It’s a widely-held notion that of the eight (soon to be nine) Fast and Furious films, John Singleton’s 2003 installment 2 Fast 2 Furious—the first sequel, following up Rob Cohen’s 2001 original—is the worst. Entertainment Weekly did have the temerity to call “2 Fast” a “forgotten gem,” but every noteworthy ranking declares the sequel the “worst”—an argument that is facile, lazy, and ultimately, incorrect.
I’ll consider doling out some forgiveness for those who found the sequel lacking back in ’03, with The Fast and the Furious stars Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez, Jordana Brewster, and even Ja Rule all missing from the diesel-fueled action. But in hindsight, within the grander scheme of the unlikely saga that has unfurled over the past two decades over nine films and one spin-off, “2 Fast” is not only better than you remember, it also introduces some of the most important elements in the franchise. And yes, it is a better film than the first, especially with Singleton behind the wheel.
The Fast and the Furious is an okay movie with a great concept: “Point Break” with muscle cars. Cohen, a serviceable director of schlock, was inspired by a piece of ethnographic journalism by Ken Li that ran in VIBE Magazine in 1998. Screenwriters Gary Scott Thompson, David Ayer, and Erik Bergquist took Li’s exploration of street racing and laid the undercover-cop-goes-native structure on top.
The illicit world of underground street racing the film introduces is intoxicating, even though it’s populated mostly by men in unfortunate hats and mesh tank tops. It works, but mostly due to a solid cast and the intriguing world it builds. But everything about it is sort of “soundalike,” down to the hip-hop/nu-metal soundtrack and Paul Walker’s Keanu Reeves impression. The chemistry between Walker’s naïf undercover cop Brian O’Connor and Diesel’s muscle car Buddha Dominic Torretto is intriguing enough to make you want more, and the film was an undeniable hit: it made $207 million on a $38 million budget.
For the sequel, screenwriters Gary Scott Thompson, Michael Brandt, and Derek Haas transplanted the action to South Florida, giving the muscle car action a Miami Vice sheen. Diesel turned his nose up at the script and declined to return. But John Singleton, an admitted “The Fast and the Furious” superfan, signed on to direct, bringing with him Tyrese Gibson, the R&B singer Singleton made into a movie star with his 2001 film Baby Boy. With Vin out of the picture, Tyrese fills the void as Roman Pearce, Brian’s buddy from their hometown Barstow. (Ja Rule also turned down 2 Fast, demanding more than the half a mill he was offered, making room for his fellow rapper Ludacris to join the cast in what turned out to be a long-running role as Miami street race impresario Tej, and cementing his contribution to the franchise as a now-classic meme and nothing more).
It’s become wildly controversial to suggest that 2 Fast 2 Furious is actually good, let alone better than the first, but indeed, it is the better directed film. Look past Brian and Roman going full Crockett and Tubbs as undercover drug mules for a cocaine cowboy (Cole Hauser), and focus on the energy, verve, and style that Singleton brings to the screen—2 Fast is undeniably fun.
At this point in his career, Singleton already had no less than six great features under his belt (Boyz n the Hood, Poetic Justice, Higher Learning, Rosewood, Shaft, Baby Boy), and it’s clear from the first few minutes that this is a director who not only has a point of view, but a true sense of cinematic artfulness informed by film history. In the hands of such a skilled filmmaker, it’s easy to simply sit back and enjoy the ride.
Singleton and his 2 Fast cinematographer Matthew F. Leonetti (Strange Days, and after this, Zack Snyder’s snappy remake of Dawn of the Dead) utilized wide angle lenses, alternating between high and low camera placements and smooth Steadicam work, while saturating the frame with sunlight, neon, and color to create a hyperrealistic, almost cartoonish look, evoking the classic Miami vibe. The whole thing has the sheen of a late ‘90s/early ‘00s music video, which is exactly how it should look.
Singleton, Leonetti, and editor Bruce Cannon avoided the hallucinatory, effects-heavy race sequences that were Cohen’s signature in the first film. Instead, the filmmakers crafted rapid-fire races with a motif of close-ups on the drivers’ eyes that hearkens back to the three-way standoff scene from The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Classic spaghetti Westerns seem to be a reference for Singleton throughout, especially in Roman’s all-time great introduction at a dusty demolition derby smash-em-up. It connects 2 Fast to the action and adventure films of yore, because what is the Fast franchise if not a souped up Perils of Pauline?
Singleton also gives the film room to breathe, filling the space with personality, local color, and vibes. It’s clear that he’s having fun behind the camera, playing with the life-size Hot Wheels set he’s inherited, and that cheeky playfulness translates to the screen. Even Walker seems to have loosened up and is enjoying himself more this time around.
But the most energetic addition is Gibson, who brings real comedy and heart as Roman. He’s flipping Brian the bird, stripping his shirt off to punch out a window, and chomping on empanadas while declaring, “we hongry.” He’s funny and self-aware, and Singleton knows that this is what this movie needs: a dude to serve as an audience surrogate and react appropriately to the wild stunts. Gibson has since steadily become one of the backbones of the franchise, along with Luda. Their presence is a crucial element of an engine that, after eight films, is running purely on sheer charisma.
Singleton not only proved that a Fast/Furious movie does not have to rev on Vin Diesel alone, he also brought some serious swagger and flow that was missing from the first movie, as well as an elevated cinematic style, paving the way for Justin Lin to pick up where he left off with the fan-favorite Tokyo Drift. Plus, he executed the first inter-vehicular stunt of the franchise, when Brian jumps a muscle car onto a yacht, anticipating the laws of physics the series would come to soon defy.
So here is my plea: 2 Fast 2 Furious is too good to be ranked so low. It’s no Fast Five, but it deserves much, much more respect.