17 years later: The Fast and Furious franchise engine remains strong

When it comes to sequels and legit cinematic franchises, the name of the game is domestic and international gross. Worldwide figures, ladies and gentlemen. Over its first weekend, The Fate of the Furious-the eighth film in the movie franchise-broke the record for the largest global opening at 532 million. After four days, the film has doubled its massive budget, and is well on its way to a billion dollar gross.

How is it  still doing this after eight films? Casting, directing, stunts, and knowing what your identity and key audience is. In other words, you keep replacing the engine and wheels, and assemble body work on the car. Let me break it down further.

Back in 2007, the Fast and Furious franchise was on fumes. Vin Diesel, the star of the original, had bolted after the first film, and the second and third film were trash and didn’t make great money at the box office. Luckily, Diesel was brought in for a cameo at the end of Tokyo Drift that signified his return to the franchise as star and producer. The team was back together, and the magic relaunched.

The fourth film cost 85 million and grossed 363 million worldwide, but the franchise wasn’t truly relaunched until the fifth installment. Diesel and his producing team brought in a big asset: Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. For the first time, Dominic Toretto had a true adversary, and their clash in the middle of the film ranks as one of the best in cinematic action history.

And just like that, the franchise got super-sized. By combining the titanic presence of Johnson with the soul of the franchise in Diesel and throwing them together, the franchise found a true niche. It was Point Break on steroids with faster cars, bigger muscles, and a bigger budget. Fast Five (2011) grossed 209 million dollars domestically and 632 million dollars worldwide on a 125 million dollar budget.

Fast and Furious 6 (2013) put Diesel and Johnson the same team, and the movie topped the 2011 film’s domestic gross, and brought in an overall haul of 788 million dollars worldwide. That wasn’t all: at the end of the film, the chronological order of the films was revealed in the form of British action star Jason Statham, who killed off a member of the crew and would be the bad guy in the seventh installment.

However, Furious 7 presented a challenge due to co-star Paul Walker’s untimely death in November 2013, but director James Wan and the cast pulled together for the best film in the franchise. While Walker’s death dealt the group a huge blow, they used Walker’s brothers and voice and body doubles to finish his work in the film, and added a very tasteful finale to the action along with the outrageous stunts fans had come to expect. Instead of merely being another notch on the belt (the film grossed over a billion dollars globally), it added a soulful touch for Walker’s send-off while keeping Statham’s Deckard Shaw around for the next film.

The Fate of the Furious wasn’t as strong overall as Furious 7, but due to the returning presence of Johnson and Statham, along with Charlize Theron and Helen Mirren, the franchise gathered the highest global open in movie history.

Starting with 2009’s The Fast and The Furious, the overall domestic and worldwide gross has gone up with each film, and the stars have poured in. Instead of taming down the action for a bigger audience (which is what doomed fellow action extravaganza and the Statham headlining, The Expendables), The Fast franchise has stuck to what it does best: create masterful action opera. Every film, the stunts are raised, and the story links back to an older film in the franchise.

When the story gasped in 2009, the Rock was brought in for the next film, and stuck around. When there was a new ultimate bad guy needed, Statham stepped in, and stuck around. Theron’s casting shows that a female adversary can be just as strong. For the eighth film, Diesel’s Toretto broke bad, pitting his crew against him for the first time, which created some good emotional equity among the cast.

Think of the rest of the virtues as trimmings at a Thanksgiving dinner table. The multi-racial cast brings in large audience, and there’s a lot of heart poured into the script, which is what is missing from Michael Bay’s Transformers. In every film, the essence of family is held high above the action sequences, and it’s a genuine ingredient. Without loving and adoring the family that Diesel, Neal Moritz, and Universal Pictures has assembled, fans wouldn’t keep coming back. The heart and strict adhesion to epic action is what keeps the franchise ticking. That, and some well needed change.

The ever changing director’s chair also helps keep the franchise fresh, and gives each new film a custom paint job. Rob Cohen kicked things off with the first two, and then Justin Lin ushered in the new era of Furious films with entries 3-6, before James Wan took over for the powerful seventh film, and F. Gary Gray was brought in for #8.

What will they do for 2019’s Fast 9? Who knows? I wouldn’t recommend going to space, unless you take Matt Damon’s Martian with you. Films don’t do well there unless aliens, Marvel characters, or Matt Damon are involved. They could go to Rome, and bounce up against the likes of Keanu Reeves’ John Wick, which is the headlining steak anchoring the other delicious action franchise. Or, the boys could wreck more havoc in Los Angeles or possibly go back to New York, where they only briefly stopped in Fate.

No matter where they go, Fate showed that the series has fresh legs and plenty of horsepower to gallop on the big screen. By sticking to what they do best while keeping key ingredients fresh and the locale changing, the franchise has grown stronger with age instead of fading away.

I wouldn’t compare The Fast and Furious crew to a fine wine (unless the cork was made out of alloy, liked protein shakes, and had a shaved head), but it’s holding up just fine.


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