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The ‘Fast & Furious’ Franchise’s Journey From Fluff to Cultural Touchstone

The Fast and the Furious — a name that was at one time just a pithy summation of the themes contained within a summertime “teen car movie,” a genre I just made up but that sounds like something a baby boomer would say derisively. Or in older terms — an exploitation-style B-movie with sexy young actors spouting terrible dialogue and even sexier cars consuming nitrous oxide at an alarming rate. Either way, the color palette was bright as hell, the title of the film was lifted from another forgotten 1955 Roger Corman “car movie” and the plot was basically “Point Break, but with cars.”

When it first came out in June 2001, it took in $145 million at the domestic box office — an impressive enough amount, but dwarfed that summer by the likes of Shrek ($268 million), The Mummy Returns ($202 million) and Pearl Harbor ($199 million). Reviews were mixed, but those who recognized the film for what it was wrote of its “mindless panache” and that it “may not have much of a brain, but it’s definitely got a pulse.” Still, it didn’t merit much more attention than that — a summer popcorn movie doing its thing by delivering visceral excitement for exactly 107 minutes before quickly disappearing from memory.

Somehow, though, in the 16 years since, the Fast franchise has gone from being a single dumb, loud car movie aimed at teenagers to a genuinely bad guilty pleasure series that you didn’t dare admit to loving, to a multibillion-dollar franchise that’s dissected and respected in all parts of the pop culture sphere on par with the Marvel Universe and the Harry Potter films (both of which had source material to draw from). In the aughts, I was weird for still liking the Fast franchise; in 2017, you’re weird if you don’t agree with me — at least judging by internet scholarship.

Now, I’m not going to try convince you to watch the whole series if you haven’t (even though you should); I merely want to demonstrate the often-hilarious dichotomy between how the older films were viewed when they were first released versus the revisionist history that’s taking place now that they’re part of a multi-billion dollar franchise — and thus, being written about as “legitimate cinema.” Observe…

The Installment: The Fast and The Furious
The Year: 2001
The Revenue: $207 million worldwide
The Original Critical Response: Reviews for the first film were mixed, but even those who liked it acknowledged it wasn’t very good. Still, it was fun and loud. The late, great Roger Ebert, a longtime Fast apologist, wrote:

[The Fast and the Furious] doesn’t have a brain in its head, but it has some great chase scenes, and includes the most incompetent cop who ever went undercover. … It’s not a great movie, but it delivers what it promises to deliver, and knows that a chase scene is supposed to be about something more than special effects. It has some of that grandiose self-pitying dialogue we’ve treasured in movies like this ever since Rebel Without a Cause. “I live my life a quarter-mile at a time,” Dominic [Vin Diesel] tells Brian [Paul Walker]. “For those 10 seconds, I’m free.” And, hey, even for the next 30 seconds, he’s decelerating.

The Revisionist History: In response to the release of Fate of the Furious, earlier this month Vulture ranked all seven previous entries, with the original being given the top spot. The prose that followed was filled with all kinds of poetic waxing that Ebert (for all his fandom) and other critics couldn’t muster back in 2001:

While the original may not have the best execution of all the Fast movies, it’s still the purest distillation of the franchise’s soul. Rewatching The Fast and the Furious now, the movie seems almost quaint: All those tanks and submarines and flying super-cars sometimes make it easy to forget that this all started with the notion of living your life a quarter-mile at a time. Not one movie in the franchise has trafficked in irony, but the earnestness of The Fast and the Furious is still downright moving by comparison. The betrayals and the deaths hit a little bit harder because the world is only as big as the East Side of Los Angeles, and seeing the entirely practical stunt work of three little Honda Civics hijacking semi-trucks is still just as jaw-dropping now as it was 16 years ago. No matter how big it gets, The Fast and the Furious is still about protecting the family you’ve chosen and sticking together until the end. That groundwork was laid in the original movie, and that’s what makes it the undisputed best entry in the franchise.

The Installment: 2 Fast 2 Furious
The Year: 2003
The Revenue: $236 million worldwide
The Original Critical Response: Often viewed as the worst film in the franchise, this at-the-time-unnecessary sequel wasn’t well received in 2003, either. Slate blasted it for not even making the racing interesting:

The clunkiness of 2 Fast 2 Furious would have easily been forgiven if [director John] Singleton presented the chase scenes with a modicum of realism. Most of us drive cars, and we have a basic sense of their physics. We know the prickly feeling of a close shave or a truck that looms too close. We’ve also gaped at the ingenious stunt work of drivers in The Road Warrior (1981) and Ronin (1998). In those films, velocity wasn’t abstract, it was visceral; the chases were stories in miniature, with dueling vehicles manipulated by talented visual storytellers. Singleton would rather have us admire how good Tyrese [Gibson] looks behind the wheel of his Mitsubishi Eclipse Spyder while humming along at warp speed. 2 Fast 2 Furious is just 2 lame, 2 tame and 2 much like a video game.

The Revisionist History: This is the only installment on the list people still struggle to say something nice about. In fact, The Ringer’s recent Fast and Furious rankings was the only example I could find:

This one gets dumped on a bit, and I suppose that’s at least a little bit fair … but two very important things happened in it that helped shape what has turned into a perfect movie universe: Ludacris replaced Ja Rule … [and] Roman Pearce gets introduced. Dropping Tyrese [Gibson]’s Roman Pearce into the series was, either by accident or design, a genius play. He is exactly the right pitch, exactly the right tempo, exactly the right speed for what he’s responsible for (which is to say, for being cool but funny but cool while being funny). He’s responsible for, probably, like, at least 80 percent of the genuine humor in the movies.

The Installment: The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift
The Year: 2006
The Revenue: $158 million worldwide
The Original Critical Response: The third film is really where the dichotomy between past and present becomes obvious. Critics and fans alike hated Tokyo Drift even more than 2 Fast when it first came out — e.g., Rolling Stone couldn’t contain its contempt:

The F&F franchise ran out of gas halfway into the 2001 original. There is no excuse for this second sequel unless you don’t mind watching a muscle car showroom disguised as a movie. … Director Justin Lin started promisingly with Better Luck Tomorrow, took a wrong turn with Annapolis, and now careens into disaster with a movie that suffers from blurred vision, motor drag and a plot that’s running on fumes.

The Revisionist History: Over the last decade, many people (myself included) have come around on Tokyo Drift. Whereas it was originally lambasted for going to a new country and not having any of the original cast, nowadays we can look back and pretend these things were calculated risks. Per LylesMovieFiles.com:

Tokyo Drift is considered the red-headed stepchild of the Fast and Furious franchise, but beyond the obvious missteps, it’s a very fun outing that truly doesn’t deserve its bad rap. Director Justin Lin and screenwriter Chris Morgan deserve most of the credit for moving the franchise in a new direction. Given the success of the first two films, it would have been easy for them to just replicate that in yet another city, but they take some daring chances by exposing audiences to a new driving style and began a subplot that would take three more films to pay off. Thanks to Lin and Morgan’s creative storytelling approach, the movie has far greater meaning as the series continued to unfold making an important chapter in the franchise instead of being the throwaway effort it was initially considered.

The Installment: Fast & Furious
The Year: 2009
The Revenue: $363 million worldwide
The Original Critical Response: The fourth film tried to recapture the magic of the first. While box-office receipts showed getting the band back together was a good idea, critics didn’t agree. The AP’s Christy Lemire was especially harsh:

Noise, noise, noise. Crunched metal and shattered glass. More noise. Revving engines. Vin Diesel’s giant head. Hot chicks in tight miniskirts. Even more noise. The end.

The Revisionist History: See this recent gush from Vox:

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. … 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 [Sung Kang] 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 Installment: Fast Five
The Year: 2011
The Revenue: $626 million worldwide
The Original Critical Response: Just as people argue about whether 2 Fast or F&F is the worst installment, there’s an ongoing argument about whether Fast 5 or Furious 7 is the best. Five was the first film to get a “fresh” rating at Rotten Tomatoes, and it still sits at 77 percent. The AV Club was among the many media outlets who loved it, especially after the dud that was F&F:

Despite shedding two definite articles and replacing “and” with an ampersand, 2009’s Fast & Furious was far from the model of sleek economy its title suggested. Due to Vin Diesel’s on-and-off involvement and an ever-increasing cast of characters, a franchise built on the simple thrills of fast cars and hot bodies had taken on weight — a word like “mythology” should never have to applied to material this frivolous. By bringing back virtually all the major characters from the previous films and adding another block of concrete in Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Fast Five would seem to exacerbate the problem, but it does the opposite. Like a proper action sequel, it’s bigger louder, and sillier than its predecessors, but it’s more streamlined, too, smartly dumping the tired underground racing angle in favor of a crisp, hugely satisfying Ocean’s Eleven-style heist movie.

The Revisionist History: Obviously, such a history isn’t all that relevant since the film is legitimately good — then and now. Still, in the intervening years, many have pointed back to the tonal shift that Five brought and the addition of The Rock as what really elevated the series. Kotaku paraphrased it thusly:

The Rock’s debut highlights a funny aspect of Fast Five and all its successors: how the series switched gears and started adding more and more standard blockbuster action movie motifs. The camera is given far less time to pan around parties and errant street races, and focuses more and more on big explosions and tank-sized weaponized vehicles. … “I had a life before we met, Brian, let’s just leave it at that,” Tej [Ludacris] says when Brian [Paul Walker] all but raises the Ludacris [ha!] question. Don’t think about it too hard, the movie says. This is The Family now. Just come along for the ride.

The Installment: Fast & Furious 6
The Year: 2013
The Revenue: $789 million worldwide
The Original Critical Response: By now, critics had started to understand that this thing had become a full-blown franchise, with its own mythology, overarching themes and confusing timeline (complete with ex-post-facto short films to fill in the gaps). However, not everyone was a fan yet. To wit, The Verge’s review of Fast & Furious 6:

There are a lot of things to say about Fast & Furious 6, which opens this weekend. We could talk about cars, or explosions, or the many new and interesting ways cars can explode now, in 2013. We could discuss new characters, familiar faces and dead characters who are now alive again. We could ponder why director Justin Lin and writer Chris Morgan are now brazenly retconning everything in sight after making the last four movies in the series together, as though they are being chased by the Action Movie Continuity Police. … If Fast Five cleverly grafted an all-out action movie onto the bones of a series about underground street racing, Fast & Furious 6 is an attempt to turn the whole thing into a soap opera with a casual disregard for physics. Some people live, some people die. Some people come back from the dead. But whatever happens, they’re a family. And everything around that family will almost certainly blow up. Also, Tyrese will be there.

The Revisionist History: 6 draws a definite line in the sand: If this whole thing is a full-blown soap opera and the fact that the action and set pieces are just going to keep getting more ridiculous causes you to despair, you needn’t bother continuing with the series. But if it leaves you wanting even more, then they have you kinda forever. The Telegraph counted itself among the latter:

Fast & Furious 6 is equally loud, dumb and fun as the previous film, this time throwing a tank, a cargo plane and a car that can flip other cars over into the mix. The majority of the action takes place in London, meaning a fun game of “spot the landmark before it’s smashed to smithereens” for U.K. viewers. Most exciting of all is the closing sting, which not only ties in Han’s death from Tokyo Drift, but also teases the next film’s villain: Jason Statham. Starring alongside Vin Diesel and The Rock. That’s three for three on the tally of bald punching machines.

The Installment: Furious 7
The Year: 2015
The Revenue: $1.5 billion worldwide
The Original Critical Response: Like Fast Five, Furious 7 is often regarded as the best of the series. The theme of “family” runs deep in its veins — in large part because of the real-life death of Walker (RIP) and how the franchise handled it, both onscreen and off (e.g., Diesel named his newborn daughter Paulina while the screenwriters rewrote and reshot much of the film in Walker’s honor). Vox’s review best captured the emotional toll this tragedy had on the film:

It’s difficult to go into the movie and not think about where the franchise will go without one of its beloved stars. Seeing Walker play Brian, the role that made him famous, one last time is jarring on its own. But it also seems as if the film’s actors, screenwriter (Chris Morgan), and director crafted this film specifically as a goodbye to their friend. … The chemistry between Walker and his costars gives this muscled sledgehammer of a film some surprisingly gentle moments that you’ll think about hours later. And there’s a strange sorrow that unfolds while you’re watching, knowing this was the last time these friends were all together. By the end, you’re hoping for just a few more minutes with this family, even if they aren’t zipping around, being dropped from planes or driving cars from skyscraper to skyscraper.

The Revisionist History: Again, not much to revise here. But the film’s heart, coupled with the overall quality of the film, led many critics outside of the nerd set to finally start to take the series seriously. Even The Washington Post had this to say about Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) and the franchise’s 180-degree take on female empowerment:

Letty represents a sharp reversal of the gender roles that dominate both action movies and romantic dramas. While she’s often in danger, she’s rarely in distress. In Furious 7, she’s part of the crew protecting the franchise’s first real damsel. While Letty had a childhood crush on Dom that grew into an enduring, grown-up love affair, she’s hardly the supplicant partner in their relationship. And while Letty is, by her own repeated description, a ride-or-die chick, she’s one with a healthy sense of her own priorities: She’s an equal, rather than Dom’s backup.

The Installment: The Fate of the Furious
The Year: 2017
The Revenue: $908 million worldwide and counting
Why a Revisionist History Is No Longer Necessary: Mostly because the ability to gross almost $1 billion globally in a single week buys all sorts of credibility. So much so that the next time anyone revises the history of the Fast and Furious films it will be about why the series was clearly dying but no one noticed (i.e., the exact reverse of what we’re witnessing now). We’ve certainly reached peak Fast and Furious — meaning a jumping of the shark is the only logical next step. I mean, check out what Bloomberg of all places did in honor of Fate of the Furious:

Exactly how fast and how furious is the Fast & Furious cinematic universe? The family at Bloomberg decided to meticulously analyze all seven movies to track their evolution. We counted just about everything that could be turned into a meaningful metric, even screen time for men’s biceps.