The Fast and the Furious was a movie about cool cars, hot babes, and a big bald dude with arm muscles the size of your head. It hit theaters in 2001 and made a lot of money. 2 Fast 2 Furious didn’t even star the big bald dude — Vin Diesel departed the franchise for what seemed, at the time, like a healthy movie career. The sequel did well at the box office, even though it was named 2 Fast 2 Furious, which was arguably the worst movie title ever… until The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift limped into theaters in 2006. The threequel grossed a mere $62 million domestic gross, a severe drop-off from the first two movies. But a funny thing happened on the way to the blockbuster graveyard: In 2009, the franchise ditched the definite article and reunited the original cast for Fast & Furious, which grossed a franchise-best $353 million globally. How could this happen? With Fast Five opening this weekend, let’s run down five reasons — besides the cars and the babes — why this series is still apparently growing one decade later:
1. The Melting Pot: Quick, what do Harry Potter, Spider-Man, Twilight, Pirates of the Caribbean, Lord of the Rings, and Christopher Nolan’s Batman series have in common? Answer: White people, white people everywhere! By comparison, The Fast and the Furious has always looked much more colorful. The original film focused on a West Side Story-esque tale of rival ethnic car gangs, but the big ah-ha moment was probably Tokyo Drift — it was the rare Hollywood blockbuster to feature a predominantly Asian/Asian-American cast, and it was also the first film in the series to gross more internationally than abroad. Fast Five emphasizes the cast’s diversity even more, bringing back 2 Fast 2 Furious stars Ludacris and Tyrese Gibson and setting the film in South America. They’re also adding in Dwayne Johnson for a face-off with Vin Diesel to settle once and for all who looks more like the future of multi-racial humanity. (Even better, the diversity extends behind the camera — Boyz n the Hood director John Singleton helmed 2 Fast, while Justin Lin has steered the franchise since Tokyo Drift.) In this melting-pot context, even Paul Walker, the single whitest human being on the face of the earth, just looks like one more representative of global diversity.
2. A Haven for Non-Geeks: The modern Hollywood summer is split between three essential types of movies: CGI cartoons with sassy animals voiced by celebrities, action movies about dudes who dress up in costumes, and Harry Potter. By comparison, there is something adorably straightforward about the F&F movies. The characters aren’t tortured by memories of murdered parents. They’re not trying to save the world from intergalactic destruction. They’re just driving cool cars. It’s kind of the same reason why people went to see The Expendables, which also brings up…
3. The Nostalgia Factor: For all the series’ glitzy flourishes, The Fast and the Furious seems to belong to a much earlier American era. At a time when gas prices have reached generally ungodly levels, there is something undeniably enjoyable — even mildly transgressive — about how the characters in the series regularly jet around at 100+ miles an hour, wrecking cars with the aplomb of a teenager in the ’50s (or a French film director in the ’60s). Actual street racers know that the physics of F&F are mostly ridiculous, but that just makes the series more of a candy-colored fantasy for our oil-drunk moment.
4. Justin Lin: The franchise’s secret weapon might just be director Lin, who has grounded the series with his preference for non-digital effects. Lin, who also directs Fast Five, has a nifty extracurricular activity directing episodes of Community, including last season’s epic paintball episode. It’s hard to argue that any of the F&F movies have equaled Lin’s indie debut Better Luck Tomorrow, but if Lin’s goal in life is to become the next John McTiernan, he’s certainly on his way.
5. The Eternal Appeal of Car Chases: Next to “kissing under the fireworks,” what’s could be more cinematic than a couple of cars speeding down a busy street with everyone firing guns at each other?