Keeping it wheel: How The Fast and the Furious became cinema’s biggest franchise

Every Fast and Furious fan will recall the moment they fell for its world of gleaming bonnets, roaring motors and lunkhead heroes. For me, it was when in the original The Fast and the Furious Vin Diesel gives the speech of his life as cuddly criminal-with-feelings Dominic Toretto (and, yes, how fantastic that this bad boy is named “Dominic”?).

“I live my life a quarter mile at a time,” Dominic tells Paul Walker’s undercover cop Brian O’Conner. “Nothing else matters: not the mortgage, not the store, not my team and all their bullshit. For those 10 seconds or less, I’m free.”

It’s like a Bruce Springsteen song, if Bruce Springsteen was a Dungeons and Dragons-playing action movie star portraying an illegal street racer in a glorified exploitation movie from 2001. There and then, The Fast and the Furious had me by the fluffy dice.

This was especially impressive considering that at the time I couldn’t even drive (I still can’t, some might say). Yet here I was hooked on a film about ridiculous people driving ridiculous cars at ridiculous speeds. And giving ridiculous speeches.

There’s a case that Fast and Furious is the greatest cinematic franchise of the 21st century. Here is an ongoing petrolhead epic brimming with thrills, spills and smoke-belching set-pieces. And now it is set to once again confirm its supremacy at the box office, with spin-off Hobbs & Shaw heading for a $200m (£164m) opening weekend. Years from now, a generation of moviegoers will look back and wonder why we weren’t more appreciative of it while it was around.

Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham (Universal Pictures)
Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham (Universal Pictures)

The Fast and the Furious drives rings around the Marvel films (too quippy). And it kicks dust in the face of the DC extended universe (too dark, not enough speeches about living a quarter mile at a time). It zipped off the grid 18 years ago like a nitro-fuelled bat from hell and has been accelerating ever since.

Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw, which you should rush out to see immediately, continues this tradition. The film is, technically speaking, a spin-off rather than a sequel proper. But, also technically speaking, this in no way matters. What’s important is that, in pitting Dwayne Johnson’s Agent Hobbs and Jason Statham’s renegade secret service man Deckard Shaw against a computer enhanced super-villain played by Idris Elba, F&F once again delivers. We get brake-squealing action punctuated with zinging one-liners and knockabout humour. It’s the best 135 minutes of the summer.

If you’re not a true believer you’re probably a little bit iffy about F&F and its nine instalments to date. That’s the other thing that sets its apart from other big-screen properties. Either you’re all in or you just don’t get it. This is a $2bn cult franchise.

The beginner’s guide to The Fast and the Furious is that it chronicles the ever more ludicrous adventures of a group of international car thieves. The series started as a relatively straightforward and borderline gritty action thriller (and also essentially as a rip-off of Point Break). The 2001 original was intended as a vehicle for Walker, who’d been asked what sort of film he’d like to star in. His response was that he wanted to do a mash-up of Days of Thunder and Donnie Brasco. Meanwhile, director Rob Cohen had read a 1998 Vibe magazine article called “Racer X” about illegal street racing in New York.

Everything fell into place. Walker plays a cop gone undercover to infiltrate a street racing criminal gang only to turn native, Keanu-style, and strike up an uneasy bromance with Diesel’s Toretto. Sequels repackaging the formula whooshed into view in 2003, 2006 and 2009. All those movies were fantastic. But with 2011’s Fast Five, the series found an extra gear. Having taken the street racer plot as far as it could, The Fast and the Furious revved things up further still, with no set piece considered to be too over the top. The biggest set piece of all arguably was Dwayne Johnson, parachuting in as hard-bitten, Haka-loving lawman Hobbs. Also soon onboard was Statham, giving it the full lock, stock and smoking stare-downs as renegade lawman Shaw.

The Fast and the Furious had always been as lucrative as it was ludicrous. But now it was punching with the big boys. Fast Five generated a global box office of $626m – more than the previous three entries combined. The more absurd the movies, the greater the enthusiasm among audiences. Meanwhile, an Avengers-worthy crew of side-kicks and B-listers was assembled around the main players. Game of Thrones’ Nathalie Emmanuel came on aboard with 2015’s Furious 7. Gal Gadot, the future Wonder Woman, was introduced to international audiences in 2009’s Fast & Furious. In 2017’s The Fate of the Furious (number eight), Charlize Theron devoured the screen anaconda-style as cyber-terrorist Cipher. At no point were any of these actors less than fantastic.


Critics were leery at first. The original – The Fast and the Furious – was written off as the entertainment equivalent of a heap of spare parts. “A career-killing skid mark,” lamented Rolling Stone. As The Fast and the Furious accelerated to box office ubiquity, however, the consensus began to change. “It hits that summer sweet spot between the silly and the satisfying,” approved the Washington Post of Hobbs & Shaw this week. “Complete nonsense but disarmingly pleasurable,” agreed The Independent.

Tragedy befell the franchise in 2013 when original star Paul Walker died in a (non-related) road accident during the making of Furious 7. Vowing to complete the film in his honour the Fast “family” brought Brian’s story to a moving conclusion. “It’s never goodbye,” Dom tells O’Conner as they prepare to drive off in separate directions at the end. But it really was, making Furious 7 one of the most heart-shredding blockbusters ever.

There has been on-set strife too. Hobbs and Shaw are presented as natural-born frenemies. But during the shooting of The Fate of the Furious it emerged that Johnson had a real-life nemesis on the team. He went on Instagram to accuse one of his male co-stars of being a “candy ass” lacking professionalism. “When you watch this movie next April and it seems like I’m not acting in some of these scenes and my blood is legit boiling – you’re right,” he wrote. No names were mentioned. The suspicion, however, was that he was talking about Diesel, who is known to cut a solitary figure.

The “beef” added real spark to their interactions. Not that Fate needed any petrol poured on top. It was already the best sort of riot. Charlize Theron is trying to take over the world with remote-control cars. The big climactic chase sees the crew face off against a decommissioned Soviet submarine. And yes, Johnson and Diesel glare at one another as if willing lasers to shoot from their eyes.

But that’s how it has always been with The Fast and the Furious. In theory, these films are much too ridiculous to take seriously. Under the bonnet, though, they’re lean and mean. And once you catch the bug, you’re smitten for life.