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When one thinks of the most epic cinematic sagas in history, chances are that the first ones that come to mind are the huge and meticulously crafted universes brimming with rich source material such as Harry Potter, Star Wars, Lord of The Rings, or the MCU. And then next to them sits Dominic Toretto and his Fast & Furious family.
A franchise, whose source material can be pretty much be summed up by "let's make a Point Break but with street racing" and one that just a decade ago was a wobbly little trilogy, which had built most of its resilient cult following on the chassis of a little sleeper hit from 2001. And then it reignited the engine, put it back in gear, popped the clutch, and went on to create one of the biggest sagas out there. So, how did that happen?
Well, as it is 10 years from the beginning of one of the unlikeliest revivals in cinema history, I decided to watch the entire saga back to back and explore what makes the Fast family truly special. Let's get right into it.
Finding the Pulse
When commenting on the franchise's stupefying levels of success, Paul Walker once said that it was always about finding that pulse and then keeping it beating. And, well as this philosophy was clearly in the heart of everyone involved in the franchise's revival, there's really only one place start this exploration: a certain nu metal and hip hop filled sleeper hit called The Fast and The Furious. More precisely, how come did this seemingly basic early '00s action flick end up paving the way for this gigantic saga?
Well, first of all, it's simply the fact that this this particular early '00s action flick chose to put its characters first. A notion which is perhaps best summed up with the way the film's last quarter plays out.
You see, initially, it does seem like the film is going down the rather expected sports movie route and conclude with some be all end all street race, where Brian pulls it all together, gets the girl, earns respect, etc. However, from the moment he reveals his undercover cop identity to Mia and then Dominic, the criminal underworld and street racing plot becomes a mere framing device for these character conflicts. There's no big conclusion, or an epic confrontation. It just ends with Brian and Dom establishing a begrudging respect before going their separate ways in what is a stylish, almost western-like ending.
Then there's also this film's sense of inclusivity. Simply put, much like Dom invites Brian to join his close knit and diverse crew, the film itself seems to extend a similar invite to viewers: you're always welcome in the fast family regardless of your background. The key here being how matter-of-factly it all comes across. There's really no sense that the filmmakers were going for making it diverse. It just sort of turned out that way. A representation of early 00s San Fernando valley, where the passion for racing brought together many different folks from differing backgrounds.
Lastly, when everything is said and done, it's a simply surprisingly well put together little movie. The plot moves at a nice pace, Rob Cohen's directing style is slick and full of energy, cast plays off each other perfectly, and there is this endearing care and passion shining through what is an inherently silly premise. Adding to that, it also manages to be accessible to everyone, while still catering for hardcore cars enthusiasts and racing lovers.
So, to sum up, what we have here is a movie that could have gotten away with so much less, but ended up delivering much, much more. More importantly, it established three crucial pillars upon which the franchise would later build its mega success: character focused storytelling, inclusivity and simply the filmmaking ambition. With that in mind, it's time to skip a few gears and jump right into 2009.
Keeping that Pulse Beating
Fast and Furious 4 often comes across as the forgotten one of the bunch. It's not as iconic as the original or as ambitious as its successors (or quite as fascinatingly problematic as its two direct predecessors). However, what does make this movie stand out is its single minded focus on the original leads. And, well, if the creators had any chance of navigating through the maze of poor artistic decision that accompanies most franchise revivals, this was the only way to go.
Simply put, what we have here is not street racing movie, or a crime/heist thriller. It's simply a movie about Brian, Mia, Dom and Letty. Granted, the action is still high quality, car park well picked as ever, and the drug trafficking plot actually quite decent. It's just that, well, when looking back at the film, the moments one tends to remember the most are the more quieter ones like Dom, Brian, and Mia having a quiet takeout around a small table, or the various moments of the characters dealing with the unsolved conflicts from the first film.
It's refreshingly low key, gives the leads a chance to flex their acting muscles, and is actually kind of sweet. However, more importantly, not only did it help to steer the franchise clear of this rather unfortunate limbo between offering something new while delivering on the old so many franchise revivals fall into, but it also firmly established the baseline for the saga as it moved into increasingly ambitious directions.
Take Fast Five for example. As awesome as the Diesel vs the Rock fight was or the little safe drag across Rio, the moments that really stuck with me were still the ones in vein of Dom giving Brain and Mia a bear hug upon learning that the latter two are expecting or the moment where the fast family as we know it was truly formed during their toast scene before the heist. Speaking of which...
Salud mi familia: The Inclusivity
Now, the reason why inclusivity deserves its own separate chapter in this Fast and Furious story is simple: it's interwoven into the very fabric of the franchise (and on more than one level). In fact, it already starts with the way the franchise treats its own past entries. More specifically, the two black sheep of the fast family 2 Fast 2 Furious and Tokyo Drift.
Here's the thing, successfully recapturing that old magic is a gigantic feat in its own right. So, it's understandable for many franchises to put all their focus on achieving just that and—in the process—completely disregard the legacy of its more problematic entries. However, thing is, the chain is only as strong as its weakest link and, well, the creators understood it perfectly.
Take 2 Fast 2 Furious for example. Granted, it was in many ways one of those slightly aimless sequels that never quite captured the feel of original. However, it also displayed the franchise's potential to go bigger with the crime thriller plot while introducing us to Tej and Roman—characters who were not only memorable in their own right but also shared good chemistry with Walker. So, when putting together a heist team for a Rio job 7 or so years later, of course you should use them.
As for Tokyo Drift, while it's perhaps even more hit and miss than the second one, it was the first film in the series to really explore the idea of going global with the story. Oh, and it also had Han, a character so cool that they literally had to shift the third movie in the franchise between the sixth and seventh movie just to facilitate his continued presence in the series. And, well, while it is a bit unintentionally funny to watch this mid '00s sports movie in between these two meticulously crafted action epics, it's also a nice change of pace to get something more simplistic and racing focused when watching these films back-to-back (more on that later).
Adding to that, the scene of Han reflecting on his past does get that extra bit of heft now that we've seen his and Gisele's (played by another great addition to the franchise in form of Gal Gadot) relationship during that fifth and sixth film. A great example on how using the stronger elements from the weaker entries does not just enhance the franchise going forward, but also retrospectively ends up raising the stockupping the value of these same weaker entries.
As for the inclusivity within the story, it's obvious that they could not have known quite what a well-matched and effective ensemble they'd create when putting together all of these characters from past entries and setting them up for a Rio heist (although casting Dwayne Johnson as Hobbs was obviously a stroke of genius). That part had more than a fair share of luck in it. However, what has nothing to do with luck is just how well this cast was used once they saw what they had.
Not only does the story allow them to play off each other in various combinations, but there's also a clear effort apparent in giving everyone their moment(s) to shine with the original cast happily taking a few steps back from time-to-time. A quality they actually managed to improve on with the Fast & Furious 6.
As a last layer of inclusivity, there's also the way this series engages with the fans. You see, for all of it's current popularity, one can still consider it something of cult franchise with a dedicated following. That, in turn, is something the crew behind these films has not only appreciated but also used to a great effect. In fact, it was Diesel himself who started uncovering the potential of social media to get closer to fans back in the late '00s. And indeed, the franchise seems to have made quite a few artistic decision based on what fans want ever since (a slippery slope sure, but one that has worked out great in this case). While we're on the subject of artistic decisions...
The Filmmaking Ambition
Now, when praising the filmmaking prowess of this franchise, it's safe to say that not everyone would jump on that train. Many casual movie goers simply disregard these movies as dumb action, while quite a few hardcore fans feel that the franchise has jumped the shark and moved too far from its street racing roots. And, well, while there might be more than a fair bit of truth to both claims, it's also impossible to deny that—technically speaking—these films are brilliant.
First of, it's simply the way they look and move. Everything from editing to overall visual storytelling has a sense of energy and playfulness to it. Something, which seems to be a stapler in pretty much every film despite many different directors being at the helm (that of course also indicates the strong sense of ownership and understanding the mainstays of the franchise have towards it). As for the action scenes, they are painstakingly well crafted even by big budget blockbuster standards with everyone from behind the camera to front of it giving their utmost to deliver and up the ante.
Of course, that latter element also does lead us to the second of the criticisms: moving too far from one's roots. And, well, it's a fine line here. On the one hand, what Fast Five did was nothing short of brilliant. They had four very different movies worth of mythology and characters to use. So, they simply brought it all together by setting out to make a great heist film that just happens to have these characters in it. It remains one of the best examples of a franchise not just adapting to survive but thriving to survive.
Yet, while their ability to build upon it and further up the stakes with every subsequent chapter is indeed impressive, it's also fair to say that it just got a bit much somewhere along the way and it can be quite jarring to watch the first and, say, the eighth movie back-to-back. Yet, while they perhaps have gone too far into this current hyper reality, it's actually quite a smooth process when watching them in short succession (well, as smooth as it can be).
Adding to that, the passion for cars is still there. It has just gone from the wow effect of a 10 second Supra MK IV to the wow effect of two Charger SRT-8s having enough bhp to drag a safe across Rio. Therefore, while you could say that the franchise has become a victim of its own success, its passion to keep delivering is undeniably obvious.
Now, as much of fun as this little exploration was, it was always going to be tricky to incorporate the seventh movie into all of it for obvious and unfortunate reason. So, I'll just leave you with a few closing thoughts on it.
In short, it's a minor miracle that this movie ever got completed. And, well, when looking at its bittersweet final few minutes, it's clear that what drove everyone involved was the desire to celebrate Paul Walker's legacy. Which, in turn, pretty much sums up the entire franchise. It doesn't matter how much of its success is down to skill and how much to luck. What matters is that they had something special in their hands and they were able to see it, appreciate it, and then let that realization drive them forward in keeping it alive and doing it justice. That's what's truly special about this saga and—incidentally—also the reason why I have a strange amount of optimism for its uncertain future. Despite the fact that, at this point, it has not just jumped the shark, but also a tank, cargo plane, skyscraper(s), and a submarine.