Franchise in Retrospect: The Fast and The Furious (2001 - 2015)

For my next entry, I have chosen a franchise which was a box office success early on, but gained interest from its fifth film onwards when critics began to praise its enjoyability. It's status as a box office hit was cemented this year, when it's latest entry became one of the highest grossing films of all time. So buckle up and make more car based puns, for we're looking at The Fast and The Furious franchise.

WARNING: This post contains spoilers for the Fast and the Furious franchise. Do not read on if you wish to remain unspoilt.

It's astounding what small things can lead to the beginnings of massive franchises. It's well known how Pirates of the Caribbean began as a Disney ride, but what's just as surprising is how The Fast and The Furious first came about. Director Rob Cohen was inspired to make this film by initially reading an article in Vibe magazine, about New York Street racing, and even managed to watch an illegal street race in Los Angeles night-time.

Released in June 2001, the first film was clearly a product of the early 2000s. It offered cheap thrills and cheesy moments, which were played with a straight face to an assortment of forgettable tunes. The film was essentially Point Break with racing cars, relying on the chemistry of its two leads to get through the lacking material.

Paul Walker plays Brian O' Conner, an undercover police officer who must find who's hijacking trucks for their expensive electronics. Vin Diesel is Dominic Toretto, the big name who carries quite the reputation, and may be leading the hijacks. Their acting here won't win any awards, especially when relegated to smirking and staring off into the distance. But they rise to the challenge when given the opportunity to portray characters, instead of vessels to drive vehicles and spout stilted dialogue.

One of the notable staples in the franchise is the weak dialogue, which can be noticed from quite early on. While it isn't what people watch these films for, it's difficult to ignore stinkers like "He's got nitrous oxide in his blood and a tank for a brain", or the very deductive "You move like a cop". It's not an aspect which improves, instead being something you expect to keep recurring, like how the cameras linger on scantily clad females (especially their booty).

Due to already filming xXx, Vin Diesel was unable to return for the sequel, as was, to a lesser extent, director Rob Cohen. Paul Walker returned to take the lead, teaming up with Tyrese Gibson to take down a bland villain. What we're left with is a poor sequel, only notable for Ludacris' *ahem* ludicrous wig and an ejector seat moment that's more humorous than you'd expect (Intentional? Can't say).

The third entry, Tokyo Drift, is an oddity. Barring a cameo at the end, it contains no returning characters from the previous two films, instead feeling like a spin-off in the vein of American Pie: Band Camp. Justin Lin made his franchise debut here, and while he cannot stop the film from being vapid, hollow or limp, there's at least some genuine energy injected into the film, particularly into the racing scenes.

Understandably, many franchise would try to gloss over their black sheep of a film, doing their best to make you forget it existed. Instead of doing this exact thing, the next four films would admirably try to make Tokyo Drift feel like a tangible part of the franchise. The only problem with this is how it leads to more questions, such as why Tokyo teens own phones that are 9 years out of date (I'm willing to accept Hipsters as an answer), or why Sean Boswell looks even less convincing as a 17 year old while talking to Dom (A wizard did it?).

It's unbelievable how they managed to do it, but somehow, beyond all belief, they managed to make a sequel with a lazier title than 2 Fast 2 Furious. The fourth entry was named Fast and Furious, and reunited Paul Walker and Vin Diesel, taking the typical "team up despite being on opposite ends of the law" style story. Their motivation was to avenge Letty, Michelle Rodriguez's character who'd been Dom's longtime girlfriend, only to be killed off to service the plot.

After 8 years, a good portion of the cast had been reunited (a decision presumably after Universal saw Tokyo Drift's box office takings). This makes this feels like the first proper sequel, as opposed to the spin-off and straight to DVD fare which inhabited films 2 and 3. It's clear Lin knows what he was making, an escapist bit of fun which throws any remaining realism out of the window, while dealing with a dull plot and an unmemorable antagonist.

With that critically maligned entry, seen as a franchise low by many, it was clear things had to change. The franchise couldn't go over similar ground multiple times over if it was to be a franchise people actually wanted to see more of. Fast Five marked this turning point, as Lin added on the crazy. The best thing he did was approach the ridiculous proceedings with a knowing wink, as opposed to taking things too seriously. Lin had fun with the film, and as a result, audiences who were previously turned off had fun as well.

Part of the reason for this is thanks to Universal. Their intention was to take the franchise away from being car culture movies, and turn them into heist films with car chases, such as The Italian Job and The French Connection. A business decision made to get more people in seats, and it clearly worked, as people enjoyed seeing Dom and Brian drag a vault down the streets of Rio (even if they didn't bat an eyelid at possible civilian casualties).

One particularly enjoyable aspect was how Dom called together a superteam to help take down the antagonist. The result was a combining of characters from the previous four films, which provided an interconnected feel, not a million miles away from what Joss Whedon did in The Avengers. It also allowed previous side characters to return, and showcase their individual abilities to help Dom succeed in his goal, as opposed to having Dom, Brian and Mia do everything in some convoluted manner.

After a successful mission which made each of the team millionaires, and split in their own ways, how would the gang return for the inevitable Fast & Furious 6? By bringing back Dom's thought to be deceased girlfriend, Letty Ortiz, who's working for a team led by skilled mercenary Owen Shaw. It provided the necessary motivation for the characters to leave their quiet lives with their riches, as well as working with former adversary Hobbs, entertainingly played by an oiled up Dwayne Johnson.

The problem was, Letty has been conveniently suffering from amnesia since her supposed "death". This leads to complications, as she puts a bullet in Dom's shoulder, questioning whether she joined the right team, and a sweet moment where Dom tries to reconnect with the love he thought he lost. It also leads to a moment of dodgy CG (another franchise staple), as Dom catches Letty in a jump which defies the laws of physics.

Due to a combination of Luke Evans' performance and the writing, the skilled mercenary Owen Shaw proves to be an underwhelming villain. The most memorable thing about him is how he gets thrown through a car windscreen, out of a grounded plane and faceplants the concrete, only to end up in a coma. In fact, the best thing about him is how his defeat leads to the introduction of the franchises best villain.

Deckard Shaw, played by Jason Statham, appears to get revenge for his brother. This leads to him driving the car which killed Han in Tokyo Drift, which solidifies his character, backed up by a great introduction, showcasing the aftermath of him visiting his brother at the hospital. Kurt Russell also enters as Frank Petty, head of a covert ops mission who brings an international spy subplot with him. He agrees to help Dom and his team find Shaw if they'll save a hacker named Ramsey, and recover the Gods Eye, a Maguffin which can track a person anywhere in the world, even Deckard.

As the gang go to Azerbaijan and Abu Dhabi to retrieve both Ramsey and the Gods Eye, Deckard follows them to both parts of the world. This begs the question of whether this subplot was necessary, as why would they need Gods Eye to locate Shaw when he always appears to them anyway? It does lead to some impressive stunts though, as the series dares to go bigger, with the team parachuting their cars out of a plane, and Dom and Brian driving a car through three buildings. This leads to a finale of two parts, as the Deckard plot is intercut with an extension of the Gods Eye plot. The former is necessary, telling a stripped down and personal tale which is more deserving of the focus than the latter, which brings explosions, dodgy CG and big budget demolition.

After Paul Walker's tragic death, the film was put on hold while the producers thought of the best way to finish the film and send off his character. If you know where to look, it's clear which parts were worked around the tragedy (hint: look for scenes where you can't clearly see Brian's face). It's clear that a lot of thought and heart were put into this, as the goodbye is handled with a respect and sensitivity that clearly came from people who loved him dearly.

It's clear that family is an important aspect to these characters, particularly because Dom and Mia keep repeating it throughout the franchise. Yet, this reviewer would argue that the family aspect doesn't get ring true until late in the franchise. Moments like saying grace at the dinner table seem forced during Fast and Furious because we're more told than shown that they're a family. Contrast this with them doing the same thing near the end of Fast and Furious 6, where after all they've been through together, they actually feel like a group that'd consider one another family.

While it was chosen to move the franchise away from underground racing, that aspect will always remain at the heart of this franchise. It may not drive pivotal moments of the plot, but remains a lynchpin in the characters history. This is especially noted in the last two films, as Dom uses it to try and reconnect with Letty. So while the franchise has evolved past that, it's nice to see that history hasn't been outright forgotten.

Recently, Vin Diesel announced that the long running franchise will end with a trilogy, beginning with Fast 8, to be released on April 14th, 2017. While it could be argued Furious 7 would have been the best place to end things, it's good that an end is in mind. I can't say I'm enough of a fan to go see these final three films, but I will await an entry which goes so crazy, that it goes to space.

Individual Ratings:

The Fast and The Furious (2001) - 2/5
2 Fast 2 Furious (2003) - 1.5/5
The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006) - 1/5
Fast and Furious (2009) - 2.5/5
Fast Five (2011) - 3.5/5
Fast & Furious 6 (2013) - 4/5
Furious 7 (2015) - 3.5/5

Overall Franchise Rating: 3/5