7. 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003)
Directed by: John Singleton
Written by: Michael Brandt, Derek Haas
The Fast and the Furious wasn't always the globe-trotting, gravity challenged, literally (and poignantly) death-defying monster franchise it is today. In fact, it could have totally ground to a halt in 2003 with 2 Fast 2 Furious, a half-hearted sequel directed by John Singleton that moved the street racing action from Los Angeles to Miami, but otherwise ran on fumes from the first movie. (And it almost did — according to screenwriter Chris Morgan, who boarded the series in its third installment, the studio was ready to go straight to DVD after this second film.)
Vin Diesel, the 2001 movie's brawny breakout, was nowhere to be seen, off trying to be a solo action star with the first film's director Rob Cohen in xXx and leaving Paul Walker, game and golden but never capable of his former and future co-star's gravitas, to carry on without him. In Diesel's place, Tyrese Gibson played Brian O'Conner's (Walker) new partner in crime Roman Pearce, a childhood friend whose resentment over Brian's adventures in law enforcement quickly burned away in favor of bantering bromance.
The real fondness Gibson and Walker seemed to have for one another is the best part of 2 Fast 2 Furious, even if they often feel like two sidekicks in search of a main character. Walker, who died in 2013 in an unrelated car accident during a break from filming Furious 7, always looked more comfortable with someone to play off of and pal around with than he did going solo. But 2 Fast 2 Furious channels the rapport between the fast-talking Roman and the... blond Brian through the series' most wretched dialogue. Every other line Brian utters is punctuated with "bro" ("I'm not a cop anymore, bro"), and Roman actually refers to a place as a "hoasis." On the plus side, Roman does rightly describe what happens in the climactic scene as "some real Dukes of Hazzard shit." Then everyone basically high-fives and lives happily ever after, bro.
Still, consider this exchange:
ROMAN: What you checking her out for?
BRIAN: I'm not checking her out.
ROMAN: Yes, you were.
BRIAN: No, I wasn't.
ROMAN: I seen you checking her out, man.
BRIAN: OK, I was. Now shut up.
ROMAN: You shut up. Don't tell me to shut up.
The "her" being checked out is Monica Fuentes (Eva Mendes), an undercover Customs agent who is trying to take down a drug lord named Carter Verone (Cole Hauser), and who has possibly gotten in too deep and flipped. It's an underdeveloped parallel to what happened to Brian, with whom she gets semi-entangled, in the first Fast and Furious film.
While Ludacris' character Tej, who's also introduced in this underwhelming installment, becomes a series regular, Monica has only shown up once more — in the stinger for Fast Five. It's noteworthy for a franchise in love with bringing characters back, and seems to be more about what Monica represents than it is anything to do with Mendes. For all the consistently gyrating women the series uses as set dressing, the Fast and Furious movies do not blithely shuffle in new love interests (or replacement besties) every installment. They have continuity. They're about family. They are, complications of amnesia aside, unexpectedly monogamous.
6. Fast & Furious (2009)
Directed by: Justin Lin
Written by: Chris Morgan
By 2009, Diesel had crept back to the Fast and Furious series to produce as well as to play what's become the defining role of his career: Dominic Toretto, the franchise's smooth-pated patriarch, who, with his childhood sweetheart Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) and a new gang, kicks off this installment on the run in the Dominican Republic, hijacking fuel tankers. In addition to Leo Tego (Tego Calderón) and Rico Santos (Don Omar), Dom's crew includes Han Seoul-Oh (Sung Kang) from The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, in the start of what becomes an impressive fidelity to a convoluted universe (the Fastverse?).
Han dies in Tokyo Drift, but he's alive in Fast & Furious, which came out after that movie but which takes place before it, filling out the claim made in Diesel's closing Tokyo Drift cameo that Dom and Han were friends who rode together. Sadly, after a nifty opening sequence that involves flaming wreckage bouncing down a highway, Han takes off, and then so does Dom, sneaking out on Letty in the middle of the night in hopes of protecting her. Instead, he gets her killed (well, "killed") when she returns to Los Angeles with a plan to clear his name.
Fast & Furious reunites Dom, Brian, Letty, and Mia (Jordana Brewster) from the first film, but recycles an awful lot of the dramas too. Brian's a cop, or rather an FBI agent, again, despite how improbable that development is. He has to win back Dom's trust, again. He has to charm his way into Mia's heart, again. "Maybe you're not the good guy pretending to be a bad guy. Maybe you're the bad guy pretending to be the good guy," Mia tells him, which he broods over as if he hasn't gone through the same dilemma once before.
Fast & Furious is a revenge story, with Dom and Brian both trying to take down Braga (John Ortiz), the cartel boss responsible for Letty's "death." But in the overall span of the franchise, it feels more like bombastic filler, an installment to bridge the gap between a series that's about car racing and a series that's about insane international automotive-enabled heists. And this film's big action idea, to send cars racing through narrow underground tunnels across the U.S.-Mexico border, is better in theory than in practice, where it looks deflatingly video-game-like. The best thing Fast & Furious does is end with Brian cutting his ties with being a bad good guy forever, instead embracing good bad-guydom by going to bust Dom out as he's on his way to prison.
5. The Fast and the Furious (2001)
Directed by: Rob Cohen
Written by: Gary Scott Thompson, Erik Bergquist, David Ayer
The original The Fast and Furious is Point Break on wheels, right? Paul Walker is Johnny Utah, and Vin Diesel is Bodhi, and instead of an extreme surfer lifestyle being financed by bank robberies in presidential masks, there's an extreme street racing lifestyle being financed by truck hijackings in modified Honda Civics. The beats are all pretty much the same, except in this version, Bodhi doesn't die out in the epic waves — he goes on to anchor a franchise.
Rob Cohen isn't nearly as deft a director of action as Kathryn Bigelow, and street racing down a quarter mile straight isn't nearly as cinematic as surfing — there's a reason the series has upped its stakes with crazier and crazier car stunts in each installment. But The Fast and the Furious does understand that, like Point Break, it is fundamentally a deep platonic romance between two men with a shared, defining passion. Brian's a cop and Dom's a criminal, but they're both racers inside. When Brian falls in love with Dom's sister Mia (Jordana Brewster is totally the Lori Petty of this universe), it's like he's doing the next best thing to actually getting together with Dom.
The action's not as flashy as what would come, and the scale's much smaller, but The Fast and the Furious lays out details that become totemic for the franchise: the Echo Park house in which Dom and Mia live and in which they grew up, the black 1970 Dodge Charger in the garage that belonged to their late father, and the tradition of grace being said over dinner at a cookout by whoever reached for the food first. Many of the elements and dynamics that have remained central to the series as it's gotten more and more outsized are here at the start.
What is jarring, looking back at this first film, is its whiteness. The Fast and Furious series has become a testament to the way a diverse ensemble can be both a pleasure to watch and good business. But in the film that started it all, the majority of the main characters are white, even as the world they live in is distinctly not. Multiracial, ethnically ambiguous Diesel may be paired in different ways with Michelle Rodriguez and Brewster, but, in addition to Walker, his team is made up of Chad Lindberg, Johnny Strong, and Matt Schulze. They just race against different drivers of color, including antagonist Johnny Tran (Rick Yune).
Yes, it's something that does change. But what doesn't is the way that, for a franchise that doses itself as heavily with testosterone as an unwashed teenager layering on Axe body spray, the Fast and Furious series retains a gigantic, mushy heart. And it's all courtesy of Vin Diesel, who sells the hell out of the idiot poetry of this first film. "I live my life a quarter mile at a time," he rumbles in that basso profundo. "Nothing else matters: not the mortgage, not the store, not my team and all their bullshit. For those 10 seconds or less, I'm free." It's the kind of speech that should be silly, and is instead, somehow, soulful.
4. Furious 6 (2013)
Directed by: Justin Lin
Written by: Chris Morgan
With the exception of 2 Fast 2 Furious, this franchise has always been built around sincere endorsements of family (and, sometimes, familia), in the literal sense as well as family "of choice." The last three installments have cemented that family as a multiethnic coalition of super-loyal, super-attractive precision drivers who'll come running from other continents if needed. And in the case of Furious 6, they're needed in London. This movie may not be as good as the ones that come directly before and after it, but it affirms the connections its ensemble of characters has while introducing the next generation of heavy-footed racers — the baby Mia gives birth to at the start of the film, and who Brian and Dom immediately start tempting with toy versions of their preferred Japanese and American car models.
The villain in Furious 6 is a not terribly memorable Luke Evans as Owen Shaw, who was part of some mobile warfare something or other, and who's got an elaborate plan to steal a computer chip or whatever... He's got this cool-looking skeleton car, OK? He's a transparent excuse to bring the team back together, but the real reason is Letty, who in a delightfully soap opera twist turns out to not be dead, but instead has amnesia and has been recruited into Luke's crew. Luke runs the anti-family to Dom's family — he thinks "a team is nothing but pieces moved around until the job is done" and his code is the chilly "precision." His crew, hilariously, looks like the "evil twins" of Dom's crew, as Roman points out, with Brian's match being fellow high-cheekboned blonde Vegh (Clara Paget).
Clearly, Furious 6 isn't the greatest, plotwise — in a series that's proudly ridiculous, that's never been a strong point. The battle against Luke Shaw's non-family is really just a way to get us to some great action sequences. There's the one in which the wanted Brian slips with laughable ease back into the U.S. and into prison to interrogate Fast & Furious baddie Braga, the one in which Gina Carano and Michelle Rodriguez have a bruising brawl in the London subway while Tyrese Gibson and Sung Kang get their asses comically handed to them by The Raid: Redemption's Joe Taslim, and there's the one in which the team faces down an actual tank. But the best scene is the unconventionally romantic interlude in which Dom shows up at a street race (overseen by Rita Ora!) to woo the amnesiac Letty by competing against her.
They coast through the city with cops in pursuit, flirting by way of evasive maneuvers, eventually pulling over to compare scars, with Letty more and more uncertain, but also unconvinced. It's love, Fast and Furious–style, powerful enough to enable Dom to catch Letty midair like Superman in a later scene. The steroided-out sweetness of the whole thing counterbalances the parallel tragedy involving Han and his girlfriend Gisele (future Wonder Woman Gal Gadot). The romance between Dom and Letty is so canonical that Elsa Pataky — whose Brazilian cop character Elena became a replacement love interest for Dom when he thought Letty was dead — arrives to gracefully bow out and to give the pair her blessing. It's about as dignified a breakup as a gal who's just been replaced by her boyfriend's formerly dead, memory-wiped ex could hope for.
3. Furious 7 (2015)
Directed by: James Wan
Written by: Chris Morgan
Only an action franchise in which characters regularly declare their affection for one another could pull off the ending of Furious 7, which serves as a full-on elegy and tribute to Paul Walker and Brian O'Conner, turning the movie into the year's stealthiest tearjerker. It's unabashedly sentimental, it's poignant, and it's eerie.
Walker had filmed some of his scenes before his death, and the rest were accommodated with rewrites, careful editing, and some CGI tweaking of the faces of stand-ins, including Walker's brothers, Caleb and Cody. While not seamless, it works, and an awareness of Walker's death is an undercurrent running throughout Furious 7, right down to the tagline: "One last ride." Those final scenes, though, give an almost explicit nod to his passing with an image that's all the more sad for its imperfection: Walker is transformed into a digital ghost.
The rest of the movie is joyfully excessive, with The Conjuring's James Wan ably taking the reins from previous director Justin Lin. Wan has a finely calibrated sense of the balance his film needs between the serious, the spectacularly over-the-top, and the genuine. It's a good thing, because Furious 7 manages to have the least sensical plot out of the entire franchise. Jason Statham plays Deckard Shaw, older brother to Owen from the last film, who sets out to avenge his sibling.
But never mind all that. Furious 7 strings together three jaw-dropping set pieces, with skydiving cars in the Caucasus Mountains, a skyscraper jump in Abu Dhabi, and a multi-vehicle scrum in the streets of Los Angeles that involves a drone and a rooftop fight like something out of Highlander. Furious 7 commits like nothing else — it's filled with callbacks to the earlier films, it has a dramatic twist that would do any telenovela proud, and it treats Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson like the magnificent living action figure he is, with a scene in which he gets his broken arm to heal with the force of his will alone.
The fact that Furious 7 is messier than any of the past installments is more than mitigated by its grandeur. "Dom, cars don't fly! Cars don't fly!" Brian yells before its biggest stunt. Furious 7 makes you believe they can.
2. Fast Five (2011)
Directed by: Justin Lin
Written by: Chris Morgan
Fast Five is the movie that brought this franchise out of the realms of the maybe very remotely believable and into the gleefully outrageous, picking up right where Fast & Furious left off, with Brian and Mia chasing after the transport bringing Dom to prison. After Brian manages to do the equivalent of sticking his foot out to trip someone, only with his car and a bus, Dom's freed, and the fugitives are off to Rio de Janeiro, where they immediately get involved in the local crime scene.
Fast Five treats Rio like a gorgeous backdrop, a fabulous playground, and one big china shop waiting to be destroyed, even before they go trundling through the city, dragging a giant safe through the streets and the occasional bank lobby. Nestled up in the favelas, the team quickly attracts the attention of yet another ruthless crime lord, Hernan Reyes (Joaquim de Almeida), as well as Diplomatic Security Service Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and his Under Armour-clad team, who arrive intending to bring the three back.
Of course, he doesn't. Fast Five is so immensely satisfying because Hobbs becomes part of the family, just like Gisele, like Han, like Roman, like Tej, like Vince (Matt Schulze), the suspicious dude from the first movie that everyone forgot about. The Fastverse is triumphant by Fast Five, a consistent place in which characters can disappear for multiple movies and then turn up in Brazil, still harboring resentments from several installments ago. If the Fast and Furious films reflect shifts in how race is presented on the big screen, they also contain a mini-history of the changing nature of star power and the rise of the franchise. In the franchise, stars do not have to be doled out, a few per installment. They accrue, or they come back, and they stick around, and their characters really like each other.
Johnson fits seamlessly into the world of the series, as the only man around to be even more of a human phallic symbol than Diesel — he's just as bald, but even more bulgy, possessed of even tighter shirts, and with even less of a neck. Diesel's greatest gift is his ability to deliver lines like, "We're going to do this... we're going to do one last job," and have them come across as unaccountably fervent. The Rock's greatest gift is his ability to deliver lines like, "You know I like my dessert first!" (when asked if he wants someone to lead with the good news or the bad news) and to have it sound hilarious without ever being winking. When Dom and Hobbs finally have it out after much buildup, it's like the long-awaited sex scene of brutal fights, with the pair grappling and smashing each other through walls.
Fast Five confirms that what has powered this preposterous series forward is not NOS but earnestness. It goes on to get bigger, dumber, and more incredible, but it doesn't smirk at itself or the audience. It's unapologetic about what it is, which is a celebration of some of the movies most basic pleasures — beautiful people driving beautiful cars.
1. The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006)
Directed by: Justin Lin
Written by: Chris Morgan
Rob Cohen may have started the Fast and Furious movies, but Justin Lin and Chris Morgan built them into a universe — a universe that truly started with this third installment, in which they dumped out the pieces of the existing two movies and figured out which ones to keep. It's ironic that it took what was essentially a reboot to save a series that would fall so in love with continuity, but aside from the street racing theme, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift only retains two points of contact with the earlier films. It ends with a cameo from Vin Diesel as Dom, and it stars Lucas Black, who's very much the poor man's Paul Walker, as the very-not-teenage-looking teenager Sean Boswell, who's sent to Japan to live with his father after getting in trouble for racing back in Arizona.
The utterly cornpone Sean is plunked into Tokyo in what looks like your standard white-guy-as-window-into-foreign-world setup, except that Sean's adrift in his own story too. He's just a stupid kid who likes cars and girls like Neela (Nathalie Kelley), his classmate, who's caught up in a complicated relationship with local bad boy Takashi (Brian Tee), better known as DK, the Drift King. The stealth lead of the movie is Han, who's allied with DK but with whom he's also playing power games. And Han takes Sean under his wing because of how much the newcomer gets under the baby yakuza's skin.
If Dom is the character that anchors the series, Han is its most subversive addition, and a built-in rebuke to the Hollywood assumption that a movie can go anywhere only so long as it has a good-looking white person in the main role. Kang steals the movie from Black, and Han becomes the character who goes forward into future installments (all taking place in the past). He's a much-needed reclaiming of laconic screen cool in the form of an Asian-American male. Lin and Morgan make sure he gets the girl, too, in subsequent films, falling for Gisele not (just) because she's played by the former Miss Israel, but because she's such a skilled driver. And his name is goddamn Han Seoul-Oh. When the franchise arrived at its current ensemble state, it was thanks to this film, which freed it from being just a star vehicle and opened it up to new sorts of badassery.
The driving sequences in The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift are also the series' most beautiful, taking advantage of tight spaces whereas before, the horizons were wide open. The first race, in a city parking lot, is fantastically unlike the muscling down roads with the help of NOS boosts and high-performance engines that we've seen before. The series has traveled farther afield since this movie, to the gaps between glass towers in the United Arab Emirates, but its most sublime moment is still the one in which Sean and Neela, in the middle of a chase, go coasting through Shibuya crossing. The neon-lit intersection is one of the busiest in the world, but as people scramble out of the way of the charging car, for a moment, everything is still. It's not the speed that's the most thrilling part of this series after all, despite the name. It's the quiet in the midst of all of it that's where the lunatic lyricism can be found.