Franchise Expansion (Or Implosion): ‘Fast & Furious’

by Ben Martin

Franchise Expansion (or Implosion) is a column that looks at franchises that have new installments or releases forthcoming. In looking at a franchise, each entry in a franchise will be given a review and then be examined as part of the bigger franchise. (i.e., Was this sequel a worthy expansion of this franchise or was it an implosion of sorts?)

If you had told me when I initially saw the original The Fast and The Furious at age twelve that it would inspire a massive franchise, now dubbed The Fast Saga, I wouldn’t have believed you. Nevertheless, it did just that, spanning eight sequels and one spin-off (thus far). I’ll be racing a quarter-mile at a time from the beginning of this franchise to its current finish line of F9, slated for release June 25th. In this installment, I examine the sequel that got this series back on track following a trip to Tokyo — Fast & Furious (2009)!

Sometimes, the only thing for a film franchise to do after an installment flops is to return what worked the first time. Such is precisely the tact Universal decided to take after The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006), underperformed at the box office. As I like to dub it,Fast and Furious Babies” grossed a mere $158 million on an $85 million production budget. More importantly, though, the film did not connect with audiences or what they, myself included, had come to expect from the series. As a result, it was decided that this franchise should race back to what worked before and feature the characters folks wanted to see.

Thankfully, for the studio, getting the old gang back together was pretty easy to do. By the mid-aughts, the rising star status of The Fast and The Furious‘s main cast had significantly dimmed. So much so, in fact, that I’d imagine they were all more than happy to return to the franchise and characters that made them pop. Moreover, both Vin Diesel (Bloodshot) and Paul Walker (Timeline) needed this franchise after respectively headlining a string of cinematic bombs. Surprisingly, once much of the original film’s cast was secured, it was decided that two critical elements of Tokyo Drift would join up to help revitalize things despite that oddball sequel’s underperformance: director Justin Lin and screenwriter Chris Morgan. Together, the pair would help bring the Fast and Furious saga, and its cast, back to the point of relevance with the audience.

Thus, this fourth film functions as both the briefest of prequels to Tokyo Drift and, more importantly, a true sequel to the original film — in case you didn’t surmise that from the movie in review’s incredibly similar title. In fact, its lack of articles seems intent on making the audience forget the previous two sequels. Fast & Furious also brings us back to the streets of Los Angeles. Following the death of a mutual loved one (whose identity I won’t spoil here in case you’ve not seen this flick), Dominic Toretto (Diesel) comes out of hiding and returns home to seek vengeance. Much to his initial chagrin, though, Dom must begrudgingly join forces with Brian O’Conner (Walker), who has regained his status as a lawman thanks to the the FBI. Together, the seemingly titular pair use their skills as drivers and pose as drug mules to infiltrate a heroin operation tied to the murder mentioned above.

Unlike the silly criminal subplot of that first flick, Fast & Furious takes a decidedly darker approach by mixing the themes of revenge and family into the world of heroin smuggling — even if it does feel very much like the criminal enterprise in 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003). Now, I’m not saying it’s a severe swerve into darkness. This is a Fast flick after all, so we still need to have fun. Morgan learned from his mistakes in writing the last film, but the strength here is most likely due to him writing for already established characters and their relationships. Unfortunately, he also made the mistake of bringing weaksauce villains into the fold and introducing a twist involving these baddies that you can see coming a mile away. Also, the occasionally disjointed storytelling should be counted against him.

But even with these issues, the movie does plenty to compensate. Most significantly — in contrast to the previous entries in this franchise — you can feel the stakes in this one. See, Fast & Furious feels very much like a Western in its overall narrative and visual tone (especially in the latter department thanks to the cinematography by Man of Steel‘s Amir Mokri). Essentially, this reunion flick is akin to a western in which two outlaws are riding the trail for vengeance one last time. Therefore, it’s no surprise that Fast & Furious worries less about being an ensemble piece like its predecessors or the sequels that will follow and focuses primarily on Dom and Brian and their inherent bromance.

To my slight surprise, both actors seem legitimately interested in playing these characters again. Maybe it’s because they needed to, as I alluded to above, but I think it’s because Fast & Furious legitimately gives them a chance to have the buddy movie they didn’t get to make before. Although, I must admit that Walker does seem more enthused than his co-star and thereby delivers a better performance. Hell, Brian feels like he has an edge this time! Frankly, the most robust performance in this flick belongs to Jordana Brewster, reprising her role as Mia, wherein she displays legitimate emotion. As does the second female lead of Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), but to a lesser degree. But hey, that’s still more than I can say for Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman 1984, Zack Snyder’s Justice League), who makes her film debut as Gisele here.

More impressive than the narrative or cast in Fast & Furious, though, is the movie’s action and car sequences. There is a set-piece street race through LA traffic that is some of the best stuff I’ve yet to see in this series. It evoked both an excited and legitimately terrified physical reaction from me upon seeing some of the crashes. Outside of the cars, this installment is also more action-heavy in general and every sequence of which is quite fun. Alas, I admittedly do have one gripe with some of the it. Whereas the previous movies were all about practical races and stunts, this feature utilizes some CGI here and there. And yes, I know that going bigger means using that technology and it was standard by 2009, but it’s somewhat distracting when evidently put into play.

Clearly, Lin and Morgan understand this franchise far better than Tokyo Drift would suggest. Along with everyone else, this duo put the work in to revitalize a franchise which badly needed it. As a result, Fast & Furious is an absolute Franchise Expansion! Not only is this the true sequel we probably should’ve gotten out the gate, but it also expands its world and becomes a massive action franchise as opposed to just a car flick. And we’ll see that direction become more aggressive in the future after this movie grossed $360 worldwide on an $85 million production budget!

Fast & Furious (2009) is available on all home video formats.

F9: The Fast Saga will be released in theaters June 25th.

In the next installment, we’ll see that the WHOLE franchise matters with Fast Five (2011)!

Looking Back A Quarter-Mile At A Time:

The Fast and The Furious (2001)

2 Fast 2 Furious (2003)

The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006)

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