[updated for Furious 7]
Despite the Fast and Furious series becoming one of the most durable and profitable movie franchises in Hollywood, with endless potential for follow-ups, it was long regarded as somewhat of a joke, a predictably summerish action film orgasm with outlandish stunts and horrible dialogue featuring poor actors and garish music and fashion. I originally wrote this post back when the franchise was less respected — things have obviously changed in the 6th and 7th films now that they are Hollywood juggernauts.
What I want you to understand is that you should appreciate this franchise beyond its profitability and new-found (as a result of Paul Walker’s death) sentimentality.
I know it looks cheesy and it seems geared towards a young high school male crowd. But what the franchise has actually done is provide an overview of the history of street-racing culture and documentation of U.S. international affairs issues.
The movies, in order of release (domestic):
- The Fast and the Furious, Rob Cohen, $144.5mil
- 2 Fast 2 Furious, John Singleton, $127mil
- The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, Justin Lin, $62.5mil
- Fast & Furious, Justin Lin, $155mil
- Fast Five, Justin Lin, $209.8mil
- Fast & Furious 6, Justin Lin, $238.7mil
- Furious 7, James Wan, $320.5mil (as of 26 Apr 15)
Tokyo Drift is the outcast of the series and actually takes place after all the other 5 first films. Vin Diesel has appeared in all of the films except the 2nd one (he was working on xXx). Paul Walker has appeared in all the films except the 3rd one (which only Diesel cameo’d in).
The first movie came as a complete surprise. It was one of those films that got more popular the longer it was in theaters, and especially once it hit DVDs and TV. It is now well-established in the cultural zeitgeist.
The first movie only made $40mil in its opening weekend, but ended up making $144mil total. Tokyo Drift, the third film that came after the weak second film, was the only film to have a weaker opening and total.
The latest film is now the 5th highest grossing film of all time, internationally! And 36th pre-inflation domestically.
Talk about organic growth!
It’s worth talking just about the directors because they impact how the series has progressed. Rob Cohen directed the first film. Cohen appears to be an expert at crafting big-budget summer action films, even if they don’t end up being that memorable later. John Singleton directed the next film, which was a train wreck. Justin Lin took over for the rest of the series, starting with the oddball Tokyo Drift third film. Lin dropped out for the seventh film (and went on to direct a couple episodes of True Detective and Star Trek 3), to be replaced by James Wan, most notable for his direction of the film Saw.
Justin Lin had an inauspicious beginning with Tokyo Drift but that film ended up being so instrumental in the backstory for the rest of the franchise that Lin has pretty much defined the franchise ever since.
Back when I was a kid, collaborations made movie soundtracks actually awesome. Judgment Night, The Crow, Strange Days: these were powerhouse albums. The FF films don’t do collaborations but have been noteworthy for delivering new original music from top artists. For example, the Fast & Furious 6 soundtrack had tracks from 2 Chainz, Wiz Khalifa, Deadmau5, Cypress Hill, Crystal Method, and David Guetta. Furious 7’s tribute to Paul Walker was a song by Wiz Khalifa that Vin Diesel has ended up singing in various occasions to remember his deceased friend.
The Fast and the Furious
The first movie sets out to cover street-racing culture essentially where it became biggest, in Los Angeles. The culture as proposed by the film is macho in nature, mainly men racing cars against each other for money or for pink slips (car titles, or the ownership of the car) or for the favor of women who are usually dressed in skimpy, bimbo’d out outfits. American muscle is the thematic powerhouse. Michelle Rodriguez plays a tough mechanic in Diesel’s crew who races cars — she breaks the stereotype.
I think it’s important to note that prior to this film, street-racing really wasn’t a pop culture thing. It defined a whole generation’s love affair with custom cars.
The cars in this film are mostly import tuners rigged up with NOS (nitrous oxide systems) with replacement engines and pearlescent detailing on the body. The idea is that you buy a cheap car and kit it up so it can go faster with less weight and at a lower cost than buying a sports car (with the added benefit of being a good example of how open standards and modular equipment can lead to innovation, similar to custom-built PC computers).
Since the setting is LA, the mix of people is diverse: Vin Diesel and his sister and girlfriend are Hispanic, Walker is white, Ja Rule (a rapper) is black, and there are competing street-racing gangs such as the Hispanics and the Asians (who of course have rice rocket motorcycles). The shy, wobbly guy in Dom’s crew is a dyslexic kid who is somehow a genius with CAD and rebuilding cars. He, like all the nerds in the series, dies.
The first movie moves at one point to a “Race Wars” in the desert, cognizant of the illegality of street-racing inside the city.
At the end, Dom and Walker’s character chase a shamed Asian gang’s leaders (victim to a Joy Luck Club-like humiliation in the form of an FBI raid while eating dinner with their parents and elders) and then finish in an industrial zoning section of LA. Dom’s car of choice is an American muscle car, a 1970 Dodge Charger R/T. He was afraid of its power after his father died while racing it. Yet he rebuilt it anyway.
This movie is all about the American muscle mentality ultimately, despite the use of Asian tuner cars. (see the cars from this film)
2 Fast 2 Furious
The second film had a ridiculous title, a new director, no Vin Diesel, but Tyrese Gibson as Paul Walker’s counterpart. The franchise lost a lot of momentum with this film.
But the second film took place in Miami around Miami’s narcotics underworld. Instead of the LA FBI, this film deals with customs agents, Miami nightclubs, and Miami yachts and boatyards. Instead of straight-up American muscle cars, there are convertible ragtops. (see the cars from the second film) Miami will always be a lucrative waypoint for drugs entering the country and being distributed throughout the US, so the FF style being adapted to Miami weather and convertibles is fitting.
Eva Mendes is the requisite superstar hot chick (Dom’s sister in the first film, Jordana Brewster, was hot but not well-known enough) who is an undercover agent herself. Ludacris, the rapper, is the bankroller for the good guys in this film, and he seems to be friends with this super-hot halfie chick named Suki, who drives a pink ragtop that she designed herself. Obviously in this film there was more effort to break stereotypes.
This was the weakest of the four films. John Singleton directed it, and it came off plain. It took the least risks.
Tokyo Drift is already playing on cable TV. It is a sleeper favorite of mine. It was the worst-performing movie of the franchise, but it was just so outstandingly different than its previous films and than other peer films. It showed respect to driving and went outside the US to prove it. It also ends up being crucial to the overall story.
Tokyo Drift takes the young cornfed American muscle car driver kid and portrays him as a troublemaker with a broken family (Navy dad) who doesn’t respect authority. He wins a race at the beginning, his muscle car against a Dodge Viper driven by a high school football player. Winner gets the football player’s girlfriend. The starting line girl takes off her bra to start the race. Very American. But both guys end up totaling their cars so the kid gets shipped off to Tokyo to stay with his Navy dad. Football player’s a trust-fund kid with a rich dad so he gets off, thanks to connects.
So muscle car American goes to Tokyo (his flight has Japanese businessmen and a bunch of college kids going to Japan for summer vaycay) and starts attending a Tokyo school and of course hits on a non-Japanese girl who ends up being the “Drift King”‘s girlfriend. He also befriends Bow Wow (a rapper), who’s the only other American in Tokyo because he’s a military brat.
Muscle car American challenges Drift King (DK) to a race. But the race is within a parking garage and simple drag racing down a straight strip won’t fly. Dolled-up Japanese girls in knee socks and lots of makeup line the race’s track.
“You wouldn’t have that problem with a V-8.”
“Boys. All they care about is who’s got the biggest engine.”
“I’m a guy. It’s in my DNA. So y’all race with these things, huh? Cute little toys.”
Thus the American learns about drifting, or detaching your car’s wheels from the road to skid around corners without losing speed, being bankrolled by a rich Japanese guy who doesn’t care about wasting money but is so bored he wants to see something interesting.
What’s cool about drifting in the film is that drifting started in Japan, and it is proper for this racing franchise to pay homage to it. YouTube has a bunch of videos including the originals of the drifting founder, Kunimitsu Takahashi. Watch this history of drifting on YouTube:
So the American has to learn to drift in order to beat DK at the end, who is actually son to a Yakuza (Japanese mafia) boss. The American also has to learn how to drive much smaller cars (Bow Wow’s shows a VW Touran with some punched-out frame work done for a fist-shape effect, delivered out of a Tokyo-appropriate automated parking garage machine). See the rest of the Tokyo Drift cars. In the end, the American beats the Japanese guy by drifting…in an American muscle car.
Japan is instrumental to racing and racing culture. Import cars and parts, compact cars that are easily modifiable, reliability.
A prominent theme in the film is being gaijin, or outsider. DK’s woman was a gaijin, and the white protagonist is a gaijin as well. They’re discriminated against but they eventually adapt and are celebrated.
The best part for the franchise? At the end of the film, Dom makes a cameo at one of the parking garage races.
Dom pays homage to Han, who is the only one from the third film to join the crew in later films. Probably because of his great perspective on what’s important in life in these speeches:
Naturally he’s an Asian so he has to die in the film’s canon.
Fast & Furious, the Fourth
For the fourth film, the original cast was brought back. Dom is on the lam, now raiding fuel trucks in the Dominican Republic and Michelle Rodriguez is trying to get his freedom back and also rebuilds his Dodge Charger (the car which takes on a mythical presence in the franchise).
This time, Dom and Brian (Walker’s character) are going to Mexico to kill/arrest a drug cartel leader who offs Dom’s girlfriend. The American muscle cars are back, and as this page of Fast and Furious’s cars says, the German-engineered BMWs and Mercedes get destroyed. No love for them.
Drivers are getting executed in the desert after making a run through the US border control. Transporting massive loads of drugs across the border. The movie came at a time of increasing drug trafficking activity along the Mexico-TX/AZ/CA borders, as Caribbean drug routes began to be closed down by increased U.S. law enforcement activity (hence the end of Miami Vice, Scarface, 2 Fast 2 Furious). Quite prescient since now the Mexico border violence is palpable, and people being executed as part of the trafficking has become standard.
For some reason this movie did better than the rest of the previous films, I suspect because it had the original cast back and people expected it to re-capture the original experience.
The fifth film in the series, Fast Five, takes place mainly in Rio de Janeiro, after Dom is rescued from a prison transfer bus by Mia and Brian. The film covers the corruption of the police, influence from the drug lords, and the use of the favelas to control, process, and hide the drugs and resulting cash. Perhaps when Dom and Brian have to go find some race cars for their heist is the piece that ties the movie back to all the rest, for when they show up at the night race, they say it’s home sweet home. All the cast from all the movies makes an appearance, including old cast members after the credits, so stay and watch.
In today’s affairs, drug trafficking is being pushed south. Central America has gotten violent as the Zetas have been pressured to move south after increased U.S. DEA/intel/operations presence in the north and in Mexico City. Meanwhile South American countries are increasing their drug production as Colombia fights the lingering presence of its ugly 80’s drug cartels. Why Brazil? It’s hot right now. It’s getting the Olympics and World Cup as well. It’s part of the BRIC countries.
The vehicles? American muscle cars, a few race cars, and a bigass MRAP military looking South African urban combat looking vehicle driven by “Captain America/Samoan Thor”, The Rock. With SUVs, new Dodge Chargers, and a dune buggy.
None of this should be confused with The Onion’s Today Now! interview with the 5-year-old screenwriter of Fast Five.
This film transitioned the franchise from a weak series of films into a blockbuster, by way of adding The Rock and expanding the crew. This also transitions the franchise from less of a street-racing homage series to more of an action film series with ridiculous stunts and Hollywood action.
Fast & Furious 6
The latest installment, number 6, brings together the entire crew once again, to face an equally skilled crew operating out of Europe. The interesting connection here for international affairs is that Europe has been the focus of world news for the last 5-10 years because of the financial crisis and subsequent bailout plans for countries. Most of the film takes place in London, the financial capital of the world, but it also moves to Spain (ground zero for financial trouble a few years ago) and Russia. Interpol, the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service, and NATO are the prominent legal organizations involved.
The cars are a mix of American and Brit. Dodge Mustangs and Chargers (for Dom) vs. BMWs, Interceptors, Mark I Escorts. The good guys drive 3 cars, colored red, white, and blue. The Rock is of course still in his massive MRAP-like vehicle. There’s a NATO tank.
One interesting thing that happens is that the opposing crew tries using electronic devices to override electronic controls on Dom’s crew’s cars, so they end up switching to cars without electronic chips. That technical twist is forgotten in the rest of the movie but there’s still tension between old cars, new cars, American muscle, and import toys, running throughout the series.
Paul Walker’s death (by, fittingly, sports car accident) contributed greatly to the awareness of this film, but it was already going to do well because of its all-star cast, adding Jason Statham as the new villain. Gone are the early days of Han’s philosophizing and LA subculture turf wars — it’s now international action that in many ways reminded me of Mission Impossible (the car stunt at the Abu Dhabi towers is reminiscent of Ghost Protocol), James Bond, and other similar action films.
This blog post’s core argument has kind of broken down as the franchise has transitioned away from cars and more to the dominant themes of personalities and “family” along with action filming techniques:
But supercars and the Middle East are inseparable, along with the Gulf States being a new hotspot of nefarious, shady waystations for international intrigue and illicit commerce. The infamous princes who bring their supercars to London every summer are featured in Furious 7.
Azerbaijan is another waystation between commerce routes and country borders — a gap in the international system’s fabric. Just suited for an environment of paradropping vehicles in, having off-road vehicles (Ludacris’s Jeep Wrangler) for the first time, etc.
A return to LA for the end of the film is a given; it’s the team’s home turf, and still the birthplace of car culture and the franchise.
So many different cars are being used at this point in the franchise that there’s no overall style, but some things remain: Dom and Letty still drive their American muscle cars, Jason Statham drives a Brit Aston Martin, Paul Walker tends to drive souped-up Japanese cars.
Paul Walker and Vin Diesel driving off in different directions at the end, with the aid of CG-rendered clips and Paul’s stand-in brother. A mark to the end of another stage of the franchise’s development.
So Why Should You Love the Franchise?
The franchise delves into strange law enforcement and black market/underground bedfellows. It embraces the drug war, cultural and ethnic divides, and other taboo topics. Mexican drug cartels, street-racing, the Yakuza, Rio favelas, dark spots in the world’s geopolitics. It also embraces the car-modding communities in a way that no other films have come close to doing. It mashes up old cars and new cars and popular actors, musicians, and unknowns. It pays homage to Paul Newman and drag racing. It’s strangely relevant to issues affecting world politics.
It adapts its franchise to different locations with different cultures and styles. It wasn’t afraid to go to Tokyo to tussle up the franchise. And different locations mean different styles of driving, different cars, different reactions to American bravado and muscle.
It’s highly stylized with quick cutscenes of fuel being injected into a combustible engine with NOS treatment to provide blurry-filmed bursts of speed (sort of an homage to the Three Kings gunshot wound scene).
The FBI should totally try to use this franchise for recruiting — embracing kids who do questionable things but offer skills the FBI might need. Maybe it’d be a complete waste of time but the FBI could at least exploit the nominally-positive FBI mood in the franchise. The FBI is seen as the stereotypical insular, out-of-touch organization, but it’s employing a new generation of kids (think 21 Jump Street or The Mod Squad) in the franchise.
The franchise covers a decade of the American experience at home and abroad. Drug trades in Miami and Mexicali, kitting and piracy in LA, the art of drifting and expats in Tokyo. US primacy is no longer unquestioned, as external influences in the form of drug cartels and the mafia exert counter-balancing power against American might and American law enforcement. The rise of the rest, with Latin America pushing in on America’s borders and Japan’s culture being completely unknown, but not untouchable, to Americans, dominates the tone set by the franchise.
To sum up, there just aren’t many other franchises covering strange subcultures like the Fast and the Furious franchise did. There’s something unique about this one, despite its goofiness at times. That’s why you should love it.
I also, now that we’ve had so many films come out, am fixated on how good the third film was. It was a total black sheep at the time, and made far, far less than any of the other films, but it’s so key to understanding and loving the franchise. We also learn that it took place chronologically before the later films, such that Han had already finished his time working with Dom’s crew and they were already lifelong family. For Dom to show up at the end to pay his respects, and then see this turn into the impetus for the seventh film, was well-executed. The third film also piggybacked off the reverence and quieter moments of the first film for driving culture and for life in general, in a way that the second film (which was pure flash) totally did not care about.
Other Taboo Movie Topics
I explained this amazing franchise to my friend Preetum one time — she’s still skeptical. But there are other film subjects I will gladly defend with ferocity. I still maintain that as much as you can make fun of Keanu Reeves (and my buddy MonkeyPope does a hilarious impersonation of him), the guy has a filmography any actor would kill to have: Point Break, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Much Ado About Nothing, being in a William Gibson book-turned-movie (Johnny Mnemonic), Parenthood, the Matrix trilogy, Dangerous Liaisons, The Replacements, Speed, The Devil’s Advocate, and of course Bill & Ted. You can’t argue against that résumé.
For that matter, I also think that while the original Matrix was by far the best, the rest of the trilogy is worth watching as a whole summation of parts.
And with that, my nerddom is done for now.