Confession time: until a few weeks ago, the only film in the Fast and Furious franchise I’d seen was Fast & Furious 6. I liked the film well enough for what it was, but was admittedly not entirely able to connect to the film when I saw it back in 2013. With Furious 7 arriving in theaters this weekend, I figured I’d watch the other films in the series to see if I could find out not only why the series has become so popular, but how it’s managed to become a critically-acclaimed series to boot.
After seeing all seven films (including a rewatch of Fast & Furious 6), I think I get it.
At its best – and the series in its current form is, in fact, at its best – the Fast and Furious franchise is a rollicking good time. With an emphasis on practical stunts that tap into America’s love of the automobile, plus some heavy doses of melodrama and an infusion of different popular genres in its more recent output, this series revels in the absurdity of every premise and stunt. In a time where it seems like every major film from a studio is being primed for franchising, the Fast and Furious franchise (I won’t call it a series only because I love the alliteration) stands up with the Marvel Cinematic Universe as being among the most flat-out fun.
Of course, as with any series, there are some films that work better than others. What’s most interesting about the series, though, is how it seems to have gotten better in more recent entries as it highlights the elements that work best: the chemistry of the original cast and the insanity of the car stunts. With some notable cast additions in recent entries, and the aforementioned infusion of new genres into the overall storyline, what was originally intended as a one-shot film about street racing has become one of Hollywood’s biggest series.
As it’s grown, the series has also kept something in mind that more franchises should note: diversity matters. The series started with a diverse cast, and has only grown more diverse with each entry. These aren’t just a bunch of white men driving and fighting. People of color – both men and women – fill the series out. What’s more, the motley crew that are assembled throughout the series ultimately become what Dom lovingly (and frequently) calls a family. And the characters are able to bond like a family enough for individual characters to come and go from the series with relative ease – notably, not one character has appeared in all seven entries, with Vin Diesel and Paul Walker each sitting out for one film (including Diesel’s cameo in Tokyo Drift). The series lives and dies by its commitment to family and honor.
Most importantly, it’s not afraid of being silly. Especially with newer entries, the series is fully aware of the ridiculousness of what it does, and it embraces that ridiculousness. If you need a sign of the insanity of the series, just look at the ever-changing format of the titles of this series. The most recent few movies aren’t even titled the same way on-screen as they are anywhere else (for the record, Fast & Furious 6 is titled Furious 6 on-screen, while Furious 7 is specifically titled Furious Seven on-screen). And the timeline for these films…let’s just say that technically, there’s some interesting maneuvering going on to include certain characters after they’re supposed to be gone.
The series will undoubtedly be back for an eighth film, though how it will return after the loss of Paul Walker remains to be seen. Until that time, though, it’s time to look back at the series to date.
[ETA: now updated with rankings for the newest installment, The Fate of the Furious.]
8. 2 Fast 2 Furious
Synopsis: After leaving the LAPD in shame, Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker) moves to Miami to track down drug dealers.
Thoughts: By far the weakest entry in the series, 2 Fast 2 Furious suffers from the departure of both Vin Diesel and director Rob Cohen. While Paul Walker returns, tying the film to its predecessor, and introduces Tyrese Gibson and Ludacris to the series, none of them are served well here. The film, directed by Oscar nominee John Singleton, takes itself far too seriously, and the chemistry between Walker and Gibson fails (spectacularly) to match what happened between Walker and Diesel.
Synopsis: An American teenager named Sean Boswell (Lucas Black) moves to Tokyo, where he learns about “drift” racing and takes on the Yakuza.
Thoughts: Tokyo Drift has the slightest of connections to the rest of the series, and in terms of box office, it’s by far the weakest film in the franchise’s history. And yet, the film is responsible for two great pieces to the subsequent success of its sequels (or is it prequels?). First, the character of Han (Sung Kang) works so well, the series (rightly) created a crazy timeline to keep him around for future films. Second, director Justin Lin and writer Chris Morgan proved to be just what the series needed. Lin returned as director for the next three films, while Morgan is responsible for each script in the series since this film.
Synopsis: Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel), Brian O’Conner and other characters from the franchise’s previous three films come together to chase drug dealers after a tragedy.
Thoughts: Tokyo Drift may have been a relative bomb domestically, but a significant boost in foreign box office power convinced Universal to make a fourth theatrical film. To the studio’s credit, they recognized that the cast of the first film was one of the biggest draws for the series. Throw in other popular characters and the first real stab at continuity for the series, and the series was able to take a first step into becoming the powerhouse franchise it’s become.
Synopsis: Officer Brian O’Conner goes undercover to find out who’s behind a string of truck hijackings. He develops an intense rivalry with Dom Toretto that eventually turns into friendship.
Thoughts: The first film is…well, not the best when compared to the series’ newer, shinier models. Still, The Fast and the Furious is the best of the series’ original run, thanks to a pulsating energy that permeates the film. The bromance between Vin Diesel and Paul Walker is also magnetic, and something the next few films sorely lacked.
Synopsis: When Dom goes rogue, friends and foes alike come together to try and stop him and the woman he’s working for, Cipher (Charlize Theron).
Thoughts: The first film in the franchise made after Paul Walker’s untimely death does suffer from the loss of his presence. He provided a nice balance to Vin Diesel, and in his absence, Diesel gets saddled with a lackluster role that isolates him from the rest of the cast. Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham, however, have excellent chemistry, and even if the way the film maneuvers to get Statham back in after Furious 7 is a bit infuriating, it’s hard to deny that these two demand the majority of the attention in this film.
Synopsis: The franchise fully embraces melodrama, as an old friend’s return sends the family on a globe-spanning series of adventures.
Thoughts: Things get a little (okay, a lot) crazy with this film, but the return of Michelle Rodriguez gives the franchise back its most kick-ass female character. And then there’s the tag scene, which closes the continuity-twisting timeline of the films while introducing the series’ most high-profile villain to date.
2. Furious 7
Synopsis: The brother of Fast & Furious 6‘s villain wants his revenge.
Thoughts: With a new director at the helm – Saw‘s James Wan – this film was already set up for a stylistic change after four entries under Justin Lin’s strong direction. The untimely death of Paul Walker, though, brings a poignancy to the series’ repeated talks of the importance of family. The way Brian is sent off in the series may be a little cheesy, but it’s both in keeping with the series and surprisingly poignant.
Synopsis: The street racing of previous entries is replaced by spectacular car tricks, the return of more familiar faces, an elaborate heist and some franchise Viagra.
Thoughts: Seriously, though: the addition of Dwayne Johnson to the Fast and Furious franchise is a brilliant casting stroke. The film also brings back Tyrese and Ludacris, making them a frequently funny pair of supporting players (Tyrese in particular gets some much-needed character rehabilitation after his turn in 2 Fast 2 Furious). The film may give up street racing, but there are still some excellent car chases, with Dom and Brian’s dragging of a giant vault through the streets of Rio sticking out as a franchise highlight.