WINNING IS WINNING
How ‘The Fast and the Furious’ Took Over the World
The fuel-drenched saga has evolved from a homoerotic exploration of masculinity into a globetrotting epic and bastion of diversity. We trace Fast & Furious’s road to the top.
The super-charged actioner that would go on to spawn the unpredictably explosive, physics-defying $2.3 billion The Fast and the Furious juggernaut franchise was born one hot July 2000 afternoon on the sunbaked asphalt at L.A.’s Dodger Stadium. That’s the day filming began and cameras started rolling on Paul Walker, the appealing blond actor director Rob Cohen had cast in The Skulls, hitting moves behind the wheel of a tricked out green Mitsubishi Eclipse as undercover LAPD cop Brian O’Conner.
Over a dozen years and six increasingly successful sequels later, Walker’s tragic death in November 2013 would unexpectedly put the brakes on one of Universal’s most lucrative franchises as the studio, its stars, and its filmmakers took months to grieve and figure out how they should continue—or if they should continue at all.
“I was really worried that it would be a cover-up, that it wouldn’t be a legacy, that it would be a machine thing—‘What’s next, what’s next?’” co-star Michelle Rodriguez told me of her reservations over completing the movie. “Man, [Universal] surprised me with their respect. They were human. They had heart. And they really gave a shit. Everybody involved, down to catering. They all put so much heart into it and I’m proud. I think he would be.”
Now, racing toward an estimated $115 million opening weekend and set to do monster box office overseas, where the last four Fast & Furious movies have out-profited domestic returns, the highly emotional Furious 7 is poised for a massive global takeover, with experts predicting $1 billion in worldwide box office. Not bad for a franchise that began 15 years ago as a simple B-movie racing flick about the love between two men on opposite sides of the law.
To make Hollywood’s first movie about import street racing, inspired by a 1998 Vibe article about the Dominican drag race kings of New York City, Cohen and Universal Pictures made another fateful move. They signed rising Pitch Black and Boiler Room star Vin Diesel as the Corona-guzzling Bodhi to Walker’s Johnny Utah, Dominic Toretto.
“I believe Vin will fill the void left by action stars who are getting a little long in the tooth for extreme physical action,” Cohen marveled when The Fast and the Furious hit theaters in June 2001.
Cohen filled out the core cast of The Fast and the Furious with Jordana Brewster, who won the role of Toretto’s sister Mia after finishing her first year at Yale, and Michelle Rodriguez, a newcomer who impressed Cohen & Co. so much in her as-yet unreleased indie drama Girlfight, they created the character of Toretto’s streetwise girlfriend and fellow racer Letty Ortiz just for her.
But while family would become the enduring motif of the franchise, the magic of the Fast saga really came down to its two masculine antiheroes: The alpha criminal with a heart beating underneath his wife-beater, and the cop yearning to be a part of the very clique he was assigned to take down.
On the strength of Diesel and Walker’s torrid, homoerotic-bromantic chemistry, the $38 million-budgeted movie about fast cars, flexed biceps, popped hoods, and living life a quarter-mile at a time turned into a sleeper hit at the box office, raking in over $207 million worldwide—enough to fuel a sequel.
But while Walker was onboard for the next installment, Diesel walked away from 2 Fast 2 Furious and did xXx next with Cohen. Years later, while promoting Fast & Furious 6, he explained he’d bailed because of issues with the second film’s script. Rumor also has it that back then, before Diesel became the social media megastar who could will his way into some of the biggest studio properties in Hollywood, he’d pushed for a steep sequel deal that he and Universal couldn’t agree on.
“I would’ve said [to myself], ‘Don’t walk away from it just because the script sucked in 2 Fast 2 Furious because there's an obligation to the audience to fight, no matter what, to make that film as good as possible,’” Diesel told Celebuzz in 2013. “But yet, we wouldn’t be here if I didn’t do that. That was a very important stage and a very important statement to the studio that I wouldn’t be involved with the franchise if it was simply a version of the old style of sequenced movies, where you make a new movie, which is the same as the old movie, you put the brand up there, and you sell it off the brand. I didn’t want to ever sell Fast & Furious off of the brand.”
Left without their biggest star, Universal tapped screenwriting duo Michael Brandt and Derek Haas to rewrite a sequel story by The Fast and the Furious scribe Gary Scott Thompson into a Toretto-less buddy cop picture. Tyrese Gibson came in to play Brian O’Conner’s estranged racer pal Roman Pearce. Directed by Oscar-nominated filmmaker John Singleton (Boyz n the Hood) with a silly, over-the-top flair and flame-spewing rice rockets galore, the Miami-set sequel earned pans from critics and made less domestically than the first picture for a $236 million total take. But overseas returns saw a boost—an early indication of the franchise’s potential to connect globally.
Haters might consider it the Batman Forever of the Fast & Furious series, but give 2 Fast credit for indelible elements that would later become franchise signatures. It implemented a winking sense of fun contrasted with the straight-faced seriousness of the first film, and introduced extended “family” members like Gibson’s fast-talking fan favorite, Roman Pearce. Along with Gibson, rapper Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, who made his acting debut as Tej, the ebullient gearhead who establishes O’Conner’s Miami connections, would later return for three more sequels when the action franchise was born again.
But at the time the studio was revving up a third installment, the series lacked creative direction. Universal lowered its sights to a direct-to-DVD threequel with a smaller budget. Screenwriter Chris Morgan, whose sole produced screenplay at the time was the Chris Evans flick Cellular, landed the open writing assignment with a pitch for a fish-out-of-water sequel set in Japan.
“I said, ‘They’re doing this thing in Tokyo and it’s called drifting,’ which opened up a lot of conversations,” Morgan recalled ahead of the debut of Furious 7, which now marks his fifth film in the series. “We were lucky that Universal was willing to step away from what they intended to do, which frankly I think would have killed the franchise, because there was nowhere to grow with it. And this franchise, if anything, is about expanding, and growing, and going global.”
Justin Lin, an indie director with just two micro-budget films under his belt, was offered the directing gig that would eventually make him a major Fast & Furious force behind the camera.
“Eighteen months earlier the biggest budget I’d had was $250,000 for Better Luck Tomorrow,” Lin told me last year during a Tokyo Drift Q&A in Los Angeles. “And I had just finished a Disney movie, Annapolis, when I got the call. The script at the time was very much like Karate Kid Part II. I called everyone I loved working with at that point and we went for it. Looking back, I don’t know how we did it because we started shooting this thing in October, we wrapped mid-February, and this movie was out in June.”
Tokyo Drift didn’t immediately connect to the established Fast & Furious world. Rather than following the Toretto or O’Conner characters, it introduced a new character, troubled American teenager Sean Boswell (Friday Night Lights’ Lucas Black), who found a new home and a new family of misfits among the drifting kings and queens of Tokyo. Along with many of his previous collaborators, Lin tapped actor Sung Kang, who’d starred in his all-Asian Sundance drama Better Luck Tomorrow, to play Sean’s enigmatic drift-racing mentor Han.
That character connected with audiences so strongly, they were crushed when he perished at the end of the film. But that tragic onscreen demise proved to Universal that Fast fans would rally around characters they loved, demanding to see them again. And it led to one of the franchise’s most defining outside the box strokes of genius: The surprise return of Vin Diesel.
Legend has it Diesel agreed to the Tokyo Drift cameo in exchange for the rights to make more Riddick films, because Universal’s interest in backing more sequels petered out after Pitch Black and its lackluster sequel, The Chronicles of Riddick. That minute-plus of Tokyo Drift screen time also opened the door for Diesel’s proper homecoming to the franchise, changing the game for the Fast and the Furious films.
Armed with the leeway to carve their own formula, Lin and Morgan returned with a plot that reunited Diesel, Walker, Rodriguez, and Brewster, and linked Kang’s Han into an ambitious international plot. Dom and Letty were now jacking fuel off of tankers in the Dominican Republic with a new crew. Killing off Letty put Toretto and O’Conner at odds before reigniting the bromance that would anchor the series’ next phase.
“It was an environment and time when I think everyone was running for the hills, they didn’t know what [Tokyo Drift] was going to be,” said Lin. “We went into it wanting to do something different, and it was from this that everything kind of evolved from. It changed my life. And everything about Fast 4, 5, and 6 came out of this.”
Lin battled the studio to bring Han back, which had a twofold effect: It made Fast Four a canon prequel to Tokyo Drift and proved that fans would go along for the ride on a serialized journey with the characters they loved, even beyond the boundaries of traditional franchise-building. The move paid off: Kang’s character would stick around for two additional sequels as a core cast member whose side plot romance with another repeat character, Fast and Furious, Fast Five, and Fast & Furious 6’s Gisele (Gal Gadot), would go on to become a relationship beloved enough to inspire its own fanfiction (and nab her the plum role of Wonder Woman).
And as the Fast & Furious onscreen family swelled in size, their high-octane escapades exploded into a fleshed out world where East L.A. racers and FBI agents could conceivably tangle with international hustlers, brawny bounty hunters, drug dealers, Yakuza bosses, favela overlords, black ops killers, and computer hackers while engaging in choreographed combat in their pimped-out rides.
“From the third film to the fourth one there was a real concerted effort to get in with these characters and understand what their world was, and to legitimize all the films,” said Morgan. Despite negative critical reviews, Fast & Furious broke box office records on its way to a $363 million global take and paved the way for the renewed Fast universe to continue evolving.
“I’m incredibly indebted to the first film,” Morgan admitted. “I love the first film. I’m a guy who’s playing in the sandbox of people who created this before me—Gary Scott Thompson and Eric Bergquist and David Ayer, and Michael Brandt and Derek Haas on the second one. There’d be none of [these movies] without the characters and the situation and the world they set up. I mean, can you imagine these movies without Roman and Tej?”
With Fast Five, the filmmakers lobbied to bring 2 Fast 2 Furious characters Roman and Tej back into the fold alongside Fast & Furious returners Tego and Rico (Puerto Rican reggaeton stars Tego Calderón and Don Omar) and Gisele, while making another bold adjustment to the franchise’s tone. Transforming the fifth film into a traditional heist flick with more global and mainstream appeal, they also injected Fast & Furious with a testosterone-laden dose of “franchise Viagra” in the form of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, whose casting Diesel pushed for after reading a fan’s suggestion on his Facebook page.
The addition of Johnson as Luke Hobbs, an international bounty hunter and federal agent mad because Dom is flagrant, gave the films an even more muscular bromance to develop, as well as one of the beefiest homoerotic brawls in movie history. Filming in Puerto Rico, premiering it in Rio, and the piece de resistance sequence—speeding cars dragging an 8-foot tall vault through the streets of San Juan—lent Fast Five a must-see escalation of spectacle that crossed language barriers.
It also marked a milestone in blockbuster diversity famously celebrated by critic Wesley Morris, who called the franchise “the most progressive force in Hollywood” for its matter-of-fact multiethnic casting, and won a Pulitzer in the process. “In the end, it might not be Barack Obama who drives us into the future,” he wrote. “It may just be Vin Diesel and The Rock.” Global audiences agreed with their wallets. Fast Five outpaced its predecessors critically and commercially, taking in $626 million worldwide, with $416 million of that coming from overseas.
Thank Dungeons and Dragons in part for priming the architects of the Fast & Furious films to build a living and breathing—if admittedly ridiculous—world out of such humble beginnings.
“Vin and I talked early on about this,” laughed Morgan, who like Diesel is a lifelong D&D devotee. “We are on some level running a Dungeon together because there’s a bigger mythology here and there is a world and character interactions that are happening between the movies. When we pick them up later, we get to go back and layer things in now that two movies later will pay off. It’s not just setups and payoffs in one movie. It’s a world that we’re building, and even when you’re not paying attention to it, it’s evolving.”
The globetrotting, adrenaline-packed Fast & Furious universe expanded to its most ambitious limits in 2013’s Fast & Furious 6, which assembled the biggest superteam of them all as Toretto’s crew joined forces with Hobbs to take down a team of deadly mercenaries with even more logic-defying antics. Fast 6 turned Dom & Co., once modest street racing criminals, into full-fledged agents of espionage. Old adversaries came back to join new ones, and so did Letty, who rose from the grave with a new amnesia plotline straight out of a soap opera. Budgeted at $160 million, the London- and Spain-set blockbuster took in a franchise-best $788 million worldwide.
“Family is the most important thing in our movies,” said Morgan. “When the trailers come out you see the spectacle, you see cars going between buildings and being thrown out of airplanes, and all that is great. But I guarantee you the reason people end up coming is because they have to care about the people in those cars doing that crazy stuff, and there is magic between these guys, even off-screen. They are family. All of us are.”
Those bonds were put to the test in a very public way when Walker died in a car crash a year and a half ago, midway through filming Furious 7. Written by Morgan, its Seven Samurai-esque revenge plot involved Jason Statham as vengeful assassin Deckard Shaw, brother of defeated Fast 6 adversary Owen Shaw (Luke Evans), as well as a high-tech plot involving stolen hacker technology. The film had a new director in James Wan (Insidious), who was already facing the biggest production of his career, and the additions of Kurt Russell, Nathalie Emmanuel, Tony Jaa, Ronda Rousey, and Djimon Hounsou to the franchise family. “We were just blindsided,” Rodriguez said. “We weren’t thinking about anything else, man.”
“It was as horrifying as you can imagine. Paul really was family, like everyone involved in this, and to lose someone was just utterly devastating,” remembered Morgan, who praised Universal for halting production—no questions asked—so everyone could mourn. “Then, after time went by and people had a chance to catch their breath again, then they asked, what do we do? We’re halfway through the movie, do we continue? Can we continue? Should we continue?”
The film was rewritten to adjust Walker’s storyline into an emotional goodbye that allowed Brian O’Conner to ride off into the sunset, his scenes completed with the help of his brothers Caleb and Cody and VFX. “It is literally one of the most generous gifts I’ve seen brothers give to each other,” said Morgan.
Introducing Furious 7 at its Los Angeles premiere this week, a contemplative Diesel praised that Fast & Furious family for turning tragedy into a tribute for Walker, whom he affectionately dubbed “Pablo” and named his new daughter after. “Last year it was really hard to come back to work,” Diesel began, addressing the packed audience that filled Hollywood’s Chinese Theatre.
“And then I looked up and I saw James Wan willing to come back to work,” he continued. “I saw my brother Dwayne Johnson, committed, ready to go back to work. I saw Jason Statham willing to fight me—which is a no-no—to go back to work. I saw Kurt Russell, I saw Tyrese, I saw Luda, I saw Nathalie.”
“I saw Letty, played by Michelle Rodriguez. Fifteen years of playing Dom and Letty, and we come to this magical night. The studio was there, but the studio was there in a different way than normal. The studio was saying, ‘We feel your soul and we’ll do whatever we have to do to honor your brother Pablo.’”
With members of the Fast & Furious family from films past and present in the house, Diesel thanked everyone from Rob Cohen to Justin Lin to Universal’s marketing guru Michael Moses, who backed Diesel when he vowed that Furious 7 “will probably win best picture at the Oscars, unless the Oscars don’t want to be relevant ever.”
“This movie is more than a movie, I’ve said. You’ll feel it when you see it,” said Diesel. “There’s something emotional that happens to you when you walk out of this movie and you appreciate everyone you love, ’cause you just never know when the last day is that you’re going to see them. Thank you for making us feel loved, and thank you for making us feel like family.”