Twenty-one years after the first movie in the franchise, “F9: The Fast Saga” hit theaters this past week. The franchise went through quite a few different iterations over the years. It’s worth looking back on the series’s roots to see how this new entry stacks up.
“The Fast and Furious” movies today look almost nothing like the first film in the series from 2001. “The Fast and the Furious” introduces Dom (Vin Diesel), a tough street racer and mechanic who is the lead character for the franchise. Alongside Dom came Brian (Paul Walker), a police officer who falls in with Dom’s crew. This first movie is very much a race movie, looking nothing like the bombastic action and sci-fi twists you might see at this point in the series. Instead, everyone drives exclusively in straight lines and the film depicts races that could actually happen. The only thing that even comes close to the over-the-top action of the later movies is when Brian and Dom, after they’ve inevitably gotten on the same side, narrowly avoid a train at the end of their race. Few could have predicted that these humble beginnings could turn into this cinematic behemoth.
The next two movies in the series, “2 Fast 2 Furious” and “The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift,” continue in a largely similar fashion. “2 Fast” features Paul Walker in the lead role, this time with Tyrese Gibson’s character Roman by his side. “Tokyo Drift” follows newcomer Sean Boswell (Lucas Black) as he is taught to race by Han (Sung Kang) in Tokyo. These films don’t even feature series figurehead Vin Diesel (except for a special cameo in “Tokyo Drift”), making each of these movies feel like separate films loosely stuck in the same universe. These movies also keep racing the focus. There are a few big stunts in these movies, namely Brian and Roman jumping onto a boat with a car in “2 Fast 2 Furious,” but for the most part they don’t go too wild with their action. At three movies in, the “Fast Saga” stuck to racing and a largely unserialized story.
The fourth film in the series, confusingly named “Fast and Furious,” marks an important turning point in this franchise. As the title suggests, this film was meant to be a bit of a reset. Dom and Brian reunite and the crew is filled with characters from all three movies so far: Dom’s girlfriend Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) and sister Mia (Jordana Brewster) from the first movie, Roman from the second movie and Han from the third movie. “Fast and Furious” is also notable in that it is widely considered the worst film in the series. Unfortunately, it’s the most dour and depressing of these movies by far, exemplified most clearly by killing off Letty near the start of the film. This was a strange genre shift which made the outrageous car stunts not fit for the story being told. This movie also fully gives up on racing, opting instead to see our heroes fighting drug smugglers. Audiences feared that the franchise was going downhill fast.
Everything changed with the introduction of one man: Dwayne Johnson. Before he was in just about every blockbuster like he is today, Johnson took on the role as the antagonist of “Fast Five.” He plays Luke Hobbs, a government agent who is trying to hunt down Dom’s crew as they plan a heist in Rio de Janeiro. Johnson is the breath of fresh air the series really needed, making a crazy action movie quip with every line and bringing a joyousness to the movie that was thoroughly needed. The action is upgraded as well, with a recommitment to practical effects paving the way for some truly bonkers stunts. The highlight of these stunts is Dom and Brian pulling a safe through the streets of Rio, smashing cop cars and foiling Hobbs in a finale that is yet to be topped by the recent movies in the franchise.
This film emphasizes the theme of family, which would come to be the major theme for the rest of the series. The crew call themselves “La Familia” and all come together in the end. Both Letty and Dom and new couple Mia and Brian are looking to start families of their own. “Fast Five” set the trajectory for the series going forward.
After “Fast Five,” the “Fast Saga” entered a series of ridiculous and over-the-top sequels. “Fast and Furious 6” sees Letty come back to life as the crew fights a villain team that parallels themselves. “Furious 7” has ridiculous stunts featuring Hobbs flexing out of a cast on his arm and Dom and Brian jumping across a skyscraper in a car. “The Fate of the Furious” features automatic car hacking and Hobbs throwing a torpedo with his bare hands. These movies also keep up the streak of the team squaring off against formidable bad guys, from British Special Forces soldier Owen Shaw (Luke Evans) in “6,” to his brother Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) in “7” and the mysterious Cipher (Charlize Theron) in “8,” who turns out to have been the mastermind behind the Shaw brothers’ schemes. “Furious 7” is worth pointing out individually for it’s incredible breakneck pace and perfect balance of comedy and action, making it one of the greatest action blockbusters ever made. At this point, the series had fully turned itself around into a regular critical and commercial success.
Next, the series took a new step with a spinoff: “Hobbs and Shaw,” as Johnson and Statham team up to take out the bionically enhanced Brixton, played by Idris Elba. This one wasn’t quite as well received as the previous few entries. With Johnson plucked from a part of an ensemble to the main hero, his once funny one-liners turn into non-stop quips that become overbearing. The movie didn’t completely crash and burn, but it was a step back from some of its predecessors.
Over twenty years later, “F9: The Fast Saga” is now in theaters. “F9” introduces Jakob, Dom’s brother, as the villain, whose plan is to upload some bad code to a satellite to destroy the world’s governments. Dom and the crew get together to try and stop him. This film does something no other “Fast” movie does with its flashbacks to the past that are intercut into the story. The flashbacks show Dom and Jakob’s childhood together as they grieve their father’s death during a race. These flashbacks discard the fun of action stunts for melodrama that fails to strike a cord with its intended audience. This family drama is dark and creates a tone that does not fit with the series’ current identity.
The flashbacks and past family drama also create an issue as they take too much time away from the all important car-smashing action. It doesn’t feel like the big action set pieces are as prevalent, because that time is instead devoted to unnecessary Jakob and Dom backstory. This makes the action of “F9” fail to stand out against other films in the franchise.
For as much praise as “6,” “7” and “8” get, they do end up feeling very similar. It’s often easiest to talk about them all in one breath and they tend to blend together. This finally catches up to “F9” which fails to raise the bar and feels like the same movie again. The beats of the story are largely the same and nothing from “F9” feels like it ramps up the action. The big action set pieces don’t hit like the other ones do. There are five or six moments from “Furious 7” alone that top anything in “F9.” This could just be franchise fatigue, but “F9” simply does not have the spark that its predecessors have.
“F9” plays it safe amounting to an experience that is a significant step back for the series. It may not yet be enough of a miss to tank the series, but it could be looking bad for audiences’ favorite outrageous car movies.
“F9: The Fast Saga” is now showing in theaters.
By Ben Lindner