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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 February 2019

Why oh why is 'The Fast and the Furious' franchise still so popular?

With 'Hobbs and Shaw' the 'FF' series extends to nine films – and audiences just can't get enough

Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham in upcoming film 'Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw'. Courtesy Universal Pictures
Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham in upcoming film 'Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw'. Courtesy Universal Pictures

With the launch at the weekend of the first trailer for the forthcoming Fast and the Furious spin-off Hobbs and Shaw – the ninth film in the series – the franchise prepares to take yet another step up the highest-grossing franchise league table.

A not unlikely gross of around $600 million (Dh2.2 billion) would see the franchise move above X-Men into seventh place. But, if the spin off can repeat the $1bn-plus haul of the most recent two films in the main series, it could potentially overhaul Lord of the Rings and Spiderman, too.

Of course, this being the world of movie franchises, it should be noted that both X-Men and Spiderman both have new movies in the works, too, but FF’s bank account is looking very healthy.

The series just keeps going from strength to strength, at least in terms of takings if not quality – the franchise never had a particularly strong quality base to get stronger from – so how did what started out as an over-performing, low-budget, rather silly car-racing movie become one of cinema’s most successful franchises?

Jason Statham, Idris Elba, and Dwayne Johnson in 'Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw', which is due to be released in August 2019. Courtesy Universal Pictures
Jason Statham, Idris Elba, and Dwayne Johnson in 'Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw', which is due to be released in August 2019. Courtesy Universal Pictures

Audiences flock back

Those last $2bn-plus films in the FF franchise are the sixth (FF7) and 11th (Fate of the Furious) highest-grossing movies worldwide of all time. The series comfortably beats revered properties such as Terminator, Alien and Batman on the takings front, and audiences keep flocking back to films that frequently feature preposterous plot lines, utterly unrealistic stunts, stilted dialogue and wooden acting.

Critics have certainly never been overly enamoured with the movies. Admittedly the more recent installments have found more favour with reviewers – 2015’s Furious 7 garnered a series-leading 81% average among Rotten Tomatoes reviewers – but you have to wonder how we ever came to a seventh installment in the first place.

The earlier episodes were regularly pulling in RT ratings in the 30 per cent range, but from the moment the very first movie grossed an impressive $207m worldwide on a meagre $38m budget back in 2001, audiences haven’t been able to keep away from the high-octane adventures of Dom Torreto and his gang of hard-driving anti-heroes.

Is it the cars?

Of course, there are the cars. The movie is a petrol-head’s dream, with everything from vintage Buicks to the very latest supercars filling the screen and frequently doing ridiculous things like parachuting from planes at high altitude and pulling aircraft from the sky.

That’s certainly part of the appeal. Just look at the way Top Gear, another franchise in which a group of middle-aged men pull off silly stunts in cars, became the BBC’s world-conquering flagship show prior to Jeremy Clarkson’s misdemeanors finally catching up with him. But there’s more to it than that.

Is it multiculturalism?

In fact, Top Gear makes an excellent comparison point. While that show was very much about the adventures of three middle-class white men, Furious has multiculturalism embedded in its DNA. Its lead cast are male, female, black, white, Hispanic, and have been since the very beginning.

Samoan dance scene from 'Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw'. Courtesy Universal Pictures
Samoan dance scene from 'Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw'. Courtesy Universal Pictures

Even in this post-OscarsSoWhite, post-Black Panther world, few films have so successfully portrayed such a diverse cast as genuine equals, and that resonates with audiences – the demographics for films like Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians prove that different ethnic groups are drawn to films in which they see themselves represented in a positive light. In Furious, that’s everyone.

The real sense of camaraderie that seems to exist among a mixed cast, which seems to genuinely consider itself “family”, means audiences also end up identifying with that family, and even feeling part of it themselves.

Or is it consistency?

Another area in which Furious successfully outperforms other franchises is consistency. Cynics would argue that the film’s producers have set the bar fairly low for the franchise, but the fact is, it delivers every time. You know exactly what you are getting with an FF movie. Action, stunts, one-liners, car chases, and always to a minimum standard.

Compare that with other franchises that haven’t fared as well over time. Batman may have Christopher Nolan’s lauded trilogy to its name, but it also gave us Batman and Robin. Alien was great for two movies, then drifted in space for decades and hit the nadir of Alien vs Predator before Ridley Scott finally got his hands back on his own series and found some return to form with 2012’s Prometheus and 2017’s Covenant. Terminator also had two great films, then I’d rather give it a miss, thanks.

It's a lack of ambition

In a sense, Furious’ success can be credited to its own lack of ambition. It has never aspired to Alien’s philosophical musings on the meaning of life, nor Terminator’s bleak techno-noir warnings about the dangers of over-reliance on technology.

In Furious, a bunch of friends get in their souped-up cars, race around, have some fights, tell some gags, perform some stunts, catch the baddie and then the credits roll. You don’t need to watch the films in order, you won’t miss out by skipping an installment. It’s just loud, brash, silly fun.

Hobbs and Shaw looks set to pick up that fun baton and run with it – a kind of odd-couple pairing of two much-loved characters from the main series, forced to team up against their better nature to combat a new villain who appears to have been parachuted in from The Avengers.

I’m prepared to make three confident predictions about the spin-off solely on the basis of the eight films so far that have led us to this point. Firstly, it won’t win any Oscars. Secondly, it will be outrageously fun, in a guilty pleasure kind of way. Thirdly, it will absolutely clean up at the box office.

Updated: February 4, 2019 02:28 PM

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