Has any franchise taken quite the journey that The Fast and the Furious has? Starting out as the du-jour example of early ’00s blockbuster excess, more punchline than popular, it’s now turned into basically the single largest action franchise running. A sprawling, multi-cultural and globe-trotting adventure that still features (largely) the same group of rag-tag car-based criminals that the early installments did, just older and with larger adventures to undertake.
In case I’ve never made this clear, I have a deep and abiding love of The Fast and the Furious franchise. Few series are so absolutely aware of what they are and so absolutely willing to escalate and revel in that at every step while also able to do it with total skill.
A series about family that manages to put together a group of people that have legitimate chemistry and whose relationships manage to feel real and build on each other step by step. A series that manages to escalate its action at every step without ever COMPLETELY severing its connection from reality. A series that’s big and dumb and loud and knows how to make all those things happen without ever feeling too big, too dumb, or too loud.
So, 7 films so far, the 8th comes out tomorrow. How do they rank?
7) 2 Fast 2 Furious
2 Fast 2 Furious is these days more remembered for its bizarre titling than anything else. Director John Singleton isn’t necessarily totally incompetent here (as he is in other films), and there are a few pleasures to be found. This is the entry that introduces Roman (Tyrese Gibson) and Tej (Ludacris), two franchise mainstays that have come back as total stars in the latter-day Fast and Furious films.
But the absence of Vin Diesel’s Dominic Toretto is deeply felt here, particularly as Brian (Paul Walker) stays the main character in this film. 2 Fast 2 Furious showed that it was the interplay between the two that kept the series’ main characters interesting, as Brian is a much blander character in 2 Fast 2 Furious.
Beyond that, 2 Fast 2 Furious just doesn’t have much to recommend here. No particularly great or interesting racing or action sequences, with the less than sure hand of John Singleton keeping things from reaching over-the-top. It’s a markedly boring entry in a franchise where boring is the ultimate death.
6) Fast & Furious 6
The first film after the franchise’s revitalization was almost by necessity going to be a bit of a shaky one. It has a lot of new toys to play with and it’s going to need to figure out how to use them. With all that in mind, the fact that the worst sins of Fast & Furious 6 are excessive length and a bit of logic and story breaking is a legitimate surprise.
This is when the franchise went past its crime film roots into full-bore soap opera, attempting (with various levels of success) to juggle an increasingly expanding cast and universe. Some of it works and signals the way forward, others are still great injustices towards fan favorite characters. Fast & Furious 6 can kind of be considered the yellow light for the franchise, a sign of what could happen if it doesn’t ease up.
Outside of that though, Fast & Furious 6 (I have never had to so often double check that I’m titling films right) is still sort of a delight. Evans’ Owen Shaw and his dark double Family is an idea that I’m shocked it took them until the 6th film to do. The new mode for action sequences yields one of the series’ best (HIGHWAY TANK) and there’s just clearly a whole lot of people having a whole lot of fun here.
5) Fast & Furious
This is the franchise’s most overlooked entry, a gritty back-to-basics reboot that feels like a weirdly late reverberation of the Batman Begins effect. Focused less on either the action or the racing than the relationships between the characters and the pulpy situations they’ve put themselves into, this hardboiled entry feels weirdly out of step with the films that preceded it, tonally.
But as a shift for the franchise, this is the most underrated of the films. It lays the groundwork for the relationships and the operations to come, the rest of this franchise works largely because Justin Lin (who can be singlehandedly credited for the revitalization and redirection of this franchise) took such a basic approach in getting the relationships back on track, and making our love for the characters important.
Because of that, this film does work. I’m invested enough in Dom and Brian’s relationship, that the loose affiliation of crime story ideas turns into something compelling and makes those races all the more worth watching.
4) The Fast and the Furious
The pace-setter and the original for the franchise is odd to go back to now. Less the predecessor for the eventual globe-trotting spy franchise this would become and more a hip-as-hell remake of Point Break, it’s surprising to see how enjoyable this thing still is.
An early evocation of this franchise’s ethos (we are what we are, and we’re going to have fun with it) with characters that are shockingly well-formed out of the gate (seriously, Dom and Brian are already pretty clearly conceived here), The Fast and the Furious is a time capsule, but one well-worth revisiting. Just a blast of fun and a blueprint for a franchise that you never could imagine spawning from this point.
3) Furious 7
Furious 7 is ridiculous in the best of ways. A car jumps between not two, but three skyscrapers. A group of people parachute their cars out of an airplane. A man LITERALLY FLEXES HIS CAST OFF. At this point, our Family aren’t spies, they’re superheroes, capable of putting themselves through insane, almost Looney Tunes-esque stunts. It’s this franchise at its most purely enjoyable, a high-wire act.
Yet in a weird way, Furious 7 is also the film that makes you most realized how attached you’ve become to these people. The death of Paul Walker loomed heavily over this movie, and I can’t think of any franchise that so perfectly paid tribute to a fallen brother in the actual text of its film. I dare you not to cry at this film’s final tribute to him. These people have been through a lot, and we’ve been there with them.
2) The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift
Look, I’m gonna be real. Tokyo Drift would deserve to be up here simply for introducing Han (Sung Kang), the coolest dude in this whole franchise and one of the most enjoyable people to watch in any American action film, recalling the best of the Japanese Yakuza heroes.
But Tokyo Drift‘s weirdly polarized reputation is ill-deserved by the actual film. Sure, it withdraws from all the most popular characters, and Lucas Black’s weirdo Southerner isn’t exactly a replacement, but Justin Lin kind of knows that and he lets the new environment and new rules serve as our entry point. It makes for a far more dynamic entry, one that’s a blast of fun and a brilliant look at a culture that feels legitimately revitalizing for the franchise.
1) Fast Five
This is the best entry in the franchise bar none. The uber-example of what this franchise does at its best.
The action is clear and concise and constantly daring. From the opening bus rescue to the final chase through the streets of Rio as two muscle cars drag a bank vault behind them, Fast Five is ruthlessly exciting and an absolute thrill-ride to follow along with. No franchise is more breathlessly overjoyed to be able to try out its big, dumb, stunt pyrotechnics.
Its relationships are interesting and well-defined. Its old relationships (Dom and Brian) find new wrinkles and continue to deepen and grow. Its old characters find new ways to interact, I think particularly Han and Gisele (Gal Gadot) who have the kind of heat you can’t look directly at without special eyewear. Its new characters slide in effortlessly, Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) is just a total badass and gives a brand new energy that these films have never had (Franchise Viagra).
Fast Five is awesome, just awesome.