8 months ago
About a year before he set down the road to write the feature that would lead to The Fast and the Furious franchise, then-Daily News reporter Kenneth Li finally got around to getting his driver’s license.
That would begin a heck of a journey (both on-screen and off) into the world of illegal street racing in New York City for his 1998 article for Vibe magazine entitled, “Racer X.” It was the profile ultimately adapted by Universal as an, ahem, vehicle for two up-and-coming stars, Paul Walker and Vin Diesel.
Sixteen years and $4 billion in worldwide box office later, the eighth installment, The Fate of the Furious, is rolling into theaters Friday—and bringing the car chase saga to New York, the place of its inception, for the first time on screen.
“A lot of people don’t know this but the original article that the first movie came from—was inspired by—was about illegal streetcar racing in New York City,” Diesel said. “So there was a kind of poetic justice in finding a way to get [my character] Dom back to the East Coast.”
But back in the mid ’90s, Hollywood seemed more than 2,800 miles away to Li. His father had been urging him to learn how to drive, and bought him an economical Honda Civic to get him started in 1996. That got him started all right, after a chance encounter at a dealership when he was rebuffed in his quest for better tires.
“The manager started yelling at me that I’d void the warranty,” Li told RealClearLife. “Then a few seconds later, the assistant slinks over and looks around and flips me a business card and says go look up my friend. So I end up taking that guy’s advice in the middle of nowhere in Staten Island.”
In an effort to make his “gas sipper” look a little more respectable, the journalist accidentally stumbled on an underground racing scene in which drivers in souped-up Civics dodged cops on New York City streets. And right in the path of Rafael Estevez, a charismatic Dominican racer who would become the basis for Dom in The Fast and the Furious three years later.
Li got to ride shotgun with Estevez on one of those white-knuckle races up the Henry Hudson Parkway, observing his subject speeding away from both cop cars and rivals. But the subject proved too taboo for the Daily News Sunday editor at the time, who worried the story would glorify crime. So instead, Li wrote a first-person piece about racing his Civic around a track for his paper—and sold his grander idea to Vibe.
Racing around the city at roughly the same time was a young Diesel, before breaking big with a memorable turn in the 1998 war film, Saving Private Ryan.
“The irony is, I used to do daredevil stuff when I drove in New York City because I was young and crazy,” Diesel told RCL. “I would race but race backwards down streets where you weren’t supposed to go backwards down. And I flew up and down the West Side Highway.
“So for me, filming car scenes in New York City for this movie was coming full circle.”
A few months after the Vibe article landed, Li’s phone rang. “I got a call from someone in the development department at Universal to see if they could get into contact with the people I wrote about,” recalled Li. “I told my [business] editor, Alan Mirabella, and he had the foresight to tell me not to call back. He said, ‘We’ve got to get you an agent.'”
By the time Li called back, he already had an agent from ICM in place, courtesy of a recommendation from the News‘ star columnist, Michael Daly.
A screenwriter flew down to New York to meet up with Li’s sources and spitball plot points.
“The screenwriter asked, ‘What do you think the story should be?’ I suggested they stick close to my article. Instead they were thinking, Point Break meets West Side Story, which is more or less what they ended up with,” Li said.
So the story took a detour to Los Angeles and into the world of car theft rings.
“Thank God they didn’t take my advice,” said Li.
Though he will see The Fate of the Furious when it comes out, as he has all of the movies in the franchise, Li has only seen the first film—the one with his name in the credits—once.
And that was at The Fast and the Furious Hollywood premiere.
“I had a slight embarrassment, because it was so different from the world I wrote about,” said Li.
“The ironic thing is I tried to write a story about an underground car theft ring and I ended up never getting close enough to it. It’s ironic that the screenwriters ended up stumbling into a story I wanted to write.”
—Ethan Sacks for RealClearLife
Buckle up and see the trailer for the Fate of the Furious below: