‘Dungeons & Dragons,’ Of All Things, Transformed The ‘Fast & Furious’ Franchise

The Fast and Furious franchise is a strange and unusual organism: It’s a franchise that survived losing its stars for the third installment, then by the fifth movie (with its stars back) upended its entire premise for existing in the first place. By Fast Five, these were no longer movies about racing cars. All of a sudden these became movies about a team of superheroes (or super villains, depending on your perspective) pulling off daring heists. How did this happen?

“I’m usually the guy in the room who’s the one saying, ‘Oh, that wouldn’t be in a Fast and Furious movie,’” remembers Neal Moritz, the producer of every single Fast movie, and the only person who’s worked on all eight films. “But, when I heard the idea for Fast Five, I thought that we needed an evolution. We needed to evolve fast; otherwise it was going to die.”

Chris Morgan, who has written every Fast film since Tokyo Drift, recalls, “Thinking about going from four and into five, look, two things that I can tell you about the franchise: One is that Dom and Brian have always been like Butch and Sundance…”

At this point I mention to Morgan there’s literally a scene in Fast Five of Dom (Vin Diesel) and Brian (Paul Walker) jumping off of a cliff together.

“Not an accident. Not an accident!” answers Morgan. “And then for these films – for me, as a fan and as a writer – when I’m thinking about what the next one is going to be, it’s what defines these guys is how they use their cars, right? So there’s racing, but also it’s also how do you use lateral thinking with an automobile to solve a problem? How do you stop a tank with cars? And how do you pull off a heist with guys whose specialty is automobiles? That’s why we got the dragging the vault in Fast Five.”

For his part, Moritz is a huge admirer of the vault scene from Fast Five, a scene in which the crew is literally dragging a practical vault behind their cars through the streets of Puerto Rico. “The action sequence of pulling the vault through the streets,” says Moritz, “I personally don’t think there’s a better action sequence in any movie to that. I mean, to me, it’s my favorite action sequence in any of the Fast movies.”

Moritz continues, “I remember standing on the streets of Puerto Rico as we were ripping that thing through the streets. To me, that was the height of like, wow, you could really do something like this real. And it was kind of our mantra going forward: we’re going to try and do everything real. And I think it made a big difference.”

In the new film, The Fate of the Furious, Moritz explains how this mantra has continued, “We actually took these cars to a frozen lake in Iceland and did all this stuff for real. That explosion where those cars fly into the air when the submarine comes up and when those rocket launchers go off? Those are real. Like, man, those cars, they flew 70 feet in the air!”

But who was the determining factor to shift these movies from a “racing movie” to a “heist, international super team movie”? Well, look no further than Vin Diesel’s love of Dungeons & Dragons.

“I’m about to get very nerdy on you. You ready for this?,” asks Morgan. I reply that, yes, I am indeed ready.

“Okay, good,” says Morgan. “So, Vin, as long as I’ve known him, he and I are both big Dungeons & Dragons fans. He even wrote the foreword for the 20th anniversary Dungeon Master’s guide. I think, or maybe it was the player handbook? But yeah, he’s been very into it for a long time, as have I. And when we get together to talk story, the way we break it down is he tends to throw around words like ‘saga’ and ‘mythology’ because it is. It’s like, we’re not doing a one-off, here’s one James Bond film, unconnected to every other film. Although they’re not doing that these days, but like in the old days.”

Moritz, when presented with the new direction, says he didn’t need much convincing. “I was all for it. I mean, I think that it obviously became like a heist movie. But we’re always cognizant that we need – for ourselves and for the audience – to give them races. But that doesn’t mean that it just has to be a true race. To me, as long as we’re trying to get something from point A to point B as fast as we can, that’s a race. It just doesn’t have to be truly a race, you know, with a starting line and a finish line.”

And then a really unusual thing happened.

The first four Fast films, the four that concentrate more on racing, though all financially successful, received mixed to negative reviews. (All four are “rotten” on Rotten Tomatoes.) But starting with Fast Five – the first of these films to adopt a true “over the top” mantra – these movies started to also become critical hits as well. Furious 7, for example, is sitting at a healthy 79 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. In fact, as this is being written, all four of the second half of the Fast franchise are considered “fresh.” This would be like if starting at the fifth Police Academy, critics all of a sudden decided, “You know what, these have finally started to get good.”

Even Moritz doesn’t quite understand how that happened, but he’s not complaining, “I don’t know if that’s ever happened before,” says Moritz. “And I’m not sure what happened, except for the fact that I think people started to take these movies at face value for what they were – and enjoying them for what they were instead of trying to compare them to other things. I think Fast and Furious is almost in a genre by itself today, to be honest.”

And a lot of people, myself included, would agree with that statement.

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