Let's all think about something for a second: One of Hollywood's biggest movie franchises of our current day is based off of a movie that boasts "I live my life a quarter-mile at a time" as its most iconic quote. Let that sink in.
As we stand here today, on the 15th anniversary of the original The Fast and the Furious, it's known that by the time the year 2021 comes to a close, the Fast and the Furious empire will contain ten movies. Ten! That's arguably over 20 hours of drag racing, car crashes, shootouts, sex scenes, Miami-esque clubwear, ride or dies and so, so much Vin Diesel. But before you go feeling sorry for other movies or, perhaps, society for having left this lasting legacy on our ancestors, know that we all had our equal part to play in building up this franchise. And when you get right down to it, its success is incredibly impressive.
The numbers don't lie, and they're worth pointing out again and again. Furious 7, the most recent installment that hit theaters last April, is the fifth highest-grossing movie of all time. It opened domestically (in the number one spot, of course) with $147 million. In the U.S., all seven movies have grossed a total of $290 billion. Billion. Thanks in part (okay, in total) to his roles in the Fast flicks, Vin Diesel was number three on Forbes' 2015 list of the highest-paid actors. He made $47 million. (For perspective, it's rumored that he was paid $2 million for The Fast and the Furious back in 2001.)
And, when you take into account the future Fast releases, it makes the series among the top ten longest-running franchises, beating out brands like Batman and Harry Potter, and losing out only to James Bond, Godzilla and the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
With all the dollar signs spinning around, it's easy to forget the franchise's rather humble origin story. Unlike so many other action flicks, it wasn't a spinoff of an old movie or a remake of a comic book. Nope, those racing gangs and their would-be police officer foes came from the inside of someone's brilliant mind—and it might be the biggest franchise since Star Wars to be that way. Funnily enough, many wrote off the 2001 movie as a knockoff of Point Break. You know, that 90's movie starring Patrick Swayze and Keanu Reeves about a gang of surfers who were also maybe bank robbers?
For those who can't remember the plot from way back in the early aughts—or simply find that all seven movies swirl around in one's mind as one—let's refresh. It was basically a small-time crime drama with a few car races thrown in here and there...compared to what we now know of the Fast franchise, that is. It followed LAPD officer Brian O'Conner (played by the late, beloved Paul Walker) who goes undercover among a group of street racers to find out if they're tied to a spate of truck hijackings. He starts to develop a rivalry with tough guy Dom Toretto (Diesel), and it eventually blossoms into the beautiful friendship we all know and love. Plus, car crashes. Lots of 'em.
The original movie started out as just that: A movie. In layman's terms, Universal was looking to add an action flick to its lineup, cash in on Paul Walkers' staggering good looks and maybe even break out a new up-and-coming actor while they were at it. Instead, they got a mega hit. And a surprise hit, to boot. It opened up at the top of the box office and only continued to make money from there. But as is wont to happen with blockbusters, the reviews didn't exactly line up with the results.
Plenty of critics felt it just didn't live up to its title—like Entertainment Weekly, whose review quite literally read "It works hard to be exciting, but the movie scarcely lives up to its title. It could have used a bit of a fuel injection itself."
Or there was the Washington Post, which wrote "It's Rebel Without a Cause without a cause. It's Young and the Restless with gas fumes. It's The Quick and the Dead with skid marks."
Variety was a little bit more predictive, calling it a "gritty and gratifying cheap thrill," and musing that young viewers would still show up for screenings and that there was serious potential for more success as home entertainment. (And yes, they meant DVDs. It was 2001, after all.) But perhaps the best, most LOL-inducing review came from Rolling Stone, who wrote the words they would forever be eating: "Director Rob Cohen can consider this another career-killing skid mark."
In all seriousness, though, this franchise never should have become what it is today. A series of happy and not-so-happy accidents all amassed to, basically, dolla dolla bills. First, we have to give props to Vin Diesel and his hilariously overblown sense of self-salary-worth. When the studio big-wigs decided that the box office success of The Fast and the Furious warranted a sequel, Vin decided that the box office success of The Fast and the Furious warranted him over $20 million. Long negotiations short, between overblown asks and a sketchy script, both Diesel and Walker dropped out of 2 Fast, 2 Furious, genius as the name was.
The same goes for the third installment, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, which we're not going to explain for times' sake but will note that the plot had literally nothing to do with any of the previous movies. But, despite neither movies two nor three performing that great at the box office or the original cast being present, studio execs noticed a growing fan base for the characters in Tokyo Drift and decided to give a fourth movie a go.
This is where we pause to give props to the fact that none of the Core Four (that would be Diesel and Walker, as well as Jordana Brewster and Michelle Rodriguez) had much else going on. Yep, the franchise's success can be owed in large part to most of the other movies that Vin and Paul starred in being duds. You know, flicks like Joyride or The Pacifier or Into the Blue. When you compare their earnings to Fast, it's no wonder everyone jumped at the chance to reunite for Fast & Furious.
(Are you getting all the movie titles mixed up yet? Don't worry, it's only natural.)
From there on out, it's marketing, marketing, marketing. Universal managed to convince audiences that Fast & Furious was a super awesome reunion of the original stars and not actually a last-ditch effort. The same goes for the fifth film, Fast Five. That installment brought back everyone—literally everyone, meaning the Core Four from the original movie and the newcomers of the seemingly random second and third flicks. That made the cast read like a car racing Avengers: Diesel, Walker, Brewster, Tyrese, Ludacris, Dwayne Johnson. It basically was The Avengers before The Avengers was a thing. You follow?
If this all seems a little bit written in the stars and also a little bit ironic, that's because it's both. Even the team behind the project can admit to the bizarre-ness of it all. Michelle Rodriguez has said that they all believed the idea of a The Fast and the Furious follow-up to be majorly lame. "We thought it was the most taboo thing on the planet to do a sequel," she told Entertainment Weekly. "It was a corny thing, because all sequels sucked back then." And Universal Chairman Donna Langley once told Variety that "We'll keep making them [sequels] as long as people want to see them." Point taken.
But at the end of the day, no matter how cunning a movie's marketing or beautiful a movie star's face or realistic a movie's crash scene, it still takes the audience to make the money. Fans need to turn out in droves again and again and again to build a franchise up to ten movies, and that's exactly what the world has done for the last 15 years. And it's because as cheesy as the movies may seem, they earn their success. The Fast and the Furious isn't trying to be anything more than a loud, brash, sometimes funny, sometimes over-the-top action movie ripe with one-liners and CGI. It isn't afraid to be stupid—or whatever adjective you'd like to insert there.
There's also something to be said for its diversity. Gender parity is a rarity in Hollywood, and the Fast movies aren't afraid to make the women far more badass or abrasive than its competitors. And beyond that, the cast of this franchise looks like people who go to see this franchise. It's like it's the only action movie that realized that people of color can star in blockbusters too. It feels refreshing (even though, sadly, it shouldn't) that Paul Walker was pretty much the only white guy to star.
Which brings us to another factor. You can't really talk about the success of The Fast and the Furious without talking about how Paul Walker contributed. After the tragedy of losing a major star, so many people turned out to Furious 7 to pay tribute to the actor and his legacy, to see how the movie handled his absence, and just to marvel at Vin Diesel's strength in the aftermath. And there's a good chance the same thing will happen with the next movie in line—fans will want to know that they're doing an okay job without Paul.
Of course, there is a fourth and final possibility. It could very well be that moviegoers simply just like to watch really expensive cars drive really fast with really attractive people at the wheel. And for that we say God Bless America.
Universal Pictures and E! News are both members of the NBCUniversal family.