Unless you’ve been holed up in an auto repair shop or, say, locked in the trunk of a turbocharged Nissan Skyline GT-R, you’re probably aware that “Furious 7" is speeding toward a massive opening this weekend.
In addition to offering a nostalgic farewell to Paul Walker — the franchise star died during production in late 2013, forcing a four-month shutdown and recalibration — the release will mark the latest entry in one of modern Hollywood’s most enduring and eventful franchises.
Over the last decade and a half, “Fast,” produced by Neal Moritz and backed by studio Universal Pictures, has grown from its modest street-racing-themed origins into an unlikely action behemoth that’s grossed more than $2.3 billion worldwide. Along the way, the series has featured a rotating cast of new and returning stars, four directors and a non-chronological plot with more twists and turns than a cliff road in the Canary Islands.
As “Furious 7" revs up, here’s a franchise refresher course to get you up to speed.
“The Fast and the Furious” (2001)
Inspired by a 1998 Vibe magazine article about underground street racing in New York City, the original “Fast” film was essentially a “Point Break” knockoff with souped-up cars instead of surfboards. Directed by Rob Cohen, it introduced Walker as undercover cop Brian O’Conner, who infiltrates the Los Angeles street-racing scene to foil a gang that steals expensive electronics. The cast also includes Vin Diesel as Dom, a tough guy with a lead foot and a heart of gold, and Michelle Rodriguez as his equally formidable girlfriend, Letty.
Made on a mid-size $38-million budget, the film became a surprise hit, grossing $144.5 million in North America. Reviews were mixed to negative, a trend that would continue until the fifth installment.
“2 Fast 2 Furious” (2003)
Despite the first movie’s success, neither Cohen nor Diesel returned for the sequel (the latter has said the script “sucked”). “Boyz N the Hood” director John Singleton took the driver’s seat, with Walker reprising his role and Tyrese Gibson signing on as his partner in crime — er, justice.
Although “2 Fast” opened bigger than its predecessor ($50 million, to the original’s $40 million), it grossed about $17 million less over the course of its domestic run. It also cost twice as much to make. The franchise seemed to be heading off a cliff.
“The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift” (2006)
The “Fast” franchise stalled out even more with the third installment, which had the feel of a straight-to-video sequel (indeed, Universal considered forgoing a theatrical release). Walker sat out the film and Diesel made only a cameo as the movie focused on an American high school student (Lucas Black) shipped off to Tokyo to stay out of trouble (spoiler: he didn’t).
“Tokyo Drift” grossed less than half of “2 Fast’s” haul in North America, throwing the fate of the franchise into question. The bright spot: “Tokyo Drift” brought on director Justin Lin, who as the director of the three installments that followed would be instrumental in the franchise’s comeback, and also introduced Sung Kang as Han, who would go on to be a key character.
“Fast & Furious” (2009)
The fourth film began to pull off a U-turn. It brought back Walker, Diesel, Rodriguez and Jordana Brewster from the original movie, and it also moved in a fresh creative direction, ditching the street racing to become a globe-trotting action series that just happened to feature tricked-out cars.
With the returning cast, “Fast & Furious” is also arguably the series’ first true sequel. (Oddly enough, it’s also the series’ first prequel, as it takes place before the events of “Tokyo Drift.”)
The new direction paid dividends for Universal, as “Fast and Furious” sped past the original film to gross $155 million domestically. It also marked the series’ emergence as an international powerhouse, collecting $208 million overseas.
“Fast Five” (2011)
As “Fast Five” ventured further into eye-popping, logic-defying action territory, it amped up the star power by bringing in veteran strongman Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson. His DSS agent, Hobbs, gave the gang of antiheroes — Walker, Diesel, Brewster, etc. — a worthy adversary, although of course it was only a matter of time before they joined forces to take down the real bad guy (Joaquim de Almeida).
“Fast Five” easily outpaced its predecessor, becoming the first film in the series to crack the $200-million mark in North America ($210 million, to be precise) and adding $416 million overseas.
“Five” also became notable for another reason: Where the previous “Fast” films were regarded as guilty pleasures, “Five” began to attract critical favor. The Times’ Betsy Sharkey called it the best entry yet and added, “The sheer audacity of ‘Fast Five’ is kind of breathtaking in a metal-twisting, death-defying, mission-implausible, B-movie-on-steroids kind of way.”
“Fast & Furious 6" (2013)
Lin’s fourth and final “Fast” film took to heart Oscar Wilde’s maxim that nothing succeeds like excess. You like speeding cars? “Fast & Furious 6" has a speeding tank. You liked Rio de Janeiro? This time it’s off to London and Tenerife, Spain. You thought Letty was dead? “6" brings her back — as an amnesiac villain.
The more-is-more approach worked, as “6" grossed a whopping $788 million worldwide, putting the franchise over the $2-billion mark. Though the movie wasn’t quite as well received by critics, reviews were mostly positive once again. Another go-round was a no-brainer, and a post-credits sequence set up Jason Statham — no stranger to vehicular mayhem — as the next villain.
“Furious 7" (2015)
For all the franchise’s success thus far, the arrival of “Furious 7,” directed by “Saw” helmer James Wan, looks to top some of the earlier water marks. Critical response out of its premiere at SXSW was stronger than ever, and tracking suggests that numbers will follow.
The seventh film has a kind of retrospective quality to it: There’s an opening sequence that nods to the series’ street-racing roots and a subplot about Letty that features references and flashbacks to her story from earlier films.
There’s also a bittersweet, end-of-an-era air given Walker’s tragic death, in a single-car crash (unrelated to the movie) on Thanksgiving weekend of 2013. After its hiatus, Universal pushed back the release date and ultimately figured out a way to give Walker an appropriate on-screen send-off (via script changes, stand-ins and automated dialogue replacement).
For Walker fans, “Furious 7" will no doubt have an elegiac quality amid all the action and explosions. For once the “Fast” franchise is poised to slow down, if only for a moment to say goodbye.
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