How ‘Fast & Furious’ Took Over the World
The Fast & Furious has officially won the race.
Had someone told the world back in 2001 that a movie about street racers would not only give birth to a seven-film franchise but that it final entry would be considered a box-office breaking phenomenon, they would have been tomato-pelted out of the multiplex. But consider the domestic opening-weekend receipts for Furious 7 ($146.5 million) as well as its global haul (a whopping $384 million). And take note that the series has earned kudos in the pages of publications that would never appear in one of its films, beloved by pretty much everyone from Deadline to The New Yorker.
Amid the chorus of praise and populist hosannas, it’s easy to forget that Fast & Furious‘ critical and financial victory took almost 15 years to fully cement. It may have been decently successful at the box office, but the first film has a 53% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, where the consensus is that the movie “recalls those cheesy teenage exploitation flicks of the 1950s.” In a cultural moment characterized by reclaiming entertainment for teenagers and forcing it into the mainstream for serious evaluation, that now seems like a feature rather than a bug — like the cars that populate its movies, the franchise just needed to get a little momentum and a dose of nitro to get going.
Remember that the original story of The Fast and the Furious was that Paul Walker’s cop Brian O’Conner had to go undercover to catch Vin Diesel’s speed demon/criminal suspect Dom Toretto; the simplicity and faux-ambiguity of that mission is almost unrecognizable in comparison to the last couple of movies. In retrospect, the first F&F plays much like the origin story of a superhero team. And from the core of Dom, Brian, Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) and Mia (Jordana Brewster), the films have seen the accumulation of a crew, in a way that has been far more organic than the assembling of the Avengers. The series has its own mythos now, complete with interrelated villains, relationships complicated by everything from the government to amnesia, and various gold-hearted criminals with their own particular sets of skills.
It’s always been true that pulling together lots of successful actors often leads to similarly successful collaborations (see: the Ocean’s trilogy), but it also creates the potential for failure (see: He’s Just Not That Into You). Here, the assembled talent has gone from B-list forgettable to formidable: by now, the series includes not just Diesel, Walker and Rodriguez but Ludacris, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Jason Statham, Tyrese Gibson, Kurt Russell, future Wonder Woman Gal Gadot and director Justin Lin, whose ability to ramp up the stakes and the stunts is the franchise’s secret weapon. Like any long-running series, F&F has its own set of rules now, the most important of which is: bigger is always better. Gravity is a nuisance that can be overcome. Revving engines and loud explosions are a universal lingua franca.
Still, reconsidering the earlier movies presents a kind of paradox: The Fast and the Furious works better as the first installment of a long-running, gasoline-soaked soap opera, but judging it as such at the time would have been premature, not to mention overly generous. (You can tell how much this has changed over time by looking at the original reviews — Entertainment Weekly‘s Owen Gleiberman gave it a C, comparing Paul Walker’s Brian O’Conner to Lance Bass and bemoaning how quickly the movie’s thrills zoomed by.)
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