When it comes to long-running film franchises, the Fast & Furious series is an interesting case, since it is one of the rare franchises to get more popular over time. Beginning as merely a showcase for fast cars, the series has evolved over the course of fourteen years into one of the biggest action franchises.
It all began with The Fast and the Furious (2001). Directed by Rob Cohen and taking its title from an unrelated 1955 Roger Cormon film, the film can be considered to be the star-making vehicle for both Paul Walker and Vin Diesel. With a plot somewhat reminiscent of Point Break, The Fast and the Furious stars Walker as undercover police officer Brian O’Conner, who infiltrates the Los Angeles street racing circuit, looking for truck hijackers. O’Conner ends up befriending Diesel’s character Dominic Toretto, who happens to be the man he is looking for. The rest of the cast includes Jordana Brewster as Dominic’s sister (and Brian’s love interest) Mia, and Michelle Rodriguez as Dominic’s love interest Letty.
The Fast and the Furious plants the seeds for the over-the-top action of future installments with a high speed truck hijacking, which is one of the main centerpieces of the third act. At the theatre, the film had a domestic box office gross of of $144.5 million. This was enough for a sequel to be greenlit, though Paul Walker was the only cast member who decided to return.
John Singleton takes over as director for 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003), which catches up to Brian O’Conner who is now an ex-cop living in Miami. Despite being on the outs with the department, he is asked to go back undercover to bring down a drug importer. Tyrese Gibson steps in for Vin Diesel, playing Brian’s childhood friend Roman Pearce. The film also introduces Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges as Tej and Eva Mendes as new female lead Monica Fuentes.
The absence of Diesel is quite noticeable in this sequel, even though Tyrese and Ludacris adds some decent comic relief. The action of 2 Fast 2 Furious is highlighted by a lengthy climatic car chase, as well as a stunt involving a car jumping onto a boat. The film had a slight drop at the box office, making $127 million domestically.
The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006) introduces the franchise to its perennial director Justin Lin, who will also direct the next three sequels. Arguably the low point of the franchise, Tokyo Drift features an all new story cashing in on the previous films’ street racing premise. The film stars Lucas Black as troubled teen Sean Boswell, who gets caught up in a street racing circuit in Tokyo, which involves a form of driving known as “drifting”. The film co-stars rapper Bow Wow as Sean’s friend Twinkie, Sung Kang as Han (who teaches Sean how to drift), and Nathalie Kelley as love interest Neela.
The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift has no continuity with the the previous films until the final five minutes when Vin Diesel makes a surprise return as Dominic Toretto. The film has the poorest box office gross of the entire franchise, with the film only making $62.5 million domestically, which seemed to suggest that this franchise had run its course.
H0wever, Justin Lin was able to rebound the franchise in a big way when he reunited the original four leads of Paul Walker, Vin Diesel, Jordana Brewster, and Michelle Rodriguez for the fourth film, simply titled Fast & Furious (2009). Taking place five years after the original, Brian O’Conner is now a member of the FBI, who has to team up with a fugitive Dominic Toretto to take down a common enemy. Chronologically taking place before Tokyo Drift, Fast & Furious sees Sung Kang returning as Han and also features Israeli actress Gal Gadot as Gisele.
Fast & Furious begins building the soap opera elements of the series, featuring more dramatic moments between the central characters. However, there is still plenty of action, including a truck heist that opens the film and a climatic car chase in a tunnel. While it can be argued that reuniting the original cast was little more than a desperate gimmick, it ended up paying off big time, with the film making a domestic box office gross of $155 million — higher than the original film.
With the franchise back on its feet, the whole team reunited once again for Fast Five (2011). It is at this point that the franchise becomes more serialized, with the film picking up immediately after the end of Fast & Furious. After helping him escape custody, Brian and Mia join Dominic as fugitives in Rio and they plan one massive heist to buy their freedom.
Fast Five de-emphasizes the street racing aspect of the franchise and becomes more a film akin to Ocean’s Eleven or The Italian Job. The film reunites most of the supporting characters from previous sequels, including Roman Pearce, Tej, Han, and Gisele, with Dwayne Johnson joining the cast as Diplomatic Security Service agent Luke Hobbs. Fast Five also marks the point when the stunts of the franchise get more extreme, particularly during the climatic car chase, which has Dominic and Brian towing a ten tonne safe behind them, resulting in a lot of destruction. Fast Five continued the franchise’s resurgence in popularity, with a domestic box office gross of $209.8 million.
Fast & Furious 6 (2013) demonstrates just how much the franchise has progressed over the years by featuring a montage of clips from the previous films during the opening credits. This film focuses on the return of Michelle Rodriguez’s character Letty, who was thought to have been killed in Fast & Furious, but instead has amnesia and works for a mercenary named Owen Shaw. Played by Luke Evans, Shaw differs from the more generic antagonists that appeared in the previous entries. The film also features Gina Carano in the supporting role of Riley, who demonstrates her fighting skills against Rodriguez.
Fast & Furious 6‘s big action moment involves a chase on what must be the world’s longest runway and includes a shot of a car driving out of a flaming plane. The film also continues the growing serialization of the series by featuring a cliffhanger partway through the credits, which not only sets up Furious 7, but also connects the continuity back to The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, which was previously the dark horse of the franchise.
With Fast & Furious 6 making a franchise high domestic gross of $238.7 million, it helps to demonstrate the unbelievable resilience of these films. The increasingly over-the-top action and themes of brotherhood and family seem to resonate with audiences, who keep coming back for more.
This leads into Furious 7, which was originally to have been released last summer, but was delayed due to the tragic death of Paul Walker in a car accident. It is unknown how the film, which opened on Friday, April 3, 2015, has worked around the death of one of its lead stars, but Furious 7 still looks to be the biggest film of the series, with James Wan taking over as director and Jason Statham and Kurt Russell joining the increasingly star-studded cast. It is really amazing that a film about street racing has turned into one of the all-time most successful action franchises.