A Newcomer’s Guide to the Fast & Furious Franchise

EPSON MFP image

As I have previously explained, I am a recent convert to the Fast & Furious universe. Despite the 15 year run of the franchise’s cultural ubiquity, I’ve somehow managed to avoid ever seeing a Fast & Furious movie in full until a few weeks ago. Sure, I’ve seen them playing as background noise in various bars & living rooms over the years, but I’ve never bothered to watch a single picture from front to end. When the series first got started I was a gloomy teenage snob who wouldn’t be caught dead watching such mindless machismo, but something happened in the years since: I grew a sense of humor. And while I was working on that, something else happened: the series seemingly got exponentially ridiculous with each sequel. It’s rare these days for any genre film outside of slasher flicks to earn six sequels, but here we are in 2015 with a car racing movie reaching its seventh installment this month: Furious 7. The ads for that seventh installment finally brought me to my tipping point. Furious 7 promised to be so deliciously over the top that when I first saw the ad in the theater I finally felt compelled to catch up with the entire series, an urge I followed voraciously in the past few weeks.

It turns out that the story of the Fast & Furious franchise is the story of an ever-ballooning budget. The 2001 debut installment cost $38 million to make, while in 2015 a Fast & Furious movie costs $250 million. The first three or so Fast & Furious movies serve mostly as cheap cultural relics, time capsules of bad taste in the early 00s. As the budget continued to expand (along with Vin Diesel’s delightfully long winded musings on the nature of “family”) so did the scope of the action sequences and the feeling that the franchise had actually started to pull its own weight as a unique intellectual property. During this transition the focus of the films also deviated from its street racing roots and instead pursued what it self-describes in the latest film as “vehicular warfare”. The street racing of the early films are mostly gone, but far from forgotten as the series has become completely wrapped up in its own mythology, pretending that the past was more significant than it was and pushing what it can do in the present to any & all ridiculous heights allowed by the strengths of an ever-sprawling cast & budget.

Listed below, in chronological order, are all seven feature films in the Fast & Furious franchise as seen through my fresh, previously uninitiated eyes. Each entry is accompanied by brief re-caps of its faults & charms, but also has its own individual full-length review, which you can find by clicking on the links in the titles themselves. If you are also looking to get initiated into the Fast & Furious world yourself, but wanted to skip the franchise’s humbly trashy beginnings, I highly recommend watching the fifth, sixth, third, and seventh installments (curiously enough, in that specific sequence).

The Fast and the Furious (2001)EPSON MFP imagethree star

The very first installment of the Fast & Furious is mostly effective as a baseline measurement for the series. It was exactly what I had expected from the franchise as a whole: rap-rock era machismo way more concerned with cartoonishly fast cars, gigantic guns, and impressively elaborate action sequences than its superfluous plot about an undercover cop. It features such macho trademarks as rap metal, backyard grilling, lipstick lesbianism and, of course, extensive street racing. In this earliest installment the cars move so fast that light warps around them like spaceships in old-line sci-fi, their roaring engines overpowering the sound design & the inner workings of their nitrous oxide systems becoming a fetishistic focus for the CGI. The Fast and the Furious is entertaining enough as a mindless action flick & a trashy cultural relic, but it doesn’t even approach the peak ridiculousness achieved in later installments. It does have its campy moments, though, even if they never reach a fever pitch.

MVP of the cast: The stunt-casting of Ja Rule, who’s neither fast nor furious enough to earn a threesome in a street race.
Most curious detail: The fact that somehow no one on the California street racing scene seems to think it’s fucked up that their drag race competition is called “Race Wars.”

2 Fast 2 Furious (2003) EPSON MFP imagethree star

2 Fast 2 Furious isn’t necessarily much better or worse than its predecessor, but functions more like an echo. It hits the same plot points as the original (undercover policing, sports cars reaching warp speed, Paul Walker’s half-assed modes of seduction, etc.) with just a few basic casting substitutions distinguishing the two films. The strange thing about it is that the repetition doesn’t feel like much of a problem. It’s okay that both The Fast and the Furious and 2 Fast 2 Furious share so much in plot & sentiment because plot & sentiment are inessential to the films’ central draws: absurdly intricate action set pieces, a fetishistic love of sports cars, and charmingly dated ideas of cool. 2 Fast 2 Furious may be an exact structural photocopy of the first Fast & Furious installment, but it has such a deliriously lighthearted approach to the intense violence of its reality (a quality that made 80s action films the golden era of the genre) that it’s difficult to be too hard on it critically. Nearly all of the actors except Walker are substituted for new faces (an appropriately shirtless Tyrese Gibson & a Chicken-N-Beer era Ludacris make their welcomed debuts here, though their comic dynamic isn’t fully developed until later installments,) and there’s a complete absence of rap rock, lipstick lesbianism, and backyard grilling, but 2 Fast 2 Furious is still essentially a shameless retread of its precursor. However, it’s one that finds a way to make its more-of-the-same formula entertaining despite the familiarity.

MVP of the cast: The wise-cracking, often-shirtless sex god Tyrese Gibson.
Most curious detail: A not-so-sly reference to Ludacris’ hit song “Move Bitch” is made during a street race, but by a character who is not played by Ludacris.

The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006) EPSON MFP imagethreehalfstar

The third installment in the Fast & Furious franchise is not a particularly unique film when considered on its own merit, but it is very much an outlier in the series it’s a part of. The first two Fast & Furious films are undercover police thrillers about trust & family and the criminal world of California street racing. Tokyo Drift, on the other hand, is about a high school reprobate’s struggle to find The Drift within. The Drift, in case you somehow didn’t already know, is the ability to more or less drive sideways, something Japanese teens are apparently very good at. The Drift also serves as some kind of metaphor for growing up or taking responsibility or something along those lines (with a direct reference to The Karate Kid for full effect), but one thing’s for damn sure: it has nothing to do with the world of the Paul Walkers, Vin Diesels and Tyrese Gibsons of the first two films. There’s a hilarious last minute cameo that attempts to tie it into the rest of the series, but for the most part Tokyo Drift is a free-floating oddity, just sort of . . . drifting out on its own, disconnected. It was more than fair that die-hard fans furiously asked “Who are these people?!” upon its initial release, since the answer to that question doesn’t arrive until a post-credits stinger four films later. However, even though it was hated in its time, it’s a genuinely fun bit of trash cinema about the spiritual virtues of sideways driving, one with almost no regard for rest of the franchise at all.

MVP in the cast: The stunt casting of (Lil) Bow Wow, who plays a wisecracking sidekick that winks at the camera, delivers one-liners like “Japanese food is like the Army: don’t ask, don’t tell,” and refers to the Mona Lisa as that lady who’s smiling all the time.
Most Curious Detail: I’m pretty sure that during the opening race a smashed porta potty splashes digital feces on the camera lens.

Fast & Furious (2009) EPSON MFP imageonehalfstar

The fourth Fast & Furious film attempts to pull the series’ act together by working as retroactive franchise glue, bringing back characters that had been absent since the first film & connecting them to Sung Kang’s Han, a very important player from Tokyo Drift who (spoiler) is supposed to be very dead. The problem is that after these first ten minutes of retroactive narrative, Fast & Furious loses its sense of purpose. Setting the undercover police intrigue in the Dominican Republic, the film offers the franchise a new location, but not much else. For the most part, the action is standard stuff you’d expect in any action franchise: Vin Diesel hanging dudes out of windows by their ankles, Paul Walker chasing criminals down back alleys in his tailored federal agent suit, lots of tumbling cars, etc. The best moment, action wise, is when Diesel does a controlled slide (Tokyo style) under a tumbling 18 wheeler, but that takes place during that saving-grace opening set piece. The main thing it’s missing, however, is a sense of fun. Fast & Furious is just so unnecessarily dour, especially after the cartoonish excess of Tokyo Drift. After herding the narrative cats of the first three installments, the movie becomes exceedingly difficult to love. It does serve as a necessary bridge to better movies down the line, but when considered on its own, it’s not really worth its near two-hour runtime.

MVP of the cast: Han, resurrected through a receding timeline, not-so-seamlessly (but very much amusingly) sets up the franchise’s ever-shifting chronology in an exchange where he answers the line “Time for you to do your own thing,” with “I heard they’re doing some crazy shit in Tokyo . . .” They’re doing some crazy shit indeed, Han. First of all, they’re driving sideways.
Most curious detail: The film seems to have a strange fascination with GPS displays. The GPS imagery plays well into the series’ video game aesthetic, but really, it’s GPS; who cares?

Fast Five (2011) EPSON MFP imagethreehalfstar

There’s a lot of killer action movie surface pleasures scattered all over Fast Five (especially in its opening train heist set piece), but that’s not what makes it special. What distinguishes the film from its pedigree is Vin Diesel’s Dominic’s sudden conviction that his gang of ragtag criminals and former cops is a “family”. As far as the franchise goes, the “family” in the first four films act like distant cousins who might see each other once a decade. Suddenly, in Fast Five it’s genuinely moving when Dominic talks about how his father taught him about the importance of backyard grilling, how a family always sticks together, and so on. It’s not a perfect film; it could’ve allowed more screen time for newcomer The Rock & (I can’t believe I’m saying this) more street racing, not to mention that a ludicrous post-credits stinger has the gall to bring the dead back to life without explanation, but it was a huge step forward for the Fast & Furious series as a collective. Five films in, all the separate elements are finally clicking as a cohesive action movie unit. Where most extended franchises gradually unravel over the course of their sequels, this is one that took that time to find itself and cull its own “familial” mythology.

MVP of the Cast: Here we are introduced to Hobbs, played Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who could only serve as a improvement to virtually any motion picture, because he is a perfect human being.
Most Curious Detail: An all-star crew of the gang/”family” members from the first four films are assembled here in the single best team-building montage outside of MacGruber. There’s some truly over the top, jaw-dropping spectacle in the opening train heist and a closing sequence involving a bank vault, but something about that montage feels like the first moments of the series coming into its own.

Fast & Furious 6 (2013) EPSON MFP imagefourstar

Fast & Furious 6 plays right into the franchise’s ever-increasing concern for tying the series together into a cohesive whole. The gang started properly functioning as a unit (or a “family,” if you will) in the fifth film, but this is where individual members of the Fast & Furious family become eccentric cartoon versions of themselves. They begin to get wrapped up in their own distinct mythologies the way the series as a whole got wrapped up in itself in the start-of-a-new-era Fast Five. Now that the “family” has come together as a tight unit, they’ve finally found a way to go truly over the top. The ridiculous caricatures and ever-expanding budget for the action sequences (which include a return to extensive street racing here, which had become surprisingly absent) are what make Fast & Furious 6 feel like a far cry from where the series began, but it’s not what makes the film important. As Vin Diesel’s Dominic would put it, it’s all about family. “Family” is what matters. If you’re on board with the series at this point it’s strangely satisfying to see the film’s major triumph be the gang coming together for a climactic backyard cookout, Coronas proudly lifted in the air. Fast & Furious 6 makes the audience feel like part of the “family”, like we’re all in for the silly ride together. Everyone involved has seemingly gotten comfortable with how ridiculous the series is and found their own ways to make it work as its own unique action franchise, with Vin Diesel standing tall as the most comfortable of them all. It’s adorable.

MVP of the cast: The heart really is in those “family”-obsessed Vin Diesel pep talks. Part of what makes it so convincing is that it feels like he truly believes it.
Most curious detail: The film’s central conflict is with a rival gang who, as Tyrese Gibson describes in an especially hilarious monologue, poses as the gang’s doppelgangers, because they do not believe in family and instead treat their criminal schemes like a business.

Furious 7 (2015)EPSON MFP imagefourstar

Furious 7’s charms depend greatly on the six films that precede it (this marks the first time that the Tokyo Drift storyline is firmly in the temporal rearview), but it uses that well-established history to its advantage as a launching pad for its larger-than-ever set pieces and relentless fan service. To a newcomer the barrage of seemingly insignificant callbacks could feel superfluous at best and grotesque at worst, but for a fan (even a recent convert such as myself), they’re pleasantly familiar. That’s not to say that a pair of fresh eyes would have nothing to enjoy here. At a remarkably brisk 137 minutes, Furious 7 is packed to the gills with action movie surface pleasures that reach new heights in its “vehicular warfare” that will dazzle even the uninitiated. However, anyone who has made it this far into the Fast & Furious ride (or at least tuned in after the not-so-great fourth one) is likely to feel an affinity for the series that not only excuses, but emphatically embraces its trashy, trashy charms as well. It’s sure to please the franchise’s established fans as well as gather some new ones along the way. There really is just so much movie here that anyone who enjoys loud, obnoxious action films in any capacity is likely find something to latch onto.

MVP of the Cast: Paul Walker’s transformation from a “sandwich crazy” undercover cop to an action movie legend was a gradual one that has now sadly come to a close. It’s always a bummer to watch a family member go, but Furious 7 does a great job of giving him a proper send-off.
Most Curious Detail: Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson puts his pro wrestling past to good use in a moment that includes him reviving his signature “Rock Bottom” move from the Attitude Era.

Lagniappe

The Fast and the Furious (1955) EPSON MFP imagetwohalfstar

A 1950’s car racing cheapie from Movie of the Month vet Roger Corman, The Fast and the Furious is far from the legendary director’s most interesting film, but it is only the second title (out of hundreds) that he produced and the first title ever produced by American International Pictures, the film company that helped make him a b-movie powerhouse. The film has very little connection to the much-more-infamous Paul Walker series outside of the purchase of its title rights, but that purchase was most certainly worth every penny. It’s a damn good title. Good thing they decided not stick with the much less compelling original name for the film, Crashout. Filmed in just ten days, The Fast and the Furious is one of many examples of Corman’s superhuman ability to make a surprisingly watchable picture on a tight budget, even if it isn’t a particularly memorable one. It does share some incidental similarities the Paul Walker franchise of the same name, like felons getting mixed up in car racing, racers inspecting/admiring each other’s gear, the featured inclusion of female racers, and (most incidentally of all) mentions of Coachella, California. Both Corman’s film and the 2000s franchise also have a tendency to mix corny comedy in with their criminal intrigue as well as an over-reliance on dated effects (whether they be CGI or driving scenes filmed in front of a projector). Corman’s The Fast and the Furious is by no means essential viewing, but it is an interesting footnote to the trashy cultural powerhouse that followed nearly 50 years later.

Better Luck Tomorrow (2002) EPSON MFP imagethree star

An MTV-produced slice of Asian-American ennui & teen criminality, Better Luck Tomorrow is the feature film debut of director Justin Lin, who made a cohesive whole out of the Fast & Furious franchise with his take on the third, fourth, fifth & sixth titles. The connection to the Fast & Furious universe is mostly tangential here, depending solely on the presence of a high school age Han, who first entered the picture in the oddball entry Tokyo Drift. Han is played by Sung Kang in both Better Luck Tomorrow as well as every Fast & Furious film directed by Lin. Although the connection is tenuous, it’s amusing to watch Lin’s debut and imagine the character’s origins here, not to mention that the film itself is an enjoyable indie crime drama with a killer soundtrack that features Le Tigre, Bonfire Madigan and Emily’s Sassy Lime. There are obviously no direct references to Fast & Furious to be found in the film, but there is the coincidental inclusion of this throwaway line: “We had the run of the place. Rumors about us came fast and furious.”

Turbo-Charged Prelude (2003) & Los Bandaleros (2009) EPSON MFP imageonestar

There have been two officially-released “short films” meant to serve as primers in-between the Fast & Furious features. The nearly dialogue-free short Turbo-Charged Prelude follows Paul Walker’s Brian through an evading-the-law montage that adds essentially nothing of value to the series, but instead plays like a music video for an overlong rap instrumental. I did like that it ended with the phrase “2 Be Continued . . .”, but that was its sole bright moment. The Vin Diesel-penned & directed short Los Bandaleros was a slightly more significant, portraying a Dominican getaway for Dominic & Letty in a sequence that doesn’t involve fast cars or explosions and even misses an opportunity to plug Coronas during its backyard cookout. There are some interesting musings on the prison system as the new slavery and yet another attempt to bridge Tokyo Drift to the rest of the series through Han, but the short is mostly a sweet, low-stakes tryst between Dominic & Letty that receives a vague callback in Furious 7, but really isn’t worth its 20min runtime for that connection.

-Brandon Ledet

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