It began as a movie about illegal street racing, arriving in cinemas in June 2001 with little hype.
And, largely thanks to star Vin Diesel, who plays daredevil driver Dominic Toretto, The Fast and the Furious has become one of the most successful film franchises of all time, generating US$5.8 billion as it evolved into a sprawling crime saga with ever more elaborate stunts and star turns from the likes of Charlize Theron and Helen Mirren.
To mark the imminent arrival of F9 , here – and be warned, there are spoilers – are the previous films in the series, ranked from worst to best.
Easily the broken-down jalopy of the series, the late director John Singleton’s only entry has little to recommend it, except for introducing series regulars Roman Pearce (Tyrese Gibson) and Tej Parker (Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges), who bring some much-needed humour to the proceedings.
The only F&F film not to feature Vin Diesel, it concentrates on Paul Walker’s character, ex-LAPD cop Brian O’Conner, after he flees for Miami – for letting Diesel’s Toretto escape at the end of the first film – and winds up making money from street racing. Soon, he’s apprehended and forced to go undercover for the US Customs Service to bring down Cole Hauser’s drug lord. All very silly.
Largely made without the main cast, this lacklustre yakuza-influenced episode grossed US$157 million worldwide, by far the lowest takings for a movie in the series.
But important things came out of it. It was the first F&F film directed by Justin Lin (now on his fifth entry, with F9 ) and, via a brief cameo, heralded Vin Diesel’s return as overseer of the series. It also introduced Sung Kang’s speed demon Han, a character so popular he was brought back for the next three films – despite the fact he dies here – making them all prequels to this story.
From their action chops to their macho humour, Jason Statham’s criminal Deckard Shaw and Dwayne Johnson’s DSS agent Luke Hobbs are two reasons F&F has become so popular. But this spin-off that pairs them up as unlikely cohorts to take on Idris Elba’s cybernetically enhanced terrorist never really generated the same chemistry that they managed in the main F&F series.
Hobbs’ Samoan family and Shaw’s MI6-employed sister Hattie (Vanessa Kirby) don’t exactly add much to the mythology. At least stuntman-turned-director David Leitch ( Deadpool 2 ) manages some decent set pieces – including one London double-decker bus crash.
The F&F franchise has increasingly been about topping its predecessors with more elaborate stunts, though even hardcore devotees would have to admit that this came close to jumping the shark when the gang end up facing off against a Russian nuclear submarine.
Charlize Theron was an additional bright spark as Cipher, a cyberterrorist who has a stranglehold over Toretto. But this was the first film in the franchise following the death of Walker and his absence is keenly felt. F. Gary Gray, then fresh from Straight Outta Compton , was chosen to direct – and aside from Helen Mirren pitching up as the Shaw family matriarch, it’s a largely forgettable entry.
This fourth entry was Diesel’s first F&F film as producer-star, and he arrived with a three-movie arc. Introducing a pre- Wonder Woman Gal Gadot , the film also steered the franchise away from its street-racing origins and more towards globe-trotting crime-thriller territory, as Toretto’s crew are initially hijacking fuel tankers in the Dominican Republic.
Walker’s character is now working for the FBI and on the hunt for a drug trafficker, a search that brings him back into Toretto’s orbit. It has the added intrigue of Toretto’s girlfriend, Michelle Rodriguez’s Letty, supposedly killed off in a car explosion – another twist that pushed it towards the soap-opera plotting that would continue to dominate a series obsessed with the theme of family.
This is where it all began. Inspired by “Racer X”, an article in Vibe magazine on illegal street racing, this first outing has a purity about it. Journeyman director Rob Cohen (Daylight ) assembled a killer cast that tapped into America’s racial melting pot – led by Vin Diesel and Michelle Rodriguez, who’d just come off the indie hit Girlfight .
Essentially a rip-off of Point Break , it’s now easy to forget that Paul Walker’s character was originally an undercover LAPD agent who is trying to smoke out Toretto’s crew to see if they’re hijackers. The finale – as they race neck-and-neck, barely missing an oncoming goods train – is still one of the franchise’s best moments.
F&F morphed from B movie series to blockbuster franchise largely thanks to this entry, directed again by Justin Lin. Already with Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson on board as Luke Hobbs, this was the episode that introduced the most important antagonists in the series, the Shaws. Largely this is the turn of Luke Evans’ former SAS soldier Owen Shaw, who – it seems – has recruited Letty.
With Toretto’s team offered immunity from their crimes if they help out Hobbs, this sixth entry really moved the series towards espionage-adventure – like an urban James Bond movie. It also had one of the best-ever post-credit reveals, as Jason Statham’s Deckard Shaw announces himself as the man who killed Han.
By rights, James Wan’s seventh entry – as the gang face off against Statham’s villain – had everything against it. It went OTT with the stunts: parachuting vehicles, cars jumping mid-air between Abu Dhabi skyscrapers). It introduced British ‘hacktivist’ Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel), one of the series’ weakest characters. And, saddest of all, it had to cope with the mid-production death of Paul Walker, which caused the film to go on hiatus.
But Wan pulled off the making of this, his only F&F film, with the finale – as Diesel and Walker part company on the road – a genuinely moving moment. It became the franchise’s biggest hit to date, grossing US$1.5 billion worldwide.
The F&F film that changed everything , elevating the series to an A-list affair. Beginning with the daring prison break, as Toretto’s team bust him out of the bus transporting him to jail, this exotic Rio-set tale saw the gang attempt to steal U$100 million from a corrupt businessman.
Dwayne Johnson’s first outing as Hobbs – an antagonist and later ally to the Toretto crew – freshened things up considerably, and Justin Lin hit his stride here with his third outing as director. Without doubt, the sequence where they steal the vault, towing it through the streets of Rio, is the series’ best stunt – just the right side of bonkers. Total car-nage.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.