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Unstoppable Force: A Look at the “Fast & Furious” Franchise

Having never received a rating higher than three stars, the “Fast & Furious” movies always seemed to baffle Roger. Or, in the words of his 2009 “Fast & Furious” review: “I dunno. I admire the craft involved, but the movie leaves me profoundly indifferent.” This particular write-up is similar to how he discussed other installments, including laughing about their absurd sequences, or contextualizing them as video games. (It probably didn’t help that director Justin Lin, of his 2002 favorite “Better Luck Tomorrow,” went on to make four of these movies instead of working in a genre less “second-rate.”) And when reviewing “The Fast and the Furious”and “2 Fast 2 Furious,” the same critical phrase appears: “Doesn’t have a brain in its head.

By standards of logic and physics, yes, the “Fast & Furious” series is an assemblage of macho silliness, one of many billion-dollar B-movie franchises that puts acting, dialogue, and formal storytelling in the backseat, essentially only calling upon them to fill in for scenes where stuff doesn’t blow up. However, as cynicism about an adaptation-addicted Hollywood builds with the announcement of each new cinematic universe, or feature-length version of your favorite detergent, the “Fast & Furious” installments are outside of such anxiety, even when reaching a seventh chapter with this past weekend’s “Furious 7.” Underneath the series’ genre joy, and way beyond its initial impression as a series about street racing, the seven “Fast & Furious” movies are an example of the Hollywood blockbuster’s inventive potential. They are a movement of fruitful creative values that redefines the narrative limits of a poppy franchise, dares to vitalize a waning cinematic thrill, and honors a modern audience.

The saga of “The Fast and the Furious” films is an unlikely Hollywood story of a popular, junky franchise that embraced risky creative change head-first to modify its very definition. Long before the international, ensemble action of James Wan’s “Furious 7,” there was Rob Cohen’s 2001 film “The Fast and the Furious,” replete with hammy machismo, rap metal mise-en-scène and a “Point Break” plot in which Paul Walker played Brian, an upstart cop who enters into the gear geek world of illegal street racing, and develops a friendship with wise mechanic Dom (Vin Diesel), while falling in love with his sister Mia (Jordana Brewster). With that film’s success, the franchise followed the course of timeless B-movies with dated attributes: Hollywood got temporarily hopped up on speed, with preceding motor movies that went nowhere (including Reggie Rock Bythewood’s 2003 “Biker Boyz” and Joseph Kahn’s delightful 2004 film “Torque”), it gave us a sequel with a historically goofy title (John Singleton’s “2 Fast 2 Furious” from 2003, which Vin Diesel wanted no part of), and then a spin-off removed from familiar territory (Justin Lin’s 2006 film “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift”), which neither Diesel nor Walker took the lead for. Even though that film features some of the most impressive stunt car trickery you can see in film, the series was no longer able to count on the viewers who just wanted neon green car street racing. In a true Hollywood tale that sounds more like urban legend, the movies were saved with “Tokyo Drift”; more directly, the rapturous test screening audience response to a cameo that Diesel made at the very end of what could have been the final film. The last-minute hype was enough to send Lin, writer Chris Morgan, and a fleet of Universal execs to the often-desperate rebooting board.

The series opened up the possibilities for franchise reconfiguration with Lin’s resulting 2009 “Fast & Furious,” which did more for the brand than just drop two definite articles with a vengeance. It was the rare, productive reboot that did not rebuff a brand’s troublesome past, but sought to salvage such clamored characters and spectacle. The tactic was to look beyond its trendy pull, and to gradually mature the films’ atmosphere past the subculture of underground street racing. In turn, characters like narc Brian and motor thug Dom now functioned as malleable genre muscle, albeit with top-notch vehicular skills. And while this film did echo parts of Cohen’s original, (with Brian and Dom dancing the same friendship duet), it preserved the previous era of “The Fast and the Furious” as origin stories, allotting a new lease on where the recurring characters could go next.

The series fully activated its extraordinary transformation while expanding in size with 2011’s incredible “Fast Five,” and then in 2013’s “Fast & Furious 6.” In orchestrating a spectacle that couldn’t be dated by product placement, “Fast Five” ditched gratuitous racing scenes entirely and found a longevity in upgrading these California car dorks into a team of high-speed robbers. Now, they were breaking into the sides of moving trains to steal cars, or using two speedsters to yank around an erratic bank vault at the behest of Rio de Janeiro’s daytime traffic. By 2013’s “Fast & Furious 6” (Lin’s last film with the series), the “Fast & Furious” brand widened its prowess so that every movie following could be an “Avengers”-like event (with no cinematic universe necessary), featuring a fully-active ensemble that services multi-leveled and consequently massive action sequences.

Within its evolution, the series has been able to reinvent itself by offering what many franchises do not. Contrary to its contemporaries, plenty of the thrills of the “Fast & Furious” films don’t owe themselves to computer graphics slavery, but the artistry found within scenes like “Ben-Hur"’s chariot race, or Popeye Doyle’s reckless driving in “The French Connection.” The series has expanded upon the initial presentation of real cars racing on busy streets, upping the ante by toying with real trains, tanks, and planes. In turn, the lucrative franchise provides an active circus that CG doesn’t; the stakes are just as high for the “Fast & Furious” filmmakers as the action heroes. Authentic cars, bodies, and intricate destruction are in play, all for the sake of earning an air of sincere, B-movie ridiculousness by executing it practically on a closed set.

Similarly, practical filmmaking for this brand has provided the adventure of seeing a Hollywood movie’s massive budget toyed with in daredevil antics. Though the franchise provides many glorious examples, the most immediate comes from the beginning of "Fast Five." The stunt involves a pickup truck that is launched, t-bone style, at a passenger train. Nearly derailing the locomotive by inches, you can see it being lifted from its rails because of the impact, and feel an entire studio take one anxious breath. The train looks primed to topple over, but it doesn't. It’s the jolt of inspired filmmaking, a celebration of a series that resonates because it uses its financial powers to actualize what sounds impossible. (As Lin remarks about that stunt in the film’s DVD commentary, “At the end of the day, Hollywood cinema is the only place in the world where you can do something like that.”)

Fascinating as the “Fast & Furious” films may be in trying to preserve the pulsing thrill of chaos in reality, the series has equal significance in its aim to engage diverse demographics at the multiplex. When the series was a just a single movie, it took a subculture of racing that was popular with young Asian-American men, and broadened the idea across race to what Mary C. Beltrán called “utopic multiculturalism” in her 2005 essay “The New Hollywood Racelessness: Only the Fast, Furious, (and Multiracial) Will Survive).” So while these films have always been led by classic Hollywood whiteness (epitomized in Walker’s placement as surrogate into the world of racing), even its first entry began with casting that plays with depictions of a melting-pot America. “The Fast and the Furious” boasted two Latina female supporting characters, (played by Brewster and Michelle Rodriguez), and centered itself on the franchise’s true lead, Diesel, who openly jokes about his ambiguous ethnicity, and whose appeal benefits from looking past that question. After that 2001 film, the series expanded the size of its ensemble, introducing various supporting characters of Asian, Black and Hispanic backgrounds, and assembling an “Ocean’s 11” out of this post-racial ideology by the arrival of “Fast Five.” The baby oil-drenched cherry on top for the franchise was the inclusion of the new Schwarzenegger, Dwayne Johnson, whose own multiethnic background (Samoan-Canadian-American) continues the franchise’s interest in depicting races working together, without it ever becoming central to the challenges they face.

The character-driven series has been able to present ethnic fictional beings whom diverse audiences may identify with, while reaching out to all through the universal notion of family. Brilliantly, race is not a discussion that these characters have (let’s just say they’ve got other things to do), but respect for diversity is in the blood of the series, evidenced in how these multiethnic ensemble films define kin. The “Fast & Furious” films are a multiethnic action series about identifying with men and women of different backgrounds in a domestic intimacy. (In “Furious 7,” Diesel offers the saying that’s bound to replace “Home Sweet Home” crochets in quaint abodes everywhere: “I don’t have friends, I got family.”) Its importance to characters spurs them into the centerpiece action together (“Fast & Furious”) or against others (“Furious 7”), and grounds the films as its most sanctimonious attribute.

Audiences have responded to this open perspective by constantly creating box office history for the series, with each “Fast & Furious” film opening bigger than the last. This weekend’s haul for “Furious 7” proves (yet again) that there is an audience out there that will see films not just for and about white men. According to Variety, the largest demographic was Hispanic viewers, making up 37% of the audience (an upgrade from “Fast & Furious 6’s” 32%), which is very unusual for a movie to reach past $100 million without a large Caucasian viewership. In a similar box office revolution, 49% of the viewers of “Furious 7” were female, a rare feat or an action film. But, the world has assuredly changed faster than many other franchises, and this series only benefits from presenting America as a melting pot on wheels.

In the scope of all that the franchise has accomplished up to this latest installment, “Furious 7” is at the very least a confirmation that this daring, visceral, and distinctly post-racial juggernaut can only have its productive attributes muffled by its own conceits. A prime case is with its centerpiece spectacle: An exhilarating first act scene involves cars being dropped from a plane, which are later tossed down hills as if in a demolition derby against Mother Nature. This expressed potential of the franchise’s spectacle is contrasted in a CG-reliant sequence that builds up to a million-dollar sports car flying through Abu Dhabi skyscrapers. It’s a moment in which the digital override of popular cinema provides a false sensation when used dominantly; the invigorating sense of danger, nonetheless through labor to present the impossible, is lost.

In a less disheartening fashion, “Furious 7” maintains the franchise’s keen embrace of multiculturalism. The series remains international with a home base of “the streets,” and it treats viewers to something that isn’t to be underestimated —a secret agent narrative as led by a racially-diverse ensemble, not just an isolated white male. Continuing the franchise’s expansion, Wan’s film adds more integral supporting characters of color, such as those played by Djimon Hounsou, Nathalie Emmanuel, and Tony Jaa (in his first stateside role). But the steps of progress are slow, as the key players primed to return for the next installments are Kurt Russell and Jason Statham.The curious question about “Furious 7” involves the direction that it goes next, after Walker’s unfortunate passing. Will Universal trust their diverse box office success to recognize that it doesn’t necessarily have to be a white guy in his place? Perhaps Rodriguez could do more than just fighting other ladies? It is another crossroads for the series of which a step forward for mainstream cinema is at stake. And, let’s just say that there’s also plenty of room for progress regarding these films and their ideas of gender.

Regardless as to what types of victory its latest installment has achieved, the series remains a historically productive force in our ever-so crowded galaxy of franchises and cinematic universes. While many series wear out their charm by a third or fourth installment, “Fast & Furious” is now on a ferocious, inventive high by its well-deserved seventh film, thanks to one of the most productive reboots in the concept’s tepid history. The key characteristic behind the series’ significance is the fuel behind all exciting art, ambition; the desire to push the narrative potential of an originating trendy B-movie, and to make opportunity out of past creative voids. Or, the hunger to push the limits of a visceral big budget, in order to orchestrate unprecedented, purely cinematic spectacles that astound an audience that often settles for spotting computer graphics. And most importantly, the need to challenge unfortunate norms of who can be expected to be the face of such spectacle. 

The series’ constant evisceration of box office records proves a reciprocal hunger from audiences, and demands that its successful attributes be put into action for other franchises. The “Fast & Furious” films aren’t just sincerely ridiculous, invigorating blockbusters with immaculate action sequences; they’re an optimistic example of the potential within even the biggest box office jackpots. In the ambitious Hollywood of “Fast & Furious,” reboots are productive, impossible spectacle is a goal, and diverse audiences exist. And, better yet, even movies with no brains in their heads can become unstoppable forces for a creative good. 

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