With Run The Series, The A.V. Club examines film franchises, studying how they change and evolve with each new installment.

The summer of 2001 was a big season for sequels, even by modern standards. There were follow-ups to Rush Hour, The Mummy, and American Pie; even Jurassic Park III did well. In addition, many of that summer’s non-sequels became part ones later, spawning additional installments that range from massive successes (the Shrek franchise) to footnotes (Legally Blonde 2: Red, White, And Blonde). Yet 14 years later, most of these series have long since ended. After long delays, The Mummy and Rush Hour managed one more sequel apiece, while Jurassic Park went into a decade-plus hibernation of development. Shrekmania subsided by 2010, and Planet Of The Apes, which Fox hoped to jump-start as a new series in 2001, had to be restarted again in 2011 before earning a regular spot on the release schedule. Somehow, the last man standing from the summer of 2001 is Vin Diesel.

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The Fast And The Furious was a big hit, but it didn’t seem at the time like a franchise play. If anything, it felt like counterprogramming to the season’s trendier blockbusters. Rather than movie stars or cutting edge effects, it relied on a spirited if cliché-ridden run-through of the 1991 action-bro movie Point Break, following the exploits of undercover cop Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker) as he’s seduced into the world of illicit street-racing while attempting to nab a group of auto-savvy thieves who may or may not be led by the charismatic Dominic Toretto (Diesel). As with many less sequel-ready hits, The Fast And The Furious spawned one anyway; no one seemed particularly surprised to see a lackluster follow-up two years later with only one major member of the original cast.

That The Fast And The Furious led into one of the longest-running continuous series in movies today, though, defied expectations—as did its creative surge right around the time that most series Tokyo Drift themselves into brick walls. Furious 7, the most recent installment, isn’t just the highest-grossing movie of the series; it’s also the highest-grossing and best-reviewed part seven ever outside of the Harry Potter dynasty. Though the seventh film draws the saga to a close in certain ways, an eighth film is assured, and at this point, a ninth and a 10th are likely, too.

In its current incarnation, the Fast And Furious series essentially fulfills the promise of Sylvester Stallone’s Expendables movies, only without as much half-assed winking at itself. This is where action fans go to see what it would be like if Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson fought Jason Statham, or to watch Michelle Rodriguez square off against Gina Carano, or to speculate about what it might look like if Vin Diesel and The Rock conducted a semi-clandestine sexual affair (that last one requires some extrapolation outside the text of the movies, though not that much). Unlike the Expendables movies and any number of big, disappointing action pictures, these fantasy match-ups are supported, at least in the later films, by well-choreographed and satisfying set pieces.

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But it took some work to get the point where a drag-race franchise is now known for its standard-setting action scenes. The Fast And The Furious contains only one really elaborate set piece, a late-movie truck robbery that feels like a miniature version of the hood-leaping, body-dangling decathlons engineered by the later movies. Most of the rest is an enjoyable mélange of drive-in exploitation (the title was even purchased from a Roger Corman-produced 1955 B-movie with a different story), the aforementioned Point Break, practical effects, cartoony CGI, and late-’90s/early-2000s cultural signifiers. The soundtrack in particular bumps with a jumpy mixture of musical detritus, including a remix of Limp Bizkit’s “Rollin’” and a lot of Ja Rule, who also co-starred. (Again, this was 2001.)

But while the likes of Ja Rule, director Rob Cohen, and Paul Walker’s lengthier hairstyle would be jettisoned relatively quickly, the first film does establish bona fides that inform the rest of the movies—in part because of their iconography, and in part because that’s what happens when you make an unassuming youthsploitation cop movie into a series bible well after the fact. Beyond the verbal references to quarter-miles (the amount of time/distance by which Dom lives his life), Corona (Dom’s beer of choice), and family (a deceptively important concept for a gang of street-racers), The Fast And The Furious establishes the series-long relationship between Dom and Brian. They aren’t really buddy-buddy until the end of the fourth movie, but their bond begins in the first, with Walker playing the part of the moony-eyed little brother, alternately stepping to and beaming with admiration at the charismatic bruiser with the pavement-scrape voice. Throughout the series, Brian’s love of Dom feels subsumed in his supposed desire for Mia (Jordana Brewster), Dom’s more responsible sister, who eventually gets pregnant with Brian. Even the first film, which centralizes Mia like none of the others, ends on a moment of restrained passion between Brian and Dom, not Brian and Mia.

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That ending of the first film, where Brian gives Dom a head start rather than arresting him for his crimes, cements such a strong connection between the pair that the first two sequels achingly lack. Walker rolls into 2 Fast 2 Furious like a returning hero, reaching peak bro-ness early and often, not least because of the movie’s vast array of uttering and pronunciation of the word “bro” (including “bro,” “bruh,” and “bray”). But Brian’s childhood buddy Roman (Tyrese Gibson) proves a less-than-satisfying replacement for Dom—and his awareness of this provides one of the movie’s most entertaining through-lines, where Roman treats Brian not as an estranged friend returning to their old stomping ground but as a lover who once spurned him, eager to love-wrestle him to the ground in revenge.

The pair’s bro-tastic homoeroticism, intentional or not, sets the movie apart from its predecessor, and sets a pattern of homoerotic subtext that future entries would echo but not equal. Otherwise, 2 Fast is just another amusingly dumb cop action movie with breaking-news exposition like, “Unfortunately, the cartels have been successful in getting drugs into Miami.” Any reminders, however superficial, of Miami Vice make a kind of time-warped sense; 2 Fast 2 Furious is basically an ’80s-style sequel where most of the cast opts out but the studio presses onward. Style-wise, director John Singleton traffics in tight close-ups of racers’ darting eyes and plenty of computer-assisted zooms between cars in lieu of cuts (some of which weirdly, and not particularly skillfully, suggest the visual invention of the Wachowskis’ Speed Racer). Also: shots of butts. The Fast And The Furious has scantily clad women hanging out at the races, especially in the desert-set and unfortunately named Race Wars expo, but 2 Fast 2 Furious really ups the ante, butts-wise, perhaps unmatched until James Wan uses them as kind of an audience pacifier in Furious 7. Don’t worry, the most recent sequel reassures: The director may have changed and Paul Walker may be about to leave, but these movies still take place in an extremely butt-centric universe.

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Singleton does a great job of making Rob Cohen, director of Stealth and The Skulls, seem like an elegant classicist, but both of them keep that universe relatively grounded—cop-movie stupid and ridiculous, not action-movie stupid and ridiculous. The upgrade in the quality of the franchise’s ridiculousness, and the gear shift into the modern action-adventure genre, was supervised by Justin Lin, who steered the series out of a Tokyo Drift dead-end, then leapt off the hood of the car after Fast And Furious 6. Though some The Fast And The Furious: Tokyo Drift cultists inexplicably insist that it’s the best of the series, in retrospect it’s clearly a practice course for Lin, a kind of Fast And Furious Junior that’s ultimately (and not excitingly) about some high-school kids who know some guys in the Yakuza. (It also maintains some of the smirking nihilism that informs Lin’s flashy but clumsy Better Luck Tomorrow.)

Lin’s learning curve was gradual, as he seemed to teach himself how to assemble some of the best large-scale action sequences in recent memory. Tokyo Drift in particular fudges some of its big moments: The climactic race takes place under cover of indistinct darkness, and Lin repeatedly uses point-of-view cheats when he sends his cars screeching around hairpin turns. (The camera will start in a point-of-view shot, then fly over the edge, implying the car is doing the same, before the action snaps back to the un-crashed car). Lin opens Fast & Furious, the fourth movie and the first reunion of the first movie’s core players, with a crackerjack truck heist, inching toward what the series would become, but its uneasy special-effects balancing of real metal with pixelated explosions mutes the impact of its chases through a mountain tunnel.

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By the time Fast Five picks up exactly where the previous movie leaves off, though, Lin really has it down; its first major action sequence (following an abbreviated assault on a prison bus) involves a train and multiple cars, one of which soars off a cliff as Dom and Brian redefine the terms of a survivable nick-of-time escape. It’s worth noting that Lin should not be mistaken for a formalist just because his cutting isn’t quite as fast or furious as some of his generational counterparts. A quick look at two arthouse action movies that came out within a year of Fast Five, Drive and Haywire, reveals what a genuinely stripped-down, old-school approach to the genre might look like. But in the realm of big-budget action sequences, which so often splatter CG detritus all over the screen, Lin’s set pieces arrange their moving parts with a quick, scannable rhythm.

They also inject moments of credibility, however fleeting, into the giddy rush of blockbuster filmmaking. From the moment the car launches off a cliff in Fast Five, the series yearns to turn automobiles into flying machines, from the one that bursts through the front of an airplane in Fast And Furious 6 to the one that jumps between skyscrapers in the centerpiece of Furious 7 (accompanied by a clever reference to Brian’s casual, playful admonishment to his young son earlier in the film, throwing his toys: “Cars don’t fly!”). Rather than a simple quarter-mile of makeshift urban racetrack or maybe a pardon for his youthful crimes, Dom seems to crave temporary absolution from the laws of gravity. This pursuit of weightlessness sometimes works ever so slightly against the sixth and seventh movies, which must rely on less practical stuntwork than Fast Five. The fifth film’s climactic heist/chase sequence, wherein two cars drag a gigantic safe through Rio, sets a series standard for destruction with real weight behind it, even if computers must have been used to enhance said destruction. The otherwise delightful airport climax of Furious 6 isn’t so convincing, even setting aside the dozens of miles of runway required for planes and cars to speed straightaway for 15 or 20 minutes.

But if the car stunts in later movies soar beyond the limits of even mild plausibility, practicality gets a workout with the movie’s addition of fight scenes—basically a nonentity in the first four. Here, the series seems to actively taunt Stallone’s goofier Expendables series, which seems perpetually unsure of what to do with supposed core member Jet Li. Diesel and company, meanwhile, bring in the genuinely agile likes of Gina Carano (Fast And Furious 6) and Tony Jaa (Furious 7), even if they do pit them against the enjoyable if less physically imposing likes of Michelle Rodriguez and Paul Walker.

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As with so much about the current cycle of this series, the now-obligatory smackdowns can be traced back to the wonderfully entertaining Fast Five—specifically, the moment when Dwayne Johnson and Vin Diesel throw each other through walls in a sweaty melee. Perhaps not coincidentally, once they’ve beaten the shit out of each other, Hobbs (Johnson’s character) and Toretto appear almost inseparable. In the sixth movie, Hobbs tracks down Toretto in his extradition-free hiding spot to recruit him for a job; in the seventh, a hospitalized Hobbs sees Los Angeles destruction on the news and immediately intuits, out loud: Toretto. He leaves the hospital, steals an ambulance, and turns up to save the man he now casually refers to as his brother. It’s as if once they rubbed together, they gained an unstoppable magnetic attraction. They do have excellent action-movie chemistry, with Diesel’s gravelly sentimentality contrasting nicely with the seething bravado of the once and future Rock. Johnson proves such an invaluable addition to the crew that his absence from the earlier sequels seems like an oversight, even though there was no real reason to bring him on earlier.

But beyond succeeding as robust action entertainment in their own right, one of the most amazing aspects of latter-day Fast And Furious movies is the way they manage to work omni-directionally. Watching, say, Fast Five doesn’t just goad excitement for future sequels; it actually manages to improve the movies that precede it, too. This begins on a logistical level. The series continuity hangs together remarkably well, especially considering the retroactive time-jump imposed upon Tokyo Drift. In order to include Han (Sung Kang), the laconic supporting player who meets an untimely end in that film, Lin and screenwriter Chris Morgan set Fast & Furious before the events of Drift. When the fourth movie hit, Lin floored it straight into Fast Five, with Han in tow for the all-star edition; by the time part six indulges the cheap but effective pathos of preparing to send Han and his doomed lady love Gisele (Gal Gadot) off to Tokyo, the series has wedged three movies into the space between 2 Fast 2 Furious and Tokyo Drift.

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Furious 7 moves forward from the end of Tokyo Drift, but isn’t through with the past. Morgan and new director James Wan add another soap-worthy retcon by revealing that Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), Dom’s girlfriend who was thought dead in the fourth movie, revealed to be alive in the fifth, and returned to the fold with amnesia in the sixth, has been married to Dom since the beginning of the fourth movie. This sounds like the kind of insane ever-fattening double and triple-backing that characterized the Wan-originated Saw series; nuttier still, it pretty much makes sense, right down to the subtle absence of smartphones in movies four through six. (Most of the gadgets are so high-tech that they can’t be dated). The series timeline remains amorphous—it’s not exactly a mid-2000s period piece, nor is there a convincing argument for Tokyo Drift being set in the future—but on its own goofy terms, it’s surprisingly non-stupid.

In a way, the existence of the lesser Fast movies (which is to say, parts two through four) has become crucial to the franchise’s mystique. It’s easier to appreciate the way the later movies abandon the mission of the first when 2 Fast 2 Furious and Tokyo Drift are there to show off the potential pitfalls of sticking to that formula. The less essential sequels also ease the backstory burden from the later films. Movies five, six, and seven have plenty of dopey scenes where characters stand around discussing family, loyalty, family, riding and/or dying for one last/totally not last time, and family, but there’s also a degree of trust that the audience knows these characters and their history—or doesn’t care and will get the gist anyway. The relentless march of the sequels, then, manages to sell aspects of the earlier movies that didn’t work that well at the time. In the first and even fourth movies, for example, the relationship between Dom and Letty seems like more of a recreational-sex arrangement than a passionate love affair, yet the movies keep at it, and by the time the seventh reveals their marriage, the retcon doesn’t just seem non-contradictory but almost kind of romantic (although still far less vital than Dom’s relationships with either Brian or Hobbs). Almost 15 years on, the series has more or less abandoned street-racing (Fast Five hilariously and pointedly cuts away from actually showing one on-screen, and Furious 7 contains none at all), but it stubbornly refuses to forget its roots.

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This self-referential subtext verges on actual text during the teary conclusion of Furious 7, in which Diesel says goodbye to Walker, disguised as Dom saying goodbye to a quasi-retiring Brian. Walker, of course, died during production of the seventh film, and as alternately meatheaded and sentimental as these movies can be, it’s touching to see him get a happier ending on screen than he did in real life. Before Furious 7 even came out, the series had more or less redeemed Walker, remaking him from an Abercrombie-ready actor with a handful of good performances (including strong work in Wayne Kramer’s Running Scared) into a dependable grounding presence. The franchise takes care of its own; Tyrese Gibson’s Roman is a cocky nuisance in 2 Fast 2 Furious (really, pretty much everyone in 2 Fast 2 Furious is hilariously insufferable, save Devon Aoki, who should be brought in for Fast 8 Furious immediately) and a C-3PO-style nuisance in the later films, but what can you do? He’s family. “You’re up,” Dom says to various characters during various heists and rescues, giving one of the most diverse casts ever to anchor a major Hollywood franchise multiple chances to contribute. The Fast And Furious movies are undeniably a product, calculated to please their fans—but they seem calculated to please their stars and filmmakers, too, which counts for a lot. Even as the series has morphed into an A-level franchise, it hasn’t lost its B-movie soul.

Final ranking:

1. Fast Five

2. Furious 7

3. Fast And Furious 6

4. The Fast And The Furious

5. Fast & Furious

6. 2 Fast 2 Furious

7. The Fast And The Furious: Tokyo Drift

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