The easiest way to discuss the Fast & Furious franchise, to the extent an easy way exists, is to break the nine films into three separate but connected trilogies.
FILMS I-III: Let’s race some cars and take down local bad guys
Stealing DVD players and doing battle with Southern California crime families. Jetting off to Miami and stumbling into an undercover operation run by Eva Mendes. Introducing all-new cast members and sending them to Tokyo to drift with Bow Wow and a mysterious figure named Han who dies before the end of the movie. It feels a little crazy to say even though it makes sense in context, but these movies are damn-near straightforward and simple. Most of the action is tethered to reality. A reasonable argument can be made that the wildest thing that happens in any of them is Tyrese wearing cut-off button-up dress shirts throughout an entire feature film. But the returns start to diminish quickly this way. Things can get watered down and repetitive. Changes need to be made. And so…
FILMS IV-VI: Let’s do some heists and cheat death a little
Han is back despite dying in the third movie. The entire timeline has folded itself into a bright orange origami Honda. There are fuel heists in the Dominican Republic and vault heists in Rio and The Rock and Gal Gadot are here now, at least temporarily. Michelle Rodriguez dies in a car explosion in the fourth movie and then turns up alive with amnesia in the sixth movie, which ends with Vin Diesel driving a car through the nose of an exploding airplane after Gal Gadot falls to her death on the runway. A mid-credits scene reveals that Han’s death in the third movie was actually revenge for the events of the sixth movie and was caused by Jason Statham, who is also in these movies now as a villain. It becomes clear that the secret to success is the size. Things must press forward and grow at all times, regardless of reason or the laws of gravity. This is the way. And so…
FILM VII-IX: Let’s… screw it, let’s just do everything
Cars are flying through the air, both between Abu Dhabi skyscrapers and out of cargo planes, sometimes with parachutes. The Rock and Jason Statham are good guys now, kind of, but are also spun-off into their own franchise due to plot congestion and/or on-set beef. There’s a submarine. Academy Award winners Helen Mirren and Charlize Theron are in the franchise now, both as crime bosses. There is barely any street racing anymore, with brief exceptions made when someone needs to gain entrance to some new underground culture that will assist in the theft of a device that will thwart evildoers and/or save the world. Kurt Russell is introduced as a mysterious government official named, I swear to God, Mr. Nobody. Ludacris, who started the franchise as a Miami mechanic and jet ski race officiant, is now one of the world’s premier computer hackers and physicists. It’s a whole thing.
And this paragraph barely even touches on the events of F9, the latest and largest of these increasingly massive movies. Let’s switch from paragraph to a list to hit the highlights here:
— Han is alive as a result of some Mr. Nobody-related shenanigans, making him the second major character to “die” in a car explosion only to turn up alive a few movies later
— Ludacris and Tyrese go to space in a rocket-powered Pontiac built in part by Bow Wow
— Helen Mirren shows up for about five minutes to pull off a diamond heist in London, evade police in a neon sports car, and drop off Vin Diesel at a massive mansion party attended exclusively by whiskey-sipping international criminals and supermodels in tiny white dresses who dance on or near expensive cars
— Everyone is shockingly proficient at the use of high-powered magnets in high-speed chases through many cities they are visiting for the first time
— Vin Diesel’s character has a younger brother played by John Cena who is a bigtime spy who went rogue and started working with a weasel financier with daddy issues
— Multiple characters watch a parent (or parents, plural) blow up in a car explosion during one of the literal half-dozen flashbacks that take place
— Vin Diesel, as he is nearly drowning, has a vision that reveals his father’s death was not actually the sole fault of his brother
— Charlize Theron spends about 80 percent of the movie imprisoned inside a toilet-less clear box while sporting a stylish bowl cut and red leather pants, which, while certainly not the biggest logical leap the movie asks us to make, can’t be comfortable
It’s all, to understate things to a ridiculous degree, a lot. It is so much, honestly, all the time, in so many different and occasionally hilarious ways. It would be really fun to take someone who has never seen these movies and then show them only the first and the ninth and have them try to guess how any of the things happened that got us all from one place to another. Secret siblings, faked deaths, amnesia, associates getting murdered and their murderers getting invited to the barbecue anyway. It’s all kind of like what I think would happen if some sort of accounting error funneled $500 million into the budget of a daytime soap opera. Which I would also support. Let Susan Lucci fly a stealth bomber. See what I care.
And, to be extremely clear about all of this, I think it’s great. It’s delightful. Right around the time the franchise kicked off the third trilogy, everyone involved seemed to realize that its many plot holes and questionable developments were more like features instead of bugs. They presented opportunities. They gave everyone involved a chance to go back and make everything bigger and wilder and more ridiculous. Han’s death went from a Tokyo street racing casualty to an elaborate revenge plot carried out by a dirty spy to a ruse concocted by a secretive government official with an unlimited budget. The legend of Dominic Toretto beating a guy with a wrench now involves both his father’s death while throwing a race and his younger brother’s abandonment issues that led to that younger brother also going to work for the secretive government official. Tyrese is now the voice of reason who expresses disbelief at it all on behalf of the audience. It’s the equivalent of digging yourself into a hole with a shovel and trying to blast yourself out of it by strapping dynamite to your back, and, yes, I’m a little shocked no character in these movies has attempted this. Yet.
All of which makes for a wonderful way to spend two or three hours in a theater on a hot Saturday in June. These are not movies you are meant to think about much, at least not beyond the extent we are doing here, just admiring the open audacity of them as a whole. I don’t even think most of them are meant to be rewatched on cable or a streaming service more than once or twice, with the possible exception of Fast Five, the midpoint of the franchise where it found the sweet spot and delivered a legitimately classic action movie. This isn’t a Mission: Impossible situation, or even a John Wick one, where the movies have artistic merit and performances and a somewhat linear story that at least tries to adhere to its own mythology. This whole thing is like an order of cheese fries: a delicious treat when fresh that contains zero nutritional value whatsoever and becomes a soggy gross mess when reheated in a microwave at a later point in time.
Which, again, is fine. It’s a blast. (Cheese fries are great!) Because while you could, I suppose, exit the theater and harumph your way through a “so you’re telling me that Paul Walker’s character, Brian O’Conner, an actual trained law enforcement officer, who is still alive in the franchise’s universe, would just stay home with the kid while his wife and best friends risk their lives to battle cyberterrorists who want to destabilize the entire world as we know it” rant if you want and just get all dismissive and disdainful about it all, if I really can’t talk you out of it. But it’s a lot more fun to picture him at that barbecue at the end, Corona in one hand and a child in the other, big bemused smile on his face, as Ludacris and Tyrese explain to him that they just got back from outer space. That’s the vibe you should be looking for here. Just have a seat and enjoy the cheese fries, people. You can start eating healthy again tomorrow.