This article contains spoilers for the first six Fast & Furious films, though we’ve been careful to leave the Fast & Furious 7 entry unspoiled.
For a franchise ostensibly about driving cars very quickly in straight lines, it’s impressive to see how adaptable Fast & Furious has been over its long history. A series once about illegal street racers has shifted, chameleon-like, into a billion-dollar action franchise involving tanks, planes, and destructive bank heists.
For the most part, the glue that’s held the franchise together is its eclectic cast. The likes of Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Tyrese Gibson, Michelle Rodriguez, and Jordana Brewster haven’t troubled the Academy with their acting, but they’re an important part of what’s made the Fast movies so successful – intentionally or not, they’ve helped to establish the good-natured tone which underpins the franchise’s modified cars, squealing tyres and explosions.
So as Furious 7opens, here’s my attempt to rank the films in the franchise so far. While some are inevitably better than others, I’d argue that every Fast film has something to recommend it…
7. The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift
By the time the third film rolled into cinemas in 2006, the franchise seemed to be rapidly running out of creative fuel. The likes of Paul Walker, Tyrese Gibson, and Vin Diesel were notable for their absence (though Diesel does show up for a cameo at the end), and the illegal street racing subject matter was beginning to feel more than a little tired.
Tokyo Drift introduces a new hero, Arizona 17-year-old Sean Boswell (Lucas Black, who looks far too old to be playing a teenager), a tearaway gear head who crashes his car during a drag race. As punishment, Sean’s sent to live with his father in Tokyo, the home of drift racing, which is a bit like punishing someone for their gambling obsession by sending them to Vegas.
The rest of the film pretty much writes itself: Sean’s initially a fish out of water at school, but wins the respect of his peers by racing cars down Japanese mountains. Sean has a goofy sidekick (played by rap chap Bow Wow), a love interest (Nathalie Kelley), and an arch-enemy, professional street racer DK (Brian Tee).
Tokyo Drift‘s placement at the bottom of the list might suggest that it’s a terrible film, but it does still have its moments. This is the first film in the series directed by Justin Lin, and he directs the opening drag race with plenty of verve. But it has to be said that watching cars go sideways around corners gets a bit dull after a while, and the climactic race is blunted by the presence of some glaringly obvious CGI.
Weirdly, Lin managed to tie himself into a bit of a narrative knot with Tokyo Drift. The film introduces Han (Sung Kang) who meets an untimely death here yet turns up again in Fast & Furious, Fast Five, and Fast & Furious 6. The way Lin gets around this is quite ingenious; he simply makes those earlier films prequels to Tokyo Drift. And while Tokyo Drift is my least favourite in the series, it’s essentially the hub around which the later films in the franchise later revolve. Very cunning.
Best action moment: the opening drag race, in which a Dodge Viper is totalled in spectacular fashion.
6. Fast & Furious
After Tokyo Drift, which despite its respectable budget felt a bit like a straight-to-DVD name-only sequel, 2009’s Fast & Furious reunited the original film’s cast for the first time in eight years. It takes the form of a revenge drama, toning down the cavorting revellers and rainbow-colored cars of the previous two films and going for a serious tone more akin to Tony Scott’s thriller remake, Man on Fire.
The flashpoint for this film’s action is Dom’s main squeeze, Lettie (Michelle Rodriguez). Although her untimely death in a car crash seems like an accident at first, Dom employs some hitherto unseen detective skills and comes to the conclusion that she was murdered. Meanwhile Brian, now employed by the FBI, is on the trail of a drug baron named Braga – the very same villain who killed Lettie.
With Fast & Furious, we can see returning director Justin Lin steering the series in a new direction. Dom returns to his old habit of stealing things from vehicles while they’re in transit (including $1.4m worth of fuel), and the action scenes now have a flavour of the wildly over-the-top turn they’d take in the next few series entries.
These action sequences are arguably at their best when they rely on physical stunts rather than CGI – the early scene where Dom and Lettie are attempting to relieve a rolling tanker of its fuel has a crunchy physical feel to it. Lin acquits himself equally well in a an on-foot chase between Walker and an escaping criminal – a sign of the more diverse range of action we’d see in Fast Five.
For me, Fast & Furious‘ major let-down is its climax, a race through underground tunnels which devolves into a sludge of weightless CGI. While all the Fast films have used digital imagery to a certain degree, its use is highly distracting here – at a point where tension should be at its height, the sequence’s constant use of green screen and effects work proves too distracting to ignore.
Best action moment: either Walker’s on-foot chase or the ‘stealing fuel from a lorry’ scene.
5. The Fast and the Furious
Here it is – the 2001 film that got the whole franchise rolling. You’ll probably know the creation story by now: director Rob Cohen happened to read a magazine article about illegal street racing and thought, hey, here’s the basis of a film. The resulting film is a cop thriller with a healthy dollop of automotive action on the side. Undercover LA cop Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker) assumes the identity of a wannabe street racing champion in the hope of infiltrating a gang led by Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) who he suspects is responsible for a recent string of thefts from speeding trucks.
But as O’Conner wins the gang’s trust and falls in love with Dominic’s sister Mia (Jordana Brewster), his allegiances become confused. Will he turn Dom and his outlaws over to the cops, or has he “gone native,” as Sergeant Tanner (Ted Levine) begins to suspect?
Yes, the plot’s almost identical to Point Break, right down to the homoerotic tension between Brian and Dom (“You never had me, and you never had your car!”) and the gang of handsome outlaws with a cool hobby (though this time the surf boards are replaced by Honda Civics). Fast & Furious has the slightly quaint feel of one of those old ’50s films about hot rod racers and gangs; there’s something quite endearing about the way Brian goes deep undercover, but only bothers to change his last name (O’Conner becomes Spilner). Despite Dom and his crew’s criminal antics, there’s always the sense that they’re all quite pleasant people, really – the franchise’s overarching theme about extended family ties begins here.
Compared to later entries, The Fast and the Furious feels rather slow, its relatively low budget (about $35m) meaning its stunts are notably low-key compared to later entries. Somehow silly and po-faced at the same time, The Fast and the Furious gets by on the charisma of its scowling, wooden stars. And as 2001 recedes further into history, its culture of modified Japanese cars, neon under-lighting and cavorting youths is beginning to look increasingly like a time capsule from a bygone age.
Best action moment: The bit where Walker slides a car towards the camera and shoots a bad guy. He really was impossibly cool at this kind of thing.
4. 2 Fast 2 Furious
The 2003 sequel’s placement this high up on the list will probably have some readers howling at their web browsers, but for me, 2 Fast 2 Furious managed to strike a balance between excitement and the kind of knowing absurdity we wouldn’t see again until Fast Five. Vin Diesel may have bowed out of the franchise at this point (he went off to make xXx with director Rob Cohen), but the chemistry between Paul Walker and Diesel’s replacement, wild card racer Roman Pierce (Tyrese Gibson) is a worthy substitute. Where Diesel simmers and broods, Gibson cackles and quips as though he’s just landed the best job of his life.
The plot is by the numbers stuff, and sees Brian putting his street racing hobby aside to catch a steely-eyed drug baron named Carter Verone (Cole Hauser). Really, that’s all you need to know – the rest of the film’s a loosely-connected string of action sequences, which are solidly directed by John Singleton.
What makes 2 Fast 2 Furious stand out is its infectious sense of fun. There’s never a sense that it’s taking itself particularly seriously, which is why it gets away with things like car-disabling harpoons fired by cops, and a ridiculous final stunt in which Brian and Roman kill the bad guy’s luxury yacht with a flying American muscle car.
Critics seemed singularly unimpressed by 2 Fast 2 Furious when it first came out, yet I’d argue that it has many of the attributes Justin Lin would bring to the franchise later on: a knowing tone, gonzo stunts, and the sense that everyone involved is thoroughly enjoying themselves.
Best action moment: Singleton’s briskly-executed highway chase, in which an unfortunate goon’s car is mangled under a truck. It remains one of the most wince-inducing scenes in the entire series.
3. Fast & Furious 6
Having torn Rio apart in the previous entry, Dom, Brian, and the rest of his outlaws split up and retire in luxury at various locations around the world. But then Hobbs pulls them back together again for another mission, which this time involves a former SAS expert, Owen Shaw (Luke Evans), who’s creating some sort of deadly device called the Nightshade.
Taking place largely in London, Fast & Furious 6 takes the same, banquet-like approach as Fast Five, with a now huge extended cast involved in a varied range of gonzo action sequences. There’s a huge fight in an underground station with Gina Carano, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Sung Kang and and Joe Taslim out of The Raid. Luke Evans rides around in a big armoured car like something out of Mad Max. There’s a huge set-piece on a bridge involving tanks. The fiery climax involves a Hercules transport plane, dozens of cars and a fight between Dwayne Johnson, Vin Diesel and the colossal wrestler Brock Lesnar (Diesel’s flying head butt really has to be seen to be believed).
If there’s a problem with Fast 6, it’s that the plot is less compelling and easily understood than its predecessor’s; there are now so many characters that it’s difficult to keep track of who everybody is and what they’re up to. Take for, example, Brian’s sudden trip to the US to talk to a prisoner – it feels like a scene slotted in to give Paul Walker something to do rather than a sequence inherently valuable to the plot. And while Lettie’s return is a welcome one (news of her death was greatly exaggerated) the whole plot about her amnesia just slows everything down.
Having said all this, Fast 6 is still one of the best entries in the franchise so far. Dwayne Johnson remains an inspired addition to the cast, and its post credits conclusion, which introduces Jason Statham as the next film’s villain, ties the film’s events back to The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift in an unexpected and grin-inducing manner.
Best action moment: Vin Diesel catching Michelle Rodriguez in mid-air. Ridiculous, but fun.
2. Furious 7
Under the circumstances, it’s remarkable just how good Furious 7 is. The tragic death of Paul Walker cast a pall over the entire production, briefly throwing its future into question as its producers struggled to decide what to do with a film already mid-way through filming. Ultimately, new director James Wan (taking over from Lin) and his crew decided to carry on, shooting Walker’s uncompleted scenes with a mixture of stand-ins and computer trickery.
Signs of last-minute plot retooling are occasionally in evidence, but Furious 7 remains a buoyant, exciting action flick which also – miraculously – pays its respects to Walker’s memory.
I won’t spoil things by delving into the plot, but it’s sufficient to say that it once again weaves together a bewildering tapestry of action set-pieces, ranging from mountain chases to huge fights at the top of skyscrapers in the Middle East. That Jason Statham – who’s otherwise on form as the vengeful bad guy Deckard Shaw, brother of Fast 6‘s Owen Shaw – isn’t in the film quite as much as I’d anticipated is perhaps the biggest disappointment.
Instead, Furious 7 confuses things by bringing in another villain played by Djimon Hounsou, who spends most of the film shouting from a helicopter. We’re also at the point now where the action sequences are starting to look a little familiar, though one sequence, involving a raid on a convoy of trucks, may be a deliberate nod to the 2001 original.
In fact, it’s Furious 7‘s affection for the earlier franchise entries that tides it through its weaker moments. Furious 7 doesn’t try to hide the reality that its stars are no longer the 20-somethings of the early films, either – they’re mellowing, getting laughter lines, and gradually settling down. Where this leaves future entries isn’t clear, but until Fast 8 and 9 inevitably roll along, Furious 7 leaves the franchise on a crowd-pleasing and, above all, moving note.
Best action moment: possibly Dwayne Johnson’s tussle with Jason Statham. Ouch.
1. Fast Five
For this writer, few multiplex experiences can match my first viewing of Fast Five in a packed preview screening. Every seat in the theatre was full, and we all seemed to be united in our surprise and enjoyment of Fast Five’s sheer audacity; at a time when most studios would have started cutting its costs, Universal pumped $125m into the production of this fourth sequel – about $40m more than its predecessor, Fast & Furious.
The result seemed to catch just about everyone by surprise. With street racing now pushed to the background almost entirely, Fast Fiveinstead sees Dom, Brian, and the rest of his gang attempt to relieve a Rio kingpin of around $100m in cash. On their trail is a new character, Dwayne Johnson’s Hobbs, an absurdly pumped-up DEA agent who dominates every scene in which he appears.
The action sequences are similarly outsized. An opening raid on a prison bus, in which Dom is freed by his old pal Brian, is so cataclysmic that we can only conclude that everyone on the vehicle must have been killed outright. Instead, a newsreader shows up to reassure us that, “Miraculously, nobody was injured,” or words to that effect.
This fast-and-loose approach to the laws of physics pretty much defines Fast Five‘s approach, which is akin to a classic action film from the ’80s. The stunts are ridiculous and the tone is once again knowing, but there isn’t the sense that anyone involved is making a sly wink at the camera. Vin Diesel remains as deadpan and earnest as ever, and his fight with Dwayne Johnson has a properly rough, violent air to it. It’s this mix of earnestness and absurdity which makes Fast Five sing; like most of the other entries other than Fast 7, the villain (played by Joaquim de Almeida) is a bit of a nonentity. But none of this matters when you have a group of characters who seem to enjoy each other’s company so much.
There’s something else that comes to the fore in Fast Five that has long been in the franchise, too – a sense of inclusivity. Its cast of characters are from different parts of the world and different walks of life, yet they’re united by their thrill of the chase and their affection for each other. That affection seems to emanate from the screen and reach the audience in the franchise’s best moments. When I sat and watched Fast Five with a huge roomful of strangers back in 2011, there was that same sense of connection – in that moment, we were all thrilled by its gleefully outlandish stunts.
This, I think, is the secret to the Fast franchise’s success. They have stunts, races and explosions, but the Fast films aren’t really about cars. They’re about the chemistry and friendship among the cast, and how their protectiveness towards each other constantly gets them into yet more trouble. Fast Five expresses all that more clearly than any other film in the series; its set-pieces are arguably the best they’ve ever been here, but it’s the feel-good factor among its international cast that keeps us all hooked.
Best action moment: the ridiculous final third, in which a gigantic bank vault is dragged through the streets of Rio de Janeiro, wrecking half the city in the process.