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Hollywood's new blockbuster model, as explained by Fast & Furious action scenes

As the franchise has expanded, its connection to a specific reality has frayed.

It’s cars vs. submarine in Fate of the Furious.

When The Fast and the Furious opened in the summer of 2001, few would have predicted that it would launch one of Hollywood’s biggest franchises. A modestly budgeted action picture built around urban street racing culture that borrowed heavily from Point Break, the film turned into a surprise hit, earning a total of $207 million at the box office, with about $144 million coming from domestic ticket sales, on a $38 million production budget.

Sixteen years later, the series has become more of a behemoth than even that initial success would have suggested. The latest two entries, Fast & Furious 6 and Furious 7, boasted production budgets bigger than the first film’s total domestic earnings, clocking in at $160 million and $190 million, respectively. The series is now one of Hollywood’s most reliable moneymakers: The most recent, Furious 7, made $1.5 billion at the global box office by itself — the vast majority from foreign sources — and expectations for this week’s installment, The Fate of the Furious, are similar.

As the series has grown in scope, so have its signature car-themed action sequences, the small-scale street racing of the original giving way to increasingly epic and implausible vehicular spectacles that have defined the franchise and helped cement its international appeal.

At this point, you can trace the evolution of both the franchise and Hollywood’s business model through the progression of the series’ action sequences — and see the trade-offs that moviemakers have made as their audience goes global.

The modest origins of The Fast and the Furious

When the series began, it was working with a relatively modest budget, and it was targeted at a mostly American audience: young men steeped in, or at least aware of, contemporary car modding and street racing culture. And the action scenes reflected that.

The first Fast & Furious movie opens with a night racing sequence that sets the tone for the entire movie. It’s set on the streets of Los Angeles, where modern day hot-rodders have gathered for an illegal street race. The opening moments, before the cars take off, emphasize the community aspect of the race and offer a glamorized depiction of the culture and the participants — which is to say, a flattering view of the target audience.

It also offers a similarly flattering view of the objects of their obsession, their souped-up, home-modded cars. In this scene and throughout the movie, the cars are polished and brightly colored so that they stand out in the frame. While they idle at the starting line, director Rob Cohen cuts in for a close-up of the tailpipes spitting fire as the vehicles prepare to cross the starting line. Once the race begins, he cuts in to shots of gears being shifted and pedals being pressed, glancing at the ever-so-serious faces of the drivers as they make their moves.

From there, Cohen takes us inside the cars themselves, tracking their inner workings as they burst off the line. These shots rely on computer-generated effects to take viewers inside the vehicle in order to emphasize the vehicle’s power and performance. This sequence, and in some sense the entire movie, is about fetishizing hardware.

As the race continues, the scene takes some impressionistic turns, showing, for example, the warped view of a city street from the perspective of a driver going 140 miles per hour. But the cars themselves operate in a way that is essentially carlike, doing the sorts of things that viewers understand cars can actually do. It’s not documentary-real, but it’s more or less grounded in a sense of traditional physical reality, and the scene itself is set in a place designed evoke a real culture and a real place.

The same goes for a climactic chase sequence that pits the film’s two street racing leads, Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker), against a pair of bikers who have just taken out a member of Toretto’s crew.

Once again, the scene is not strictly realistic — you don’t often encounter hot rods chasing automatic-weapon-toting bikers through a major urban area — but it seems more or less aware of the laws of physics, and generally willing to abide by them. The impetus for the scene, meanwhile, is a drive-by shooting that bears at least some small likeness to real-life urban gang warfare, albeit with more than a touch of Hollywood melodrama.

The film and its action scenes, in other words, were set in a particular place, among a particular group of people, in a world that resembled, at least in some basic fashion, our own.

Hollywood’s business model changes — and so does the series

For most of its existence, that’s what Hollywood films, more often than not, were like. Yes, there were exceptions, but even a wildly fanciful production like, say, The Wizard of Oz was still framed by the experience of life on a farm in Kansas. There were limitations, as well: Because the target audience was domestic, that meant most of its characters — in particular its protagonists — were too.

But over the past decade and a half, as foreign box office returns have become increasingly important to movie studio bottom lines, that’s started to change. Studios are making fewer films but with bigger budgets, and that means those films must appeal broadly across the globe. In 2015, about 73 percent of total studio box office revenues were generated internationally, up from 66 percent in 2010.

So a franchise like Fast & Furious, which was built on appealing to a relatively specific American youth culture, has had to evolve as well. And that’s exactly what it did.

After the series’ fourth film, which featured the return of Diesel and other core cast members, outperformed box office expectations, director Justin Lin — who oversaw the third through sixth films — was given license to essentially reboot the series. Starting with the fifth installment, Fast Five, he converted the franchise from one about American street racing into a series of globe-trotting action-heist films — sort of Ocean’s 11, but with a more youthful international cast.

The cars stayed front and center, but no longer did the series dwell on shiny muscle car components. Instead, Lin gave the cars superpowers, allowing them to leap through the air and rush across highways in ways that abandoned all pretense of obeying physical reality.

Fast Five offers a brief nod to the original film with a friendly quarter-mile street race between several of the main characters, but it’s a tribute rather than the main event. That comes in the finale, which features Toretto and O’Conner tandem-driving a pair of rally cars attached to a dumpster-size safe through the bowels of Rio de Janeiro.

The sequence is a joyous riot of speed and impact, completely and unapologetically unbound from any real-world understanding of how cars actually work. It’s an absolute blast, and it’s the moment when the series found its new calling: over-the-top vehicular action that treats the laws of gravity and engine mechanics as trifles to be ignored.

The next installment, Fast & Furious 6, took this mission even further. It features, among other things, a highway sequence pitting the car-driving Furious crew against a tank, and a seemingly endless finale in which they chase down a cargo plane as it tries to take off from an airplane runway.

These sequences rely heavily on computer-generated imagery and assistance — but instead of taking us inside the workings of the cars, as in the first film, the digital effects work is used to free the vehicles from the limitations of earthbound physics.

Part of the reason these sequences work so well is the enthusiasm with which Lin stages them. There’s an infectious sense of delight to these scenes, a giddiness that helps sell the big moments — not despite but because of their sheer outlandishness. They’re creative and clever, designed by someone truly invested in the work. Watching Lin’s action sequences is like watching what would happen if someone devoted $150 million to bringing a child’s Hot Wheels fantasies to life.

After Lin’s departure, the series got, if anything, even more over the top. In Furious 7, directed by James Wan, there’s a mid-movie set piece in which cars are dropped onto an Azerbaijani mountaintop via parachute. The second act closes after Toretto and O’Conner jump a supercar between buildings at the Etihad Towers in Abu Dhabi.

And there’s no sign that The Fate of the Furious, directed by F. Gary Gray, will be any different: One trailer ends with Dom jumping a muscle car over a submarine as it rises through a sheet of ice.

Since the fifth film, the series has managed to sell these outlandish moments by essentially refusing to acknowledge any meaningful limits on what the characters and their cars can do. Sure, they might offer a sort of knowing, you-gotta-be-kidding disbelief when the various mission parameters are explained, or exclaim in happiness after pulling off a particularly spectacular stunt. But none of them ever seriously question whether what they’re doing is possible. They don’t need to. They’re living in a world where it’s not really a question. Physical reality is not an afterthought in the Furious films — it simply doesn’t exist.

The franchise’s evolution shows the trade-offs made in a global movie market

That’s because the later installments of the Furious films don’t take place in the real world or anything like it. Instead, they exist in a borderless fantasy world where places are merely scenic backdrops and props, settings designed to give the digitally enhanced vehicle action scale and texture. Just as the original Fast and the Furious flattered its relatively target audience with glamorous fantasies of street racing culture, the reinvented series flatters its target audience with glamorous depictions of international hot spots and scenery. The difference is that now the target audience is everyone.

The franchise’s global reach has made it bigger and in many ways better: Its casting is broader and more inclusive, its locations are more sprawling and varied, its action scenes are grander and more epic. Overall, there’s no question I prefer the more recent films to the one that kicked off the franchise in 2001.

And yet, compared with where the series began, the world in which these movies now take place feels less real, because it’s less grounded in anything I recognize. It’s featureless and nonspecific, with all the character and cultural particularity of a comfortable airport lounge.

Spectacle for specificity: This is the trade-off that Hollywood studios have increasingly chosen to make with their global mega-blockbusters, and few franchises demonstrate that choice more clearly than Fast & Furious.

It’s a trade-off that those of us in the audience have to accept as well. I’ll take the tanks and the submarines, the tower jumps and the parachutes, and I’ll enjoy them, a lot. But a small part of me will also miss the days when a movie about street racing cars featured cars that acted like cars.