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'Fast & Furious' Owner's Manual: A Guide As The Best Worst Franchise Turns 20

Vin Diesel and Paul Walker in <em>The Fast And The Furious</em>, 2001.
Getty Images
Vin Diesel and Paul Walker in The Fast And The Furious, 2001.

The word "stupid" haunts discussions of The Fast & The Furious, which is altogether reasonable. Its submarine-versus-car battle, its wooden dialogue about family, its abandonment of truths from tech capabilities to gravity ... sure.

But to miss the series' resilience, its invention, its adaptability, and the way it has been stripped of its original identity is to miss the story of Hollywood in the 21st century. Love it or hate it, The Fast & The Furious might be the smartest, dumbest, best, worst franchise we have.

Chapter One: Critics Don't Hate Action Movies

It was the summer of 2001. One of the new releases on a late June weekend was The Fast & The Furious, a summer car-racing movie starring Paul Walker, who was then probably most familiar to audiences as a menacing rich jerkface in the rich-jerkface thriller The Skulls. It also featured Vin Diesel, who had recently been seen as a supporting player in the rich-jerkface thriller Boiler Room. "When the sun goes down, another world comes to life," said the trailer, which promised to reveal a world of car-racing and sex.

As briefly as possible: Brian (Walker) is an undercover L.A. cop who's infiltrated the gang of street racers and electronics thieves headed by Dominic Toretto (Diesel) and his girlfriend Letty (Michelle Rodriguez). But in a development very reminiscent of Point Break, Brian falls in with this group. By the end, his loyalty is with Dom, and he's in love with Dom's sister Mia (Jordana Brewster).

There's a myth of F&F movies as critic-proof works that film journalists hated and fans flocked to. In fact, The Fast & The Furious got mixed reviews. Todd McCarthy of Variety noted that it shared a title with a 1954 Roger Corman picture and called it "a gritty and gratifying cheap thrill." What's even more eye-catching is McCarthy's vision of its future:

Rob Cohen's high-octane hot-car meller is a true rarity these days, a really good exploitationer, the sort of thing that would rule at drive-ins if they still existed. As it is, young viewers and working class audiences should still pack in for this smartly made programmer-style Universal release, which promises to show renewed acceleration down the line as a home entertainment attraction. [Note: A "meller" is a melodrama. Variety slang is eternally out of hand.]

McCarthy predicts success, though only with some viewers — those who are young and "working class."

Here's Roger Ebert, probably the most popular critic in the country at the time:

The Fast and the Furious remembers summer movies from the days when they were produced by American-International and played in drive-ins on double features. It's slicker than films like Grand Theft Auto, but it has the same kind of pirate spirit--it wants to raid its betters and carry off the loot. It doesn't have a brain in its head, but it has some great chase scenes, and includes the most incompetent cop who ever went undercover.

A pirate spirit! The movie is nearly an outlaw itself! And: again with the drive-in!

If F&F later became an object of resentment, it wasn't because critics didn't understand the appeal of a fun race-car movie. It was that some of them started to worry when a movie like this, when movies like this, started to seem capable of blocking out the sun.

Chapter Two: If You Crash, Keep Going

Money attracts follow-ups like a ripe banana draws fruit flies, so naturally, there was a sequel. But while Walker was on board for it, Diesel was not. Thus, 2 Fast 2 Furious brought Brian to Miami, where his new partner was his old friend Roman (Tyrese Gibson). This was also where Chris "Ludacris" Bridges arrived as Tej. 2 Fast 2 Furious was directed by Oscar nominee John Singleton.

Three crucial things came from 2 Fast. One is Gibson and Bridges, who have become the key players in the action-comedy that's now a signature. The second comes when Brian jumps a car onto a yacht while Roman screams that he's crazy. If you're looking for the moment when F&F discovers the power not only of car racing, but also of absurd things to do with cars besides racing, you might find it there.

The third has to do with money — doesn't everything? The world grosses for 2 Fast 2 Furious were up from the first movie, even though domestic grosses were down. The Fast & The Furious made about 30% of its money overseas; the second made more than 46% there.

If it was a bold move to make 2 Fast without Vin Diesel, they went even bolder with the third one in 2006. The Fast & The Furious: Tokyo Drift scrapped the original cast entirely. It scrapped the locations, it scrapped the stories, it scrapped everything and started from scratch. Setting it in Tokyo (later installments would visit Brazil, Cuba and Abu Dhabi) suggested greater outreach to the international market that was already buoying other action franchises — Mission: Impossible III, which came out the same year, earned more than 66% of its money overseas.

The franchise was adapting without fear, perhaps hoping to become both critic-proof and star-proof. But the money didn't quite come for that one. The box office flagged.

Still, there were bright spots. The best thing to come out of Tokyo Drift behind the scenes was director Justin Lin, who would go on to build the series as we now know it. The best thing on-screen was Han, played with effortless magnetism by Sung Kang.

There was one small problem: Han died. Fortunately, that wasn't anything they couldn't fix.

Chapter Three: Gather An Inclusive Team

With the third film flagging, Universal could have just let this franchise go. But they went the other way: They went big. Dom came back, Brian came back, Mia and Letty came back — and so did Justin Lin. The franchise also added an actress who was making her feature film debut: a model named Gal Gadot.

Gal Gadot arrives at the world premiere of <em>Fast & Furious 6 </em>in central London on May 7, 2013.
Leon Neal / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
Gal Gadot arrives at the world premiere of Fast & Furious 6 in central London on May 7, 2013.

Han also came back. The creative team slid Tokyo Drift forward in the timeline, making it a kind of flash-forward, so that his death hadn't happened yet by the time Fast & Furious took place. Ultimately, Tokyo Drift didn't happen in the Dom timeline until the seam between Fast & Furious 6 and Furious 7, so Han got to spend three whole movies with the gang.

That timeline shift is so crafty. It takes a potential weakness, the fact that Tokyo Drift has nothing whatsoever to do with the characters we're now returning to, and turns it into a strength. Because none of our heroes were in the film (other than a Dom cameo that, story-wise, just communicated "Dom still exists"), you could put it anywhere.

This is also a good time to mention — though perhaps it's obvious — the diverse cast present in this series of films from early on. Dom himself doesn't talk very specifically about his background, and Charlize Theron's character, Cipher, references the Toretto family's "mixed bloodlines" in the new movie. (Imagine that "yikes" emoji with the gritted teeth.) But while Dom's first crew was pretty white, actors of color have become indispensable to this series, including the charming Nathalie Emmanuel, who joined the team in Furious 7 as Ramsey the computer genius.

Chapter Four: You Cannot, Under Any Circumstances, Fall Behind

If you were watching this happen in the late aughts, this was about where the thing started to feel like it was on rails. The total box office blew up: $360 million for the fourth movie in 2009, $626 million for the fifth in 2011, $789 million for the sixth in 2013, an eye-popping $1.5 billion for the seventh in 2015, and $1.2 billion for the eighth in 2017 — down a little, but still darn respectable. The directors changed: Lin stayed until Fast & Furious 6, then he turned it over to James Wan (Saw) for 7 and F. Gary Gray (Straight Outta Compton, but more importantly Set It Off and The Italian Job) for 8.

But looking back on it, you can see what was on F&F's heels, too. Most obviously Mission: Impossible, which wasn't putting out as many movies as quickly, but which had both big box office and, often, critical respect and a similar lust for invention when it came to stunts and set pieces. The Marvel Cinematic Universe was tightening its grip — and hiring directors that came from interesting places like indie films. Batman was back. Star Wars was back. Jurassic Park was back. Star Trek was back. The Fast & The Furious was bound to get bigger, partly because everything else got bigger, too. And louder, and wilder, and in a lot of cases, more apocalyptic.

Maybe the high point for the series in terms of simple pleasure was all the way back when Roger Ebert and Variety saw it as a scruffy exploitation film. But there have been times in later films, around 5-6-7, when the directors and screenwriter Chris Morgan (who tackled the scripts from Tokyo Drift to Fate of the Furious) nailed the sweet spot of goofy spectacle. Cars jumped between buildings, they drove into and out of airplanes, and they parachuted down onto mountains.

Cast turnover was still frequent. Eventually, the timeline where he really was dead caught up with Han. (Well ... sort of. See F9.) Gadot's Gisele exited in time for her to go and do Wonder Woman. Letty was allegedly dead for a while, too, but that turned out to be the movie-death equivalent of a 24-hour-bug. New stars streamed in — The Rock, Gina Carano, Jason Statham — which boosted interest over and over again. The thing seemed unstoppable.

Then, Paul Walker died.

Chapter Five: It's Not About One Guy

In 2013, during a break from filming Furious 7, Walker and a racing partner were killed in a single-car crash. He was 40. The movie wasn't finished.

Fans pay tribute to Paul Walker at a memorial in Valencia, Calif., on Dec. 8, 2013.
Valerie Macon / Getty Images
Getty Images
Fans pay tribute to Paul Walker at a memorial in Valencia, Calif., on Dec. 8, 2013.

Much has been written about the methods they used just to finish Furious 7; Walker's brothers even stepped in as doubles to allow shots to be completed. But it's impressive just that they kept going. Walker's young cop who felt the pull of charismatic outlaws originally grounded the whole thing, to the degree it was grounded at all.

No one would ever have intended it, but the fact that F&F had already made so many swerves, to the point where almost nothing was left that had been in every movie since the beginning, probably made the loss of a lead actor — well, certainly no easier to bear, but perhaps easier to write. Even though Han had died and even though Letty had (for a while) died, they did not write in Brian's death. They wrote a happy ending for him, as a retired outlaw, living with Mia and their son. And while fans of the series felt the loss acutely, the shift to a big and diverse group of characters, away from one bond between two men, had left the team more able to continue.

Chapter Six: Changing Winds And The Ship Of Theseus

Franchises are often accused of repeating themselves, but successful ones don't stay in one place. Not only has the F&F cast turned over; the themes have changed, especially regarding these characters' positions relative to power. Originally, everybody in these movies who wasn't a cop was a scrapper, stealing DVD players (DVD players!) out of the backs of trucks. If they had enemies, they were rival street racers, rival thieves. That's partly what made Brian's journey interesting: He came from a place of institutional power (the police) and gradually drifted toward a place of social and cultural power (cool, sexy outlaws).

But that couldn't continue if the stunts were going to keep getting bigger, bigger, bigger. You have to be adjacent to power to have a plane full of cars you can drop into the trees on parachutes. And so Dom's gang has gradually become a subcontractor of federal law enforcement and national security (but the mischievous covert kind!), with all the muscle (no pun intended) that suggests. That not only allows the gang to own cooler stuff; it allows the enemies they're fighting to be more terrifying and the stakes more absurdly high. Being a street racer is how you wind up fighting to keep your car. Getting to know the feds is how you wind up fighting to prevent a nuclear war.

Dom is almost playing out Brian's arc in reverse: He's a criminal who reluctantly aligned himself with law enforcement and has become a part of it, made friends with it, learned to work alongside it. Thus, the sheer scale of the stunts at this point has changed the themes. Now, the people who aren't as bad as you think are the federal agents. But hey, if these were all still down-and-out kids who didn't trust the police, they certainly wouldn't have planes to drive out of.

So much has changed now, it's like the Ship of Theseus. That's the philosophical conundrum where you have a ship, and you replace all the boards one by one, and you wonder if it's even the same ship you started with.

What remains of the original 2001 film The Fast & The Furious? Diesel and Rodriguez, yes, but they've also both been gone at different times. Car racing? Not really. The original screenwriter? No. Director? No. But more importantly, is this even the same kind of movie as the original? Or even as Tokyo Drift?

The story of Hollywood in the 21st century has become a story of economic survival through sheer scale, sometimes at the expense of identity. Middle-range movies die. You can be a little indie movie or you can be a big blockbuster, but if you're going to be a big blockbuster, you have to be a big blockbuster. Not a ... what was it? A "home entertainment attraction."

A helicopter from Universal Studios of Hollywood flies above Havana during the shooting of <em>The Fate of the Furious</em> on April 28, 2016.
Adalberto Roque / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
A helicopter from Universal Studios of Hollywood flies above Havana during the shooting of The Fate of the Furious on April 28, 2016.

The F&F movies are still entertaining, and the people who work on the action sequences are incredibly good at what they do. But scaling up, up, up has led these films into escalation for escalation's sake: If you have an evil system, I have two evil systems. You have a submarine, I have a fleet of submarines. You're fighting over control of the country; I'm fighting over control of the world. You're in the air, I'm in space.

Unfortunately, there comes a time when you run out of runway: What's after the threat of total control over everything in the world? What's bigger than outer space?

This series is going to continue, probably to great financial success, for as long as they want to keep making it. And as stupid as one might think these movies are — as stupid as they may in fact be — they are the story of thriving in the current Hollywood system, and how much ingenuity and flexibility it takes to preserve a series like this for 20 years.

The only thing left, probably, that would really surprise audiences is street racing. But, as you would with the Ship of Theseus, you have to wonder: Is this the thing we started with anymore? Is there anything to go back to? After all, Diesel says in a behind-the-scenes featurette for Fate of the Furious, it's a challenge to figure out reasons why these guys would race cars now. They've moved on. Dom's crew could become cryptocurrency manipulators and work out of a bunker, maybe, but that's not much of a movie.

This series is going to continue, probably to great financial success, for as long as they want to keep making it. And as stupid as one might think these movies are — as stupid as they may in fact be — they are the story of thriving in the current Hollywood system, and how much ingenuity and flexibility it takes to preserve a series like this for 20 years. Shepherding it through the loss of its leading man, a streaming revolution, and several presidents? You don't have to like what you're doing, but you have to know what you're doing.

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Corrected: June 25, 2021 at 12:00 AM EDT
An earlier reference to calendar-year box office did not accurately represent total box office, and has been removed.
Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.