The Evolution of the Fast and Furious Franchise

While the tenth Fast and Furious film hits theaters later this month, don’t expect it to resemble the original 2001 film at all. We examine how the franchise has changed over time. 

It started as an adrenaline-boosting glimpse into a subset of automotive society more often captured in the news than on movie cameras. The Fast and the Furious was born out of late 90’s street-racing culture. As films of the time found interest in the worlds of street gangs and exciting bank heists, the illegal escapades of amateur racers went largely unknown to the greater population. 

The Fast and Furious became a huge blockbuster hit when it released in theaters in the summer of 2001. But just because it proved itself in box office earnings and pop culture influence didn’t mean the producers had struck the vein of an untapped subgenre. In reality it was more of the right time, right place. Hollywood knew there was potential, but they didn’t really understand the best way to approach it. Two sequels followed which missed the mark before the franchise finally found firm ground on which to plant its feet. 

The genesis for a modern film about street racing came in the late 90’s when director Rob Cohen was given an article in a 1998 issue of Vibe magazine called “Racer X”. This article discussed the exploits of a man named Rafael Estevez, who became a role model for a whole new generation of young automotive enthusiasts who partook in illegal street racing. It was a world of high stakes, and not just because of the danger of getting caught by the Police or crashing at insane speeds. These racers survived by winning high-stakes bets, and the only way they could keep their dreams alive was through innovation, winning, and cheating. 

The lifestyle described in the article seemed ready-made to appeal to young film audiences. Cohen would seek out street races to witness himself, and an endorsement by the star of his previous film The Skulls was enough to get Universal Studios to agree to back it. To add stakes to the plot, Paul Walker suggested a Donnie Brasco approach. In other words, telling the story from the perspective of an undercover cop. Add in loud music, neon lights, flashy Hollywood-ized vehicles, and a gritty young cast and you had a recipe for something audiences would eat up. The Fast and the Furious went on to gross more than $100 million at the box office, in contrast to a modest budget. 

Of course Hollywood wanted to make a sequel. That’s when things started to go sideways. Star Vin Diesel wasn’t impressed with the script, so he declined. The budget doubled, and so the studio wanted a more experienced director. John Singletary grew up in LA and was familiar with street racing from his youth, and so he was brought in to replace Cohen. The script decided to focus more on the undercover cop aspect of the original story rather than the immersion into car culture. This allowed the film to veer away from Vin Diesel’s character. 

By today’s standards, 2 Fast 2 Furious was more of a spin-off than a true sequel. It failed to recognize the connection between the stars of the first film. Instead, it embraced 90’s-era Hollywood movie making where continuity of story/characters was optional as long as the general idea was maintained. The film made marginally more money than the original, but critics weren’t impressed by its cop-show antics. 

The studio doubled down on the spin-off approach with the third film in the trilogy. When Vin Diesel turned down yet another opportunity to star in a plot that was basically a murder mystery with cars, the writers pivoted to a new set of characters. Vin Diesel was convinced to appear in a cameo so that the film would have at least some connection to the original The Fast and the Furious besides an inside look into street-racing/car culture. The choice to set the film in Japan allowed the series to explore a different side of car obsession. The Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift had a larger budget than the previous film, but made less money at the box office. 

Tokyo Drift may have been a failure to continue the series’ initial trajectory, but it did preview some aspects which the franchise would later embrace. First, the film didn’t take itself too seriously, unlike the first two movies. While it did explore an area of car culture that exists in the real world, the story was pure Hollywood fantasy. Similarly, the plot of the film revolved more around action than anything else. Finally, it opened the doors for Justin Lin to contribute his unique fun-first style. All of these attributes would be the blueprints the series would use from the fourth film on. 

Fast & Furious released in 2009, and was created as a direct sequel to The Fast and the Furious, avoiding the “spin-off” stigma of the previous two films. As a sequel to the first film, those original characters were brought back, establishing the core of the franchise moving forward. Similarly, Justin Lin was in the director’s seat and brought the same action/stunt first aspect of Tokyo Drift. Fast & Furious would find Dom’s crew performing heists, and then later working for the government in exchange for clemency. Both of these aspects – using cars for increasingly difficult heists, and having Dom’s team function as a specialist force for government agencies is how the franchise would progress from here on out. Similarly, the film traveled to extravagant locations outside of the US, rather than taking place at one location. Later films would follow suit. 

However, while Fast & Furious would serve as the first glimpse into what the series would become, it wasn’t totally transformed just yet. Fast & Furious still clung to many of the aspects which defined the first film, mainly focusing on street racing. The studio decided the franchise would be limited in the type of audience it could attract if it stuck to this formula. Therefore, for the next film in the series, Fast Five, it was decided to move away from the focus on car culture that was so heavily featured in the first four films. Instead, the franchise would move to more heist-related action sequences in order to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. 

Through this transition period, Universal Studios continued to rely on Justin Lin. For Fast Five, he was given his biggest budget yet, and the studio added Dwayne Johnson to the cast in order to further help convince audiences that the film was more action-oriented than previous installments. While the stunts and heists in this film still revolved around cars, the vehicles in the film became tools rather than “characters” themselves. From here on out it would be common for the characters to be driving different cars depending on their roles in a particular action scene. No longer would one specific car be associated with a certain character through the majority of the film. 

Fast Five was also the first film in the series where the writing focused on Dom’s team being a “family”. This would be a theme the studio would riff off of in later sequels, either using family connections to bring in new characters related to the protagonists, or setting long-lost family members as villains or helpful allies. A sixth film was planned to be the finale of the story which started with Fast & Furious. Work on that sixth film actually started before production of Fast Five was complete. Significant box office success of Fast Five allowed the studios to feel confident about proceeding in the new direction, and Justin Lin was hired to direct. 

However, during production of Fast & Furious 6 it was determined that the original idea for an ending to the Fast & Furious trilogy would not work as a single film. Instead, the plot would have to be broken up into two movies and so there was less pressure on the production of Fast & Furious 6 to be a fitting end for the series. Gina Carino was brought in to further the action-movie aspirations of the franchise, and Michelle Rodriguez returned but as an adversary – complicating Dom’s motivation while also flushing out the “family” theme. Having characters switching sides, or being forced to do so, is something the franchise would use again.  

Fast & Furious 6 was the biggest-budgeted film of the franchise so far, but it was also the most successful at the box office. Production on Furious 7 started immediately after Fast & Furious 6 wrapped up. Universal Studios wanted to ramp up production so that the sequel would hit theaters just one year after Fast & Furious 6. The studio was struggling with its other major film franchises, and needed another hit. This shortened schedule would cause Justin Lin to drop out as director because he wasn’t sure he would be able to maintain the new film’s quality. James Wan was hired as his replacement. 

One other change with Furious 7 was the push towards using less CGI and more stunt work for the action sequences. It was the stunt director of the previous two films who came up with the air drop sequence that would become the most memorable moment of Furious 7. Jason Statham was brought in as the new villain Deckard Shaw, who is hunting down Dom’s team in retribution for the death of his brother in the previous film – a nod to the “family” theme. More action-related stars were brought in including Ronda Rousey, Tony Jaa, Kurt Russel, and Djimon Hounsou.

This film really showed how far the franchise had come. Even though the film featured action scenes which revolved around cars, it also had extended sequences with gunfights, and hand-to-hand combat. Starting with Fast & Furious 6 there was an introduction of martial arts elements, and action choreography not seen in previous installments. And the burgeoning cast list showed how the franchise was following the same approach as The Expendables – bringing in as many big names to try and appeal to as wide an audience as possible. Furious 7 had an even larger budget than Fast & Furious 6, and yet it made even more money at the box office. 

By this point in time, the franchise was an unstoppable force at the box office. It had successfully shed its roots as a study of car culture to become a modern action franchise that happened to have cars in it. Any semblance of a story arc that had been hinted at in earlier installments was abandoned as the franchise decided to keep its foot on the gas. It was too much of a cash-cow for Universal Studios to think about ending it. Furthermore, the fun nature of the films kept audiences happy and actors didn’t want to say no. Unfortunately, the death of actor Paul Walker in 2013 brought an unexpected end to one of the series’ most beloved and longest-tenured characters. Furious 7 added in a final send-off scene for Walker, and the production was dedicated in his memory. 

Production of an eighth film had begun before Walker’s death. F. Gary Gray was brought in to direct and with the loss of a major character the story would have more room to explore the other characters. Interestingly, the plot of The Fate of the Furious would become a good representation of the series overall. In addition to the complicated car-related heists, there are extravagant locations, and protagonists cooperating with a government entity. 

For the first time in four films, the element of street race culture was revisited in the first action sequence of the film. From that point on we have both a major protagonist and antagonist switch sides, where the protagonist’s actions appear to be in betrayal of his “family” but in the end are motivated by an effort to save his “family”. We also have extended hand-to-hand and shootout scenes, and new big-name actors brought in including Charlize Theron, Scott Eastwood, and Nathalie Emmanuel. 

2019 saw the release of Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw. This film was a spin-off, much in the same way as 2 Fast 2 Furious. But unlike that film, this one reflects the action-first approach of the later films and focuses on two of the main characters from the main series instead of just one. It would feature all of the hallmarks of the latest films, including adding new characters who are family and having the protagonists engaged in an effort to combat a tech-laden super-villain. If anything, Hobbs & Shaw demonstrated how far the franchise had come because it was not focused on any characters or even the concept from the original 2001 film. 

This month we see the release of F9, and if the trailer is any indication it will pick up right where The Fate of the Furious left off. Certainly you can expect to see new characters added who are long-lost family members or else motivated by the actions of characters in previous films, we will witness outrageous car-related heists, there will be exotic locations, and certainly a major protagonist will be motivated to act against his/her team. Just don’t expect to be surprised. 

Universal Studios has fine-tuned the Fast and Furious franchise into the ultimate modern action movie, for better or worse. Above all else, the intent of these films is to be A.) as universally enjoyable as possible, and B.) repeatable. Massaging the franchise into its current form has caused the series to shed some of the trademarks which made it unique to begin with. Characters may now be more expendable and interchangeable with each other, and the film’s plots often eschew a connection to reality. But it is hard to argue with the results of these changes.

The latest Fast and Furious films are now among the most popular and profitable in the world. What started as a glimpse into a unique subculture has exploded into a Hollywood juggernaut. It speaks volumes about how major studios are approaching the business of making modern movies. It’s no longer a necessity to find something interesting and new to base a film upon. Instead, its is more about thrills and the ability to replicate those thrills as easily and consistently as possible. Exploding budgets prove that such a task is not an easy one, but box office results mean there isn’t much incentive to stop making them.