Who knew that 20 years ago, a little movie about street racing and stealing VCRs would beget a globetrotting super-spy franchise attracting the biggest action stars and Oscar winners into its fold?
Not Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel), hero of the “The Fast and the Furious” films, who claimed to live his life “a quarter-mile at a time” when we first hear his signature growl in 2001. He was just a humble man with no need for anything fancy like craft beer (only Coronas for him) or sleeves on his shirts.
Yet somehow, Dom and charismatic actor Vin Diesel who portrays him both possess an undeniable gravitational force that pulled new cast and audience members into their orbit, never to break free, glutting the franchise with each new installment. Characters began to pair up and create a new generation of toddling adrenaline junkies. Enemies that came on for one movie teamed up with Toretto’s crime crew in the next. Some even brought their mothers along. Not even death – onscreen or off – would release someone from being invited to or honored at the traditional BBQ that closed each film.
Perhaps it’s this in-your-face concept of an adopted family that has appealed to billions of viewers worldwide. The franchise certainly started off with one of the most racially diverse – if uniformly fit, attractive and heteronormative – core group of characters that only expanded from there, to the delight of international audiences.
Well, the appeal is family . . . in addition to the base level onscreen antics that includes plenty of scantily clad women, biceps for days and feats defying the laws of physics and narrative. One does not watch a “Fast and Furious” film for its logic or grounded storytelling. Nay, in this cinematic universe – including 10 films, short films, video games and a Netflix animated series – Dom’s crime crew heard that the sky’s the limit and in reply said, “Hold my Corona.”
If you’re like me, you bought a ticket for “Furious 7” in 2015 to pay your respects to the late Paul Walker for his “one last ride” onscreen, a performance made possible from previous filming, his real-life brothers acting as body doubles and clever CGI. Just as Dominic Toretto embraced Brian O’Connor as a brother, so did now-executive producer Vin Diesel with Paul Walker, and it showed onscreen then and has continued with tributes in each subsequent installment.
If you’re also like me, you realized you had missed a few films along the way, and were therefore completely unprepared for what the franchise had become – an incoherent parade of cars literally flying through the air and multiple MacGuffin-stuffed plot lines.
And yet, it didn’t matter. I still bawled when Brian and Dom parted ways for the last time, their cars taking branching roads in different directions.
Since then, I’ve done a comprehensive “Fast & Furious” rewatch – now known with the streamlined name The Fast Saga – and view the films with a mixture of bewilderment, affection and un-ironic admiration. Over the course of two decades, the film series that almost sputtered out by its third installment had come roaring back to life with the power of a thousand NOS-fueled engines.
With my renewed and now fully developed appreciation for the franchise, I present to you a chronological look at each of the films, including “F9,” and how they’ve evolved.
“The Fast and the Furious” (2001)
Director: Rob Cohen, who also directed another Vin Diesel project, “XXX.” Recently, Cohen has been accused of sexual assault and rape.
Writers: Gary Scott Thompson (“Hollow Man,” “Las Vegas”) and David Ayer (“Suicide Squad”)
The cast: Vin Diesel, Jordana Brewster, Michelle Rodriguez, Paul Walker, Ja Rule
The crime: Way too good-looking undercover cop Brian O’Connor (Walker) takes part in some illegal street races to determine if racers in Dominic Toretto’s (Diesel) crew are behind a series automobile heists using three modified Honda Civics to steal a bunch of VCRs. It’s really all quite quaint. Over the course of the movie, Brian finds his sympathies lie with Toretto (and his hot sister Mia, played by Brewster), and he’s invited to drink any beer as long as it’s Corona and to eat barbecue. It’s this warm welcome that prompts his last-minute decision to help Dom escape in the end.
The tech: Audiences are introduced to nitrous oxide, aka NOS, as a means of injecting a burst of speed into vehicles at opportune moments. While a nitrous oxide engine is indeed a real thing, the creative uses of it in the franchise have extended beyond reality and legality.
The set pieces: Action scenes are relegated to fun street races, a heist scene (with risky driving under a big rig) and a police chase scene.
Verdict: It’s an unremarkable yet solid and normal action film that gives no hints of where the series will go, but there’s charm to its hyper-specific Los Angeles setting. Brian is really bad at going undercover, so it’s a good thing he’s a turncoat and now sides with Dom’s crime crew.
“2 Fast 2 Furious”
Title: An elegant use of the sequel’s number, wordplay and eliminating the use of any fussy articles or conjunctions
Director: Acclaimed “Boyz n the Hood” helmet John Singleton, bringing along his “Baby Boy” star
Writers: “3:10 to Yuma” and “Wanted” collaborators Michael Brandt and Derek Haas, co-written by the first film’s Gary Scott Thompson
The cast: This is the only OG “Fast & Furious” film without Vin Diesel. Paul Walker is joined by Tyrese Gibson, Eva Mendes, Cole Hauser, James Remar and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges – continuing the tradition in which the franchise allies itself with a rapper
The crime: After letting Dominic Toretto go in LA, Brian O’Connor is “hiding out” in Miami by taking part in illegal street races run by his mechanic pal Tej Parker (Ludacris). Knowing his record, the local FBI ropes him into bringing down an Argentinian drug lord. But Brian needs a partner, preferably a bald one in the absence of Dom, so he brings in childhood friend and current parolee Roman Pierce (Gibson). In the middle of all the action, there’s also a gnarly torture scene involving a rat reminiscent of “1984” or “Game of Thrones” that’s certainly criminal.
The tech: Creative use of NOS to make an ejector seat!
The set pieces: Even before the full crime goes down, there are three car races, one that acts as an initiation into the drug lord’s crew. The climax involves an extended chase through Miami’s streets and a huge scramble of other decoy cars with the help of Tej – a foreshadowing of the bigger crime crew shenanigans to come. Also, Brian drives his Camaro off of a ramp and lands on a yacht.
Verdict: Less angsty and far more glib than the first film, “2 Fast 2 Furious” has embraced more of the banter and humor that will later become a trademark of the franchise. It’s dumb fun that feels a little off because Brian is “cheating” on both of the Torettos.
“The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift” (2006)
Title: It’s evident from the title that this has little connection to the “F&F” world as we know it other than a slapped label . . . and a surprise cameo at the end.
Director: Justin Lin, flush from his critical success with “Better Luck Tomorrow,” comes on since he’s Asian and this is set in Japan. Although this was intended to be a standalone sequel to the series, it’s now become canon with creative time-hopping involved. He also brought Sung King, who was also called Han, from “Better Luck Tomorrow” as a bit of a bonus crossover, although they’re not technically the same character.
Writer: Chris Morgan, the beginning of a beautiful friendship with the franchise
The cast: Lucas Black, Sung Kang, Bow Wow, Brian Tee
The crime: Race enthusiast Sean gets in trouble in high school and is sent to live with his father in Tokyo as punishment(?). There, he learns the addictive yet dangerous art of drift racing from his often snacking guru Han (Kang), who turns out has been stealing from the yakuza. When the smoke clears, Han ends up dead in a car accident but Sean is crowned the new drift king.
The tech: Besides nice cars, hmm, there’s some GPS involved
The set pieces: A few races at the top with lots of burned rubber, a major chase scene in the middle resulting in Han’s death, and a nail-biting drift race down a mountain at night.
Verdict: Despite engrossing race scenes and some clever dialogue, this is the lowest-earning film in the series, no doubt because at the time audiences wanted a familiar face in the lead. Early screenings tested poorly as well, which prompted the studio to make a deal for Vin Diesel to make a cameo at the end, with Dom claiming the departed Han as “family.” Without this retconning the film into the Toretto-verse, the franchise would not have gone on its bizarre path in the next few films.
“Fast & Furious” (2009)
Title: What a missed opportunity. “Fast & 4-ious” was right there. Unfortunately, the confusing title the studio landed on comes from wanting to soft reset the franchise with Vin Diesel back in the driver’s seat as producer and lead, and to indicate to audiences that no really, “Tokyo Drift” was just an aberration.
Director: Justin Lin is back . . .
Writer: . . . and so is Chris Morgan! With their powers combined, this film is the first of three prequels to “Tokyo Drift,” the better to resurrect Han and put him on Toretto’s crime crew.
The cast: Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Michelle Rodriguez, Jordana Brewster, plus the introduction of Gal Gadot as Gisele
The crime: Taking place several years after Dom escaped the U.S., he learns that Letty (Rodriguez) has been murdered. Returning to Los Angeles, he and Brian (who’s undercover again because these cops have low standards) learn that a Mexican drug lord killed her after she did a border run for him (but she was undercover, so joke’s on him). Of course, then Dom and Brian must go undercover for the drug lord.
The tech: NOS makes a comeback, this time for Dom to use to blow up some cars. Also, GPS is in heavy use as the drug runners are told to follow the voice instructions on these devices.
The set pieces: Many of the drug runs are rather boring because they take place in dark and claustrophobic tunnels under a mountain. The best action scene by far takes place in the Dominican Republic, where Han joins Toretto’s crew to hijack fuel tankers along the freeway.
Verdict: With the exception of the revival of a smiling Han in the cold open, this was perhaps the grimmest of the franchise. With the specter of Letty’s death, and Dom and Brian still at odds with each other for most of the film, this backslid and lost some of the joy the series had found in the second film.
“Fast Five” (2011)
Title: We’ve come to the point when brand recognition is strong enough to not need both “fast” and “furious” in the title
Director: Justin Lin
Writer: Chris Morgan
The cast: Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Jordana Brewster, Tyrese Gibson, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Sung Kang, Gal Gadot and introducing new bald guy into the FFU, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson
The crime: Taking place in Rio, “Fast & Furious” has shifted from street racing to full-time heist mode, where the crime crew concocts a plan to steal $100 million from a local crime lord. Besides greed, they’re further inspired because Mia and Brian are going to have a baby. But they have to get by the Diplomatic Security Service agent Luke Hobbs (The Rock) and his team first, before he arrests Brian and the rest for freeing Dom from the prison bus.
The tech: Dom uses the old standby NOS to give him an extra boost to help drag the vault of money through the streets of Rio. A computer chip acts as a MacGuffin. Plus, they’re not part of the film per se, but some of the subtitles are nifty in that they speed on and off the screen like cars peeling out. A bit of meta playfulness for the fans.
The set pieces: Brian and the crew busting Dom from his prison bus is lots of fun (especially since no one was hurt when it overturned). But the literal train heist at the beginning and the vault heist through the streets foreshadow the level of crime crew cooperation and mid-action ridiculousness that will take place in the films to come.
Verdict: As the first film to take the franchise into heist and spy mode, this is the best of the bunch, especially because it features the scenes that make every heist film sing: the montages of bringing everybody together, Avengers-style, and the training required to pull off the heist. This film also serves to build the supporting characters more. Mia gets to speak Portuguese (Jordana is half-Brazilian). Roman (Gibson) and Tej (Ludacris) begin their particular brand of camaraderie. And as they start their romance, we get backstories for Gisele and Han that cheekily reference Gadot’s real-life military service and Han’s “Better Luck Tomorrow” smoking habit. The Rock’s love of colorful dialogue comes into play as well, including the use of the word “funderwear.”
“Fast & Furious 6” (2013)
Director: Justin Lin
Writer: Chris Morgan
The cast: Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Dwayne Johnson, Michelle Rodriguez, Jordana Brewster, Tyrese Gibson, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Sung Kang, Gal Gadot, Gina Carano and Luke Evans as the new antagonist seeing as how Hobbs is now working with Toretto
The crime: A skilled mercenary organization led by former British special ops soldier One Shaw (Evans) needs to make some deadly MacGuffin called the Nightshade, and is pulling off a series of heists and attacks to obtain the parts. With a very alive Letty (Rodriguez) who is suffering from amnesia as part of Shaw’s crew, it doesn’t take Hobbs much to pull in Toretto’s crew, who are now upgraded from thieves to special agents, in exchange for pardons.
The tech: Some use of NOS and military stuff
The set pieces: While Shaw flipping a tank (from which Dom saves Letty with an impossible catch) and Dom taking down a plane gets much of the attention, frankly, it’s an all-out brawl in the London Underground that feels the most exciting.
Verdict: Now that the Dom’s crew is being hired for special spy gigs, the Fast Saga has officially entered “extra” territory. Don’t bother following plots or expecting gravity to work correctly. No one gets hurt unless it’s planned, and that means Gisele had to die in order to get Han to Tokyo and get killed himself, finally catching us back up with the “Tokyo Drift” timeline. All that said, bringing on “The Raid” and “Warrior” martial artist Joe Taslim gives the films an extra dimension of excitement because it elevates the hand-to-hand combat that we’ve seen previously and requires no elaborate sets or special effects.
“Furious 7” (2015)
Title: Ditching the “fast” this time!
Director: James Wan, known primarily for co-creating the “Saw” and creating the “Conjuring” horror franchises
Writer: Chris Morgan
The cast: The remaining crew, plus The Rock, Nathalie Emmanuel, Djimon Hounsou, Kurt Russell as new special ops leader called Mr. Nobody, and new bald enemy Jason Statham as Deckard Shaw. Tony Jaa of “Ong Bak” fame and Rhonda Rousey also come on to kick some butt.
The crime: A Nigerian terrorist named Jakande (Hounsou) wants to put together a device that hacker Ramsey (Emmanuel) has developed called the God’s Eye that can locate anyone in the world. Mr. Nobody hires Dom’s crew to help him get the God’s Eye, and in turn they can use it to find Deckard Shaw, who had killed Han out of revenge for his brother Owen from the previous film
The tech: Too many to name, including the big MacGuffin, but Jakande uses a drone at one point, and then of course Dom uses NOS to give his car a boost to reach a helicopter.
The set pieces: Nothing beats the first quarter of the movie when the crew’s cars literally parachute out of a plane over Azerbaijan and then proceed in a high-speed heist of a truck to save Ramsey, ending with Brian’s hair-raising escape from a vehicle about to go over a cliff. But wait, there’s more! In Abu Dhabi, Dom and Brian jump a car from the penthouse in one skyscraper to the next building, and then repeat the stunt to a third skyscraper. A final standoff in Los Angeles involving a drone, a helicopter, an ambulance and bag full of grenades is just excessive. We also see that handing off a woman between two moving vehicles is now a trope in the franchise.
Verdict: The movie frankly could’ve just been the beginning section in Azerbaijan and then cut straight to the end with the tearful farewell to Paul Walker. While messy and overstuffed, this is the Fast Saga now, and you either say grace and be thankful, or you leave the barbecue. This action flick pulled off an authentically heartfelt ending, and that’s pretty remarkable.
“The Fate of the Furious” (2017)
Title: Nice wordplay, and it also offered the shorthand option “F8”
Director: F. Gary Gray of “Friday,” “The Italian Job” (reuniting him here with Jason Statham) and “Straight Outta Compton”
Writer: Chris Morgan
The cast: The Fast crew plus Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Jason Statham – it’s his turn to team up with the crew this time – Kurt Russell, Scott Eastwood as his new lackey, and Charlize Theron as a new cyberterrorist named . . . Cipher. Also, Kristoffer Hivju, aka “Game of Thrones” wildling Tormund Giantsbane, and Dame Helen Mirren join in on the fun.
The crime: Hobbs hires Dom’s team to obtain an EMP device, but at the last minute, Dom turns traitor, having been blackmailed into helping Cipher after she revealed she has his son . . . the child of the DSS agent he had hooked up with when he thought Letty was dead. What follows is a lot of hurt feelings from Dom’s crew while Dom glumly follows Cipher’s instructions until the very end when his son is saved thanks to help from Deckard Shaw and his mom, played by Helen Mirren.
The tech: Would you believe there are a few MacGuffins this time around? This film involves a lady named Cipher after all. This time, she wants the EMP device, a nuclear football and utilizes the God’s Eye to keep Dom in line. But the coolest thing she does is hack into all the cars in New York.
The set pieces: Hobbs and Shaw’s prison escape brawl is fantastic, previewing what we’ll get in their spinoff, but there’s also a hilarious scene in which Cipher controls the cars in New York and uses them against Dom’s crew – either to create traffic jams or to have them rain down from parking garages overhead in a zombie carmageddon – so that Dom can steal what she needs. The final set piece involves a nuclear submarine, a plane and an infrared missile.
Verdict: If “Furious 7” was four movies, this feels like five or six. We can’t keep up, but we can’t quit either. The main betrayal storyline felt about as manipulative as the Letty amnesia storyline, which is to say we’ll begrudgingly allow it. That said, much of it feels icky, especially since it involves fridging a character (the child’s mother). But then Dom goes and names his kid after Brian, who is still alive offscreen in that world. In real life, Diesel named his third child Pauline, after Paul Walker, and is the godfather of Walker’s daughter. So yeah, this movie got us in the end.
“Hobbs & Shaw” (2019)
Title: Wait, there’s no “F” in the title? Oh right, the actual full title is “The Fast and the Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw.” Whew.
Director: David Leitch, who directed “John Wick,” “Atomic Blonde,” “Deadpool 2” and the recent Bob Odenkirk flick “Nobody”
Writers: Chris Morgan and “Iron Man 3” writer Drew Pearce
The cast: Bald heroes The Rock and Jason Statham reprise their Fast Saga roles, plus “The Crown” actress Vanessa Kirby as Deckard’s sister Hattie, along with Helen Mirren as their mom and Idris Elba as a cybernetic terrorist named Brixton.
The crime: Hattie is an MI6 agent who tries to keep a deadly programmable virus known as Snowflake out of the wrong hands – a tech terrorist organization called Eteon of which Brixton is part – by injecting it into herself. Hobbs and Shaw obtain an extraction device and successfully fight off Brixton, even though Eteon still remains.
The tech: Guns that need to be activated first! A virus extraction device?
The set pieces: In split screen, we see Hobbs and Shaw in Los Angeles and London respectively fight off a bunch of people to extract information. A descent from the side of a skyscraper and breaking into a clandestine facility are also exciting, while a final helicopter stunt – are we tired of them yet? – feels just overdone when it tumbles off a cliff, and suddenly it’s raining.
Verdict: While the stunts feel very familiar in the “Fast & Furious” vein, down to handing off Vanessa Kirby between moving vehicles, you don’t need to know the plots from those films to follow this one. What makes this work is that both The Rock and Statham have unique fighting styles: Hobbs’ brute strength versus Statham’s more nimble martial arts. Similarly, their contrasting personalities offer a delightful chemistry and onscreen banter that feels natural. Leaving the identity of Eteon’s director a mystery leaves a tantalizing door open for future stories.
Title: Just two characters! F yeah!
Director: Justin Lin is back, baby!
Writer: Daniel Casey, replacing Chris Morgan. Why?!?
The cast: Everybody, yes, everybody even the people from “Tokyo Drift” and Sung Kang because it turns out Han isn’t dead, and the #Justice4Han hashtag did its work. Plus, John Cena.
The crime: It turns out that Dom has an estranged brother Jakob (Cena) who is also a super agent, having turned on Mr. Nobody a while back. His search for a multi-part device called Ares that can hack into any weapons system. It’s also revealed that Han is in fact alive, having worked with Mr. Nobody all of these years to fake his death but to also protect one part of Ares, a girl named Elle’s whose DNA is needed to complete the device.
The tech: The Ares device is even more nonsensical than the usual MacGuffin because its many parts just creates a MacGuffin turducken and who needs that? But also, with all the advancements made, the best one used in the film is rather low-tech: magnets!
The set pieces: Sure, two of the Fast crew literally go into outer space, but that’s one of the least exciting parts of the film. A chase scene in Central America involving a bridge and cliffs, and then a car chase using electromagnets to trap or slingshot other vehicles in Tbilisi are the types of ridiculous scenes we signed up for. Letty, Mia and Elle’s fight in Tokyo is also worthy of mention.
Verdict: After a year of quarantine, this was my first film in a real theater, and I’ve gotta say it was a lot of fun to hear the audience react to all the same nonsense as I did. But did I wish it had less plotlines and less characters? Did Roman’s meta rants about how they never come to harm wear a little? Did Dom pulling down a silo with his bare hands in a Christ-like pose make me roll my eyes? Yes, yes to all of it. As if to show just how chaotic and overplotted it could be, even Jakob got his redemption within the same movie. He didn’t have to wait until the next to reconcile with Dom. But hey, we also got Han back, and that post-credits scene where he shows up at Shaw’s door looks promising. We’re tired, but we’re comitted.
With “F9” looking to break post-quarantine box office records and two more Justin Lin-directed final installments in this Toretto-led leg of the race, “Fast” fans including myself are buckled up to go the distance.
“F9” is currently in theaters nationwide.