Long-running film franchises don’t become long-running through constancy. Well, on a superficial level they do – a James Bond movie is always going to star James Bond – but a series that runs past its sixth, seventh, eighth entry tends to become characterized more by change than by whatever initially defined it. Bond actors change out regularly, and the action of, say, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is far removed from that of Spectre. The Fast/Furious franchise (which I have to call it, to avoid confusion with either its first or fourth entries) is seven films deep, with an eighth on the way next year, and a cursory glance seems to disprove this thesis. After all, it has always followed the same group of characters, led by Vin Diesel’s Dom Toretto and the late Paul Walker’s Brian O’Conner, and they have always driven cars for criminal or vigilante purposes. Before revisiting The Fast and the Furious, the series’ first entry, for its fifteenth anniversary, I assumed that I’d find, in essence, an exponentially smaller-scale version of last year’s Furious 7.

The Fast and the Furious

Universal Pictures

Fifteen years is a longer time than I imagined. The Fast and the Furious is not now the same film that it was in 2001. As unfortunately dated as much of this film seems (the object of a heist is a shipment of DVD players) it has an inextricable link to the present by virtue of its sequels. We’ve watched these characters grow on-screen for fifteen years. This is where Fast/Furious has an edge on the Bond franchise. Bond reboots its universe whenever a particular period’s aesthetics being to pass on. Fast/Furious allows itself to be more amorphous, shifting and reshaping itself with each new entry, always in search of a positive identity. It has since settled comfortably into a bombastic superhero franchise, where driving is the only superpower, but until Fast Five the series had no clear idea of what sort of story it wanted to tell. Each preceding film was a trial run of a different concept. From the late-aughts dark-and-gritty crime drama of Fast and Furious, to the sharp imagery and quick cuts of Tokyo Drift, to the Michael Bay maximalism of 2 Fast 2 Furious.

Where does that leave The Fast and the Furious? It’s the only film in the series which wasn’t concerned with that search for identity. What’s most interesting about watching it in 2016 is seeing all of the things that they didn’t know about Fast/Furious in 2001. The most striking is that this is much less of an action movie than its sequels. For a long stretch in the middle, there’s almost no car action at all. The film steps back for a while and focuses on the character drama. Later films in the series are wall-to-wall action, but they also figured out how to communicate character drama with that action. You could think of it as the difference between a musical and a film with songs in it. The musical uses its songs to move its story along, but the film with songs in it uses songs as interstitials to break up the monotony of its drama. By Tokyo Drift, the series figured out how to use its action sequences as part of the flow of the narrative rather than as incidental to it. The Fast and the Furious doesn’t have that down.

Its focus on drama extends to misuse of its cast. I’m going to single out Diesel as the worst example, though I don’t at all mean to impugn his talents. I like Diesel quite a bit, more so when he’s given roles that play to his strengths. Diesel is what Tony Soprano called “the strong, silent type.” His imposing physicality and short, simple speech connotes a patriarchal protectiveness, while his voice – less gravelly than gravel-infused – defies the stereotype with its warmth and melancholy tinge. That voice is iconic in and of itself, and in many ways it defines Diesel’s star persona. His voice is so deep that it changes the way he must express himself. In scenes of heated emotion, you can hear him fighting the limits of his vocal range. Dom Toretto is a man who cares very deeply about the people he loves, but he’s trapped within a societal ideal which does not traditionally allow for emotional expression. He has to communicate his feelings more through physicality, or indeed by the way he drives a car.

The Fast and the Furious

Universal Pictures

Simply put, Diesel is a unique and compelling screen presence, and The Fast and the Furious fails him. Dom probably has more lines in this film than in all of the sequels combined, many of them in the form of extended monologues. He talks and talks and talks, and he just doesn’t need to do so. Diesel is capable of communicating more with a handshake and a pointed stare than with a three-minute speech. By the time of his character’s proper re-introduction in Fast and Furious, he had become enough of a known quantity for this to no longer be a concern. The Fast and the Furious doesn’t have a grasp on what makes Diesel special. The fact that he disappears from the series until the fourth film (aside from a cameo at the end of Tokyo Drift) is reason enough to believe that the franchise’s producers knew their mistake. 2 Fast 2 Furious followed Paul Walker’s character instead. “Perhaps Brian will be the franchise’s central element,” they must have thought. Dom was always the beating heart of Fast/Furious. You just can’t hear that heartbeat over all the dialogue in the first film.

That’s emblematic of The Fast and the Furious as a whole, actually. It isn’t a soulless film, it just doesn’t quite know where its soul is. The weepy conclusion of Furious 7 is proof enough that the series got there eventually, but you’ll find little evidence of that in The Fast and the Furious. Despite launching the series, there are no traces of this film’s spirit remaining in it today. It was more instructive as a lesson in what these films shouldn’t do. That makes The Fast and the Furious, if not a good film, at least a singular one among series-launchers.

Featured Image: Universal Pictures