotten how to operate a car. I mean that I had to learn how to ride in a car, and then drive in a car, without having a panic attack. Trains would come later, and then planes, and eventually, I’d be a happy world traveler.
But first, cars. Soon enough, a job.
That’s where I met Brett. I worked at the gym and he went to the gym. He was hot. He asked me out and I said yes. A date. By now it was the spring of 2002, and I had a car of my own. That meant I was officially normal again. I was 21 and I had a Honda Accord and a boy liked me. It didn’t matter if I won by an inch or a mile — winning’s winning, and I was a winner.
I think we went to dinner, and then we went to his place. He said he wanted to show me a short film he’d produced. He didn’t seem like the artistic type, but I figured I was just projecting some stereotype about guys with abs and big arm muscles. Surely synthetic creatine and authentic creativity could coexist in one human.
The short film was really very good, and I was impressed. Then he wanted to tell me how he got into his fancy college film program, and the secret was this: he’d submitted another director’s short film as his own.
“It wasn’t like my friend was going to that school,” he said. “So I sent it with my application, and I just said I wrote it and directed it, and they let me in. Best undergraduate film program in the country. Can you believe that?” He laughed, delighted with himself.
Brett was my first Film Bro, but I would meet more.
Film Bros get to do film stuff with film people because they like movies and they have money. They can buy all-access passes to festivals. They can fund movies and then claim credit for contributing to the arts. Sometimes they become producers, and they are nightmares. They throw their weight around on indie productions and give notes to members of IATSE and the DGA who would really like to fucking kill them but can’t say anything because a guy like Brett is their paycheck, and sometimes the real workers are still paying off the student loans they took out to go to a program with a fraction of the prestige of the one he lied his way into.
You may surmise by now that Brett was not the most reliable narrator, but I will tell you what he told me, and what I thought of what he told me. I know he sucks, but Brett will ride with us for a little while longer, and then he will disappear, as characters and fellow travelers sometimes do.
During his burgeoning Film Bro career, Brett had met and befriended Paul Walker, or so he claimed. They weren’t close, but sometimes they hung out, or at least they did more than once, which I take to mean that Brett covered bottle service or forced his way into group dinners and Paul was polite and didn’t say no.
Brett liked Paul. A lot of people liked Paul. Brett mentioned that Paul had a small daughter, and that he seemed to really like being a dad. He said this like it was a secret, which it surely was not, but guys like Brett present information like this as great revelations to 21-year-old college dropouts.
I said I thought Paul had done a great job in She’s All That, and Brett said yeah, that movie was actually pretty good “for what it was,” and then Brett got to talking about how much he, Brett, hated Vin Diesel. Personally.
“Was he mean to you?” I asked, ready for some hot gossip about people I’d surely never meet.
“No,” Brett scoffed, as if I’d said something silly. “He wasn’t mean to me.”
“So did you guys hang out a lot and he annoyed you or something?” I said.
“No, I just met him once,” Brett said.
“He was just like, there, hanging out with Paul, and everybody was like, obsessed with him,” Brett said.
I waited for a better reason.
“He had this stupid coat.”
I kept listening.
“And he and Paul are like, real friends.”
And there it was. I recognized the expression on Brett’s chiseled face: jealousy.
I understood immediately that Brett was not jealous that people were, like, obsessed with Vin Diesel. After all, people were similarly obsessed with his “friend” Paul, the one with the face of an angel who seemed to really like being a dad to a small daughter.
Brett was jealous that Vin Diesel was better friends with Paul than he was. Brett was jealous that Vin Diesel was hanging out with Paul while he, Brett, wasn’t so much hanging out as hanging on.
I don’t wish to imply that Brett was romantically or sexually attracted to Paul. Brett wanted to be in Paul’s orbit because everybody wanted to be in Paul’s orbit, and whether Paul and Vin Diesel actually loved each other like brothers then or ever, or it was just a PR thing and they were only colleagues, was immaterial. They were in and Brett was out and he did not like it.
There was another thing, too. Paul Walker and Vin Diesel were actors, and Vin Diesel had actually written, directed, scored, produced, and starred in Multi-Facial, a well-received short film that went to Cannes in 1995. Whatever his personality or behavior, Vin Diesel was a real artist. Brett was not.
A Film Bro can buy access but he can’t buy talent. You can steal someone else’s point of view but you can’t make it your own.
I saw Brett again at the gym sometimes, but that was it. There was a time in my life when I hoped a guy who looked like that and carried himself like that would choose me, but adolescence ends for us all. Anyway, he drove too fast and he used a homophobic slur in casual conversation and there were a lot of reasons we never went out again.
There was something strange about Brett, and vulnerable, and troubled in a disturbing way, though I couldn’t have described it then and I can’t put it to you clearly now. Beyond everything else, I got the impression of somebody whose center would not hold, if ever it existed in the first place.
My mind had cracked early, and I was getting help putting it back together again. Brett was wealthy and handsome and prejudiced and ambitious and a lot of other things, but he was not well. My gut said to stay away. His gut, or any other part of him, didn’t seem to motivate him to ask me out again, and I didn’t ask him out either.
I wonder if Brett ever even met Paul Walker.
I am trying not to say something about seeing things clearer in the rearview mirror, but also I want to, because this is an essay about The Fast and the Furious, and I swear we’re not far away from our destination.
Life went on. I stayed alive and, as generally happens when one keeps living, I got older. I finished school. I moved around the country. I wrote things, a lot of things — essays, articles, books, scripts. I dated people and broke up with people. Presidents came and went. So did clothing trends, and television shows, and the idea that olestra was an acceptable substitute for fat.
Vin Diesel got really, really, really famous, but my only knowledge of his oeuvre was 1999’s beautiful The Iron Giant. I used to joke that the Fast and the Furious franchise was clearly just part of the wider Iron Giant universe, a flash-forward involving reincarnation of the robot as a character who steals cars, and this is a theory I have not yet discarded.
I still never watched any of those movies — cars held little interest for me beyond their utilitarian value, and I get motion sick sometimes, even at the movies. Motion sickness has prevented me from enjoying much of the oeuvre of Paul Greengrass, which saddens me. Also, please never ask me to get on a boat for recreational purposes. I do love the song “Motion Sickness” by Phoebe Bridgers, though, but that’s really about something else entirely.
The day Paul Walker died in a crash in Santa Clarita in 2013, fans mourned. I lived nearby in Los Angeles, and I was sad, too. I had friends who were fans of the car movies and they were especially emotional. I don’t know what he was like and I don’t know anything about him, really, but he was a dad and he made movies that affected some people.
It was nothing like what would happen the unimaginable day seven years later when Gianna Bryant, her dad and their friends died in a helicopter crash, when I saw an extraordinary outpouring of grief in Los Angeles unlike anything I’d previously experienced with regard to a public figure, except perhaps Kurt Cobain.
But still, Paul Walker’s death mattered. It mattered to people who knew him, but also to people who never met him, especially to people who loved those movies I still hadn’t seen.
The day the film he never got to finish came out, everybody else went to see it. A lot of men I knew told me they cried.
“The thing about those movies,” I heard over and over again, “Is they’re not actually about the cars. They’re about family.”
“Okay,” I said, not believing them, but still thinking it was really sad that this man had died. I vaguely recalled that date with Brett, and how he said Paul Walker liked being a dad. I didn’t know if Brett was alive or dead. The years get away from you and the people disappear.
I’ll go faster now. We’re getting there. We’re so close.
The next several years brought more of those movies, all of which I ignored. The years brought more life, in which I endeavored to participate. I made some changes, good ones, I think, mostly, and I fucked up some stuff and I made some stuff better, and I kept going.
Early in 2020, I was still living in Los Angeles, still writing, but sober and with fewer social options now that bars and intense parties held less appeal for me. I heard Fast 9 was finally going to come out that spring, and on a whim, I asked my buddy Ben Mekler if he wanted to do a podcast with one episode dedicated to each film. He’s a talented writer and director, but more importantly, he has seen every one of those car movies in theatres, starting when he was 12.
Ben said yes. I was glad because it meant I could catch up on all those years of popular culture and have an excuse to hang out with buddies and make something fun, which is the whole point of making art in collaboration with others, unless the whole point is money. We were pretty sure we weren’t going to make any money off The Vast and the Curious, which is what I wanted to call the podcast.
Then the pandemic hit the United States, and the world really did change, for a great many people, all around the globe. It was an enemy you couldn’t “fight” with security theater at the airport or by drone-bombing family weddings or by deploying soldiers over and over again for years. It was not the time for a podcast about car movies, at least not for us.
It was a time to be scared, and to be worried, and to look out for our neighbors and friends, and to be grateful we had work and shelter. We shelved the idea, and then Ben and his talented photographer and food writer wife, Kirby, became parents to an adorable little girl who I am convinced is an elf, and I started to think about moving home to be closer to my own family.
Important things were happening in the world, big things, things that needed to unfold. People got in the streets and told the truth about their lives, and the lives of those they loved. They stood up for themselves and for their communities. I would like to think that the renewed and expanded national attention on Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate and the other antiracist movements will yield a healthier and happier society for us all, but the white powers that be are deeply invested in staying in power.
The activists, especially the younger people, give me hope. They are angry and they are beautiful. Spiritually and literally, they are the descendants of the activists who came before them and they will birth children who will carry on the work. They come from many life experiences, and together they share a purpose. Many of them were born after 2001. They lit the world up last year. They haven’t stopped. I hope they never do.
In October, I moved back East. I turned 40. I saw my nephew and his pregnant mom for Halloween, and my brother, who allegedly had something important to do with both the nephew and the pregnancy. He loves being a dad. This is not a surprise to me. I have known him his entire life. Some people are just meant to be good dads.
Then we elected the newer president, who was infinitely better than the last guy but still not as good as what we really need, and then somebody I liked died, and then came Christmas, and my new nephew was born on New Year’s Day, then the white supremacists threw a trashfire party at the Capitol, and then somebody I loved died, and then the president-elect became the president, and my dad retired, and my parents got vaccinated, and then my brother, and then my sister-in-law and then me, and my friend and I wrote a show about ghosts, and we tried to get people excited about it but we heard “everybody already has their ghost show” and “nobody is buying stuff about ghosts” so we said okay, we’ll write something else I guess, and we will.
I’m not complaining, I am grateful for all of this, I am so fucking lucky, and I miss my friends who are dead and my friends who are alive. I miss my friends. I fucking miss my friends.
It has been such a long year, such a brutal motherfucker of a shitsucking storm of emotions, and it’s been so much worse for so many others. More of us are getting vaccinated, and many of us continue to wear masks in public and practice social distancing. This pandemic will be over, eventually. It’ll take awhile.
But in the meantime, how do we let some pressure off without risking our lives or those of others? How do we connect when we’re still correctly afraid to get together in person? How do we feel a part of something bigger than all of us that isn’t a merciless disease, something that’s joyful and silly and fun and stupid and smart and goofily, merrily, unabashedly beautiful?
I think I know one way.
Last week I saw the trailer for Fast 9, which is now set to premiere in June 2021. Instantly, I wanted to see the movie. Would I understand Fast 9 if I hadn’t seen what came before? Almost certainly. But, as you can see from the previous 3000 words (thank you for sticking with me, baby, I love you), I’m a fan of context.
“I think it’s time,” I said aloud to no one.
“Yes,” no one responded. “Yes it is.”
I work a program of recovery that encourages me to live life one day at a time. Sometimes, in traffic in LA or in NYC, a quarter mile can take a whole fucking day. I have learned patience. I have come to believe that in time, no matter our choices, no matter the pain or disappointment or loss or joy or victory or ennui or the anything of it all, we arrive exactly where we’re meant to be, exactly when we’re meant to be there.
And this is how one night in New Jersey, nearly twenty years after its initial theatrical release, I rented 2001’s The Fast and the Furious on YouTube, and I settled into my couch to watch it for the very first time.
Reader, I loved it.
I really fucking loved it.
This movie was allegedly directed by Rob Cohen, but I’m pretty sure that’s a lie. I don’t believe any human being wrote, directed, cast, lit, edited or otherwise actually worked on The Fast and the Furious. I think it emerged, fully formed, like Athena cracking through the skull of her dad Zeus with a sword, as daughters sometimes do to fathers.
Catholics believe the Virgin Mary ascended to Heaven as a complete being, body and soul, which is why they celebrate the Feast of the Assumption. I am a devout ex-Catholic but I know magic is real and I believe The Fast and the Furious did a reverse Virgin Mary. It just showed the fuck up in theaters, raring to go, and away we went with it.
If you’ve made it this far, you probably know this, but the first film follows the adventures of Brian and Dom, two guys who love cars but not each other, until they do, and then they don’t, but they do. Brian is played by Brett’s old imaginary BFF Paul Walker (RIP), and Dom is played by Brett’s old imaginary nemesis, Vincenzo Dieseli, America’s finest Sicilian American thespian.
I am a fan of the acting of Vin Diesel, whose original name was Mark Sinclair and who is not, in fact, Sicilian, although I believe he is ours in the way that people of all ethnic backgrounds always want to claim anyone spectacular who vaguely looks like he could be their cousin.
In the first film, he inhabits the role of Dominic Toretto with what I can best describe as perfection. Also, he was a theatre kid in New York, and he’s got vastly more range than people give him credit for, and he and Walker exhibit the kind of spectacular chemistry that I vaguely remember from the Sinatra and Martin pairings my elders used to make me watch.
There’s a scene where Dom reveals to Brian his origin story, recounting his foundational father wound (it obviously involves cars) and if I thought somebody had actually scored the film I would be mad at the choices they made to put cheesy music under it, because it undercuts the power of Dom’s monologue, which Vincent Anthony Christopher D’iesellino delivers with vulnerability. But as we know, this is a film that invented itself, and we cannot critique it as we would something manufactured by mere mortals.
I know you may not love Vin Diesel, or Michelle Rodriguez, or Paul Walker, or any of the actors who eventually show up later in the series. In the process of talking about this piece, and the nine essays that will follow (honey, I’m not neglecting Hobbs & Shaw, and yes I’ll watch the two shorts, and no I will not watch the cartoon series), a lot of people have sent me a lot of opinions about a lot of people in the cast. None of these informants has violated an NDA, but all of them claim they have a friend who worked on this or that film who violated their NDA to tell them hot gossip.
The stories conflict, except when they match, and they fold in on themselves and create a separate mythology all their own. All of it is unverified, and I shall repeat none of it, because 99% of it is likely bullshit, and it is irrelevant to my purpose here.
But some things are in the public record, and I will admit I don’t quite know how to address those things, or if I should. I tried to avoid knowing anything real about these people, but as I proceed in this ten-part essay series, which is my version of Wagner’s Ring cycle, some tough topics may come up.
Anyway, who knows what twists and turns this journey may take? Not I. After all, I am a person who was pleasantly surprised to see Tyrese appear onscreen in 2 Fast 2 Furious (but that’s for the next essay).
To jump even farther ahead of myself, I feel perfectly comfortable telling you something you already know, which is that everybody loves The Rock and Jason Statham, and that seemingly everybody who has worked with The Rock in any capacity wants to tell me about how fantastic he is, and that a lot of people were adamant that I should be sure to not skip Hobbs & Shaw, because I will love it. I know that I will love it, because my mother loves it, and has such fondness for it that I took to calling it “The Porn” after she saw it in theaters for the second or eighth time or something.
Also, my parents once stayed at a hotel in Pasadena when I was on deadline for a feature film script, and I was too stressed to see them very much, and they were sad and I felt bad, until they wandered down to breakfast one day and discovered that their favorite TV show, HBO’s Ballers, was filming its season finale in their hotel, and the way they found out was that my mother and father came upon Dwayne Johnson as they navigated the labyrinth of non-restricted areas, which is to say, they saw the face of Heaven en route to the buffet.
I thank God and all Her saints that they did not attempt to bother the man at work, although I’m sure he would’ve been lovely and gracious, but I can tell you he saved the day and indeed their entire trip for me, which feels very on brand for him.
Back to The Fast and the Furious.
There is no need to recount the entire plot here, but the film begins with a scene that looked like a neon-filtered live action version of the junkyard sequence in 1987’s The Brave Little Toaster, except that it’s in a place where things are loaded onto trucks instead of being brutally crushed, and also the electronic household objects do not have personalities and souls. This isn’t a junkyard, it’s a garage! Sort of! With trucks! And outside!
The truck that matters is the one full of Panasonic TV/DVD players, which are destined to be stolen by Dom and his family of choice, because this is 2001 and everybody wants a TV/DVD player, including handsome Italian delicatessen owners in Echo Park, Los Angeles, California who also happen to be car enthusiasts who also happen to be thieves with early father trauma.
If there was an actual human casting department for this sacred film, I assume they said, “Let’s pick the six biggest ethnic demographics in Los Angeles and find their emissaries with the best bone structure and make sure they can act onscreen and also there are cars and now here is a movie.”
I was emotionally unprepared for the extremely obvious twist that Paul Walker’s character is an undercover cop, a revelation I received like I was a kid watching an M. Night Shyamalan motion picture for the very first time. My notes say, “PAUL WALKER IS A FUCKING COP?” and “Vin Diesel said ACAB!!!!” But this movie could just as well have been titled Point Brake, and that’s what I’ll call it forever.
Look, the whole thing is a treat. I have nothing bad to say about it or anyone involved, except that I think whoever supervised ADR on it went to the same school of bad choices as the person who put the music under Dom’s dead dad monologue. Just kidding, nobody did ADR or anything else on this gem that was borne of a clamshell in the sea, like Aphrodite. This film is a goddess, and I am merely its supplicant.
When I was done with this movie, I was amped. I was pumped up. I was stoked. I was ready for the sequel. I was ready to see my new best friends again, especially Dom. I couldn’t wait to see Dom again, on the lam in Mexico perhaps, or back in the US of A to fight and then reunite with Brian, his twin flame, his dual star, his great love.
But in film, as in life, we do not always get what we want.
Still, some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers, and the sequel would provide new joys and discoveries all its own. Having watched it, I am also fairly certain 2 Fast 2 Furious is a prequel to Ratatouille.
I’ll save that for the next essay. For now I will say this: everybody who said this movie sucked was a liar, including Brett, and I’m glad I waited twenty goddamn years to enter this magical world because this year, of all fucking years, is the year I need it.
I can’t wait to watch the rest of them. Because I know that when I watch each one, for those 7200 seconds or less, I’m free.