It may not be a high point for the art of cinema but why has the latest instalment of the Fast and Furious franchise tapped into a huge global audience?
The first film in the series, The Fast and the Furious (2001), quietly worked its way to a global gross of $207m on a budget of $38m.
After all, Diesel (then seen to be an emerging star) and Rob Cohen had gone on to make xXx (2002) which was a significant action hit.
But although the second film suffered from the perception that its main star had left, Universal’s accountants would have been impressed at the $236m worldwide gross on a budget of $76m.
This was enough for a third film called The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006), which didn’t feature Paul Walker or Vin Diesel (even though the latter had a small cameo).
Despite the presence of a new director (Justin Lin) it seemed that the series was running on fumes. But it still grossed $158m worldwide on a budget of $85m.
By now the franchise was that strangest of things: a successful film series without a main character or star that was still making money.
So when a fourth film appeared called Fast & Furious (2009) it marked something very unusual.
Director Justin Lin returned but more significantly Walker and Diesel came back, which meant that we essentially had a reboot of the franchise within the confines of the series.
Back in 2009, Lin told me that the idea for the fourth film came from the enormous crowd reaction to Diesel’s cameo at the end of the third film.
Diesel was initially very reluctant to return but once he was persuaded the film was basically like a reunion of the original, with Paul Walker, Michelle Rodriguez and Jordana Brewster reprising their roles.
The result was a massive global hit as it grossed $359m on a $85m budget, making it a rare success in a barren period of costly commercial failures for Universal (e.g. Green Zone, Robin Hood, Public Enemies).
Now we have a fifth film, which has actually has three different titles Fast & Furious 5, Fast & Furious 5: Rio Heist and Fast Five.
Made for $125m it basically combines the comedy-heist tone of the Ocean’s trilogy with the slickly edited car-chase thrills of the previous films in the Fast & Furious series.
Despite the surfeit of titles the global opening for the film has been stunning, earning $165m worldwide.
The US opening weekend of $86m made it the biggest opening weekend in Universal’s history, beating The Lost World‘s opening weekend of $72m back in 1997.
I think a lot of people in the industry have been taken aback by the success of the latest film.
After all, by the fifth film in a franchise, things are usually getting a little stale. Even Universal chairman Adam Fogelson sounded surprised, telling Deadline:
“Here’s what I’m most proud of: there is nothing obvious about what happened. No one can say of course every single decision how it was going to be made, how it was going to be cast, when it was going to be dated, how it was going to be sold, was very strategically thought out. There is no reason for the 5th movie in a franchise to have pulled off what this pulled off”
But what has made it the biggest opening of 2011?
I would make no claims for the film being any good, but after seeing the film on the weekend with an audience I realised there are some reasons as to why people have embraced it.
- Old school thrills: With cartoons (Rio, Hop) and comic book franchises (Thor) flooding the multiplexes, a film with old-fashioned car chases and action set-pieces involving fist-fights and gun fire stands out. This current film pulls the tried and tested Bond trick of plunging the audience in to an action sequence. Plus, although some of the sequences defy the laws of physics, the mix of CGI and live action is cleverly done, making it feel more real than the CGI landscapes of animated films or fantasy blockbusters.
- Surprising across-the-board appeal: If you look at the cast there is a surprising amount of gender and ethnic diversity in the ensemble cast. There is even a vaguely homoerotic quality to certain scenes: Diesel’s extended fight with The Rock has shades of Bates and Reed fighting in Women in Love) and the relationship between Diesel and Walker’s character has shades of Maverick and Iceman in Top Gun. Even the pregnancy of a character (not normally a staple of action films) gives it an emotional resonance for female audiences, amidst all the testosterone. This means that it hits buttons for a wider audience than I think people give it credit for.
- The series successfully rebooted itself: The strangeness of the franchise lies with the fact that it was reborn with the fourth film. But this has given it a new lease of life, so Fast Five feels more like a second film than a fifth film. It feels fresher than it actually is and has the added bonus of familiarity with an audience who caught the originals on DVD.
- It resonates during a recession: With this film Walker’s cop has become a criminal but the gang is a nice bunch we root for like Robin Hood (ironically more than the flat Robin Hood film from last year). The villain is a swarthy, rich businessman exploiting the poor, whilst even the elite cop (played by The Rock) pursuing the gang comes to realise their ‘honour’. Why do I get the feeling that evil bankers will be the villains of the next film?
- Good time group vibes: Driving around in cars, cracking jokes with friends and duping rich people are appealing real-world fantasies for audiences to digest and respond to. Going to the cinema, audiences feel like they are part of this diverse and tightly-knit gang. The sequence where they all race police cars is ridiculous (I’m sure the Rio police don’t allow their cars to be stolen that easily) but it plays to a male boy-racer fantasy. Plus, it is a lot more relatable than a Nordic god with a mystical hammer.
Intriguingly, the film finishes with a post-credits scene (similar to the recent Marvel films) which not only hints at a follow up film but suggests that this is a world that audiences are hungry for.