Ranking the Fast & Furious Films
Welcome, one and all, to a special edition of the 8 Ball…or in this case the 7 Ball? I don’t know, we’ll work on that name. I’m your host Jeremy Thomas and this week we’re going to do something mostly the same, but slightly different (as outlined below). As usual, we will be tackling a topic and providing you the top eight selections of that particular category. Keep in mind that this list is meant to be my personal opinion and not a definitive list. You’re free to disagree; you can even say my list is wrong, but stating that an opinion is “wrong” is just silly. With that in mind, let’s get right in to it!
The summer movie season is almost here, but before we get to that we have the month of April to go. As has tended to be the case in recent years though, Universal is getting a jump on the competition by putting their goofiest and most fun franchise out there. The Fate of the Furious speeds into theaters this week, promising more high-octane, ridiculously over-the-top blockbuster action than ever before. The Fast & Furious franchise is one that has survived failures that would have killed most other series and then ingeniously reinvented itself to morph from a series of racing films into a crazy stunt-driven action series. With seven (!) films in the rearview mirror and plenty more coming, this week I thought I would go with, instead of the top 8 of something, looking at how the seven films rank against each other.
Caveat: No caveat; there are seven films released so far so there are seven spots on the list. (Los Bandoleros and Turbo-Charged Prelude don’t count.) That means no #8 and no Honorable Mentions. In terms of ranking I was looking at which films are simply better movies, as well which ones had the most impact on the franchise’s direction in a positive light.
One of the reasons that it the Fast & Furious franchise’s success is so extraordinary is the fact that it went wrong so quickly. After the first film was a runaway hit, Vin Diesel and director Rob Cohen declined to come back for a second installment but Universal decided they weren’t done yet. And thus arrived one of the most mock-worthy action sequels of the early 21st century in the goofily-named 2 Fast 2 Furious. With John Singleton behind the camera, it became quickly apparent that Tyrese Gibson was no replacement for Diesel, most notably when it came to his chemistry with Paul Walker. 2 Fast relies on a lame “take down the drug lord” plot that would have been seemed passé in the 1990s, much less the 2000s, and Walker found himself lost trying to hold up the script. Singleton tried to go much bigger than the first film and while it worked financially (with $279 million worldwide), it left a big stain on the franchise’s reputation. Even in the second-worst film, there are a couple of things here and there I can kind of enjoy. 2 Fast 2 Furious is more or less completely lacking in that capacity and the fact that it also introduced the most annoying of the current ensemble cast by far is another mark against it.
The third entry in the Fast & Furious franchise may be a slightly more enjoyable film than its direct predecessor, but not by much. After the critical drubbing that 2 Fast 2 Furious took (not to mention becoming the official title inspiration for any joke about a bad sequel), Paul Walker wasn’t asked to return and the studio decided to give Tokyo Drift an international flavor and new star. The latter proved to be a massive mistake because while Walker may not be the best actor in the world, Lucas Black made him look like The Rock in comparison. As the poorly-written Sean Boswell, Black was a serious drag on a film that tries to embrace its silliness and only occasionally succeeds at it. Chris Morgan’s script is dull as dishwater for the most part, punched up only by Justin Lin’s direction. Tokyo Drift was a massive disappointment financially, especially considering it was the most expensive of the franchise at that time, and the poor reception it received from both fans and critics left many wondering whether the series was better left dead. Fortunately it didn’t, but at the time I think most would have been happy to see it fall to the wayside.
Despite the generally poor all-around reception and financial disappointment of Tokyo Drift and 2 Fast 2 Furious Universal still had designs turning the series into a successful franchise. It was fortunate then that Vin Diesel had been at a down point in his career. After his dramatic turn in A Man Apart fell short and Babylon A.D. bombed, Diesel was open to the idea of returning to the property that helped made him a household name. Morgan was brought back to create a story that pulled the original cast back in and with Lin at the helm once again, the result was a drastic — if still flawed — improvement. Set before the events of Tokyo Drift, 2009’s Fast & Furious contained a story just as dumb as the ones that proceeded it but finally figured out how to start embracing the silliness. With Brian and Dom brought back together (eventually) by Letty’s apparent murder, the two are set on a path of revenge against a drug lord who was apparently responsible for her death. Fast & Furious is a film that works better now that the franchise’s strange timeline is clear, taking place before Tokyo Drift but after 2 Fast. That oddness and some awkward plotting aside, the chemistry between Walker and Diesel carried this film nicely and Gal Gadot’s Gisele makes a nice start in the franchise here. It’s certainly not a great film, but after several bad stumbles this franchise had finally figured out how to make itself fun again.
Fast and Furious 6 is, to date, what you would call the “middle of the road” entry in the franchise. Which is not to say that it’s bad or even particularly on the mediocre side. Truth be told, it’s a pretty fun action spectacle that simply falls short of the two entries that bookend it. By the time 2013 had rolled around, the franchise had completely reinvented itself and was considered a bonafide blockbuster series once again. Furious 6 continued that trend, bringing Justin Lin back for a fourth and final time behind the camera and letting the last vestiges of grounding fall away from it in order to become an incredibly over-the-top, physics-defying action fest the likes of which Michael Bay has to look at with envy. The full ensemble cast was on board for this overstuffed yet consistently-entertaining entry, in which The Rock’s Luke Hobbs manages to bring the group in on a mission to stop a former special ops soldier from doing terrible things by revealing that Letty is alive and working for him — suffering from amnesia, as it turns out. It’s the kind of idiotic plot that would doom most franchises but that this one reveled in by this point. The cast is on point and Lin has the franchise down pat by now; the only flaw the film has is that Luke Evans’ bad guy Owen Shaw is generic and dull compared to the protagonists he faces. Otherwise, this is a good, solid Fast & Furious film that just fails to measure up to the top-echelon entries.
I know people who love how this series began may bristle at the idea of other films ranking above the original, and that’s valid. To be sure, The Fast and the Furious obviously contained all the groundwork for the series and somehow managed to make the idea of an FBI agent going undercover in an underground racing circuit seem plausible, so it’s not like this franchise hasn’t always known how ridiculous it was. It’s simply that, like many franchises, the Fast & Furious movies didn’t quite have all the right pieces of DNA in perfect order from the get-go. All of the elements are here — the family themes, the wacky fun, the dopey plot points delivered just well enough to work — but everyone was still getting used to their characters a little bit and not everything had gelled quite as well as it did in later years. That’s a very minor flaw though, as this is an enjoyable action flick that stood out from the early 2000s glut of bad entries by virtue of its characters. Everything came into place right and Rob Cohen largely knew what he was doing behind the camera here. Without this film, there never would have been the ones that surpassed it and even if that wasn’t the case, this one stands fine on its own.
Fast Five was THE film that truly changed how the Fast & Furious franchise was perceived. After the fourth entry brought all the right pieces back together, Justin Lin and Chris Morgan shot it to the next level with the first of the movies to truly embrace the series’ inherent silliness. Dom being rescued during an insane in-transit stunt-filled opening? Check. The Rock chewing scenery as a DSS agent? Check. The fantastic Joaquim de Almeida playing his usual typecasting right to the hilt as a(nother) drug lord the group goes up against? Check. And a Rio de Janeiro-destroying bank heist that includes the group dragging a massive bank vault by vehicle through the city? Yup. No one ever said that Fast Five was the thinking man’s heist film, but it sure makes up for it with giddy action sequences and damned good action movie performances from the entirety of the cast. This was the first film where Walker seemed to be completely comfortable in his role as Brian; his chemistry with Diesel was always great but this is where he was able to relax enough to really stretch what he could do with his own role. Everything is entertaining as hell right up to the end, breathing new life into the franchise and setting the stage for what it’s become.
Listen, you can say that Furious 7 is only as beloved as it was due to Paul Walker’s death. It may even be a valid argument. Certainly, the tragic passing of the actor gave this seventh film a level of poignancy it otherwise wouldn’t have had. But that kind of thing should factor into the movie’s quality. The context in which a film is made matters in some respects, and the fact that Walker’s passing did force actual changes to the film means that it was more than just an incidental factor. That being said, even after Walker’s death if you had told me I would leave a Fast & Furious film feeling misty-eyed while an audible amount of the packed audience was in open tears, I would have scoffed. Shows what I know. Furious 7 has an unforgettable ending that pays tribute to its fallen star and sends him off in a touching, emotionally resonant way.
But should that not be your thing, worry not; there’s plenty of absolutely insane fun to be had as well. Upping the ante as only the Furious franchise can, the crew is recruited to handle Owen Shaw’s more dangerous brother Deckard — played by Jason Statham, because of course it is — after he kills Han (thus completing the continuity circle that Tokyo Drift created). That means that this group of car experts are now handling a terrorist bent on world-level destruction. And as fitting a plot that loopy, director James Wan gives us stunts that are as exciting as they are ludicrous (the car drive through three separate high stories), badass fight scenes and Luke Hobbs taking out a drone with an ambulance. This is the most deliriously fun and yet emotionally affecting film in the franchise and set a new bar for what the series was capable of, but in terms of quality and finances. Both will be tough for The Fate of the Furious to top, but I’m pulling for it.
And that will do it for us this week! Join me next week for another edition of the 8-Ball! Until then, have a good week and don’t forget to read the many other great columns, news articles and more here at 411wrestling.com! JT out.