HOW did the Fast and the Furious come to be cinema’s most lucrative franchise?
The seventh instalment in the rubber-burning saga clocked up a staggering $384m in its opening weekend, notwithstanding the lack of A-list stars and critical acclaim.
From the US to Russia via Japan, Romania, and the United Arab Emirates, this little movie with a lot under the bonnet mopped up at the box office, leaving lauded rivals choking on fumes.
As the highest-earning April release ever, Fast 7 flouted the received wisdom as how to craft a smash movie.
It lacks superheroes and is not adapted from an intellectual property with a baked-in fanbase.
In fact, at cursory inspection, Fast 7 feels like a throwback to an earlier era of action features, with over-muscled heroes, slow-motion explosions and deafening gunfire.
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The whiff of tragedy is part of the appeal. Paul Walker, a franchise regular back to the first movie, in 2001, died in a car accident halfway through filming in Texas (the crash was unrelated to the shoot).
Fast 7 was thus required to deal with a real-life tragedy, even as it dished out the mayhem on screen.
This made for a moving piece of popcorn cinema: a chunk of throwaway entertainment that also doubled as eulogy for an actor taken before his time. Who could resist?
But even had Walker lived, Fast 7 would, in all likelihood, have been a global smash.
And, in an era when cinema is meticulously focus-grouped and marketed, the runaway success of the Fast and Furious franchise appears to have caught everyone — even those with a hand in its creation — by surprise.
“Fast and Furious has proved that it’s bigger than its cast, it’s bigger than its critics — it’s even bigger than its initial concept,” writes IGN’s Ali Gray.
“Save for, perhaps, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there is no other current franchise that has built up quite so much momentum.”
“Like any long-running series, F&F has its own set of rules now, the most important of which is: bigger is always better,” opined Rolling Stone recently.
“Gravity is a nuisance that can be overcome. Revving engines and loud explosions are a universal lingua franca. The Fast and the Furious movies are fun and flashy entertainment that better succeed at being relevant pop-art than other blockbusters or related mainstream films. In the end, that’s what I feel sets them apart from similar popcorn movies, and has contributed to the longevity of this franchise.”
Humble beginnings doesn’t do justice to the origins of the franchise.
Adapted from a magazine article about street racers in New York, the original 2001 movie, from producer Neal Moritz (Cruel Intentions, I Know What You Did Last Summer), was a minor hit that unspooled like West Side Story for petrolheads: Walker was an undercover officer infiltrating an illegal racing crew headed by Vin Diesel’s Dominic Toretto, only to inevitably fall for Dominnic’s sister, Mia.
It was good, clean escapism — a movie you might have found yourself forgetting even as you sat through it.
Initially, it appeared The Fast and the Furious had stalled on the starting grid.
Diesel, the best thing in the first movie, declined to return for 2 Fast 2 Furious; Walker was likewise absent from the third outing, 2006’s Tokyo Drift — a straight-up flop that seemed to bring down the curtain on a property that even its stars had struggled to love.
What happened next was extraordinary.
With 2009’s Fast and Furious, the franchise was reborn, as both Walker and Diesel returned and the action switched to Panama City.
Relocating from the US may have been the unwittingly genius move that saved the saga, as international audiences flocked in record numbers — their zeal soaring further with 2011’s Fast Five, set in Brazil and with Dwayne Johnson joining as a US government agent determined to take down the renegades (with whom Walker’s character was by now merrily in cahoots).
One quality these later entries in the series share is an emphasis on family.
Dominic and his crew aren’t merely a rag-tag of criminals; they’re a tight circle of friends who’d do anything for one another.
That may reek of cliche — but the films make the gang mentality feel real, so that when a beloved character is killed, the sense of loss is palpable.
More than that, The Fast and the Furious is cheerfully old-school in outlook. The movies aren’t at all self-conscious about their lack of sophistication .
That is in contrast to, for instance, the Marvel cinematic universe, which is increasingly ‘meta’ in tone.
In The Fast and the Furious, the dialogue is earnest rather than self-consciously snappy; the movies are not in the least embarrassed about lingering over men with cartoonishly huge deltoids or semi-clad ladies leaning out of cars.
They are loud, dumb, thrillingly silly — cinematic joyrides that require nothing of the audience beyond a willingness to buckle up and suspend disbelief for a few hours.