In the modern day of movie franchises, the choice few have established themselves as definitive successes that have attained a tenure in ticket sales and the public eye. Veteran mainstays like Star Wars and critical darlings like Mission Impossible sit at the foot of the golden throne of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Their success exists in digits and figures far beyond what any movies ever managed before. In this echelon of blockbusting movies, the safest bets have carved out a distinct formula, an approach that the Avengers series was crafted with from its birth and that Avatar used to steal a billion dollars from unexpecting moviegoers. Its frame offers a rigid outline of melodrama and family-friendly action, where Captain America exemplifies moral perfection and Iron Man is a loveable goofball. While most modern franchises try to follow the model Marvel has outlined, most prove hamstrung, whether by a less fitting subject or proving unwilling to commit the same patient effort of the Avengers. Amongst the rabble there are failures and faltered attempts, with a few rising above the herd and reaping the rewards. There is just one franchise, however, that has slowly made its way into a small corner of this pantheon, all while doing almost none of the same careful and calculated groundwork of their peers. As ridiculous as it is, it may just be that Fast & Furious stands as the most individual of any of these money-printing franchises, and it may be almost entirely by mistake.
When the first Fast & Furious movie came out in 2001, the landscape of blockbusters and franchises were very different. Only coming out the same year as The Fellowship of the Ring, there was hardly the blueprint — nor appetite — for movie sagas that played out over decades. It is readily apparent in watching the first film of the series, The Fast and the Furious, that no one had any grander plans beyond an ebonic-fluent Paul Walker drag racing Vin Diesel across LA in a Point Break rehash. Surely when they named the movie, they never thought they would have to think up so many number-themed puns off of it. The movie focuses on Walker’s Brian O’Connor as an inexperienced but ambitious undercover cop tracking down a lead on a series of semi-truck heists, eventually joining Diesel's Dominic Turretto and his crew of tight knit drag racers. From there the plot is simple and expected, with Walker becoming closer and closer to the crew, sacrificing his career as a cop and allowing Diesel to escape. Even the ending leaves little to follow, finishing on a definitive moment that seems to conclude the relationships on which the story centered. People had died, Vin Diesel ran away, and Paul Walker abandoned on his mission. This sort of closed ending, while certainly made with no expectation for a sequel, somehow became a motif of the series, which insists on a return to normalcy at the end of every film, as if it’s only happening upon another movie by accident.
"Characters are squeezed into the one-note attributes that had been born in earlier subtleties. "
However, in hindsight, so many mainstays of the series were accidentally born within the smallest and most inconsequential moments of a first movie that never looked far beyond its own borders. Things like Dominic Turreto’s loyalty to friends and family become his creed and mantra in later movies. Where Brian O’Conner is a mildly thrill-seeking and naive cop in over his head, he later becomes a super cop with a sudden deathwish. Characters are squeezed into the one-note attributes that had been born in earlier subtleties. Themes of the first film are ground down to key words for Diesel to repeat as if gospel. Other characters who were once defined by their quick wit go on to become talkative, foolish, and obnoxious, or one who had formerly fixed up cars can now hack government databases from a sponsored smartphone. This isn't to say that the first movies had been particularly delicate either. The first movie mostly rides on charm and the next two feel like stylish but hollow attempts to desperately recapture the success of the first (all of which tend to focus more on the racing than anything else). In these first three movies, the principal casts change almost completely each time, with Paul Walker starring in its sequel, 2 Fast 2 Furious, and Vin Diesel only making a cameo in Tokyo Drift. In terms of the actual story, each movie exists independent of those before it, each as their own adventures that happen to include illegal street racing. These movies had their modest success and Tokyo Drift showcased its own time capsule of a early 2000s neon-digital fantasy. From the 4th film onwards, however, the cast becomes a core element of consistency that establishes the entire continuity that would lead the Fast & Furious series to where it is today.
As the series dove into the new, explosive version of itself, it seems like the change could breathe new life and energy into the name, buying into an ensemble cast made of the fan favorites from the three that came before. It gave the series its first chance to pair Walker and Diesel together again, and allowed the established relationships and chemistry to hold up the weight of the increasingly loud plot. Starting here, the movies we are familiar with today first took shape. The fourth movie (not-at-all-confusingly named Fast & Furious) sets off the trend of escalation, taking the movies into the spy genre and beginning to look more towards movies like Transformers for its action and set-pieces. From here on, the fireballs only grow larger and the stakes more apocalyptic. The first film of this new era doesn’t quite reach the magnitude of a few films later, but the jump in scale is clear. It opens up with the same semi-truck heists from the first movie, once again with Vin Diesel’s small crew of familiar faces. From the very opening scene, things have begun to change for the more… Michael Bay-y. Starting here, the danger our characters face evolves from high speeds and gang violence to massive explosions and international assassins, and the trend that has defined the latter part of the series is kicked into high gear, with each new installment looking to one up whatever preceded it. The series started making more and more money, cracking a billion dollars by the seventh installment. The once scrappy racing flick became a series on the level of the giants we consider ubiquitous. Yet, as the series learned to reinvent itself by the standards of big budget Hollywood, sacrifices inevitably came in part.
"The danger had reached ludicrous levels, yet, they felt less vulnerable than they had been burning nitrous oxide down suburban streets. "
One of the strangest sensations of watching through the series comes in how much the experience changes in retrospect. While watching those first three movies, I often felt underwhelmed and unconvinced. I felt the limits of budgetary constraints and laughed at the unnatural dialogue. After watching the new version of Fast & Furious, with earth shattering explosions and an ever approaching expectation of space flight, I began to better appreciate the smaller scale of the early series. As the main characters slipped deeper into caricature and Vin Diesel became immune to plane crashes, I started to feel a fondness for the quiet relationships that once served as the core of the movies. By the eighth movie, when the gang is drive-fighting a submarine, trying to prevent evil super spies from obtaining nuclear missiles, that fondness grew even stronger. The danger had reached ludicrous levels, yet, they felt less vulnerable than they had been burning nitrous oxide down suburban streets. The series has turned its stunts and scope up to 11 in hopes of driving the thrills up with them, but have only accomplished major subtraction by their hefty additions. And as the explosive thrills grow more extreme, any attempts at emotional storytelling suffers in turn. It's no surprise that even amongst the absurdity, moments like Paul Walker’s farewell still stand out as high points. The greatest depth the movies find in the later incarnations are most often predicated by the relationships first built in those first three films, even when the execution has become wooden and thin. By Fate of the Furious, watching the efforts became more exhausting than interesting, falling further away from the charms of the opening trilogy. However, the series did suddenly find new life, coming from the least expected place: a spin-off.
2019’s Hobbs & Shaw seems entirely like the last place you’d expect to find new blood for a franchise showing signs of age. Its story reaches further into science fiction and absurdity than any before it, featuring nanomachines and a superpowered Idris Elba villain. Time and distance are warped to the needs of the globe-hopping heroes, and a supervirus threatens the entire world’s safety. The movie seems like it continues the trends set in place by its most recent predecessors, now without even the few characters that had brought what little depth was left. This is all what I expected as I limped into the final movie of this journey. Imagine my surprise, then, when I came to find out that Hobbs & Shaw may very well be the best movie in the entire saga. In fact, rather than being hindered by its exclusion of Diesel and Co., it was the trio of Jason Statham, Dwayne Johnson, and Vanessa Kirby that finally recaptured the same charm that had slowly been lost over the decade and a half prior. Contrary to their often uninteresting appearances in the mainline series, Johnson and Statham develop a silly but entertaining odd couple dynamic that is carried to even greater heights by the inclusion of Kirby as Statham’s super-spy sister. The movie allows the characters to fill out the more archetypal outlines they inhabited before, reversing the course that characters like Diesel and Walker had suffered. Kirby’s whole character is built deeper and more entertaining than any new additions (including her two co-stars) ever managed through films 4 to 8. Stunts that had become excessive and inconsequential were made more thrilling simply by giving the characters experiencing them. Even when watching The Rock restrain down a military helicopter with one hand, I found myself more willing to care than I had before. Where I expected Hobbs & Shaw to continue the trend into heartless nonsense, it instead found a freedom to make its ridiculousness worth watching.
I wish I could hope that Hobbs & Shaw taught a lesson that the upcoming F9 could learn from. If it could escape the demands of its stars and allow its characters more sincerity, maybe it can be the best of both worlds, a comically nonsense blockbuster with the heart of the lower budget genre film of its origins. However, if you’ve seen the trailer for F9, you’ll know that seems doubtful. And I’m sure the next will make another billion dollars and will continue to provide expensive absurdity not found anywhere else, especially as franchises like Transformers slows down and Mission: Impossible and Avengers continue to pivot more and more to critical praise. Yet, I can only wonder how this series would be remembered if it had ended after Tokyo Drift, 2 Fast 2 Furious, or even the very first film. It seems unlikely that it would ever be as remembered as it is now, and it's even more possible I would’ve never even thought to watch it again. Still, eight movies and a few billion dollars later, the awkward charm of a sandy-haired Paul Walker drag racing a monotone and muscular Vin Diesel is undeniable.
-Reed Sawyer is OBC's Blogster at Large, exploring the delights of 1970's facial hair in the greater Boston area.