The more I watch the movies in the “Fast & Furious” franchise, the more I am convinced that, over time, the film series has become a space opera serial that just happens to operate on Earth instead of in deep space.
The early movies in the “Fast & Furious” series are known for showcasing street racing and one particular group of outlaws from those circles who’ve formed an unbreakable bond of friendship and family with Dominic Toretto as the leader/patriarch/guardian. While the family angle had resounding appeal, the early focus on the racing world was a bit of an obstacle, a glaring limiting factor in terms of story. Since the movies were pulling in bigger audiences with each new release, there was too much worldwide box office at stake to consider staying on that narrow track, and risk audiences getting bored.
With the fourth movie, Fast & Furious, we see the groundwork being set for that much-needed storytelling shift away from racing towards a more flexible framework of mission-oriented covert operations (new movie, new mission), an angle where that group of thieves becomes a seamless team of skilled specialists.
In Fast Five and Fast & Furious 6, each action set piece progresses in complexity to highlight their teamwork, and also sometimes allows various team members to showcase their own expertise and strengths beyond just fast precision driving. We get to watch individual personalities get more incrementally fleshed out, and team dynamics grow stronger and more cohesive because of those character expansions.
While many of the series’ early fans have been upset with the pivot away from illegal underground racing action-dramas to full-on heist/spy action-thrillers, I think it’s one of the most brilliant internal franchise reboots ever.
Thesis: The franchise jumped fully into the science fiction genre starting with Fast Five, and has never looked back. In Fast Five, what began as blatant disregard for the laws of physics, laughing at gravity, motion and conservation of momentum was brilliantly used as a launchpad for incorporating time-honored space opera tropes into the subsequent movies in the franchise.
[ I’m fairly certain that the cargo plane takeoff chase sequence at the end of Fast & Furious 6 scoffs at the law of general relativity, and Fate of the Furious outright ignores laws of gravity and thermodynamics several times over, but those can be explored in detail in another essay. ]
We have exotic cars, both pretty and powerful (the space jockeys’ cherished fighter ships); a complex and well-equipped headquarters with unprecedented access to information no average tech or soldier should be able to gain access to (the space station or the flagship of the battle fleet); a tight-knit group of thrill-seeking precision drivers (the hotshot space fighter pilots) who always happen to “know a guy” who can step in to take the place of an injured or fallen teammate (those random rogue mercenaries or washed-up but skilled, still-sharp pilots); and in a Fast Five post-credits scene with Hobbs, we have Letty coming back from the dead (parallel to that unexpected return of a hero pilot thought to have been killed in action during a long ago battle).
Moving on to Fast & Furious 6, the outlaw covert operations team scenario is full canon now, to the point where they are so good they are recruited to stop a team just as skilled but far more ruthless and destructive… recruited by the Luke Hobbs, the federal law officer who was chasing them in the previous movie. By prevailing amidst lots of destruction and mayhem, including losing several members of the team, they win their freedom.
Next, with faster, more bullet-resistant cars, unreal gadgets and surreal coincidences coming together, Furious 7 ratchets up the action to 12, bringing in the angrier, more dangerous older brother (Deckard Shaw) of the man they chased in FF6 (Owen Shaw) on a mission to hunt down the team that maimed his little brother. In a real stretch, bringing in a little bit of time travel retconning, they use Han’s death in Tokyo Drift to shoehorn that movie into the canon timeline as happening in between #6 and #7, using it as the beginning of Shaw’s mission to hunt down our team. Yes, the time-shifting here is a harder suspension of disbelief moment than the air drop of the modified cars or jumping a Lykan HyperSport between 3 skyscrapers.
It’s understandable, wanting to give Han’s death more meaning because of his prominence in Fast Five and FF6, and to also create a motivating tragedy for Dom without killing off any of the more primary members of the team. For the viewing audience, incorporating that time fudging narrative shift is a tough one on the suspension of disbelief controls, but there it is. Mission accomplished, revenge goals now set. Roll camera, Action.
Fate of the Furious takes a few points from FF6 and bulks them up on movie steroids, while also introducing the triple cross, a major heel turn and turnabout, plus a few red herrings and more call backs to good bad guys.
Science fiction action movies that are well done in both story and action have almost always been well received, especially internationally (I have no explanation for the Transformers movies success beyond the second one, don’t @ me). Street racing has a much smaller audience appeal, and thus less potential for international box office gold, so shifting to a new genre that is already proven to be eagerly devoured by worldwide audiences seems like an easy and smart decision.
Ever since Fast Five, each movie in the franchise has raked in large stacks of cash, dollar amounts that invite more sequels:
Fast Five: $363 million Domestic + $1.16 billion International
Fast & Furious 6: $238 million Domestic + $550 million International
Furious 7: $353 million Domestic + $1.63 billion International
Fate of the Furious: $226 million + $1 billion International
And that doesn’t include the growing home video sales numbers.
The slow, calculated creative shift from street racing to Earth-bound space opera seems to be making a lot of money, while also opening a path for a wider variety of more stories to tell.
And in the spirit of that expanding story potential, August 2, 2019 will see the first spinoff of the franchise, a buddy action-comedy, hit theaters, Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw:
It looks ridiculously glorious, pitting two rivals from the shadow world of crime and espionage together to solve a larger problem. It introduces another Shaw, younger sister Hattie, and former MI6 agent Brixton Lore, a villain who’s been enhanced by cybernetic implants and genetic manipulation (CRISPR superpowers?) and seems unstoppable.
It will make a ton of money, and if we don’t eventually get a spinoff featuring just the Shaw family, with mom Magdalene (Helen Mirren) instructing her kids on a retrieval mission, I will have to ask what in the world action writers in Hollywood are thinking about writing instead of this gem.
In addition to the upcoming Hobbs & Shaw spinoff, there are rumors of a female-centered spinoff in development. I’m not sure if they’ll introduce some new women in the 9th movie, but if that new spinoff ends up being a Letty & Mia adventure that doesn’t have “Dirty Pair” anime levels of mayhem and destruction, I will be disappointed.
It’s already been announced that there will only be 10 movies in the main “Fast & Furious” timeline, but the number of spinoffs made with the “Fast & Furious Presents” brand could add at least another 5 movies, not including the animated prequel series that’s already in development for Netflix by DreamWorks TV, and any other ideas they may have.
In case you haven’t seen any of the “Fast & Furious” movies, or are confused about the retconned timeline shift, check out this video where Ludacris (tech whiz Tej in the movies) recaps movies 1-7:
And for more amusing takes on the series and the many “behind the scenes” videos, check out the articles over at Jalopnik.
Space opera told with fast cars racing around on Earth instead of fast space ships. Whodathunkit?