The Fast and the Furious: Universal’s Answer To The Marvel Cinematic Universe

Fast and the Furious

Sometimes it feels like while we weren’t paying attention The Fast and the Furious franchise asserted its worldwide domination. What started back in 2001 as a $38 million film that many thought would come and go, has turned into a multi-billion dollar behemoth that has become Universal Pictures’ bread and butter. After The Fate of the Furious opens this weekend, which is the eighth film in the series, the franchise global take will have gone beyond the $4 billion mark and will further its reach as Universal’s highest grossing franchise of all time. Properties like Marvel and DC have helped studios such as Disney, Warner Bros., Sony & 20th Century Fox reach historic financial heights with a little help from their comic book properties but the Fast franchise hasn’t needed a Captain American or Spider-Man to be successful. It has reached its pinnacle due to a lot of patience, the pull of its international cast & giving its worldwide fan base exactly what they want without apologizing for what they bring to the table.

The Fast and the Furious, originally given the name Redline, was inspired by an article, titled “Racer X”, about New York street clubs that race Japanese cars late at night. The article appeared in “Vibe Magazine” and was written by Ken Li and even though it looked into the world of New York street racing, director Rob Cohen by further inspired by watching an actual illegal street race at night in Los Angeles. He felt that this would be world that could appeal to the enthusiast that followed the trend but also entice a mass audience who may view it as an underground world they would want to learn more about. Universal was 100% behind the idea, so much so that they got Roger Corman to license the title rights of his 1955 film The Fast and the Furious to them so that the title could be used on this project. Both films, oddly enough, were about racing.

From there it was about assembling the right cast that would appeal to the target audience. Vin Diesel, at the time, was not a household name yet but he was a rising star in Hollywood thanks to a few projects that garnered critical acclaim and financial clout. He provided the voice of the title character in the critically well-received, The Iron Giant and before that he had a small role in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. Another standout role followed in 2000’s Boiler Room but what brought him to the attention of Universal was when he played the anti-hero Riddick in the film Pitch Black. The film garnered him the attention that made them believe he could carry the film and from there they had their Dominic Toretto. Interestingly enough, however, he was not their first choice when they began casting the role. Producer Neal H. Moritz stated in a recent interview that the studio really wanted Timothy Olyphant for the part. His star was also rising at the time with roles in Scream 2, Go & Gone In Sixty Second and the studio insisted they would greenlight the movie immediately if they got him. Olyphant eventually turned them down and the rest is history.

The role of Brian O’Connor seemed to come along a bit easier. Paul Walker had made a name for himself in teen-oriented hits such as Pleasantville, She’s All That, Varsity Blues & The Skulls. The latter film had him working with producer Moritz already so he had a vote of confidence going into the production. The personality differences with Walker and Diesel would end up being a key to the film’s success and the pairing would create a chemistry that would endure throughout most of the sequels.

The two female leads were also virtual unknowns by the time they were cast in the film. Jordana Brewster, who landed the role of Mia Toretto, started her career on soap operas beginning with All My Children and then As the World Turns from 1995-2001. In 1998 she achieved more mainstream success when she was part of the ensemble alien thriller, The Faculty. To play Dom’s assertive girlfriend, Michelle Rodriguez was cast and she had even less experience, having only appeared in 2000’s Girlfight. The film was a huge critical success and she received raves for her role in the film which resulted in Rob Cohen wanting her for the role of Letty Ortiz. The studio was so eager to get the girls that they didn’t really look into that fact that they both did not have driver’s licenses, so they took driving lessons during production.

The city of Los Angeles would be a character in and of itself through the film. The movie was shot in various locations within Los Angeles and parts of southern California. Key locations included Dodger Stadium (on the opening scene where Brian tests his Eclipse on the parking lot), Angelino Heights, Silver Lake and Echo Park (the neighborhoods around Toretto’s home), as well as Little Saigon (where Tran destroys the Eclipse) and the San Bernardino International Airport (the venue for Race Wars, which attracted over 1,500 import car owners and enthusiasts). The entire last rig heist scene was filmed along Domenigoni Parkway on the southern side of San Jacinto/Hemet in the San Jacinto Valley near Diamond Valley Lake.

Despite all the pieces being in place for a potential hit, no one really saw The Fast and the Furious coming when it was released on June 22, 2001. Doctor Doolittle 2 opened the same weekend and that was expected to dominate the box office while Furious was expected to be a minor hit at best. Reviews didn’t exactly predict a hit with a very mixed, yet still rotten, score of 53% of Rotten Tomatoes. Media outlets did not expect to wake up Monday morning and not only report that The Fast and the Furious was the number one movie in America, but that it also already exceeded its $38 million budget with its better than expected $40 million opening. This is the kind of surprise opening that immediately gets the studio talking, makes its stars more sought after, & gets rival studios to dabble in imitation. Anyone remember 2004’s Torque? It was essentially The Fast and the Furious with motorcycles but no one would be upset if you forgot about it.

The Fast and the Furious was also a product of imitation itself. Many people have called it Point Break with cars and that’s a fair assessment because the comparisons are warranted but the film took something that was familiar and made it accessible to the audience it was trying to reach. The film is a classic example of perfect timing. The concept was fresh enough, street racing was popular enough and its cast was in that sweet spot of notoriety that they were poised for this kind of success. By the end of its run, the film had grossed $144.5 million domestically and $207.2 million worldwide.

With success like this, a sequel is inevitable and while a sequel should’ve been an easy sell to all involved, that would prove to be not the case. Director Rob Cohen and Vin Diesel opted to work on xXx instead and since the characters of Mia and Letty were tied to him, both Jordana Brewster and Michelle Rodriguez also didn’t return for the sequel. This left Paul Walker to carry the reins and help get 2 Fast 2 Furious off the ground.

Stepping into the director’s chair was John Singleton, who saw great success with films like Boyz n the Hood, Poetic Justice & Higher Learning. Singleton wasn’t known for action films but he had a bit of grittiness that could be beneficial to the project. Singleton was also responsible for bringing Tyrese Gibson into the fold as Roman Pearce. They had worked together on the 2001 film, Baby Boy and he would be a new partner in crime for Walker to banter off of.

Filling in the female element would be Eva Mendes and Devon Aioki. Mendes was primarily known for her small role in Training Day at the time while Aioki was fresh to film yet a model who replaced Naomi Campbell as the face of Versace when she was 16. Keeping in line with an element from the making of the first film, Aioki did not have a driver’s license (just a driver’s permit) or any driving experience prior to the film’s production (except driving a golf cart), so she took driving lessons during filming from professional instructors. First, she learned pure driving, then stunt driving.

Two other significant roles were filled by Chris “Ludacris” Bridges as Tej Parker and Cole Hauser as the notorious Carter Verone. Redman was originally one of the top choices for Tej but dropped out due to scheduling conflicts and rapper Ja Rule was asked to return (he had a cameo in the first film) in a similar role but turned it out down to pursue other projects. Hauser was already a Singleton staple having appeared in his 1995 film, Higher Learning.

The sequel also brought on a location change. The action shifted from Los Angeles to Miami this time around and much like the Los Angeles setting, it set a new visual tone for the series and was one of many reasons why the sequel would feel very different from its predecessor.

Different is the best way to describe 2 Fast 2 Furious. The chemistry that was established with the characters in the first film was definitely missed in the sequel and while Paul Walker is very likable, he alone wasn’t enough to fully carry the film. Tyrese was given the task of taking Vin Diesel’s place so to speak but his chemistry with Walker just wasn’t the same. They do connect on some level but something was just missing. Also problematic was the choice of John Singleton as director because he doesn’t add much flair to the film. His direction is surprisingly generic and he only offers up a few moments of action packed excitement.

Critics and audiences definitely felt the change. While reviews for The Fast and the Furious were mixed, the reviews for 2 Fast 2 Furious were more on the negative side. The film received a rotten score of 36% on Rotten Tomatoes and while its $50.4 million opening was $10 million higher than that of the first film, it didn’t quite have the legs the original had in the subsequent weeks that followed. It grossed $127.1 million on the domestic end but did finish higher than the first film worldwide with a gross of $236.3 million on a $76 million budget.

It would take three more years for Universal to revisit the franchise. The journey of The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift was an interesting one because it was supposed to be so many different things. It has been revealed recently that the third film was originally written as a vehicle for Vin Diesel’s return but a cameo was settled on at a later date (more on that later). Then there was an idea to view the film as more of a soft reboot of the series and not a full on sequel since none of the characters from the first two films would be returning in significant roles. Diesel sat out for 2 Fast 2 Furious while Walker didn’t return for the third outing. Tokyo Drift would eventually be included in the official timeline of the other films but it’s not entirely clear if that was always the intention. In the end, the film takes place chronologically between the events of the sixth and seventh films but was that the case back in 2006? I highly doubt it.

A new cast of characters were gathered to set Tokyo Drift in motion and another new director was put in place to guide the franchise. Justin Lin gained notoriety when he directed the critically acclaimed, Better Luck Tomorrow. Lin wasn’t intimately familiar with drifting and he certainly didn’t have a pedigree that suggested he could helm a film of this nature but as we know now, he would become a guiding force for the series moving forward.

Stepping into the lead role this time around would be Lucas Black as Sean Boswell. Black was a fairly well-known child actor due to his work in Sling Blade and the television series, American Gothic. He certainly fit a mold that was similar to Paul Walker but his character being in a high school was a bit of a stretch since he appeared much older than the character he was playing.

The supporting cast was a bit different for the third film because it seems like similar attempts to have a stronger ensemble weren’t made with this sequel. Bow Wow filled the role of Twinkie and while he was fine in the role, the character wasn’t fleshed out enough to make an impact. The female eye candy would come courtesy of Nathalie Kelley, who was making her film debut at the time. This is another character in the film who be more aesthetically pleasing but would lack depth.

There were some exceptions when it came to a couple of characters. Sung Kang had appeared in Justin Lin’s Better Luck Tomorrow and he was brought on here to play Han Lue. This ended up being a wise decision because Han would quickly become a fan favorite which resulted in him playing an important part in the next 3 sequels, despite his fate in this film. Also worthy of praise was Brian Tee as Takashi, who offered up a villain you really couldn’t wait to get what was coming to him.

What ended up being significant about this film was a 60-second cameo by the star of the first film, Vin Diesel. The moment happens at the end of the film and what should’ve been a fleeting week and nudge to the fans of the films, ended up being a bit of a turning point for the franchise. Diesel agreed to do the cameo after he was given the rights to the Riddick series and the character in lieu of payment.

When the film was released on June 16, 2006, I think no one really knew what to expect. There wasn’t much familiar with the franchise anymore and I think that’s what made some leery to fully embrace it. Critics weren’t kind, yet again, with a rotten score of 37% on Rotten Tomatoes and the film also disappointed at the box office on the domestic front. The film opened to $24 million (significantly lower than the first two films) and it topped out at $62.5 million. The film had a budget of $85 million but it was bailed out a bit by its worldwide total which came in at $158.5 million.

One would assume that the franchise would be dead at this point. The third film grossed considerably lower than the first two outings and it didn’t appear that people were craving another entry from the franchise. What comes next is the reason why the series began to surprise and it’s also when it would low-key become a monster of true blockbuster proportions.

The Vin Diesel cameo in Tokyo Drift ended up igniting a bit of interest from the original players to return to the fold. You could blame this on genuine interest or a desire to be in something huge again. The original main cast of The Fast and the Furious were still successful but by 2009 they weren’t all guaranteed box office draws anymore. Guessing that fans do like a good reunion, Universal gave us Fast & Furious in 2009 (dropping “the” from the title makes it totally different from the first film I suppose).

Wisely, the studio kept Justin Lin along for the ride and the skills he honed on the previous film were improved upon in the fourth film. He clearly had an eye for the material that was apparent very early on. Also, a wise choice was giving Diesel power as a producer on the project because this began his role as the father of this franchise. His guidance has been every film, starting with this one and his passion for the material is evident amongst the fans. He clearly cares about what they want and this installment is where his influence truly began.

Fast & Furious isn’t perfect but it’s a significant stepping stone to what the series would begin to morph into. The series would begin to have loftier goals and its reach would soon reach a global level that has continued to sustain its success. The film also reminded us of the brotherly bond between Paul Walker and Vin Diesel, something that was lacking in the first two sequels. Their alliance is what shapes a lot of these films and even though Michelle Rodriguez and Jordana Brewster don’t have a ton to do in the film, just having their familiar faces there takes you back to that fresh place back in 2001.

Despite critics still being a bit harsh (its 28% rotten rating is the lowest of the franchise) the fans were clearly excited to see the gang together again because Fast & Furious surprised in a big way when it was released on April 3, 2009. The film opened to a massive $70.9 million which was more than Tokyo Drift made during its entire run and it held the record for the highest-grossing opening weekend in April[and of any car-oriented film, the record having been previously held by Cars, which grossed $60.1 million. Both of these records were broken two years later by Fast Five, the next installment of the franchise.

By the end of its run, the film grossed $155 million domestically and $363.1 million worldwide on an $85 million budget. Suddenly it was like it was 2001 again. The stars became the toast of the town again and what seemed like a franchise that was dead, suddenly had life in it again. What we didn’t know is that those behind the scenes had plans to make the franchise evolve and this would set in a store a new era for the series.

While riding high on the success of the fourth film, Universal made moves to expand the franchise. For the next film, the studio deliberately departed from the street racing theme prevalent in previous films in the series, to transform the franchise into a heist action series involving cars. By doing so, they hoped to attract wider audiences that might otherwise be put off by a heavy emphasis on cars and car culture.

This change would prove to be because this opened the franchise up to numerous possibilities. In many ways, Fast Five is considered the transitional film in the series, featuring only one car race and giving more attention to action set pieces such as gun fights, brawls, and the heist of $100 million. It has more in common with The Italian Job & Ocean’s Eleven rather than the films that came before it. The change seemed organic enough to work since the crime caper was always in the series DNA. It just needed to be probably nurtured to work.

Fast Five brought back the main principal cast members but to prove that the “Fast Family” is indeed a family, characters from 2 Fast 2 Furious returned to the franchise with Tyrese Gibson and Ludacris reprising their roles from that film. That sequel didn’t quite utilize them to their best abilities but they fit right in with the gang in Fast Five. Even new characters from Fast & Furious (Gisele played by Gal Gadot and Han played by Sung Kang, returning again after his first appearance in Tokyo Drift) seemed as if they were there from the beginning. The previous films relied heavily on the chemistry of the two leads but Fast Five is the first film of the franchise to feel like a true ensemble.

The last crucial ingredient to the film’s eventual success was a bit more muscle. By the time Fast Five was in development, Vin Diesel began to have a huge presence on Facebook.  He had a very open rapport with fans and he began to ask them who they would like to see him face off with in the new sequel. The fans became very vocal about wanting Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson to be the one to go toe to toe with Diesel and he would keep his word by making that happen. Johnson was fast becoming a bankable action star and it seemed like the universe aligned just right to get him involved with this franchise. It certainly gave the series, even more, exposure and the new blood continued the rejuvenation of the films that began with the previous installment.

To say that Fast Five was a beast would be a vast understatement. This became the first film of the franchise to actually earn significant praise from the critics. The film has a 78% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and many critics praised the film’s action, humor and its transition from street racing opus to fun heist movie caper. Dwayne Johnson especially was signaled out by the critics with many saying he was the best thing about the film and saying that his antagonistic rapport with Vin Diesel was the best aspect of the film.

Fast Five proved to be very successful financially with a gross of $209.8 million on the domestic front and a staggering $626.1 million worldwide on an $125 million budget. Its opening weekend of $86.2 million broke the previous April record held by the previous installment two years earlier. The worldwide gross was a number many mainstream comic book properties were grossing and it became clear with Fast Five that this franchise was the superhero series of Universal Pictures and they didn’t need anyone to don a mask or cape.

Another installment was guaranteed but the family wasn’t fully together in Fast Five. Michelle Rodriguez was killed off early in Fast & Furious (allegedly because of her obligations to the film Avatar) and fans weren’t too happy by Letty’s early demise in that film. Vin Diesel heard that fan outcry and added a little post-credit scene in Fast Five (complete with an Eva Mendes cameo, reprising her role from 2 Fast 2 Furious) that revealed that Letty was very much alive and that Rodriguez would be back in the next film. There is a story out there that Diesel did not tell Rodriguez about their plans and just told her to stay until the credits of Fast Five for a nice surprise. What a way to find out you landed your next acting gig, right?

Fast & Furious 6 felt like a logical continuation of Fast Five. At this point, the franchise was beyond its street racing roots and the new sequel continued to expand its globe-trotting heist antics that were highly effective in the fifth installment. What’s also clear in this installment is that a clear vision of where the films were going was firmly in place. They weren’t just stringing together a series of action sequences, there was a narrative that was at play and it had a logical destination.

There aren’t many significant new players in the cast but the ones who do appear, make an impression. The villains in this franchise haven’t always been highly effective but Luke Evans gives a memorable turn as Owen Shaw. He had charismatic energy but also exuded an intelligence that made him threatening. In any film like this, you should be worried about the heroes and he gives you a villain that gives you a reason to worry. His control over Letty, who is suffering from amnesia after her near death experience in the fourth film, makes him a threat to the family and as we all know, this franchise is founded on family. Evans ends up being one of the best things about the sixth installment.

Joining the Shaw family is Jason Statham (although we don’t fully know this until the next film). Diesel took to Facebook again to ask fans who they wanted to see in a new Fast sequel and they made it known that Statham was their pick. His cameo at the end of the sixth film not only sets up what’s to come but it offers up a fresh spin on how events went down in 2006’s Tokyo Drift.

Fast & Furious 6 continued the growing success of the franchise in a big way. While reviews weren’t as strong when compared to Fast Five, the film was still certified fresh on Rotten Tomatoes with a score of 69%. The box office was also very potent with an opening weekend of $117 million over the four-day Memorial Day weekend and a final gross of $239 million in the States & $789 million worldwide. These numbers were an added indication that this was a franchise that was here to stay and wasn’t slowing down anytime soon. The high of success would carry over as they went into filming the next installment of the franchise but a real life tragedy that claimed the life of one of their own would become a true test for all of those involved in the production.

Filming on Furious 7 was half completed when the cast crew broke for the Thanksgiving holiday in November of 2013. What should’ve been a routine break to catch up with family and friends before getting back to work, turned into a tragedy that would completely alter the face of the franchise forever?

On November 30, 2013, at about 3:30 p.m, Paul Walker and Roger Rodas left an event for Walker’s charity Reach Out Worldwide for victims of Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda). Rodas was driving his Porsche Carrera GT in a 45 miles per hour (72 km/h) speed zone on Hercules Street near Kelly Johnson Parkway in Valencia, Santa Clarita, California when the car crashed into a concrete lamp post and two trees before catching fire. Rodas died of multiple trauma while Walker died from the combined effects of trauma and burns. It is reported that, tragically, they were both burned beyond recognition.

The curve where Walker and Rodas were killed is a popular spot for drifting cars, which is something media outlets picked up on due to Walker’s involvement in the franchise. No alcohol or other drugs were found in either man’s system, and neither mechanical failure nor road conditions appeared to play a role. In the end, police found no evidence of drag racing and the investigation concluded that the car’s speed – between 80 mph (130 km/h) and 93 mph (150 km/h) – and age of the tires were the primary reasons for the crash.

News of Walker’s death spread quickly and suddenly plans for the seventh film became mute. Hollywood mourned his loss and even though he wasn’t widely known as a tour de force performer, his likability and good nature made him a bigger name in the industry than most probably even knew. The cast was particularly affected by his passing as they felt they lost a member of their family and the notion of going on with a series that thrived on that theme seemed worthless without a key member of that family being there.

With Furious 7 in the middle of filming at the time of Walker’s death, Universal announced an indeterminate hiatus on the production, citing a desire to speak with his family before determining what to do with the film. The studio was in a sensitive position because on the one hand, this is their cash cow, but on the other hand, they had to be respectful to those who were close to Walker and they couldn’t appear a bit exploitative with any of their plans to move forward.

It seems fitting that a franchise built on family would be encouraged to soldier on by the real-life family of its fallen star. Walker’s brothers, Caleb and Cody Walker, were used as stand-ins to complete Walker’s remaining scenes and their willingness to be there to make sure the film finished production gave the cast the extra push they needed to go on. If Walker’s own family knew this is what he would want, they had to find the necessary strength to be just as strong as they were.

By the seventh film, director Justin Lin had exited the franchise after being an integral part of its transition to global dominance. Coming on board this time around was James Wan, who directed such hits as Insidious & The Conjuring. James Wan ended up taking on a much bigger challenge than he signed up for. How do you go about completing a film when one of its stars passes away halfway through production? Wan deserves a lot of credit for making Furious 7 work. It maintains the action and fun that has been a signature part of the franchise but it also makes Walker’s involvement feel seamless. Along with his brothers and other actors stepping up to be stand-ins for the scenes he didn’t finish, CGI was used to place his face onto their stand-ins so that Walker could be present in scenes he couldn’t appear in physically. Some are against this technique but the film makes it work and it’s only distracting on first viewing because you’re looking for it. By the time you watch it again, it’s a mere afterthought.

Furious 7 received major kudos from critics for not only giving fans what they expect from the films but also for taking a step back to pay tribute to the late Paul Walker. It would’ve been easy to just slap up the “For Paul” title card and carry on but the film breaks the fourth wall a bit by not only retiring the Brian O’Connor character but also making it known the tribute at the end of the film was very much for Paul Walker and his contribution to the franchise. Character building has always been something critics picked at in regard to these films but this film has an emotional resonance that most “mindless” action films don’t possess. The franchise will never be able to replicate these emotions since they’re so personal to Walker’s death and their fight to finish the film but it should be respected as a high point for the series.

Furious 7 ended up being a massive hit and, as of now, is the highest-grossing film of the franchise with $353 million grossed in the states and an out of this world global tally of $1.5 billion. This was all against a budget of a $190 million and a new official high mark for a franchise that began with zero expectations. These are the grosses most studio films dream of.

As The Fate of the Furious is upon us, the franchise is looking to send its worldwide total to north of $4 billion by the end of the weekend. There are plans for two more films to conclude this new trilogy of the Fast saga with murmurs of various potential spin-offs also a possibility. Many people have asked why have these films been so successful? What is the appeal? The answer seems very simple to me. The appeal of the franchise is very universal. The family theme is easily accessible and instantly relatable. Whether by blood or by loyalty, we know the concept of family and a film that celebrates that, is going to see some mainstream traction.

Another huge reason for the success of the series is that it represents so many people globally. I can’t think of another mainstream studio release with a multi-ethnic cast that has generated this kind of revenue. Just about everyone is represented here and that’s why it has found so much success on a worldwide front. Any fan can see themselves up on the screen and there is a true power in that. It’s something that other big franchises should take note of.

Then there is the fact that these are also very fun movies. Sometimes you want to check your brain at the door and have a blast for 2 hours and forget the cares of the world. The franchise has tapped into a level of escapism that has made it one of the most lucrative film series of all time. They may notknowne know they’d be here 16 years later but it has been a pleasure to watch these films grow from their humble beginnings into something truly record breaking.

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About Gaius Bolling 381 Articles
At the age of five, I knew I wanted to write movies and about them. I've set out to make those dreams come true. As an alumni of the Los Angeles Film Academy, I participated in their Screenwriting program, while building up my expertise in film criticism. I write reviews that relate to the average moviegoer by educating my readers and keeping it fun. My job is to let you know the good, the bad, and the ugly in the world of cinema, so you can have your best moviegoing experience. You can find more of my writing on Instagram @g_reelz.
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