This past weekend saw the release of “Fate of the Furious,” the eighth film in the most inexplicable film franchise in the history of Hollywood. Featuring a plethora of unknown and up-and-coming actors, increasingly absurd action set pieces and an almost overly convoluted timeline, the “Fast and Furious” franchise makes very little sense on paper, yet is currently the seventh highest grossing franchise of all time.

The Fast and Furious franchise is an original story, featuring original characters. It has no built-in audience like franchise superhero movies do, it doesn’t have any eye-catching state-of-the-art effects like “Avatar” or “Star Wars,” it doesn’t even have consistent quality on its side. The FF movies range from crazy good to blandly bad. Despite all this, the franchise has grown more popular with every movie. Today, let us look back into the storied history of our favorite street racers as we go movie by movie through the “Fast and Furious” franchise.

The Fast and the Furious (2001)

If you happened to watch one of the more recent FF films before seeing the original, you might be surprised by how grounded it is. Made in 2001, the film is blatantly borrowing from Katherine Bigelow’s “Point Break,” switching out surfers for street-racers.  Directed by reliable, if dull, action specialist Rob Cohen (XXX), the film follows undercover cop Brian O’Connor as he attempts to infiltrate a family of street racing thieves lead by the charismatic Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel). The functions pretty well on every level, with a nice mix of tense “undercover cop” set pieces and crazy, stunt-heavy car action.

Looking back, nothing about the film sticks out as particularly great, it’s all just functional, and there is absolutely no indication of the absurd, over-the-top attitude the franchise would later embrace. In fact, the only thing in the film that reaches beyond average is the chemistry between Paul Walker and Vin Diesel. To be clear, neither actor is giving a particularly good performance, but their scenes together had an easy-going energy that pulls the material up from “average” to “good.” It’s this chemistry and sense of friendship that would later come to define the series.

2 Fast 2 Furious (2003)

Let’s get this out of the way right off the bat: “2 Fast 2 Furious” is either the stupidest title ever, or the most ingenious. Unfortunately, the movie itself is unworthy of the gonzo title. Like the first film, it’s not bad, it’s just rather bland. Directed by John Singleton (Boyz n the Hood), this sequel moves on from ripping off “Point Break” to ripping off Michael Bay’s “Bad Boys.” The film is a standard wisecracking buddy-cop flick, with all the explosions and questionable one-liners that subgenre entails.

Sadly, Vin Diesel’s bald, criminal street-racer sat this one out, leaving Paul Walker playing against Tyrese Gibson as bald, criminal street-racer Roman Pierce. It should be said that Gibson is a great comedic actor, and he brings charisma to spare to the film, but the chemistry between him and Walker doesn’t touch the bro-mance of the previous film.

The film does have its highlights, namely the villain: a crime-lord named Carter Verone played by Cole Hauser. Hauser is simply terrible in the role, alternating between looking bored and inept depending on the scene, but his god-awful performance is just the right kind of bad to get the audience giggling. His bored delivery of an old-school bad-guy torture-monologue involving a rat and a bucket are worth the price of admission alone.

“2 Fast 2 Furious,” is not a good movie, but it also avoids being a bad one, choosing instead to float around at mediocre levels.

The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006)
“Tokyo Drift” is far and away the best of the first three “Fast and Furious” films. Despite having basically no connection whatsoever to the first to films, the third entry in the series features outstanding races, solid direction and a break-out performance from Sung Kang as Han. This marked the first appearance in the series of both director Justin Lin and screenwriter Chris Morgan, and both manage to bring the series to new heights. For the first and only time in this series about street-racers, the plot actually revolves around street racing, as we follow young American Sean Boswell (Lucas Black), as he climbs to the heights of the Tokyo street-racing scene.

Lucas Black makes for bland leading man, and he spends the movie doing a cartoonishly bad southern accent, but Sung Kang is incredible. Essentially playing the same kind of character as Vin Diesel in the original, Kang is hugely likeable and his untimely death part-way through the movie actually hits pretty hard. The death of Han also led to the series’ absurd timeline, caused when writers bent over backward to keep him in the movies.

Tokyo Drift was a key moment in the franchise, where it transitioned from being almost completely derivative to blazing a new trail for itself. Sadly, it may also be the most underappreciated film in the franchise, with many critics and fans alike calling it a low point of the series. Speaking of which, the true low point of the series is up next.

Fast and Furious (2009)

As the simple title would imply, “Fast and Furious” was meant to be a soft reboot of the franchise. The fourth film brought back Vin Diesel’s Dominic Toretto as well as his girlfriend Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), both of whom had been out of action since the first film. The plot found Paul Walker returning as Brian O’Connor, this time undercover with a Mexican drug cartel. When his operation causes the death of Letty, Dom joins forces with him for some old-fashioned revenge.

The film is, in a word, a mess. The script is plain bad, full of dialogue that falls flat and characters that lack even the slightest hint of an interesting personality. Even the chemistry between Diesel and Walker is weaker in this entry. The action is the high point of the movie, but is hurt by an over-reliance on questionable CGI, particularly during the big finale.

There are a few positive notes. The film introduces Gisele (Gal Godot) a fan favorite character who would be put to much better use in later entries. It also features a pretty good bad guy in Braga (John Ortiz), a ruthless cartel leader who manages to bring actual menace to the proceedings. Finally, the film also features a cameo from Han, of “Tokyo Drift” fame, which serves both as a reminder of how charismatic the character is and sets the film before the events of its predecessor.

“Fast and Furious” is a bad movie, arguably the worst in the series, and there was a time when many thought it would be the last. Good thing it wasn’t, because the next three films are not only great FF films; they are bona fide action classics.

Fast Five (2011)

There isn’t room for me to write down everything that works in “Fast Five.”
That would take an actual book. Every piece of the previous entries franchise that was remotely successful was brought back, a new and more original tone was created, and everything culminates in one of the greatest set-pieces ever put to film.

“Fast Five” plays out more like a heist film than any of the previous FF movies. It finds our heroes hiding out from the law in Brazil, pulling thefts to pay the bills. Upon learning that a slumlord is sitting on top of a massive safe full of cash, they assemble a team of specialist consisting of side-characters from previous movies. Han, Roman, and Gisele all return, as well as Ludacris, who had a small part in “2 Fast 2 Furious.”

Complicating matters, the team is being hunted by Hobbs (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), a kind of marshal/bounty hunter who becomes obsessed with tracking down and capturing Dom.

The Rock brings all of his trademark charisma and physical prowess to bear here, culminating in an incredible hand-to-hand fight between the former wrestler and Vin Diesel that sees the two men punching each other through walls in two minutes of pure brawling bliss.

The film climaxes with a massive car chase in which Dom and Brian strap a bank vault to the back of their two cars and drag it through the crowded streets of Rio. The absolute carnage of the sequence, combined with equal parts comedy and character beats, place it in the upper echelon of action scenes, and give the series one of its finest moments.

Fast and Furious 6 (2013)

The sixth FF film is the first in the franchise to play almost exactly like the last. After the critical and financial success of part five, returning director Justin Lin saw no reason to fix what wasn’t broken. On the one hand, this is good: more “Fast Five” is always a good thing, and the team dynamic and crazy set-pieces of are intact in part six. On the other hand, this causes part six to be the only film in the series to sort of repetitive. All the pieces that make “Fast Five” so great are there, but it doesn’t all click quite as well the second time.

The plot finds the team recruited by Hobbs, who likes them now, to take on a rival team of car-based criminals in London lead by the villainous Owen Shaw. Shaw and his team are set up as dark reflections of our heroes, a fact Roman helpfully points out for us. Speaking of Roman, he is a highlight of both this film and “Fast Five.” Tyrese Gibson brings every ounce of his comedy chops to every scene he’s in and transforms Roman from the sort-of-funny sidekick he was in part two to a genuinely hilarious character.
Going back to the bad-guys, Shaw also has an amnesia-stricken Letty, who, you may remember, supposedly died in the fourth film of the series. On the opposite end of things, part six does give us some real, permanent deaths. Gisele is killed and, in a post credit scene, we are once again shown the death of Han from “Tokyo Drift” (turns out he was killed by Shaw’s brother as an act of revenge).

“Fast and Furious 6” is a very good movie, maybe even a great one, but it never quites get out of the shadow of the great “Fast Five.” It does, however, set up the biggest and strangest FF film to date.

Furious 7 (2015)

“Furious 7” is a movie of changes, some good, some bad and one heartbreaking. This is the first film since part two to not be directed by Justin Lin. Filling in is James Wan, a horror director making his first jump to blockbuster-action. Wan acquits himself well, as does the entire cast. Not only do all of the regulars turn in spectacular work, but the villain, played by British action god Jason Statham, is one of the best in the series. The brother of the last films baddie, Statham’s Deckard Shaw is a force of nature, and the Brit impresses from his first scene to his last.

“Furious 7” features some of the most over-the-top set-pieces of the twenty-first century. A huge sequence at the film’s midpoint follows our heroes as they drop their cars out of an airplane using special car-parachutes and engage in an epic chase down a deadly mountain. There is also a bit in which Dom and Brian drive a car from skyscraper to skyscraper, smashing through windows and flying like automotive superheroes.

There is an underlying sadness to “Furious 7” due to the real-life death of Paul Walker. His passing, which occurred in the middle of filming, hit the cast and crew hard, particularly Vin Diesel. The two men were best friends; Diesel even named his daughter Paula. Walker’s unfinished scenes were completed using his brothers and computer effects. The film ends with a stirring tribute to the man, and a heart-wrenching retirement of the character of Brian O’Connor. When I saw this film on opening night in a packed theater, there was hardly a dry eye in the house.

A Quarter Mile at a Time

“I live my life a quarter mile at a time.” These are words spoken by Dominic Toretto in the original “The Fast and the Furious” and they do more than summarize his character; they summarize the series. The “Fast and Furious” franchise did not reach greatness in a huge, sweeping movement. It was not met with immediate critical and commercial success. It built its legacy piece-by-piece, movie-by-movie, scene-by-scene. The “Fast and Furious” was built a quarter mile at a time. It was built into one of the most unusual, action-packed and original franchises in this or any era.