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11 questions you were too embarrassed to ask about the Fast & Furious movies

This quietly revolutionary, gloriously dumb series is everything that is good about America.

Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

There was a time when I had seen but one and a half movies in the Fast & Furious franchise.

I had always been skeptical of the films' powers, perhaps because I had only seen 2 Fast 2 Furious (easily the worst installment) and Fast Five without sound, while on a plane (still pretty awesome).

Then I watched the first seven of them in a week.

That experience made me not just a convert, but an evangelist. The Fast & Furious movies stand as one of the best film franchises America has going for it right now — and maybe even a gloriously dumb representation of everything good about America.

They boast a healthy affection for old-fashioned, practical effects work, where most of the cars we see crashing are really cars crashing, not sprites in a computer. They have a huge, talented, racially diverse cast. They feature openly sentimental, oddly complex storytelling. They're a testament to the bravery and diversity of this great land, to its boldness of spirit and openness of heart.

And, yes, to its ability to solve pretty much any problem by hurling a car at it.

Fast & Furious is a mutant hybrid horror of a movie franchise. It starts out as a low-key story of illegal street racers and eventually becomes, for all intents and purposes, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) but with cars. Along the way, it freely appropriates tropes from the Halloween, Terminator, and James Bond franchises.

But underneath it all, Fast & Furious is a grand, glorious soap opera, with motor oil pumping through a heart measured in horsepower.

This is America reimagined as a fireball.

What is the Fast & Furious franchise?

The Fast & Furious franchise consists of seven movies of gradually increasing mayhem, with an eighth hitting theaters on April 14, 2017.

The first film is basically a small-scale character drama with some car chases thrown in here and there. The seventh film features cars parachuting out of airplanes. As you can probably surmise, things escalated over time.

Here’s a brief overview of all the films in the franchise, with quick plot descriptions, international box office totals, and the official Vox rating:

The Fast and the Furious (2001): LAPD officer Brian O'Conner (Paul Walker) goes undercover among illegal street racers to figure out who's behind a string of truck hijackings. While there, he develops an intense rivalry — and eventual friendship — with the mysterious, mountainous Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel). Worldwide box office: $207 million.

2 Fast 2 Furious (2003): Brian leaves behind everybody who was in the first movie to track down drug dealers in Miami. Also, there are car chases and street races and Eva Mendes. This movie is bad. Worldwide box office: $236 million.

The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006): For 99 percent of its running time, this movie has absolutely nothing to do with the previous two. An American misfit teenager named Sean (Lucas Black) goes to live in a version of Japan that seems cribbed from a Carmen Sandiego game. While there, he learns about the mysteries of "drift" racing and takes on the Yakuza. Surprisingly decent! Worldwide box office: $158 million.

Fast & Furious (2009): The franchise accidentally creates continuity by gathering up major characters from the first three films (which, remember, had very little to do with one another) and sending them after drug dealers yet again in the wake of a tragedy. The plot doesn't make much sense, but the action is better than ever. Worldwide box office: $363 million.

Fast Five (2011): The franchise's pinnacle so far mostly leaves behind car racing in favor of an elaborate heist plot, with even more characters from the series' history getting together to rip off a Brazilian crime lord. The concluding action sequence is one for the ages. Worldwide box office: $626 million.

Fast & Furious 6 (2013): The franchise takes a full turn toward melodrama, with double-crosses, amnesia, and brave self-sacrifices turning up as major plot points. It's arguably a little too much, but that's what this franchise is for now. Oh, and the action sequences are stunning. Worldwide box office: $789 million.

Furious 7 (2015): The brother of the sixth film's main villain seeks revenge on Dom, Brian, and the crew — a scenario that can only end furiously. This is an enormously entertaining movie and would serve as a great finale for the whole series, if necessary. (It won't be the finale, however.) Worldwide box office: $1.516 billion

The Fate of the Furious (2017): A new chapter begins for the series, in the first film made entirely after the death of Paul Walker in a 2013 car accident. Has Dom turned against his beloved family? Will a new group of cyberterrorists destroy the world? If you don’t already know the answers to those questions, you may not have seen these movies before. A mild step back. Worldwide box office: n/a

Is the first film a remake of the 1955 film of the same name?

No. The first film is actually loosely based on a 1998 magazine article from Vibe magazine about street racers.

The 1955 film — produced by famed low-budget Hollywood maven Roger Corman — was about a criminal who breaks out of prison and has to drive really fast to stay ahead of the law with a beautiful woman at his side. Elements of that idea have been sprinkled throughout the series, but no single film in the franchise is a remake of that movie. However, Universal did buy the rights to use the title for the first film.

You can watch the full 1955 movie here.

The first Fast & Furious film is also not a remake of the 1939 Busby Berkeley comedy Fast and Furious, as the latter is about rare book dealers. Here is its trailer anyway.

Who directed the movies?

The first film was directed by Rob Cohen, and his departure from the sequel was seen as something the franchise might struggle to overcome. (He left with Vin Diesel to make XXX.) Cohen’s visual style — which mostly consists of making the world look all jittery and stretched out as those super-fast cars pass by — defines that first film in a big way.

The second film was directed by John Singleton, a great director who also made Boyz N the Hood but who seemed to fundamentally misunderstand that a Fast & Furious movie should never be too serious.

The next four films were directed by Justin Lin, one of the best action directors working right now. What Lin understands intuitively is that action sequences require long shots that establish geography, so we have a better idea of what's happening to whom, and when. Here's a great example of how he establishes the geography of a major chase in Fast Five:

Fast Five Universal, GIF by Todd VanDerWerff/Vox

The seventh film was directed by James Wan, best known for his horror work on movies like Saw and The Conjuring. He's an expert at building tension, a skill he used to great effect throughout Furious 7.

The eighth film is directed by series newcomer F. Gary Gray, who previously directed the 2003 “cool cars” movie The Italian Job.

It's also worth pointing out that films three through eight are all written by Chris Morgan, who has become a kind of steward of the franchise’s characters.

Who are the most important characters?

The crazy thing about the Fast & Furious franchise is that no single character has appeared in all seven films. This isn't a conscious choice in the way it might be in, say, the Marvel movies, where all the characters have their own solo adventures before coming together in Avengers films. Many of the actors split off to have more successful careers elsewhere — only to come back when those careers didn't exactly pay off.

Here's a quick look at who appears in which Fast & Furious films.

Javier Zarracina/Vox

These characters break down into five main groups.

The main four: This group includes former LAPD officer and FBI agent Brian O'Conner (Paul Walker), who sets the series in motion by trying to get close to street racer and small-time criminal Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel) and his girlfriend Leticia "Letty" Ortiz (Michelle Rodriguez). Naturally, Brian gets in too deep and falls for Dom's sister, Mia (Jordana Brewster). The constant twists and turns in the relationships of these four characters drive every movie but the second and third ones, though Brian is still the main character of 2 Fast.

The rest of the crew: These are the characters who sign up with the main four to pull off impossible schemes. Roman Pearce (Tyrese Gibson) and Tej Parker (Chris "Ludacris" Bridges) joined the franchise in 2 Fast, before becoming its comic relief in Fast Five. HanSeoul-Oh (Sung Kang) is a wryly philosophical drift racer from Tokyo who proved so popular that the franchise literally brought him back from the dead. (More on this in a bit.) Gisele Yashar (Gal Gadot) is a relatively minor character in Fast & Furious who joins the crew more fully in Fast Five and develops a relationship with Han. (Also in this classification but not in our graphic are Tego Leo [Tego Calderón] and Rico Santos [Don Omar].)

Friends in law enforcement: These characters start out as Fast Five antagonists but quickly realize our heroes are the good guys and help them take out supercriminals. They include Luke Hobbs (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson), who is basically Tommy Lee Jones's relentless pursuer from The Fugitive until he and Dom become best pals, and Elena Neves (Elsa Pataky), a Brazilian police officer who's the only non-corrupt cop in Rio or something.

Wild cards: As the films move further past the Brian and Dom era, more characters are being brought in to test the group’s dynamics. These include villain-then-tenuous friend Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) and the mysterious Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell).

Sean: Sean Boswell (Lucas Black) is the protagonist of Tokyo Drift. Because of the series' wacky chronology, he sat out three movies and returned in Furious 7 — but only in a couple of scenes.

What's this about wacky chronology?

The most beautiful thing about the Fast & Furious franchise is that it accidentally invented a prequel trilogy, then stuck it in the middle of the run, and it's all because Vin Diesel wanted to make more Riddick movies.

As mentioned above, Tokyo Drift has nothing to do with either of the two movies preceding it, but audiences sparked to the character of Han, who trains Sean in the ways of drift racing. (Drift racing involves sliding around a curve, seemingly perpendicular to the road, in a way that seems almost magical when done well.) In the course of that film, Han dies after a race. At the film's end, when Sean has taken the title of Drift King, he is challenged by a new racer — who turns out to be Dom, who says Han used to ride with his crew back in the day.

Diesel was hoping to make more films in the Riddick franchise of sci-fi action pictures. To do that, though, he needed to get the rights for the character from Universal, which also produced the Fast & Furious movies. He agreed to cameo at the end of Tokyo Drift — as a promise of his return to the franchise in a fourth film (which eventually happened) — but instead of payment, he asked for the Riddick rights. Universal obliged, and another Riddick movie came out in 2013.

These two things — Han's popularity and Diesel's cameo mentioning Han — combined to create the franchise's twisty timeline. Because wouldn't it be fun to see Dom hanging out with Han? Yes. Yes it would. But for that to work Han had to be alive, leading to films four, five, and six being set before Tokyo Drift instead of after it. Han's death is then repeated at the end of Fast & Furious 6, revealing the villain of Furious 7 to be responsible.

The forthcoming eighth film picks up where Furious 7 left off.

Thus, the chronological order of the films is 1 - 2 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 3 - 7 - 8, and the third film (in which everybody uses flip phones and instant messaging programs) technically takes place sometime in the 2010s, even though it was released in 2006.

Here's a visual representation of that timeline:

Javier Zarracina/Vox

So do I have to watch the movies in that order?

Nah. You could watch these movies in literally any order and be fine. The chronology is complex, but it's not incomprehensible or anything.

Your best bet is the same as it is with The Chronicles of Narnia (another series where chronology doesn't reflect release order): Watch the films in the order they were released. You'll be fine! We promise!

This is a lot. Can I possibly take a music break with a song that endlessly repeats one of the film's titles?

And how!

This is "Act a Fool" by Ludacris, from 2 Fast 2 Furious. It is the most memorable thing about that film, if only because you will essentially be forced to now say the film's title in the same cadence as the song.

How do the Fast & Furious films fit into the overall Hollywood landscape?

Make no mistake: Fast & Furious is one of the most important franchises in Hollywood. If you look at the box office totals for the first seven films above, you'll see that — outside of the blip for Tokyo Drift — they keep going up and up and up.

Javier Zarracina/Vox

What's more, the franchise has been almost perfectly cultivated by its studio. Really, the only comparable franchise in Hollywood right now is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, over at Disney. And the films reflect how Hollywood has changed as they've been made.

Here are a few ways they reflect those changes.

With Fast Five, the films basically switch genres. For the first four films, this is a franchise about car racing and big chase sequences, with those elements mixing into fairly standard crime thriller plots. In Fast Five, however, the franchise takes a hard right turn into the heist movie genre, with only one (very short) car chase. And Fast & Furious 6 is much closer to a James Bond movie than anything else, with the characters having to take down a villain who could destroy the world. The franchise always prominently features cars, and the solution to every problem is always "more cars," but these aren't "car movies" anymore. It's a neat trick.

With Fast & Furious, the franchise switches templates. Before the fourth film, this is basically the Halloween franchise — three films, where the third has essentially no connection to the first two other than genre. With the fourth, though, the films accidentally become, thanks to the addition of Han to the main cast, a shared universe, where all of the characters are involved in one another's adventures — and they get there a few years before Marvel would. Along the way, they also make a stop in "the bad guys are good guys now!" territory, straight out of the Terminator movies.

The films have a surprisingly deep mythology. Okay, it's not Marvel levels of deep, but the MCU has decades of comic books propping it up. And from the fourth Furious movie on, the story of the franchise has been one story, which slowly builds on previously established character relationships and plot twists. It's kind of like a giant, cinematic TV show.

What are the best action sequences in each film, ideally complete with GIFs?

Here are some great moments from each film in GIF form.

The Fast and the Furious: Here's a quick look at how the first film portrays going really fast in a car like traveling through hyperspace in the Star Wars movies.

The Fast and the Furious

2 Fast 2 Furious: Literally the only moment of note in this film is when Brian jumps a car onto a boat. (This movie is bad. Did we mention that?)

2 Fast 2 Furious

The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift: Drift racers have to avoid pedestrians at one of Japan's busiest intersections.

The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift

Fast & Furious: The whole opening sequence (which involves stealing gas from a truck as it's barreling down a mountain) is so cool, but here's its best moment.

Fast & Furious

Fast Five: The closing heist — involving Dom and Brian dragging a vault through the streets of Rio — is the franchise's action sequence pinnacle, but best of all is how Dom uses the vault as a weapon.

Fast Five

Fast & Furious 6: Dom catches Letty in midair. It's true love!

Fast & Furious 6

Furious 7: The seventh film has by far the most computer-assisted visual effects in the series, as you can see in this scene where Brian runs up the side of a bus that's falling off a cliff and leaps to grab hold of Letty's car. It's crazy and over-the-top in the series' best sense.

Furious 7

Why are these movies so successful?

It's impossible to say why, of course, other than the fact that they are hugely entertaining blockbusters, with just the right amount of character work to go with the giant stunts. But here are my five best guesses.

1) The movies feel real. Though there are plenty of computer-assisted visual effects throughout the series, the franchise attempts to actually perform as many stunts as it can. This means that when the cars crash, some stunt driver really crashed a car. It underlines the verisimilitude of much of what happens onscreen, no matter how ridiculous. This is really happening to these characters in our universe, it seems to say, not in some fantastical one.

2) The movies' dramatic stakes build slowly. The stakes of the first film literally hinge on Brian deciding whether to betray Dom. That's it. Even in Fast Five, the stakes involve ripping off one man — albeit the most powerful criminal in all of Rio de Janeiro. It's only in Fast & Furious 6 that the idea of "saving the world" comes into play, and it's almost always an afterthought there, because ...

3) Personal stakes are always more important than plot stakes. The major story of these films is the relationships between the characters and how they shift and change. If you ever watch a Fast & Furious movie, there is at least a half-hour — and often more — smack-dab in the middle of the movie where the characters talk about how they feel about each other. The action sequences become seasoning, sprinkled throughout the rest of the story to heighten it, not to define it. The series defines itself by questions of honor, friendship, family, and redemption. It is the most sensitive major franchise out there, and the most sentimental. (See also: the tear-jerking end of Furious 7.)

4) The cast is very diverse. It seems no coincidence to me that the rise of Fast & Furious — largely on the backs of films made by a Taiwanese-American director — came right as Hollywood was realizing people of color were hungry for stories in which they were prominently featured. Of the series' major actors, only Walker fits the usual white-guy-hero mold of most Hollywood films. (Diesel's full ethnicity is unknown, though he's said he's "definitely a person of color.") That's proved quietly revolutionary.

5) This series isn't afraid to be stupid. From Tej and Roman's comic relief to Hobbs's frequent one-liners to the sheer ridiculousness of many of the series' stunts, there is nothing in Fast & Furious that is above broadly winking at the audience about how silly the entire enterprise is. That lack of self-seriousness is hugely welcome in the current blockbuster climate — and another link between this franchise and the Marvel movies.

What's next for the franchise?

The eighth film, The Fate of the Furious, arrives April 14 — and features Charlize Theron and Helen Mirren! — but in the wake of Walker’s 2013 death, the franchise will have to pivot from the relationship that formed its core for most of the first seven films. (Walker had completed enough of Furious 7 to appear in that film, and the filmmakers were able to construct a fitting coda for his character.)

The eighth film won’t be the franchise’s last, either. A ninth and 10th film are planned, and one thing’s for certain: They’ll probably involve Vin Diesel staring at a seemingly unsolvable problem, then smiling and driving a car through it.