Saturday, June 19, 2021

Ranking All 9 Fast & Furious Movies for the Series' 20th Anniversary

In advance of F9’s debut in American theaters next week, Universal has been playing each of the Fast & Furious movies in theaters on Friday nights, for free, over the last two months. With the first screening neatly coinciding with my full vaccination, these screenings were a big part of my return to theaters. Each movie was preceded by the same pre-roll video, advertising F9 while also containing a sincere welcome back message from Vin Diesel himself:

A video which, of course, led to an amazing SNL parody version that my brother and I now quote regularly to each other:

“The movies…”

In any case, over the course of these screenings, I found myself enjoying this series, which I’d always liked a lot, more than I ever had before. Maybe it was the rush of finally being back at the movies after over a year away; or maybe it was the pleasure of seeing all 8 films, in order, for the first time, some of which I’d never seen on the big screen. Either way, it solidified for me how much I genuinely love these very silly films, their ridiculous action, soap opera plotting, and extremely earnest character dynamics creating a strange, deeply endearing blend unlike anything else in the blockbuster space right now. They are, simply, a delight.

Over the course of the screenings, I kept some running notes to eventually rank all the movies, including the spin-off film Hobbs & Shaw. This is all relative and subjective, of course, and there’s no film in the series I outright dislike. But with the new film on the horizon, and in appreciation of all the ludicrous, wonderful memories the series has given us over the last 20 years, here my rankings of all 9 Fast & Furious features:

Continue reading after the jump…

9. The Fate of the Furious

(2017, Dir. F. Gary Gray)

This was the first movie in the franchise to actively disappoint me when it came out, and 4 years later, I do find more to enjoy here than I initially thought. The opening sequence in Cuba is fantastic, vintage Fast & Furious car culture goodness that I’d love to see the series return to more fulsomely. Dwayne Johnson’s Hobbs shines brighter here than in any entry since Fast Five, and Jason Statham – with whom he shares such fun chemistry they’d soon get a spin-off – gets the requisite “enemy becomes friend” arc in this film to great effect, especially when interacting with Dom’s baby in the final act. And there are good action beats scattered throughout, particularly in the snow-bound finale.

But the central plot really doesn’t gel for me. The idea of Dom turning against the team is a good hook that has several problems working against it, the first and biggest being the absence of Paul Walker. Unavoidable, yes, but also glaring – if you’re going to tell this story, the 3 characters I want to see react to Dom’s seeming heel-turn are Brian, Mia, and Lettie, and only the last of those is in this film, with Michelle Rodriguez being severely underutilized throughout, and the team feeling extra thin as a result. Dom’s predicament is also just way too dour for a series that’s best when light on its feet, and while Charlize Theron is as good as you’d expect her to be, Cipher is simply too evil a big bad to function in this universe. Her central gambit – holding Dom’s ex-lover Elaina and (secret) baby boy hostage – is the one plot point in this entire series I find genuinely distasteful, and it only gets worse when Cipher executes Elaina halfway through the movie. Elaina winds up bringing brought back for exactly two reasons: To give Dom a baby, and then to give him motivation as a corpse. It’s gross, in a series that’s usually better about knowing which cliches are fun (Lettie’s alive! But she has amnesia!) and which should be avoided.

F. Gary Gray is an undeniably solid director, and his work here is fine, but it’s the most workmanlike we’ve had in the whole series: It gets the job done, and not much else. The set pieces have some fun, ludicrous ideas – Raining cars! Ice chases! Submarines! – but the action feels too ‘sober,’ for lack of a better word, Gray’s direction lacking that gleeful lunatic abandon that Justin Lin, James Wan, and John Singleton all brought to things. It all adds up to a movie that’s not without its charms, but pretty clearly the low point in the franchise thus far.

8. 6 Fast 6 Furious

(2013, Dir. Justin Lin)

When this film came out, it was my favorite in the series, overwhelmed as I was by the spectacular action sequences the film devises. And there’s no doubt about it: When this movie gets cooking, its set pieces are undeniably brilliant. The airstrip finale is genuinely virtuoso, and the preceding tank chase on the Spanish highway is up there as well. But on repeat viewings, the film proves mighty thin beyond those explosive pleasures. It’s way too long, feeling much more drawn-out than its 130-minute run-time would suggest, with an especially elongated second act in London that’s tremendously meandering, paced more like a season of a Fast & Furious TV show stitched together – the characters leave the base, split up for a little mission, then come back together and repeat the episodic cycle several times – than an actual movie.

This was the first of the films to venture fully into spy craft, and Chris Morgan’s script has a tough time piecing plot, character, action, and humor together into something fully cohesive (something the films on either side of this one achieve much more gracefully). The amount of plot machinations involved means the film loses the thread on most of its characters; outside of Dom and Lettie’s amnesia drama, everyone’s motivations are mostly mechanical, dictated more by plot and less by personality. Everyone’s there, and they’re each fun to watch, but their interactions and pairings are mostly scattershot. On the plus side, Luke Evans offers the series its first fully compelling larger-than-life villain, and you do get to watch Michelle Rodriguez beat Gina Carano in a fist fight, which, given who Carano’s turned out to be in recent years, makes for an unexpected pleasure. Not a bad entry overall, but a much more middling one than I remembered.

Oh, and the title sucks. Fast & Furious 6? That’s it? That’s the best you could do? No. That’s entirely too sober a title for a series where at least 25% of the appeal is absurd sequel titles. I’ll just continue to call it 6 Fast 6 Furious, because that’s the world I prefer to live in.

7. Hobbs & Shaw

(2019, Dir. David Leitch)

I find this the hardest film in the series to rank by far – perhaps unsurprising, given its status as spin-off, and how far afield it moves, even by the standards of latter-day Fast & Furious movies, from car culture-based action (though there’s still plenty of vehicular mayhem to enjoy). This one plays much more like a modern superhero movie, complete with a comic-book style villain who literally calls himself “Black Superman,” and stakes that involve nothing less than the fate of all life on earth. All that makes it a bit of an outlier for the franchise, but also a unique pleasure; there would be no justification for this film to exist were it just more of the same, and director David Leitch – fresh off co-directing John Wick and solo directing Deadpool 2 – very much got the assignment, choreographing by far the best hand-to-hand action in the franchise, but also staging some of the most ludicrous, over-the-top set pieces in this increasingly ludicrous, over-the-top series. The film’s second half, in particular, is just full of great, ridiculous action beats that defy all logic and laws of physics – Hobbs and his family taking down a military helicopter, partially with Hobbs’ own two hands, is a particular delight – and that much of it is set in American Samoa, one of the most picturesque locations the series has yet visited, certainly helps.

The chief appeal, of course, is right there in the title – and Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham are, indeed, a pleasure to watch together, especially given how completely screenwriter Chris Morgan has mastered the art of writing awesome/terrible dialogue. This one might have the best ‘stupid’ writing in the whole franchise, with some fantastic groaners that Johnson and Statham know exactly how to turn into stupid macho poetry. That being said, they probably should have called this one Hobbs & Shaws, plural, because it’s Vanessa Kirby as Shaw’s sister who really ties the ensemble together and helps this movie work on its own terms. She’s great, and her 20-year age difference with Statham provides the added humor of trying to believe these two are siblings who grew up together. Idris Elba has a whole lot of fun chewing scenery as the big bad here, and our now-requisite Helen Mirren cameo is as charming as ever. Only a couple of unnecessary comic relief cameos from Ryan Reynolds and Kevin Hart – neither of which are terrible, but would be more enjoyable as deleted scenes on the DVD than integrated into an already overlong movie – really hold the film back, and on the whole, it’s one of the series’ better latter-day entries. Some modern-day blockbuster bloat and franchise fatigue hold me back from ranking this higher, but as late-2010s spectacle cinema goes, this is definitely above average work.

6. 2 Fast 2 Furious

(2003, Dir. John Singleton)

This oft-maligned first sequel proved a pleasant surprise when I finally watched it for the first time. On top of having maybe the greatest sequel title of all time, 2 Fast 2 Furious is just a goddamn blast – essentially “Miami Vice, but with (more) cars,” with Paul Walker and Tyrese Gibson serving as our odd couple buddy cops, and a whole lotta style from the great John Singleton, who didn’t phone in one inch of this thing. The way he edits the car races and scores action to hip hop beats, in particular, are stylistic structures the latter films borrow from copiously, and he leans in hard to the overall silliness in ways that clearly presage much of the lunacy to come. The lack of Vin Diesel has made this one a bit of a franchise black sheep, but it really doesn’t hurt the film at all; Walker is just as crucial to the earnest goofiness of this franchise as Diesel is, and this is a good showcase for him and his character, with Gibson’s Roman Pierce stealing the show alongside him. I enjoy Gibson’s work in the later films plenty, but this is the only film in which he gets to be an actual lead character instead of background comic relief, and he and Walker have great chemistry (something that goes underutilized in future installments). And if you like car races and/or car chases – which, if you’re a fan of Fast & Furious, you probably do – this one absolutely delivers, with the longest and most elaborate examples of each in franchise history. The film even has its own rap theme song that repeats the title a bunch, and features the only big action stunt in the series that starts with one character telling another to buckle their seatbelt.

So yeah. This one rules. Did I mention how much I love that title?

5. The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift

(2006, Dir. Justin Lin)

By all rights, Tokyo Drift shouldn’t have been much more than a direct-to-video cash-in. Save for Vin Diesel’s brief cameo at the end, none of the original cast returns, and the only behind-the-scenes name you’ll recognize from the first two films is producer Neal H. Moritz. But Fast & Furious isn’t a series that’s ever succeeded based on conventional logic, and Tokyo Drift is no exception. The movie that should have doomed this franchise to the bargain bin instead gave the series its second wind, and I’d go so far as to say it’s the movie in which this whole crazy enterprise truly clicks into place as a sustainable ongoing thing. And there are really two names to credit for that success: Writer Chris Morgan, and Director Justin Lin, both of whom went on to continue in those roles for the majority of the sequels, and who clearly understand the unique, goofy-yet-sincere appeal of this series on a deep, chemical level. Morgan wouldn’t start writing for the regular cast until the next movie, but his ear for character voice and solid sense of structure is obvious here. And even more importantly, Lin attacks this material with real gusto. He’s one of those directors who comes into every movie like he’s hungry to direct and excited to play with all the toys in the cinematic toybox; there’s a simultaneous assuredness and playfulness to his style that’s infectious, and it’s what ultimately gives this series the legs that started here. The ways in which he realizes the film’s central drifting conceit make for the most fun races of the series, and the movie’s money shot – a series of cars drifting through the crowd at the Shibuya scramble, seemingly achieved practically – is perhaps the single best image this franchise has ever conjured.

The appeal of Tokyo Drift, as in all the best Fast & Furious movies, lies in its weird blend of silliness and sincerity. This one is basically “The Karate Kid, but with cars,” with Sung Kang’s Han as Mr. Miyagi, and Lucas Black’s Sean as a surprisingly fun Daniel stand-in, a sweet southern bumpkin who takes all the culture shock in stride while refusing to pronounce one single Japanese word even remotely correctly. And Kang is really the third big name to recognize here, because Han is, in fact, the best Fast & Furious character, and if Hollywood weren’t racist as shit towards Asian Americans, Kang would be one of the biggest stars in the world by now. He swaggers into this movie with all the movie star confidence of Chow Yun-Fat in John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow, oozing charisma and stealing every scene in which he appears. And like Chow in A Better Tomorrow, this franchise just couldn’t quit Han, even after killing him halfway through Tokyo Drift: the next three films shape themselves as prequels just to let him in on the fun, and the upcoming F9 is set to full-on retcon his death. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

4. Fast & Furious

(2009, Dir. Justin Lin)

Fast & Furious marks both the moment when this franchise committed to its own continuity and longevity by bringing back the original cast, and the moment when it gave up completely on coherently titling its sequels by taking out the definite articles – prime evidence of how at home this series is amidst glaring contradictions.

In all seriousness, Fast & Furious is one of, if not the, most important installments in the series, crafting for the first time a direct sequel to the original with the core cast, and committing to evolving the series into an ongoing franchise with those characters. And since I quite like that first film – as you can probably tell by us not reaching it yet! – this one is a welcome and essential entry in this crazy canon. It’s not perfect; I don’t love Brian being an FBI agent – not because it doesn’t make a single lick of sense after the first two films (that’s the kind of goofiness I live for), but because it retreads some ground from the first film, with Brian forced to choose between his outlaw friends and the legal establishment he belongs to. And while it’s hard to get worked up about it now, after the character was pretty quickly brought back, Lettie’s ‘death’ is awkwardly handled here (us never seeing it makes her coming back from the grave easier to believe, but weakens the impact within this film), and Michelle Rodriguez definitely missed after the first act.

Otherwise? This one’s just rock solid, and when you consider the task the film was charged with in picking up 8-year-old threads, reintroducing characters, and laying a foundation for future installments, it’s remarkably fleet and well-paced, clocking in at a positively brisk 107 minutes (no sequel since has run under 2 hours) and packing that time with great character material and solid car chases. This entry doesn’t do any one thing better than any of the other films, but it does a lot of things very well – and honing back in on the Brian/Dom relationship is at the top of that list. It’s what made the original film so compelling, and it’s the main force that animates this next, most popular stretch of the series. My favorite material comes when these two are in the driver’s seat – literally and figuratively – and outside of the original, this film is the best showcase the two have together.

On one level, Brian’s decision to break bad and lead Dom’s prison bus escape at the end is a sort of heightened retread of what he does in the original – placing his friendship with this man above his professional responsibilities – but the magic of Fast & Furious is that it makes that jump from giving Dom the keys to getting behind the wheel to stage a prison break feel like a big, meaningful character arc. The film technically ends on a cliffhanger, but in a larger sense, it feels like an ending, a culmination of ‘phase one’ of this weird, scattershot series. Like Brian, it’s been on quite the winding journey, but its eyes are now aimed square ahead, behind the wheel, its place in the world and direction firmly decided. Fast Five may have shot the series into the commercial stratosphere, but Fast & Furious made it clear this series had legs. Watching it again now, it’s easy to see why this movie was such a surprise hit; by the time the credits roll, I find myself hungry for more, all over again. All the pieces are back on the board, all the core relationships solidified, the road open and rife with possibility – possibility that would very much pay off in the immediate future.

3. The Fast and the Furious

(2001, Dir. Rob Cohen)

I feel like I must be in the minority given how much I genuinely enjoy the original, definite-article-inflected The Fast and the Furious. It’s cheesy and hilariously dated to the early 2000s and in many ways nothing like the series that was to come, but like much of the series at its best, it also knows exactly what it’s trying to do and executes upon that pretty marvelously. Is what it’s trying to do basically just “Point Break, but with cars?” Yes. Absolutely. But I happen to think that’s a pretty great pitch for a movie, and it works if for no other reason than because Paul Walker and Vin Diesel were such perfect, lightning-in-a-bottle casting together. Walker in particular grounds this movie for me; he was not a great thespian, but he was an incredibly earnest performer, innately likable without a single ounce of pretension, and when you pair that energy with a young, hungry Vin Diesel, you get real sparks from the very start.

In part because it’s aping a tried-and-true undercover cop formula, The Fast and the Furious is one of the most narratively and structurally solid movies in the series, well-paced with well-defined stakes and characters, and none of the bloat or excess that’s both elevated and held back latter-day entries. The stakes are not world-shaking, and for the most part they’re not even life or death; it’s all interpersonal and even internal to individual characters, and given what an abject rarity that is in Hollywood blockbuster filmmaking today, it makes this original film a real breath of fresh air.

And while the film is, as I said, hilariously dated in places – at my Fast Friday screening, the entire theater laughed when the ‘hacker’ of the group pulled out a floppy disk – its evocation of LA underground car culture actually feels pretty distinctive as a setting all these years later, and while Rob Cohen is nobody’s idea of an accomplished auteur, this is almost certainly the most capable directing of his career. The racing is good, and the physical stunt work and stunt driving in the last half hour is genuinely outstanding. The ending – in which Dom and Brian engage in a final quarter-mile race, barely leap their cars past an oncoming train only for Dom to crash spectacularly, and Brian gives him his keys to let him make a getaway – is pure meathead poetry, masculine soap opera in cars, and it’s one of my favorite sequences in the entire franchise.

Oh, and the big car competition the film is built around? It’s called “Race Wars.” Really. They say it over and over, without even a hint of irony and self-awareness, and the series even revisits it in Furious 7, just to make sure we all remember it’s canon.

God I love The Fast and the Furious.

2. Fast Five

(2011, Dir. Justin Lin)

This is the film that introduced me and countless others to the series, and as much as I’d now recommend watching all the movies in order to see how they evolve in real time, there’s no denying this film is still the best way to convert franchise skeptics. It’s hard to imagine the curmudgeon who could walk away from Fast Five and not be charmed. Think of all the things you’d have to dislike! Heist movies; car chases; the setting of Rio de Janeiro; Vin Diesel giving his first full-throated speeches about family; buddy hang-out comedy with a great cast of characters; The Rock fully embracing his inner Saturday-morning cartoon character; and a finale where half a city is demolished by a giant bank vault tied to the back of two cars, followed by a climactic battle between that same vault and an entire city’s worth of police vehicles, in which the vault fucking wins.

Yeah. You’d have to be a real asshole not to love Fast Five.

What really shines through when revisiting the film now, in release order, is how much this feels like the franchise’s Avengers moment (a model that didn’t even exist yet when the film came out, a full year ahead of The Avengers). Save for Michelle Rodriguez’s Lettie – temporarily dead in this one – the film unites most of the major characters from the first 4 installments, making for the richest and most rewarding cast the series would ever have, and leaning on their interactions to keep the film charming and light on its feet at every turn. It exists at the perfect intersection of every element people love at these movies, with one foot still in the underground car culture that gave the series its starting point, and another in the genre experiments and wildly outlandish action that came to define latter installments. It’s hard for any one movie to perfectly represent a series this sprawling and, frankly, bizarre, but Fast Five miraculously fits the bill. It’s the only film in the series you can reasonably point to and say “yup, that’s exactly what Fast & Furious is all about.” And it’s just as fun, heartwarming, gut-bustingly silly, and genuinely well-made as it was ten years ago. Fast Five holds up. It’s the best film in the series – and the only reason it isn’t my ‘favorite’ is because my tastes lean toward the more, shall we say, insane end of the spectrum.

Luckily, James Wan has me covered.

1. Furious 7

(2015, Dir. James Wan)

Furious 7 is both a profoundly silly and profoundly moving film. On the one hand, it is impossible to imagine crazier shit for this series to do than what it does here. Cars skydiving out of a plane? Driving a car straight off a mountain, rolling for several minutes straight, and walking away unscathed? Driving a car off three different Dubai skyscrapers in a row? Battling a predator drone in downtown LA only for The Rock to take it down with his bare fucking hands? Cutting between Lucas Black in footage from 2005 in one shot and footage from 2015 in the next, without even vaguely attempting to make him look younger? Furious 7 does not blink at these or any of the other downright insane things it attempts – up to and including staging a battle between Vin Diesel and Jason Statham with wrenches and shrapnel that’s shot and scored like an operatic lightsaber duel in Star Wars – and through it all, you can practically hear James Wan cackling like a maniac behind the camera. He clearly has as much or more love as me or anyone else for the absurdity of this series, and he’s one of the only filmmakers in the blockbuster space with the particular talent to bring out its full Vehicular Looney Tunes potential. It feels like Wan planned this entire thing out by tapping into his inner child, spending a few days playing with toy cars and airplanes, and then building big action set pieces around the silliest ideas he had. The enthusiasm, joy, and sheer creativity of it all is absolutely infectious.

But of course, it’s not all fun, and Wan couldn’t have been laughing the entire time behind the scenes. Nobody could. Fate intervened and took Paul Walker from the world far too young, in the middle of shooting, leaving his friends and family (including his Fast & Furious family, who by all accounts were incredibly close) with a gaping hole in their lives, and Furious 7 with a hole in its production. What Wan, writer Chris Morgan, and the entire cast and crew did to finish the movie without him doesn’t result in a seamless final product – that would be impossible – but that it winds up as A) a coherent, finished film on its own merits, and B) a deeply and profoundly moving tribute to Walker as a person and Brian as a character, is a cinematic miracle I’m frankly still in awe of. The gracefulness with which Wan and company allow Brian to bow out and drive off into the sunset, giving Walker a second, immortal life in this fictional world he helped create, is really and truly beautiful. It’s just not possible to imagine the team having pulled off a better movie or a more meaningful goodbye under the circumstances, and it’s clear that the tragedy and hardship brought out the best in all involved. Fast Five is the better, more concise, more coherent movie, but Furious 7 does an even better job representing the two polar extremes of this franchise – its giant, enveloping heart and ridiculous, sugar-addled child’s brain – and how they continually go together like peanut butter and jelly. It lives completely within the extremes of that cross-section that makes this series so uniquely compelling in the modern blockbuster space, and for that, it’s hard for me to imagine the franchise ever rising this high again.

But if it does? I just hope they tie a parachute to that car for the trip back down.

Follow Jonathan Lack on Twitter @JonathanLack.

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