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The rise and rise and rise of the Fast & Furious franchise

At 20 years old, the Fast & Furious movies are bigger than ever.

Dom drives while Letty hangs on for dear life.
Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and Letty Ortiz (Michelle Rodriguez) return for another fast and furious adventure.
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.

Actor and producer Vin Diesel, the star and arguably the creative mastermind of the Fast & Furious franchise, is a big Dungeons & Dragons fan. When promoting Furious 7 in 2015, the actor actually played a full game with folks from the site Nerdist, both to show off his role-playing chops and to symbolically bridge the gap between high school cliques, telling the nerds that it was okay to love his movie franchise seemingly geared at motorheads.

Diesel’s D&D love is a window into why the Fast & Furious franchise (or the Fast Saga, as the poster for F9, the latest installment in the series, would have it) has become so beloved by so many different people. It’s also a window into Diesel’s canny knack for knowing exactly what people want to see from him (and his movies), and why.

More than anything else, it’s a window into just how this franchise went from being about illegal street racers tearing up the streets of Los Angeles to one where a secretive CIA operative named Mr. Nobody sends a desperate cry for help to international super-spy Dominic Toretto (Diesel) when his plane crashes in a Mexican jungle, as happens at the beginning of F9. The expansion of the characters’ powers and the inflation of the films’ dramatic stakes seem ludicrous from the outside but completely believable if you watch all nine films in a row. (A 10th film, 2019’s Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw, exists, but this spinoff really isn’t a key part of the core storyline.)

Why does it work at all? Well, look at D&D. In the classic role-playing game, characters are supposed to continually level up. In a traditional campaign (a story that unfolds over many sessions and often many years), the heroes start off facing low-level monsters and criminals threatening their tiny village, but as their powers grow, they tackle more existential threats, like enormous dragons or sorcerers who threaten to end the world.

In any good D&D campaign, the core characters grow and change together. Their bonds become solid and even unshakable, no matter what strife they face. The story is as much about the ways they become an ad hoc family as it is the bigger, badder monsters they face off against.

Am I saying the Fast & Furious franchise is a really good D&D campaign where the stakes keep rising higher and higher because they have nowhere else to go? I’m not not saying that.

With each successive film, Fast & Furious becomes a little more ludicrous and a little more irresistible — and the world has embraced that idea. The eighth film, 2017’s The Fate of the Furious, made $1.2 billion at the global box office, less than 2015’s Furious 7 ($1.5 billion) but well above 2001’s The Fast and the Furious ($206 million). This is, give or take a Marvel Cinematic Universe, the most significant movie franchise going right now.

Now, with F9 entering theaters as one of the presumed titans of the summer box office, at a time when many of us are finally comfortable returning to movie theaters, it seems clearer than ever that this goofy, over-the-top film franchise with a heart of gold is the film franchise of the moment. We don’t know what 2021 will bring — but we at least know that any problem faced in the Fast & Furious universe can be solved by throwing more cars at it.

With all of that in mind, here are three major themes that have made the Fast & Furious franchise so memorable and so lucrative.

Theme 1: Franchise

John Cena, behind the wheel of a car in F9.
John Cena turns up in F9 as the brother we didn’t know Dom had. Family!

Part of the fun of following the Fast & Furious franchise is getting wrapped up in the meta-narrative of its existence as a franchise — its long, strange path through the multiplex, across 20 years. To watch any given movie is to see an almost perfect time capsule of that point in both franchise history and in film history. As Hollywood moviemaking got bigger and sillier, the Fast & Furious movies did so at almost exactly the same rate.

In so many ways, the most significant film in the Fast & Furious series is the one that seems to have the least to do with the core storyline. 2006’s The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift is the third installment in the franchise, and it ditched all the characters from the first two films in favor of a story about an American teenager moving to Tokyo and learning how to drift race — wherein a car seems to float around a curve, almost perpendicular to it. (The movie takes great pains to explain the mechanics of drift racing but could have just said, “It’s cool to watch, huh?”)

Tokyo Drift completes the first trilogy of Fast & Furious movies, but those first three films are largely disconnected from one another — they’re mostly about cars going really fast and the daring people who drive those fast cars. There’s a loose overlay of drivers doing crimes — and breaking up crimes — but they attempt to maintain a vague tether to reality. The first two films center on undercover cop Brian (played by Paul Walker, who died in 2013), who uses his sweet driving skills to ingratiate himself to various folks law enforcement wants to keep an eye on, notably Dominic Toretto (Diesel). Diesel’s star power basically hijacks and runs away with 2001’s The Fast and the Furious, the first movie, and when he refused to return for 2003’s 2 Fast 2 Furious, the sequel was reconfigured to follow Walker’s Brian as he solves crimes by driving really fast in Miami.

Tokyo Drift featured neither Dom nor Brian. It didn’t feature Dom’s love interest Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) or Dom’s sister (and later Brian’s wife) Mia (Jordana Brewster), or any of the new characters Brian met in 2 Fast. The movie’s all-new ensemble made it easy to imagine a long series of diminishing returns for Fast & Furious, if the franchise continued at all. Tokyo Drift remains its box office nadir, so everything petering out after that film was a distinct possibility. An endless series of cheap sequels set around the globe, with casts of inexpensive actors and some cool car stunts, was completely plausible.

Instead, Dominic Toretto returned in Tokyo Drift’s last few minutes, and the franchise’s history changed completely.

Diesel didn’t particularly long to return to Fast & Furious, but Universal, the studio behind the franchise, persuaded him to come back by offering him the rights to a franchise he did want — Riddick, a series of cult sci-fi movies where Diesel plays a big bruiser of an action hero in space. Diesel agreed, and his short cameo at the end of Tokyo Drift accidentally established that even if the first three movies shared few characters, they took place in a larger universe of daring street racers pulling off impossible feats.

Universal also said, per Diesel’s recounting to the Los Angeles Times, that the only way they’d make another Fast & Furious movie was if he returned. (Remember: This is Diesel’s telling of the story, so grain of salt. We’re going to be taking many grains of salt when it comes to Vin Diesel throughout this piece.) And with 2009’s Fast & Furious (both the name of the franchise and its fourth film), Diesel became a producer on the films for the first time, cementing his status as perhaps the core creative mastermind of the franchise.

Diesel’s return in Tokyo Drift wasn’t the only reason the film became a turning point for the franchise: Two other key players in the rise of Fast & Furious from a street racing movie with a budget of $38 million to the mega-budgeted franchise it is today also joined the series in that film.

The first was Justin Lin, one of the best action directors alive, who had seen his career stymied a bit after his 2001 breakout indie Better Luck Tomorrow. He hopped on board Tokyo Drift, then stuck around for the fourth, fifth, and sixth Fast films. James Wan and F. Gary Gray took over for the seventh and eighth films, but now Lin is back for F9 and the reported 10th and 11th films as well. F9 particularly benefits from his return, as its completely bonkers final showdown works almost entirely because of how skilled Lin is at balancing multiple strands of dramatic tension, braiding together deeply intimate intrafamilial squabbles and potentially world-destroying terrorist actions within the same action sequence.

Tokyo Drift also added screenwriter Chris Morgan to the franchise, and he wrote every film between Tokyo Drift and Hobbs & Shaw, though he didn’t return for F9. Morgan drilled down into the story’s core ideas and somehow found a way to blend the goofy, high-stakes action sequences that provide the movies’ eye-popping visuals (cars racing a plane! cars leaping between skyscrapers! cars riding alongside a submarine!) with the smaller-scale character story of the ever-shifting relationships among the core characters.

In 2009, Fast & Furious kicked off the second trilogy of Fast movies, which ultimately brings together characters from across the first three films and notably reunites the core quartet of Dom, Brian, Letty, and Mia from the first film. The trilogy also slowly loops in characters from films two and three as well, with hotshot racer Han (Sung Kang) hopping from Tokyo Drift over to the core crew in movie four and Brian’s Miami pals Roman (Tyrese Gibson) and Tej (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) rejoining the franchise in 2011’s Fast Five, the series’ best film.

New characters slowly join the story as well, notably Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as FBI agent Luke Hobbs and Jason Statham as master criminal Deckard Shaw. (If you noticed those are the names in Hobbs & Shaw, now you know what the spinoff is about.) Nathalie Emmanuel joins the franchise in Furious 7 as master computer hacker Ramsay, and Gal Gadot had her first major American screen role as Gisele in movies four through six. By Furious 7, the movies have become so popular that they can attract actors like Kurt Russell (playing someone named Mr. Nobody!). Similarly big names Charlize Theron and Helen Mirren both join the franchise in the eighth film. All three actors pop in for what amount to glorified cameos in F9. There are few other franchises like it in terms of ensemble star power.

That second trilogy of films loosely follows the characters as they pull off ever more daring criminal stunts in the name of helping the good guys. By the third trilogy of films — starting with Furious 7 and culminating in F9 — the characters have effectively become international super spies. Yet because the escalation in the story has been surprisingly gradual and because the story has always been rooted in its core characters, the evolution of the franchise only feels ridiculous if you think about it too much. Though I sometimes miss the verisimilitude of the early films, there’s something goofily enthralling about the fact that these movies can now feature Vin Diesel taking on a literal submarine and mostly pull that idea off with a straight face.

That ability to go as hard as possible while rarely losing the audience ties into a theme so core to the franchise that it was blatantly stated 33 times across the first eight films: family.

Theme 2: Family

“I remember [Vin Diesel and I] had this long talk by his pool,” Justin Lin told the Los Angeles Times in 2013 of a conversation the two had before making the fourth film. “He’s a big Dungeons & Dragons guy. We talked about what this franchise lacked: a mythology. There’s all these characters; they exist in this universe and it’s important to respect that. I took that to heart.”

If part of the fun of the Fast & Furious movies is the meta-narrative of how they went from a street-racing movie to something so much bigger, the core of that meta-narrative is that everybody involved in the franchise slowly came around to the idea that the story of these films isn’t really about cars crashing or the gang taking down spy satellites. Rather, the story of these films is about their characters growing closer and learning to trust each other a little more with every adventure. In D&D terms, they’re a high-level party, basically gods within the world of the story but still fallible.

It’s useful to compare this aspect of the Fast & Furious movies to the character dynamics in the Marvel films. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the characters have learned to trust each other deeply, but there’s less of an emphasis on the feelings they have for each other. F9 pauses several times for characters to talk about how much they mean to each other, and in one of the film’s most effective sequences, Dom makes a brave last stand that would surely take his life if he wasn’t Dominic Toretto, largely because he loves his ad hoc family so very much.

The films’ need to tie everything back to the Toretto family in some way or another is a little ludicrous. 2017’s The Fate of the Furious — the eighth film; Fate, get it?? — cooks up an unexpected baby son for Dom to suddenly learn about. F9, meanwhile, invents the character of Jakob out of whole cloth; he’s a ne’er-do-well brother for Dom and Mia, who is played by John Cena in what sure seems like an attempt to cast a new beefcake boy who rose to fame as a wrestler to take the place of Johnson, who is now off making Hobbs & Shaw movies.

For as much as the Fast & Furious movies portray a family onscreen, the franchise has occasionally entered contentious territory offscreen. In particular, a feud between Diesel and Johnson boiled over into headlines in 2016, when Johnson posted an Instagram about working on the films with someone unprofessional, who was widely assumed even at the time to be Diesel. Johnson called him a “candy ass.” It was a thing. The two have since patched things up, and Diesel has attributed the feud in a Men’s Health interview as being about how he tried to give Johnson some “tough love” to get a better performance out of him. (Again with the grains of salt, Vin ...) Nonetheless, the feud permanently altered the course of the franchise, with the invention of Hobbs & Shaw widely attributed to a desire to keep Diesel and Johnson from having to be in the same movie. Indeed, the two share absolutely no screen time in The Fate of the Furious.

But the films’ need to tie everything back to the Toretto family is also very nearly the entirety of why they can get away with as much silly bullshit as they do. No matter how enormous the dramatic stakes become, it’s all worth it if Dom and Letty, the emotional core of both Fate of the Furious and F9, get a few soulful moments together or if Tej and Roman get to banter about how they’ve escaped increasingly dangerous situations with their friendship intact.

The series was never better than when it was centered on the central quartet of characters, however, and both Fate of the Furious and F9 suffer from Walker’s absence. Walker’s brother stepped in to help complete both Furious 7 and Brian’s story within the franchise. The further the movies get from Brian’s character, the more it becomes obvious that Walker’s ability to marvel at Dom’s ever more outlandish exploits was a pretty significant tenet of what made the franchise work. Without it, the franchise loses some crucial tether to reality.

Brian is still alive within the Fast universe — he and Mia left the “cars go fast” game forever at the end of Furious 7 in the name of raising their children — but F9 clearly recognizes what’s been lost, as it goes out of its way to bring back Mia, then has her offer a not terribly convincing explanation for why Brian isn’t present. Having Mia back does help. (One of my favorite scenes in the movie sees Mia and Letty have a perfectly normal chat between sisters-in-law before beating the shit out of some bad guys.) However, her return simultaneously underscores how Fate of the Furious and F9’s occasional messiness is almost directly attributable to how much the films miss Walker’s ability to ground the action in the same normal, human way you’d react if your brother-in-law told you he was about to drive a car so fast that it leaped between skyscrapers, and then he actually did it. (My brother-in-law has never done this, and I’m disappointed.) Being the actor the director can cut to when you need somebody to say, “OH SHIT THAT WAS RAD AS HELL!” is an underrated skill, and Walker was so good at it.

Yet even without Walker, there’s a soulfulness to this series that is its not-so-secret strength. Much of that is rooted in Dom and Letty. The two characters have been in and out of love throughout the franchise, but the connection between them is so unshakable that you always know one or the other will be waiting with a last-second save if either is in grave danger. The Fast movies let both characters be emotional and vulnerable, and they’re allowed to be deeply in love in a way that is sexy and even vaguely sexual by the standards of modern franchise filmmaking. (Though make no mistake: These movies are not particularly turned on by anything other than cars.) What’s more, both get to make spectacular, last-second saves when the world is in peril, and Letty has saved Dom’s life almost as many times as he has hers.

It’s fascinating how modern and progressive the Fast movies are, with their multiracial cast and complicated women characters, while also featuring a kind of throwback conservatism that’s less about anything political than about making sure you’re always looking after you and your own. There’s a whole runner in F9 about Dom and Letty teaching the son Dom acquired in The Fate of the Furious how to pray, and the movie’s vague genuflections toward kinda-sorta mainstream Christianity highlight just how wholesome the franchise longs to be.

The Fast & Furious films are, in their own way, deeply American stories about a broad, diverse group of friends uniting to take down a series of increasingly ridiculous threats. If they aren’t particularly interested in examining their own muddled geopolitics — wherein anybody threatening the global order is “a bad guy,” regardless of their motivations — they at least align with a long list of American movies on similar themes, stretching all the way back to sentimentalists like Frank Capra.

The byzantine twists and turns of these stories — first a character is dead, and now they’re alive; these two people are in love, and now they’re not — resemble nothing so much as Days of Our Lives. Summarizing all of them is all but impossible for a franchise neophyte, and yet you never have to know all of this information to enjoy whatever movie you’re sitting down to watch. All you need to know is that the characters care about each other and would die for each other. It’s just that they usually survive in the end.

The Fast & Furious movies are sweet and earnest and sappy, and they don’t particularly care if you know that. Yet they don’t make a habit of trumpeting their progressivism or their conservatism, either — in contrast to the way Marvel’s or DC’s movies tend to crow about casting ever more diverse actors in their projects. Fast & Furious just quietly assures us that everybody in the world, with the right training, could drive a car to outer space, then become part of an international band of thieves/spies, save the world, and get together with their pals for a Corona at the end of the day.

That sappiness is what makes curious audience members into die-hard fans, invested in the characters and their journeys. But it’s not what gets new fans through the theater doors with every new entry; the pull of this franchise has much more to do with how much fun the movies are.

Theme 3: Fun

Roman runs away from a truck full of people trying to kill him.
One thing I haven’t noted yet: These movies can be very funny, especially when Roman (Tyrese Gibson) is involved.

For many fans, 2 Fast 2 Furious, the second (who’d have guessed?!) film in the franchise, is the odd man out of the entire saga. It’s somehow too realistic and not realistic enough to please neither the folks who missed the gritty, street-level storytelling of the first film or those who loved the wilder turns the franchise took in later movies, to the degree that rumors about F9 have hinted the film might go to space. (I will neither confirm nor deny these rumors, but c’mon. A car is going to space eventually in this franchise.)

I used to be among the naysayers of 2 Fast 2 Furious, whose clunky screenplay is entered on some pretty boring crime-solving action and which is deeply hurt by the loss of Diesel, Rodriguez, and Brewster. (Paul Walker was many things; someone who could carry a movie by himself was not one of them.) But when I rewatched it earlier this year, I was taken with John Singleton’s direction of the film. Outside of Lin, he might be the series’ biggest visual influence.

When 2 Fast 2 Furious came out in 2003, Singleton gave this quote to the website Black Film, and it’s as good a description of the franchise’s appeal as anything I’ve seen:

When I was formulating the way I wanted to shoot the film, I watched a lot of Japanese anime and I watched The Road Warrior over and over again, which I feel is the best car movie ever made. I played a couple of video games where it allowed me to free my mind and shoot something different from the traditional way. I also played with Hot Wheels on my desk and I thought about how a camera can shoot this from different angles.

(I first heard that quote on the podcast Blank Check, which recently did an episode on 2 Fast 2 Furious as part of its breakdown of Singleton’s filmography.)

Singleton’s rundown of his influences in making 2 Fast 2 Furious more or less outlines how watching a Fast & Furious movie can feel. The films have a giddiness to them that is difficult to describe, but the idea of Singleton, who was 35 and had been nominated for an Academy Award for directing (for Boyz n the Hood) when he was promoting 2 Fast’s release, sitting at his desk and playing with toy cars captures it, I think. To watch a Fast & Furious movie is to revisit some essential element of childlike play, and the franchise grounds it with just enough gravitas (albeit the gravitas of little kids playing at big adult feelings) to make you feel okay checking out movies where cars do impossible things.

For a while now, a go-to way to gently mock the ridiculousness of this franchise has been to post this 2011 Onion video in which a 5-year-old — billed as the screenwriter of the franchise — straightforwardly describes what happens in the film Fast Five.

To be clear, the video is hilarious. But where its tone mocks Fast & Furious, I actually wonder if it simultaneously summarizes the franchise’s appeal. After all, who hasn’t been a little kid, dreaming up big adventures to undertake with her friends? Fast & Furious is about cars going really fast, and there’s something effortlessly exciting about the thought of driving a car so fast you can solve both your personal problems and global geopolitical problems.

Maybe accidentally, the Fast & Furious movies map out an ideal vision for the world. We’d like to believe that our family will always be there, and that our family can include our very best friends. We’d like to believe it’s easy to know the difference between the good guys and the bad guys. We’d like to believe that no problem might ever be so big that you couldn’t drive a car through it. There’s a beauty and a purity to that, and if it sounds like an idea a little kid would come up with when playing with their Hot Wheels, well ... I had a lot of fun playing with my Hot Wheels cars. Did you?

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