Too fast for y’all: From the quarter-mile to outer space, a look at 20 years of Fast & Furious evolution


Editor’s note: June 22, 2021 marks the 20th anniversary of the release of ‘The Fast and the Furious.’ To celebrate, freelance writer Trevon Williams takes a look back at the evolution of the franchise.

If you were in a movie theater around 20 years ago, in February 2001, you probably saw a trailer for a movie that appeared to be about the illegal underworld of street racing. It was a flick filled with hijackings, partying and cars that seemed to have jumped right off the cover of Import Tuner magazine. 

Today in those same theaters you would be greeted with another trailer for a movie with a magnetic plane, aerial fistfights and a car strapped with a rocket engine going into space. If you lived under a rock during that 20-year period in between the two films, you would assume these were two separate stories. They are, in fact, the book-ends of the same Fast & Furious film series. 

Fast 9 comes out in theaters on June 25 after a two-year postponement of its original 2019 release date, brought on by the production of the spinoff Hobbes & Shaw and then the Covid-19-related shutdown of movie theaters. 

Having earned almost $6 billion in revenue, the action-packed series has gone from an iconic counterculture event to a mega international blockbuster. While the main characters’ transition from local thieves to crime-stopping superheroes may have turned a few people off, it has developed an even wider audience of those bonded by the true theme of Fast & Furious: not cars, but family.

The responsibilities and skill levels of the characters have changed over time but the consistent theme is risking everything you have to protect your family. Let’s take a look at the different eras that got us here for the 10th installment and what we have to potentially look forward to.

Era #1: Cars Rule Everything Around Me

(The Fast and The Furious, 2 Fast 2 Furious, The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift)

The storyline for the very first Fast & Furious movie involved an underground crime syndicate infiltrated by an undercover cop, a plot that on its own doesn’t stand out too far from the action movies of the 80s and 90s. What helped The Fast and the Furious stand out was the authenticity of the street racing scene, which culturally was at its peak, mixed with a diverse cast of characters which wasn’t as prevalent on screen then. 

The next two movies in the series remained centered around cars but only one character from the original held a major role, and no returning characters in the third installment led to diminishing box office returns. What did entice fans, however, was a post-credits scene in Tokyo Drift featuring Vin Diesel’s character Dominic Toretto, foreshadowing his return to the series. 

Era #2: Family That Drives Together Steals Together 

(Fast & Furious, Fast Five)

Fast & Furious is the actual first true sequel in the series, bringing the original cast back together and picking up the storyline. After having The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift take place in Japan, they decided to continue the international expansion with settings in Mexico, Panama and the Dominican Republic. The reach was also there in star power as Puerto Rican musical artists Tego Calderon and Don Omar joined the cast. 

More star power is introduced in the fifth installment with The Rock signing on as the antagonist, as well as the return of Tyrese and Ludacris from 2 Fast 2 Furious. While street racing was much less visible in Fast & Furious compared to the first three movies, Fast Five was the first time where street racing is explicitly not a plot point and the core of the movie is a bank heist. 

In what could be viewed as a bold move in hindsight, it turned out to be the single greatest move made by the franchise. Establishing higher stakes, having a consistent cast and interchangeable enemies extended the shelf life of the saga far past what was initially projected. 

This movie even contained another post credits scene, following the Marvel Cinematic Universe mold, where Letty (played by Michelle Rodriguez) shows up alive in another country after being killed off in Fast & Furious. This laid the groundwork for the F&F Universe writers have gone on to create.

Era #3: No Rules. No Reason. Only Family.

(Fast & Furious 6, Fast 7, Fate of The Furious) 

The single motto of the third era of the Fast & Furious franchise was “take no half measures.” The stunts and car tricks became increasingly more dangerous as the series moved forward, but it wasn’t until this era that there was a full commitment to establishing the cast as superheroes. 

The scene in 2 Fast 2 Furious where Paul Walker and Tyrese drove a car onto a boat would look like child’s play compared to the stunts that we witness today. Vin Diesel jumping from one side of the freeway to another to save Michelle Rodriguez midair after she was flung out of a car plays out more like a scene from an Avengers movie than events you would hear of at a street race gone wrong. In this three-movie span we also got to witness two characters (The Rock, Jason Statham) who were originally antagonists join the family in their missions. 

This era lived as a full expansion of the Fast & Furious series. The chances they took were met with instantaneous success, with the last two films earning over $1 billion each at the box office. During this period, though, the franchise was was met with tragedy as Paul Walker died in a car crash. His death has not yet been explicitly brought up or addressed in the movies that followed, but his presence has been included even in his absence. 

Era #4: Racers of The Galaxy

(Hobbes & Shaw, Fast 9 and beyond)

Hobbes & Shaw was the first spin -off in the series but it may not be the last. For the last two years, rumors of all-women-led Fast & Furious movies have spread. Not only was Hobbes & Shaw a departure from the franchise (one met with controversy and in fighting among the cast), the two main leads were characters that were not even introduced until the second half of the series. The development that has been given to the characters has opened up many more possibilities in the Fast & Furious universe. 

In the trailer for Fast 9, we’re greeted for a second time with a main character’s return from death when Han graces the screen. His involvement will be very interesting considering his supposed killer was welcomed onto the team in Fate of the Furious. 

For the first time ever, we have a returning antagonist in Charlize Theron coming back to cause trouble for the crew. (We’re not counting Dwayne Johnson’s character joining Toretto’s crew in Ep. 6). It wouldn’t shock me to see Charlize lead a future Fast & Furious spin-off of her own, as it appears she is being set up to be a major character in this universe. And I would be remiss to not mention that it appears that the long-awaited arrival of the crew in space is on the horizon in Fast 9, proving there is no frontier that is too big for family.

Fast & Furious stands alone as one of the only American movie franchises that has gone through multiple transformations while still being able to maintain a large fanbase. From having actors nonexistent in sequels, the untimely death of Paul Walker and the Covid-19 pandemic postponing releases, the series has gone up against many challenges and hasn’t skipped a beat. 

The box office success matches the cinematic theme of “With family anything is possible” that brings people back to the theaters each time, a universal motif that goes well beyond cars that has helped connect the audience to these characters for two decades and running now. 
With the announcement that there will be only two more Fast & Furious movies, releasing in 2023 and 2024, one has to wonder: Are we watching the end of the final era, or do they have something new up their sleeve a quarter-mile away?