If nothing else, 2015 is a huge year for franchises. With a new Avengers, Terminator, Mad Max, Star Wars, Mission: Impossible, and a host of others set to clean up at the box office, it's no wonder that every studio is scrambling for a universe to build. Despite my love and desire for original properties, I can't help but feel excitement for each and every franchise listed above. However, one franchise stands above the rest in terms of my anticipation: The Fast and the Furious. With the cloud of Paul Walker's untimely death hanging over it, as well as constant rewrites and edits due to the tragic event, Furious 7 has everything going against it, yet advance reviews are already touting it as a welcome and exceptional entry into the canon of Fast, and a fitting send-off for Paul Walker. Much like the cars at the heart of this ridiculously stupid series, the Fast films take a beating yet still keep moving forward. In an effort to prepare myself for the release of Furious 7, I've spent the last week watching the entire series, and I'd like to share my thoughts with you. Oh, and SPOILER ALERT.
The Fast and the Furious (2001 - dir. Rob Cohen)
Rotten Tomatoes 53%
The strangest thing about watching this entry in 2015 is that there is no pre-existing universe. I'm used to what Fast has become, but despite the changes, the original film still champions the same ideas: family, cars, Coronas, cars, barbecue, and cars. And family. What's different is that this is a much, much smaller scale movie. The action never leaves Los Angeles, and there is no big heavy villain at the core. This is a movie about street racing, and a cop sent on an undercover assignment to figure out which street racers have been stealing -- wait for it -- DVD players. It's mind-bogglingly simple compared to the current universe, and the shiny exterior masks what could have easily been a Roger Corman style affair. Great stunt driving. Vin Diesel actually looks human. Ja Rule is in it. Remember him? Me neither.
2 Fast 2 Furious (2003 - dir. John Singleton)
Rotten Tomatoes 36%
Even though the original film was intended as a stand alone story, the box office success resulted in a sequel. It has a bigger budget, a somewhat bigger name in the director's chair, and an absence of Vin Diesel, who can't really be blamed for not seeing the franchise potential at this point. Paul Walker returns, and in order to obtain a pardon for his criminal behavior in the first film, he is sent back undercover to infiltrate yet another criminal ring who sees fit to center their enterprise around loud, brightly colored, easily detectable racing cars. Tyrese is his new partner in crime. With Walker being the only returning player, the family aspect is not as strong in this entry, but there are plenty of cars. Also, Fabolous is in it. Remember him? Me neither.
The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006 - dir. Justin Lin)
Rotten Tomatoes 36%
Tokyo Drift, we now know, takes place after the events of Fast and Furious 6, but at this point in the series it was essentially a reboot. Fearing that Paul Walker was too old to appeal to the teen crowd, Tokyo Drift was meant to take the Fast brand and apply it to separate adventures involving cars. It's the Halloween: Season of the Witch entry, and for what it's worth, is as surprisingly enjoyable as it is totally misguided. I found myself wondering if drift racing is really a thing in Japan, but not enough to research it. The tire budget must have been huge. Justin Lin, of Better Luck Tomorrow fame, takes the role of director and holds on to it for the next 3 films in the series. He brings a visual flair to the 'drifting' that highlights some impressive stunt driving. The opening sequence involves the eldest son from Home Improvement racing to Kid Rock's Bawitaba. I feel old. Lucas Black, the star of the movie, may be the worst actor in the history of film. It's a fascinatingly bad performance. After test audiences hated the film, a scene was tacked on at the end where Vin Diesel makes a small cameo. As a credit to Diesel's business savvy, he agreed to do it to gain a producer credit for the next film, as well as to help secure funding for his Riddick movies, which are sweet. Also, Lil Bow Wow is in it. Remember him? Ok, I admittedly kinda do remember him. Shut up.
Fast & Furious (2009 - dir. Justin Lin)
Rotten Tomatoes 27%
This is the first in the series that I can say I outright disliked. Even though it serves as the jumping off point for the crew er, family of the series from this point forward, it doesn't feel like a complete movie so much as a ligament between films. To be fair, that is precisely what it is. After the fans made it clear that the Fast movie they want must stay within world of Bryan O'Conner and Dominic Toretto (Paul/Vin), the studio saw it as an opportunity to rethink the franchise while returning it to its roots. While the fourth entry certainly delivers on action, and kills off Michelle Rodriguez before that became a thing, it still feels bland. Safe, even. Yes, the final chase sequence through a collapsing mine is great on paper, but it feels tired at this point. Damn these dudes sure love Coronas and barbecue. At this point it's starting to occur to me that these characters are truly terrible people, and while their allegiance to each other is commendable, they are still murderers and thieves. Buuuuut whoever takes the first bite at the barbecue has to say grace so I guess that's something.
Fast Five (2011 - dir. Justin Lin)
Rotten Tomatoes 77%
A decade since this series began, and we've finally gotten an entry that is certified 'fresh'! This is, without a doubt, the best entry in the franchise. It's as if once The Rock was signed, it became clear to everyone on board that a universe has been constructed where there are no rules. The screenwriters are fully aware of viewers like me, who have started to sour on the ethical code of the movie, but who can be easily appeased with absurdism. I do not know why I root for these people, but damn it I do. The action moves along breathlessly, and once again the stunt work is nothing short of fantastic. With Fast Five, every action beat is cranked up to eleven ... thousand, and as the apparent immortality of the main characters becomes an afterthought, the filmmakers are free to do literally anything. Also, this is no longer about street racing, even in the slightest sense. In fact, the one street race takes place off camera because, who cares? This is a heist movie, complete with a team assembly montage, a greedy villain, and even a giant safe. Players from every chapter of the series are involved, each brought in for an individual heisting skill (which are all explained with "I had another life before you knew me"). Fast Five is the funniest entry by far, both intentionally and unintentionally. The Rock really gets to chew the scenery as well as incessantly sweat. The dude is dripping throughout the whole movie, no exaggeration. The standard criticism of the heist movie is that the team will spend a million to steal a million, but in the case of Fast Five, they spend 500 billion and kill hundreds to steal much less ... and it works like gangbusters. Even as a champion of blockbusters with a brain, I'll gladly concede that even the most brainless blockbuster can work on its own terms. Fast Five simply rules.
Fast & Furious 6 (2013 - dir. Justin Lin)
Rotten Tomatoes 68%
Now that Fast Five has set the tone for what's possible in this absurd world of car-based espionage, the sixth entry continues to run with the madness. Since we now know what to expect, it pales compared to the previous film, but not by much. F&F6 is still a blast. After the revelation that Michelle Rodriguez's Letty is still alive, the gang is back together in an effort to rescue her from the clutches of a villain who, although he engages in identically criminal behavior as our heroes, explicitly doesn't abide by the code of family and thusly must be killed. It occurs to me that only 2 of the main characters have ever even met Letty, and one of them has yet to ever speak to her on screen. Whatever. We've reached a point where the heroes use cars to perform literally any task. Why use a spoon when you can use a muscle car? Why RSVP to a wedding when you can drift race? These questions and more won't be answered in any way and that's fine because after the credits we are shown exactly how the story ties into the outlier that is Tokyo Drift. And how, you ask? Jason Statham, that's how.
So now I wait...