The Fast and the Furious Franchise Retrospective

In 2001, Rob Cohen helmed a fast-paced, testosterone-laced crime action movie featuring two up-and-coming leading men. Little did he and the producers know that this would kick off a multi-film franchise that has produced spin-off movies and is planning to have its 10th installment released in 2021. The franchise has evolved from its humble beginnings, and the new films are now basically a modern-day James Bond-meets-Mission Impossible. How it got there and where is it heading? Read on…

The Fast and the Furious (2001)

Plot: Undercover police officer Brian O’Connor (Paul Walker) is assigned to infiltrate the underworld street racing scene to locate a team of thieves who have been pulling off a series of daring highway trucking thefts.

I have to admit, I was not a big fan of the first film when I initially saw it. Maybe because I didn’t buy Paul Walker giving up his career at the end, or just the in-your-face car culture that annoyed the hell out of me, but I didn’t dig it.  Watching it now, I appreciate it a little bit more, even though I still think that it’s basically a series of music videos joined together by a basic action/crime plot.

That being said, I do get a better feel for the two main characters, and I now understand why Walker’s Brian O’Connor would be seduced into joining Diesel’s Toretto “family.” There’s something safe and comforting in the loyalty exhibited by someone as powerful and resourceful as Dom Toretto, who you know will always have your back, plus Jordana Brewster’s Mia… enough said.

While the film is still nothing special in my eyes, I do appreciate what it was trying to do. The car lingo is shoved in your face, and I don’t get most of it, but I buy the family theme, I think the two leads are engaging, I’ve always liked Rick Yune as a villain, the races are well-executed, as are the highway heists.  While it is miles away from where the franchise would end up, I appreciate this flick and think it’s one of the better ones in the franchise.

2 Fast 2 Furious (2003)

Plot: Now based in Miami, O’Connor and boyhood chum Roman Pierce (Tyrese Gibson) are tasked by an FBI agent with helping taking down drug lord Carter Verone (Cole Hauser) to clear their records.

Helmed by the late John Singleton, the sequel to the first film is in a lot of ways, a stark difference from its predecessor – and I love it. I think that it’s definitely one of the best in the franchise.

First of all, Miami is a great backdrop to the action, it’s colourful, vibrant, and has its own personality, a welcome change from the drab East L.A. setting for the first movie. Secondly, the introduction of Roman Pierce gives the film a jolt; while his later portrayals are a little too cartoony and comic relief for my liking, this Roman Pierce is a tough-as-nails badass. He perfectly compliments Paul Walker’s Calfornia good looks and affability. Third, the villain – Cole Hauser is fantastic. He’s cold, manipulative, not above threatening to have a rat eat through a dirty cop’s chest, nor forcing a group of racers to break into a police impound just to retrieve a cigar. In my opinion, he is one of the great villains of the franchise.  Finally, the action – I think this film was a precursor to the later films, it’s a little over the top – after all, you see a stunt where a car flies into a boat – but it still feels like a Fast and Furious movie. There’s the cars, the music, the women – but it feels like something more, a good old-fashioned, kick-ass action film as well.

2 Fast 2 Furious is a fun ride, and while it is a departure from the first film, I didn’t miss any of the elements that were not included in this sequel. It’s definitely a stand-out in the franchise and well-worth the viewing.

The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006)

Plot: High school troublemaker Sean Boswell (Lucas Black) is sent to Japan after his latest brush with the law to live with his father and discovers the Tokyo racing scene, including an alluring schoolmate (Nathalie Kelley) and a Yakuza antagonist (Brian Tee).

For the longest time, this installment stood out like a sore thumb in the franchise – none of the main characters from the first two films are in it, it doesn’t take place in the United States, and it plays more like a high-school romance than a Fast and Furious movie.  All true. When I first saw it, I wasn’t impressed. Repeat viewings have given me an appreciation towards it and what it was trying to accomplish – to build a world where the Fast and the Furious characters inhabit it.  Subsequent movies in the franchise have worked hard to bring this movie into the fold. That being said, it does have its warts.

I think the protagonist is too young – while the previous films dealt with adults, this is the first one to feature a high-school aged protagonist and subsequently, the entire love triangle between Sean, Neela and DK feels more like an adolescent love triangle as opposed to something to be taken seriously. I also found it extremely generic, especially in it’s set-up to the end – DK owns Sean in a street race, Sean practices, and you know he’s going to beat DK at his own game at the end. There’s no surprises, no suspense, no drama.

That being said, there are still elements of the film I enjoy.  I think the Tokyo setting is unique and stylish.  I like all the leads, especially Sung Kang as Han (obviously I wasn’t the only one, considering the character appeared in the next three movies). I think the racing scenes were well-choreographed and the focus on drifting was a nice change.

Overall, it’s not a bad film, and I think it’s received some appreciation over the years. I peg it at number four in the series and think it’s worthy of its entry in the franchise.

Fast & Furious (2009)

Plot: Domenic Toretto returns to the United States and re-unites with Mia and Brian to find Letty’s (Michelle Rodriguez) killer.

While I enjoyed the first three films in the series, I definitely think this one is one of, if not the weakest in the series. All of the momentum that the first three films achieved just comes to a screeching halt in this installment.

First of all, the Letty character barely made an impact in the first film.  Yes, she was around, and she was Dom’s girlfriend, but her appearances were sporadic, and she was long gone by the climax of the film. Her (apparent) death in this movie doesn’t make much of an impact. Then you have Brian rejoining law enforcement, this time getting promoted to the FBI – why? He’d already given up on that sort of life in the first film and seemed pretty comfortable in the lifestyle of a rogue, the fact that he would even try to go back into that previous life (never mind actually being accepted and promoted in such a role) makes no sense.  It’s no shock to the viewer that he ditches the right side of the law by the end of the film – after all, he’s already done it before.

Then, there’s the action.  While parts 2 and 3 amped up style, we’re back in East L.A. in this one, and when we’re not in that drab setting, we’re in the desert of Mexico.  It’s just visually uninspiring, and I found the car races unmemorable as a result.

It’s not all bad.  I liked the Gal Godot Giselle character, the gas heist at the beginning was cool, and the leads still pull their weight.  It’s just a step back in the franchise to me, and it plays more like a made-for-television movie than an addition to a major action film franchise – I kept waiting for commercial breaks at specific points in the film.

Fast Five (2011)

Plot: On the run from DSS agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson), Dom, Brian, and Mia bring together key players from the past films to do the impossible – perform a 100 million dollar heist from a Brazillian drug lord.

After the let down from Part 4, this film rises from the ashes and it arguably, the best of the series. The inclusion of Dwayne Johnson’s Hobbs as a rival for Toretto gives the series a shot in the arm and finally brings in a worthy adversary for the muscle-bound criminal. Hobbs’ no-nonsense approach and dialogue is pretty damned entertaining, even without the Rock’s incredible physicality in action scenes.

I found the final scene involving the chase with the bank vault to be the best action sequence shot of all the films. While it is somewhat ridiculous, the creativity and uniqueness of the sequence, where Dom and Brian use the vault as a weapon against their pursuers, is a thing of beauty. The Rio rooftop chase was equally memorable, as was the Hobbs/Dom battle.

Really, there’s nothing for me to dislike about this movie.  Bringing in most of the leading players from the other films was a stroke of genius, as you get to see the interplay and new relationships build a result. The twist at the end was also well-done and imaginative.

If you have to watch one film in the series, I would say this is the one.  It brings the best aspects of each of the other films forward and still manages to be its own thing.

Fast & Furious 6 (2013)

Plot: Hobbs enlists Dom and his team to help former SAS soldier (Luke Evans) from stealing components to build a lethal device.

After the high of Fast Five, there was really nowhere to go but down, and unfortunately, this film lands with a bit of a thud. While the inclusion of Luke Evans gives us a villain who at least can hold their own in a fight with the imposing Toretto and Hobbs, there are quite a few problems with this film.

To begin with, there’s the Letty character.  I’ve already stated how I didn’t feel she made much of an impact in the series – now we get her return, and a much of the emotional impact is put into her amnesia and the psychological repercussions to the team. Again, I don’t get it, she really didn’t make much of an impression on me previously, so I shrugged quite a bit at the goings-on involving her in this movie. Then, there’s the Riley character, played by Gina Carano.  She is the perfect sidekick to the Hobbs character, a no-nonsense woman who can hold her own in any fight.  Having her swerve at the end and secretly join the bad guys makes literally no sense and seems only to have been inserted for shock value. It’s a pretty poor way to treat a character who was a standout in the film.

Then, there’s the action. While the London chase and the highway tank battle are nice, if a little bit ridiculous (specifically the mid-air catch Dom makes on Letty before smashing through a car windshield…and of course, walking away), the climactic action scene is a little disappointing. While a lot of work was put into the interiour fight between Dom, Shaw, Hobbs, Riley, and Shaw’s subordinate, the exteriour shots were usually too dark to see anything. That’s really too bad as there seemed to be a lot of important stuff going on, including the death of an important character, and most of it is lost to the shoddy choreography and lighting.  It’s a shame, especially in a franchise that is known for its impressive action set pieces.

Fast & Furious 6 is a transition film, taking us from the heist films that have been a hallmark of the series to James Bond-esque territory. While it’s still an entertaining flick, it definitely has its flaws.

Furious 7 (2015)

Plot: Dom and his crew are enlisted by Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) to help steal a powerful location device known as God’s Eye, while the team deals with a vengeful Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham).

When I think of this movie, the term that immediately comes to mind is flying cars. There are a lot of flying cars in this film.  Cars flying off mountains, out of planes, in between buildings – it seems that the filmmakers thought that the way to make this entry memorable was to take these vehicles off their natural terra firma and put them in the air.

Furious 7 is an action-packed extravaganza. The plot is basically a series of dialogue scenes attached to an ongoing series of increasingly fantastical action scenes. Cars are dropped out of a plane to attack an armoured convoy. Two combatants fight while the street literally crumbles beneath them. A man single-handedly takes out an entire hospital full of guards. Another man, in another hospital, breaks out of his cast and grabs a Gatling gun to attack the bad guys. The same man landed in the hospital while flipping out of an office window and falling six stories, landing on a car while cradling another character.  In the end, a vehicle is catapulted into a helicopter, at which time the occupant of the car conveniently hangs a bag full of grenades off the skids. While all of the action scenes are exciting, the suspension of disbelief sorely gets tested throughout the process.

The movie is memorable in another way – due to the tragic real-life passing of Paul Walker, this would be the final franchise appearance by the Brian O’Connor character. Due to the untimeliness of Walker’s death, the film is missing a lot of his presence, with silent stand-ins filling in the missing pieces of the O’Connor character.  The movie also is without the Hobbs character for most of it, as he is bed-ridden for the majority of the running time, and the Deckard Shaw character is woefully underused as he has to share antagonist screen time with Djimon Hounsou’s mercenary character.  Tony Jaa is another character who I don’t feel is given enough time to display all of his skillsets.

That being said, it’s still entertaining, the scenery, especially in Abu Dhabi, is beautiful and the introduction of the Kurt Russell character was definitely a highlight.

The Fate of the Furious (2017)

Plot: Dom is manipulated by cyber-terrorist Cipher (Charlize Theron) to help her steal weapons to incite World War 3, while his “family” bands together to stop them.

As ridiculous as I felt Fast 7 was at times, The eighth and to date, the last film in the series takes it to a whole new level.  In its haste to re-introduce past characters and shove in new ones, they basically take everything established in the other movies and punt them to the curb.

For instance, the Deckard Shaw character, who cold-bloodedly murdered one of the “family” in part 6 is now one of the gang.  The movie attempts to say “ah, he wasn’t that bad a guy, really), but the same guy who is cooing at a baby while taking out a plane full of baddies is the same guy who basically murdered everyone in a hospital. Uhh…yeah.  Plus, the Luke Evans character returns and also fights on the side of the good guys – because I guess everyone is willing to let bygones be bygones in the new Fast movies.

Then, there’s the Dom character.  While I get his turn, his ability to still plan and plot against the bad guys controlling them, often right under their noses, is astounding. He manages to contact both pre-existing and new characters to carry out his subterfuge – I guess Charlize and her gang were too busy catching zzz’s while Dom plotted. It goes even further beyond the suspension of disbelief that Furious 7 already tested.

There are still the great action scenes, with the New York standoff between Dom and his old team standing out as the most memorable.  The climactic scene between the sub and the assorted vehicles Dom and his team are driving is a little too nonsensical, with Hobbs being able to re-direct a missile with his bare hands, Roman’s ability to stop a cacophony of bullets with a car door and a circle of cars being able to shield Dom for an explosive blast.

The one unequivocal positive in the movie is Charlize Theron’s antagonist.  The role is brilliantly acted, as the character swerves from cold, unfeeling and sociopathic to manic and unhinged when she loses control. At times in the movie, I wasn’t sure if she was aware of what movie she was in, as her performance is far above the cartoony goings-on.

The Fate of the Furious, like it’s immediate predecessor, is hugely entertaining, giving you exotic locations, and all the action you could want.  Just leave your brain at the door.

Final Thoughts

As we transition to the upcoming and closing parts of the series (at least, for now), I do have to recognize the accomplishment that this series has achieved.  What started out as a lower-budget crime thriller based on cars has evolved into one of the pre-eminent action series’ of our time, featuring noteworthy action stars. While it has had its hiccups and flaws, I think there is definitely entertainment value in all of these films, and at the end of the day, I don’t think the producers of the series intended for them to be anything else.