Vroom or bust: is Fast & Furious the ultimate franchise of our times?

A focus on family, diversity and big dumb stunts has turned this slow-starting caper into a 10-film, two decade-spanning speed racer

Vroom or bust: is Fast & Furious the ultimate franchise of our times?

One can only imagine how story meetings for Fast & Furious movies go. Probably something like this:

“OK. We’ve done cars flying off roads, cliffs, trucks, into and out of trains, planes, boats, helicopters, skyscrapers, submarines. What can we do this time?”

[Long silence]

“I’ve got it: magnets!”

“Magnets?”

“Yeah. They have some huge-ass magnet car that pulls other cars through the air and through buildings and stuff.”

“And then you turn it the other way and it flings them back out again!”

“Physics doesn’t work like that.”

“It makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.”

“It’s perfect.”

Like a 1969 Yenko Camaro soaring off a Florida quay on to the luxury yacht of an Argentinian drug baron, the Fast & Furious franchise can be seen as one prolonged exercise in defying gravity. Its ascent has been difficult to believe but impossible to deny. It is the seventh most lucrative franchise in movie history. Now, with cinemas reopening at last, the long-delayed Fast & Furious 9 seems to be the movie people are most excited about seeing on the big screen. What began 20 years ago as a humble street-racing thriller has morphed into arguably the action-movie franchise of our times (we’ll argue about that later). How did this happen?

No one would hold up a Fast & Furious movie as high art – even if the latest instalment is showing at the Cannes film festival. The dialogue is laughably clunky, the acting is often functional at best, the plot developments are soap opera-level (“She’s not really dead!”, “He’s not really dead, either!”). And somehow, the more shark-jumpingly ridiculous the action sequences get, the more fans seem to lap it all up. Ridiculous action is now the point of Fast & Furious movies. Where rivals such as James Bond or Mission: Impossible pretend they’re addressing deadly serious geopolitical conflicts, Fast & Furious has Dwayne Johnson redirecting a torpedo with his bare hands.

One of the most lovable aspects of the franchise’s ascent is how haphazard it has been. Like the street-racing cars it was built round, the whole thing has the feeling of a standard-issue vehicle that has been souped up beyond all reason. Even the first film, 2001’s The Fast and the Furious, was assembled from parts: the title borrowed from an old Roger Corman B-movie; the subject matter gleaned from a 1998 Vibe magazine article; the plot borrowed from Point Break, and applied to a gang who use high-performance cars to steal … DVD players. They were purely thinking of making a fast buck, but made lots of bucks: $207m (£146m) on a budget of $38m (£27m). Enough to prompt a sequel.

Except 2 Fast 2 Furious did not even feature the supposed star of the show, Vin Diesel: an actor so born to do this, he even changed his name to sound more like a car. Instead, Diesel’s former co-star, Paul Walker, was teamed with a new partner, Tyrese Gibson. Then part three, Tokyo Drift, featured neither Diesel nor Walker, aside from a Diesel cameo tacked on at the end. Tokyo Drift’s story had no real connection to parts one and two, either. Instead, it introduced a whole set of new characters, including the charismatic, snack-munching Han, played by the Korean actor Sung Kang. Han had first appeared in director Justin Lin’s 2001 movie Better Luck Tomorrow – which had nothing to do with the Fast franchise at all.

It was only at part four, Fast & Furious, that the franchise really hit its current stride. Diesel’s plans to move on to bigger and better things, such as his xXx and Riddick franchises, had backfired, so he returned as Fast’s star and producer, with a high degree of creative control. Walker and the original crew also returned, now joined by Kang, and the story picked up where part one left off. (In the saga’s muddled timeline, Tokyo Drift now fits in between parts five and six.) If you were plotting a movie franchise to take over the world, you would never do it like this, but the messiness turned out to be an asset. As critic Scott Mendelson observed: “The ‘failure’ to make a proper sequel for the first eight years created the kind of expanded universe that Hollywood now craves.” Inadvertently, Fast & Furious had an Avengers Assemble feel of a gang whose backstories we all now knew finally coming together.

Go-faster gripes ... John Cena and Charlize Theron square up in Fast & Furious 9.

The box-office numbers grew successively. As did the stakes of the plots (they have come a long way since DVD players), the outlandishness of the action, and the star names among the cast: Gal Gadot, Dwayne Johnson, Luke Evans, Jason Statham, Kurt Russell, Charlize Theron, even Helen bloody Mirren. And now, in F9, comes John Cena.

Once they get on the Fast ride, they don’t tend to get off again unless they’re bumped off, and even that’s no guarantee. The exceptions were Johnson, who famously butted bald heads with Diesel during the making of Furious 8 (and isn’t in F9 as a result) but didn’t go far – over to the spin-off Hobbs & Shaw, where he butted bald heads with Statham instead. And, of course, Paul Walker, whose tragic death in a car accident in 2013 was skilfully folded into the plot of Furious 7, making the movie both an emotional farewell and a box-office smash (more than $1.5bn worldwide). Furious 7’s sentimental, ubiquitous theme song, Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth’s See You Again (which has more than 5bn YouTube views), only accelerated the phenomenon.

This brings us to the one aspect of the Fast saga that everyone knows: “family”. Again, it was never really part of the plan. According to Michelle Rodriguez, the family line in the first instalment was “something that came out of Vin’s mouth when he didn’t like the line that was there”. Now, “family” is hammered home in every film, usually by Diesel raising a Corona bottle to his crew at a well-earned, post-saving–the-world barbecue. Fast & Furious’s family theme is more than superficial; it is what holds it together. In every movie, the macro political stakes are secondary to the emotional ties. Yes, they’re saving the world, but really the Fast crew are risking their lives for each other. This is why Charlize Theron’s Cipher was such a nasty villain in the last instalment, The Fate of the Furious. She is trying to detonate a nuclear weapon, which is bad, but she’s also scornfully anti-family, which is unforgivable. “This idea of family that is so core with you, that rules your world, it’s a biological lie,” she hisses at Diesel’s Dom. “You don’t have to accept it. I don’t.” Boo!

Cipher is wrong on the “biological” front, anyway. Before the long-lost brothers began turning up, the Fasts’ idea of it was not strictly a blood-relative thing. There was Dom and Rodriguez’s Letty, and Dom’s sister Mia (Jordana Brewster) and her partner Brian (Walker), but the Fast extended family also includes crew members such as Gibson, Ludacris, Nathalie Emmanuel and Sung Kang. Not only are they unrelated, they’re multi-ethnic.

Boy racers ... Dwayne Johnson, Vin Diesel and Paul Walker in Fast & Furious 6.

If there’s a key to Fast & Furious’s success, it is surely this. In an era when movies have to appeal to all quadrants of the globe, the franchise has been ahead of the pack. White, black, Latinx, Asian, Pacific Islander and mixed combinations thereof (Diesel describes his own ethnicity as “ambiguous”) – everybody’s part of the team. The series has regularly taken in rappers (Ja Rule, Lil Bow Wow), included significant international actors, given women plenty of agency (if not as much as the guys), and visited other countries from Cuba to Japan, Brazil to Azerbaijan. Every audience sees a bit of themselves represented, and everyone can get behind the concept of “family”, right?

This is what makes Fast & Furious a truly 21st-century movie franchise. When you think about it, it’s just about the only one. Marvel, DC, Bond, Star Wars, Mission: Impossible – all of these are relics of the 20th century. The only other recent addition is Harry Potter, which often feels as if it’s set in the 18th century. Where these old-school franchises have had to overhaul their backstories to get some diversity in, Fast & Furious had it built in from the start.

It is no surprise, then, that Fast & Furious movies do gangbusters overseas. The last two instalments made less than a quarter of their box office in US cinemas (compared to more than 30% for most Hollywood blockbusters). In fact, Furious 7 and 8 both made more money in China than they did in the US. At the time, they were the highest-grossing Hollywood movies ever released in China (they’ve since been overtaken by Avengers Endgame).

This could be a double-edged sword. Last month, just as Furious 9 was opening in China, Cena made a surprise apology in Mandarin (he is a fluent speaker) on Chinese social media for describing Taiwan as the first “country” that would see F9 – a big no-no since the Chinese state considers Taiwan a part of China. “I love and respect China and Chinese people. I’m very, very sorry about my mistake. I apologise, I apologise, I’m very sorry,” Cena grovelled. It was a reminder of how studiously apolitical Fast & Furious movies really are, with their transnational rogue villains and their avoidance of anything approaching real-world affairs.

Crew’s control ... the OG gang from 2001’s The Fast and the Furious..

It may not have been enough. As the industry analyst David Gross, of FranchiseRe, points out, F9 opened well in China, taking $136m in its first weekend, but takings plummeted 85% in week two, and a further 57% the week after. The Taiwan gaffe was probably a factor, though he suggests it could also have more to do with homegrown Chinese competition, not to mention unenthusiastic reviews, some of which, sacrilegiously, have questioned F9’s plausibility. Maybe the giant magnets were a step too far after all.

It could be that the Fast & Furious saga is coming back down to earth at last. Since the peak of Furious 7, each film has performed worse than its predecessor. Gross predicts that F9 will do very well to get to Hobbs & Shaw levels ($759m worldwide), especially given Covid restrictions on cinemas. But that’s just the numbers, and when have Fast & Furious movies ever cared about those? As Dom Toretto once said: “It doesn’t matter what’s under the hood; the only thing that matters is who’s behind the wheel.”

Rumour has it the saga will end with a two-part 10th instalment, with the core gang all still on board. Will it be a triumphant send-off or a crash landing? Maybe that depends on our appetite for more Fast family values. Or how good a look extreme fossil-fuel consumption will continue to be the deeper we get into the climate crisis. Or, ultimately, whether they can find new frontiers of improbable car-related spectacle to break. Let’s start the guessing game: underwater cars? Souped-up mobility scooters? Vin Diesel dies but is then reincarnated as a car? If we have learned anything, it’s that nothing is off limits.

Fast & Furious 9 is in UK cinemas from 25 June

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