Batman and Iron Man are billionaires. Thor is a god. Superman is…Superman. Even James Bond and Captain Kirk have bottomless bank accounts from Her Majesty and Starfleet. Modern Hollywood action heroes are white-collar — and white. Their movies are gilded with accoutrements: Oscar winners in supporting roles, decades-old history with endless opportunities for in-jokes. Plus, they have subtext and stuff. The films are usually dark. Some even have ”dark” or ”darkness” in the title. (So far, no one has claimed ”darkest.”)
Then there’s Fast & Furious, a disreputable film series about cars that crash and the humans who crash them. The characters are self-consciously blue-collar, rooted in an automotive culture that looks positively old-fashioned in four-dollars-a-gallon America. The cast is racially diverse. And in an era of high-concept moviemaking — of digital spectacle and reheated brands that were old when your parents were young — the Fast & Furious films are straightforward and unapologetic. They take their inherent silliness so seriously that they manage to be funny and exciting simultaneously. Fast & Furious may be the most unlikely franchise in Hollywood.
And the most obstinate. The first film debuted in June 2001, at the tail end of the millennial teensploitation wave. Ostensibly a vehicle for She’s All That-era Paul Walker, the movie made a star out of Vin Diesel, who played the soulful, biceped street-racing king Dominic Toretto. It had a surprising $40.1 million opening, but Diesel promptly departed the franchise, leaving Walker as the lead in a 2003 sequel with the genius title 2 Fast 2 Furious. The series was creatively out of gas — Universal briefly considered creating a direct-to-DVD threequel. Instead, the studio hired director Justin Lin — at the time best known for the indie drama Better Luck Tomorrow — to film 2006’s The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, which featured a completely new cast. (Well, almost new: Diesel returned for a cameo.) The film earned just $62.5 million at the box office, a series low. Still, another sequel was made: 2009’s surprise hit Fast & Furious. It reunited the original cast, paving the way for 2011’s Fast Five, which grossed nearly $210 million domestically — and a massive $626.1 million around the world. Fast & Furious 6 (rated PG-13) arrives this Memorial Day weekend. A trailer for the new film played during this year’s Super Bowl. It featured a tank, a crashing plane, and a car that crashes out of that crashing plane. According to social-media research company Fizziology, of all the movie ads that aired that night (including Iron Man 3 and Star Trek Into Darkness), it had the most mentions online. The film will open against The Hangover Part III, and early tracking indicates it will win.
What’s the secret to the franchise’s success? The casting certainly helps. ”You got whites, blacks, Asians, Jews,” says Tyrese Gibson, who appears as wisecracking Roman Pearce, ”all playing a significant role in the team. Audiences are able to show up and identify with people on camera.” Cartoonist Alison Bechdel put forth a famous gender-bias test for movies: Does the film feature at least two women who talk to each other about something besides a man? Here’s a similar test: Try to think of any recent blockbuster movie where two nonwhite stars talk. About anything.
Like everything else with these films, the diversity seemed almost unplanned. It would be hard to imagine anyone in history whiter than Paul Walker in 2001. But even in that first film, there was the sense of a new multiethnic America. ”We had the Asian guys, the Latino club,” Walker points out. ”We had Vin: What is he?”
While Fast has been progressive in casting, its action is cheerfully old-school. No 3-D. No IMAX. Director Lin, who has helmed every movie since Tokyo Drift, prefers practical effects whenever possible. ”When I came on, a lot of people who know cars did not like the franchise, because they felt like there were a lot of CG cars,” he says. There are digital effects in the films, but they are mostly designed to enhance the real cars, the real tanks, the real bank vault. ”The best visual effects are the ones where you can’t tell, where nobody knows that they exist.”
That shouldn’t be a bold statement, but it is. When you consider that the majority of contemporary action movies in Hollywood are essentially cartoons, with human stars flying animated spaceships, fighting animated monsters, and using animated superpowers, Lin almost looks like an action classicist. (Although not a household name, the director does have some geek cred: He helmed Community‘s first paintball episode.)
Lin was a key player in the expansion of the Fast & Furious universe. When Diesel filmed his Tokyo Drift cameo, it was the director who spoke to the star about braiding the various strands of the Fast films into something bigger. ”That was a critical point in the direction of the franchise,” says Lin. ”We were talking about the mythology, how all these characters are connected.” Inspiration came from an unlikely source: The Golden Girls, which aired on the same night as Empty Nest and Nurses. ”They had Hurricane Saturday night, this gimmicky thing where the hurricane hit all three shows. It blew me away as a kid: They all live in the same universe!”
Diesel agreed to return to the franchise as a star and producer, but he had a slightly different inspiration. An inveterate Dungeons & Dragons player, he compares his role in the series to that of a Dungeon Master. Here’s where we should mention that the 45-year-old actor is, to put it mildly, a character. When asked about Fast 6, he says, ”When this film comes out, quite frankly, there’s gonna be some real Oscar watch.” When asked about his 41 million-strong Facebook following, Diesel — in that impossible voice that sounds like a cannonball doing a Barry White impression — says, ”Facebook really owes me billions of dollars.” And then he laughs, either because he’s joking or because he thinks it’s funny that he’s not joking.
Diesel’s commitment to the Fast franchise has paid off, and then some. ”As a producer, it was imperative to change the franchise into a saga,” he says, and the most impressive thing about Fast Five is that it did just that, combining the first four films, with their disparate tones and sprawling cast, into one megamovie. One year later, The Avengers did pretty much the same thing. But The Avengers did it with CGI-enhanced superherodom and space skeletons from beyond the black hole. Fast Five had bank vaults, train robberies, and Dwayne Johnson in a curiously small T-shirt.
In Diesel’s grand terms, the new film is the concluding chapter of the second Fast trilogy. And it connects back to the first film in an important way, featuring the return of Michelle Rodriguez as Letty, the tough, cool, and extremely Michelle Rodriguez-esque love interest of Vin Diesel’s Dom. Fast fact: Letty died two films ago. Fast fact: This isn’t the first time a Fast character has come back to life. (See sidebar.) Fast fact: This also isn’t the first time a Michelle Rodriguez character has been resurrected in an action franchise. (See Resident Evil. Or just trust us.) But the opportunity to revisit Letty was important to Diesel — and to Rodriguez, who describes Letty in emotional terms as ”this character that I fought so hard to create out of air, really.”
While we’re overthinking the Fast franchise, we should also point out the most charming aspect of the series: an unapologetic spirit of thrill-drunk hucksterism. In Fast 6, there’s a scene in which Rodriguez takes on Gina Carano (Haywire), a celebrated mixed-martial-arts fighter. ”Our goal was: F—everything else, let’s make it the best female fight in history,” Lin says. Or look at Luke Hobbs, the massive, over-the-top American superagent played by Dwayne Johnson in Fast Five and 6 with glistening muscles, an evil Spock beard, and hilariously perpetual sweat. ”He’s a physical beast of a human being,” laughs Johnson, ”who has a mean streak six feet wide and the demeanor of a rattlesnake and an 800-pound gorilla all mixed in one.” (In the first of maybe 10 climaxes in Fast Five, Johnson and Diesel wrestle through walls and windows; their pairing led the crew to nickname the movie Clash of the Titans.)
Or consider the big sequence of Fast 6, featured prominently in the trailer: the Plane Scene. Without spoiling anything, let’s just say there are several good guys and several bad guys, all of them fighting on top of automobiles moving in ways automobiles aren’t supposed to move. The plane is barreling down a runway that appears to be 30 miles long. Cars explode, flip, fly, float. And then, at a climactic moment, there is a flying head-butt. The sequence was originally the climax of Fast Five, and Lin sounds both proud and exhausted when he says, ”I’ve been working on it for four years.”
That sequence also marks Lin’s swan song. Universal is Fast-tracking (sorry) the series, with a seventh film slated for July 2014. (Meanwhile, Diesel is already talking about a third Fast trilogy. Doubt him at your peril.) The films are serious business now: For franchise-starved Universal it looks like a gold mine, and an essential part of the studio’s financial future. Heck, it’s opening on one of the biggest movie weekends of the year.
Has the outsider franchise finally gotten inside? ”I feel like we earned Memorial Day,” says Lin. ”Nothing was ever given to us. We had to go and really earn it.” That go-for-broke spirit runs throughout all the Fast films. They are unabashed and unencumbered entertainments, free of subtextual themes or the tendency toward overplotting of the Abrams/Nolan contingent. Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with themes or plot. But the whole action genre has been hijacked by respectability. Fast was never respectable. Its cast is made up of beefcake action heroes, teen-movie refugees, rappers, models, martial artists, and the pagan goddess that is Michelle Rodriguez. It’s the definition of a ragtag gang…and by God, they know how to win.
THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS
Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker) investigates a series of truck hijackings, leading him to soliloquizing racer Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and his family of misfit car fanatics. Designed to give Walker his first leading role after teen-dreamboat parts, the first Fast feels more like a self-serious drama than an action movie, but director Rob Cohen conjures up a memorable world of glitzy street races, highway robberies, thoughtful criminals, and dancing girls.
PITCH: Point Break with cars
GENRE: Undercover-cop drama
LOCATION: Los Angeles
CHARACTERS INTRODUCED: Brian, Dom, Dom’s sister Mia (Jordana Brewster), and his spunky love interest Letty (Michelle Rodriguez)
KEY SCENE: Dom and Brian drag-race to a train track…right into the path of an oncoming train.
MUSICIAN IN THE CAST: Ja Rule
UNEXPECTED COSTAR: Ted Levine (Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs!) as Brian’s superior
BAD GUYS: Motorcycle gangsters
CARS CRASHED: 4, plus 2 motorcycles
TIME IT TAKES FOR FIRST CAR TO CRASH: 25 minutes
2 FAST 2 FURIOUS
Brian joins forces with childhood friend Roman Pearce (Tyrese Gibson) and heads to Florida for another undercover mission. Director John Singleton’s underrated sequel is like a pumped-up parody of the first film: every car a different neon, every midriff bare.
PITCH: Miami Vice with more colors
GENRE: Buddy-cop action-comedy
CHARACTERS INTRODUCED: Roman, jack-of-all-trades Tej (an Afroed Chris ”Ludacris” Bridges), sultry U.S. customs agent Monica Fuentes (Eva Mendes)
KEY SCENE: Brian and Roman fly a car into an escaping yacht.
MUSICIAN IN THE CAST: Ludacris
UNEXPECTED COSTARS: Michael Ealy (The Good Wife) as a street racer, James Remar (Sex and the City) as a customs agent
BAD GUY: A drug kingpin who owns Miami
CARS CRASHED: 18, plus 1 boat
TIME IT TAKES FOR FIRST CAR TO CRASH: 12 minutes
THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS: TOKYO DRIFT
Troubled high schooler Sean Boswell (Lucas Black, who looks 40) gets shipped off to Tokyo, where he learns the art of drifting. Drift is a surprisingly atmospheric take on the cars-go-fast mythology — and it united screenwriter Chris Morgan and director Justin Lin, the team who would guide Fast into its renaissance.
PITCH: The Car-ate Kid
GENRE: High school melodrama
CHARACTER INTRODUCED: Sung Kang as wry car guru Han, who sometimes goes by ”Han Seoul-Oh” (read that name slowly). Han dies in Tokyo Drift but reappears as a friend of Dom’s in Fast & Furious. (The second Fast trilogy is set before Tokyo Drift.)
KEY SCENE: Sean uses newfound drifting powers to race the Drift King down a mountain road.
MUSICIAN IN THE CAST: Bow Wow
UNEXPECTED COSTAR: Martial-arts legend Sonny Chiba
BAD GUYS: Yakuza street racers
CARS CRASHED: 7
TIME IT TAKES FOR FIRST CAR TO CRASH: 8 minutes
FAST & FURIOUS
The reunion episode! Dom returns to L.A. seeking vengeance for Letty’s (alleged) death and runs right into old frenemy Brian; they both go undercover in a drug-smuggling operation. (Of course, they smuggle drugs in sports cars.) The most serious — and least fun — entry in the series.
PITCH: Death Wish on the border
GENRE: Vigilante revenge thriller
LOCATIONS: L.A., with some time in Mexico
CHARACTER INTRODUCED: Hilariously gorgeous professional criminal Gisele (Israeli model Gal Gadot). She becomes Dom’s post-Letty love interest.
KEY SCENE: Dom and Letty pull an automotive heist on a fuel tanker in the Dominican Republic.
MUSICIANS IN THE CAST: Puerto Rican performers Tego Calderon and Don Omar
UNEXPECTED COSTAR: Shea Whigham (Eli on Boardwalk Empire) as a crusty FBI agent
BAD GUY: A drug kingpin who owns Mexico
CARS CRASHED: 13
TIME IT TAKES FOR FIRST CAR TO CRASH: 6 minutes
The Fast-vengers assemble, as Dom and Brian call in all their friends for a Brazilian megaheist. Meanwhile, American agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) is hot on Dom’s trail. The fifth film somehow unites all the previous films’ disparate tones. It’s self-serious and campy and mock-epic and funny all at once.
PITCH: Ocean’s Eleven where everyone’s Scott Caanz
GENRE: Heist thriller
LOCATION: Rio de Janeiro
CHARACTERS INTRODUCED: Hobbs, Elsa Pataky (Mrs. Chris Hemsworth!) as Elena Neves, the only honest cop in Rio — and Dom’s post-post-Letty love interest
KEY SCENE: How to choose? There’s Dom and Brian carrying out a train heist and driving off a cliff. Then there’s the Hobbs-Dom rooftop chase. And the bank-vault climax. And Mia screaming the immortal line ”You guys have every corrupt cop in Rio on your tail!” And on and on.
BAD GU: A drug lord who apparently owns Brazil
CARS CRASHED: Dozens
TIME IT TAKES FOR FIRST CAR TO CRASH: Less than 2 minutes
DWAYNE KEEPS ROCKIN’
On top of his busy film career, Dwayne Johnson will appear on TNT’s new reality show The Hero, offering in-your-face inspiration to contestants on some wild adventures
Dwayne Johnson clearly doesn’t believe in downtime. Fast & Furious 6 is merely one of five movies he’ll star in this year (Snitch came out in February, G.I. Joe: Retaliation and Pain & Gain recently topped the box office, and Empire State is due this fall). He just signed on to produce and star in an HBO dramedy pilot about athletes. Plus, he’s never gotten the whole wrestling thing out of his system. In April, the WWE champion fought John Cena at WrestleMania. Johnson sustained some injuries during the bout and needed surgery to repair hernial tears, but it was just a pit stop. After the surgery, he tweeted a photo of himself flexing in a tiny Superman shirt.
Lest there be even a hint of daylight in his schedule, the 41-year-old actor has also plunged wholeheartedly into TNT’s The Hero, an action-heavy reality show (debuting June 6) that tests contestants’ mettle — physically and mentally — with a series of competitions. ”The idea was to create a show in reality television that had all the qualities that I enjoyed watching on TV,” says Johnson. ”Individuals being motivated. Individuals being put in positions where they have to overcome.” Impressive feats abound: bridge climbing, cave rappelling, something involving a container of tear gas. ”We have a soccer mom who is deathly afraid of heights. I’ll just say this: She may or may not wind up wire-walking from the two biggest skyscrapers in the city of Panama.”
If all this sounds too inspirational and touchy-feely, keep in mind that Johnson will be doing the inspiring. ”On the show, I serve as a motivator, a mentor,” he says. ”At times it gets loud, and it does get in-your-face.” The contestants will be living in the same house, unable to contact their families. And there’s a ”temptation” twist: Sometimes they’ll have the option to take a cash prize that will simultaneously force the rest of their team to work harder. ”We do have people who want to kill each other,” says Johnson. ”But there’s also the opportunity for people to get better. In a term, we’re serving up smart popcorn.”
And after that? Oh, nothing. Just starting production on Brett Ratner’s new film Hercules: The Thracian Wars. (He plays Hercules, natch.) ”Maybe one day we’ll be talking about my foray into Broadway!” he says. May we request a Rock opera?
FAST & FURIOUS 6
The Fast-vengers reassemble, this time to take on supercriminal Owen Shaw (Luke Evans), who is working with the mysteriously resurrected Letty. Shaw has his own cabal of badass drivers, a group described by screenwriter Morgan as ”a shadowy version of our heroes’ own team.”
PITCH: James Bond joins The Dirty Dozen
GENRE: Practically a war movie
LOCATIONS: London, the Canary Islands, and Spain
CHARACTERS INTRODUCED: Gina Carano plays Riley, a new sidekick for Hobbs, while The Raid star Joe Taslim is a martial artist on Shaw’s team. Turns out that everyone on Dom’s squad has an equal and opposite.
KEY SCENE: Go watch the trailer.
MUSICIAN IN THE CAST: British recording artist Rita Ora
BAD GUY: Shaw, who’s basically Dom’s evil twin with a British accent
CARS CRASHED: You’ll have to wait and see.
TIME IT TAKES FOR FIRST CAR TO CRASH: Stop it, we’re not telling!
DIESEL DOMINATES FACEBOOK
The hard numbers
Vin Diesel has 41.4 million fans on FB. A recent shirtless pic of him with a leopard on a leash got 940,000 likes.
The soft sell
The actor’s posts are warm and affirmational. Many photos carry a loving message to his fans and an inspirational quote such as ”A warm smile is the universal language of kindness.”