Years before Dominic Toretto was flipping armoured trucks into the air to take out fighter jets, he was racing on the streets of LA for pink-slips. And the direct-port nitrous-injected action of the original film still holds up next to the bombastic modern chapters.
Let's look back at 20 years of Fast & Furious, one quarter-mile at a time…
Growing up, The Fast and the Furious was one of my all-time favourite movies. The first screen I saw it on was a lot smaller since I caught it on late-night TV, and I must have nearly worn out our VHS copy re-watching it dozens and dozens of times. Even now, after a long week or a rough day, this series is the one I turn to when I need a cheer-up. It’s not just because of the nostalgia; the stories themselves are ridiculous, mindless fun, but they’re also full of heart.
The original The Fast and the Furious—which turns 20 years old this June—ignited the world’s awareness of underground racing, and cemented cars as a staple in cinematic action.
Sure, car chases were a thing long before The Fast and the Furious, but the automotive action in this series is so much more. There’s races. There’s chases. There’s drifts, and combat, and heists. Fast cars take on tanks and planes and perform anti-submarine missile-guiding miracles. It’s a genre all of its own.
There’s a reason that the Fast Saga is, even before the release of F9, in the top 10 highest-grossing film franchises of all time; and when it comes to original film content, it’s second only to the behemoth of Star Wars. (Update: since the release of F9, the Fast Saga has climbed to the 7th highest-grossing film franchise of all time.)
The formula for a Fast and Furious film? Family.
We’ve been watching Vin Diesel make dramatic gear-shifts for two decades. There’s an entire generation that has grown up alongside the characters of the Fast and Furious films, and after such a long time, the characters really become a part of every fan, a bit of extended fictional family. And to me, that’s what the series always comes back to.
What began with a grounded film about an undercover cop infiltrating the LA street racing circuit became an extravagant action phenomenon. But regardless of which chapter you’re watching, if you pop the hood you’ll find they all run on the same central theme; Family.
From the very beginning, it has been a series about the concept of the family you choose. In the first film, Brian has to weigh the world of the police and his career against the ‘honour among thieves’ he’s found in Dom and his community. From the first time Ted Levine’s character told him, “There’s all kinds of family, Brian.” that concept stuck.
When the early sequels floundered, with 2 Fast 2 Furious and The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift not quite knowing how to find the series’s feet, it was the return of Paul Walker and Vin Diesel together in Fast & Furious that really revitalized the series.
Since then, they’ve just doubled down more and more on the theme. Fast & Furious 6 brought the perfect villain to pit the Fast Family against by creating someone who saw their own crew simply as tools, while Dominic, Brian, and co were there to save one of their own. They tugged on the family heartstrings even to the point that Dom’s line in Furious 7 of “I don’t got friends… I got Family.” became a meme. But that slight ridiculousness works because the rest of the films’ tones have embraced ridiculous just as much.
The Rule of Cool
The transitioning point for the series into the truck-flipping, building-destroying, car-flying action icon it is now came with Fast Five. The moment the films embraced not taking themselves too seriously, they became something new. Physics began obeying the rule of cool, and reality got to take a back seat so we could have the iconic moments that made audiences’ jaws hit the floor.
I still remember the perfect mixture of disbelief, laughter, and absolute delight I felt watching two Dodge Chargers swing a 10-ton vault across the streets of Rio like a wrecking ball for the first time. The cheers every time Dom does his ridiculous yet iconic car wheelie.
That’s the broad appeal of the franchise boiled down; they’re ridiculous, downright stupid at times, but they’re simultaneously awesome. It doesn’t matter that two cars probably can’t actually swing a vault around like a weapon, or that sky-diving a fleet of cars to take out a convoy is a bad idea, because they’re awesome set-pieces. It’s the fact that the films don’t take themselves too seriously that lets them get away with it.
It’s why F9 can have a 9-minute long trailer of physics-defying stunts and crashes and leave me more excited than ever for it to arrive. There’s a very simple promise with every chapter that you’re going to have an incredible injection of fun.
Paul Walker and the heart of the franchise
It’s hard to express why a 20-year-long silly car action series can also be a huge emotional investment. I think part of it is enhanced a lot retrospectively.
I can’t watch the Fast movies now without the context of Paul Walker’s tragic death in 2013, and the context of all the stories since about how close and important to the rest of the cast he really was. Maybe part of the reason the family theme works so well for me is the knowledge that Paul really was like family to so many of his co-stars, and seeing the series as part of his legacy for them enhances it.
The tribute at the end of Furious 7 still makes me cry every time. The moments of sacrifice and risk for one another, and the speeches that might have been cheesy or unimportant when they first came out now feel more real. The iconic Sunday barbecue grace, which started as a joke, feels like a tribute each time to everyone who has shared in the love of these films.
There’s a whole number of things I could talk about for days on this series; whether it’s the genuinely diverse cast that we need more of in modern blockbuster franchises, defending Tokyo Drift (which I have to admit took a while for me to come around on, but now it’s one of my favourites), talking about the symbol of Dom’s necklace, or his dad’s 1970 Charger… but this is all just to say that for 20 years, the Fast Saga has brought us more than just ‘Fast’ or ‘Furious’; it’s brought us Fun, and it’s brought us Family.
So whether you’ve been watching since the start, or never seen one before, we can all be excited to see Dom and the Family flip cars and trucks through impossible stunts come June 25.
(all images copyright Universal Studios.)