There’s no shortage of movies playing at your local cineplex this weekend, but for filmgoers craving high-octane action, there’s really only one option: The Fate of the Furious, which brings the blockbuster Fast & Furious franchise roaring to its eighth installment. While we wait to see what Dom, Luke, Letty, Roman, and the rest of the gang are up to this time out, we decided to take a look back at the rest of the series by Tomatometer — and you know what that means. Buckle up, it’s time for Total Recall!
Maybe it isn’t always darkest before the dawn. But that certainly proved to be the case with the Fast and Furious movies, whose fourth installment — the helpfully titled Fast & Furious — tumbled to a franchise low point a mere two years before Fast Five came along and gave the saga a shot in the arm. Although it represented something of a comeback, reuniting original stars Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Michelle Rodriguez, and Jordana Brewster after several years of varying involvement, critics felt the gang wasn’t put to compelling use this time around; while the set pieces were as entertaining as ever, they weren’t enough to cover up for a plot caught between the series’ street-racing roots and its caper-driven future. It wasn’t all bad, though: as Neil Smith argued for Total Film, “Slick action, hot hardware, shame about the screenplay… Still, it’s the best since the original TFATF, and fans of Diesel’s gravel-voiced swagger will get a kick seeing him reprise the role that put him on the map.”
He’s added a number of franchises to his résumé over the years, but Vin Diesel can also play hard to get when it comes time to make a sequel. Case in point: 2 Fast 2 Furious, which found him AWOL from the series for the first (and to date, only) time — leaving Paul Walker to soldier on with a storyline that placed him alongside ex-con Roman Pierce (Tyrese Gibson) in an operation aimed at toppling a Miami druglord (Cole Hauser). With fast cars, high-stakes undercover missions, and Eva Mendes as a U.S. Customs agent, this installment seemed to have enough fuel to keep the Furious momentum going, but while its box-office grosses remained robust, critics were far less impressed — although a handful were able to appreciate the action on its own merits. “It’s 2 silly 2 take seriously,” shrugged Linda Cook of the Quad City Times, “but 2 fun 2 be bad.”
After 2 Fast 2 Furious, Paul Walker took a break from the franchise, leaving producers to assemble a new cast for the third installment — and more than a few filmgoers wondering why. At the time, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift might have seemed largely like a sequel in name only (and an excuse to move the action to Japan), but it ultimately proved important to the overall franchise mythology, with main character Han Lue (Sung Kang) woven into the arc for the next several sequels…which were written as prequels to Tokyo Drift. It also marks the series debut of director Justin Lin, whose knack for putting together bonkers action sequences would be a major part of the looming Fast & Furious revival — and earned the early approval of Roger Ebert, who wrote, “It delivers all the races and crashes you could possibly desire, and a little more.”
“It’s the journey, not the destination” may have become a favorite cliche of guidance counselors and New Age enthusiasts, but it’s still true — witness, for example, the raging success of The Fast and the Furious, a film whose utter predictability is redeemed by 102 minutes of sleek visuals and an easy-to-look-at cast that includes Michelle Rodriguez, Jordana Brewster, and Paul Walker as the undercover cop assigned to infiltrate Vin Diesel’s gang of thieving street racers. Not the type of film that needs positive reviews to make money, in other words — and sure enough, Furious sped to over $200 million in worldwide grosses despite negative-to-lukewarm writeups from critics like Reel Film Reviews’ David Nusair, who sniffed that it was “ultimately entertaining enough to warrant a mild recommendation.”
After shifting into a higher critical and commercial gear with Fast Five in 2011, the Fast & Furious franchise kept the pedal to the medal with Fast & Furious 6 two years later, retaining the series’ new heist thriller approach (and recent cast addition Dwayne Johnson) for another round of souped-up action and automotive mayhem. While the series’ sixth installment ultimately fell a few percentage points shy of its predecessor, it still went down as one of the summer of 2013’s better-performing blockbusters, rolling up nearly $800 million in worldwide grosses — along with applause from critics like Colin Covert of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, who wrote, “It’s a ripsnorting carmageddon that stylizes automotive annihilation the way John Woo used to choreograph death and destruction with guns and explosions.”
Very few franchises notch critical high marks with their fifth installments, and The Fast and the Furious series — a perennial critics’ target since its debut in 2001 — hardly seemed like a logical candidate for ever achieving Certified Fresh status. But lo and behold, that’s exactly what happened in 2011, when Fast Five roared off to 77 percent on the Tomatometer (and over $625 million in worldwide grosses). So what changed? Well, it didn’t hurt that Five’s storyline took a “heist action” approach rather than the “street racing action drama” of previous installments, and the returning cast members (including Paul Walker, Vin Diesel, Jordana Brewster, and Tyrese Gibson) benefited from the copious charisma of new addition Dwayne Johnson. Whatever the reasons, longtime Furious fans had company in critics like Connie Ogle of the Miami Herald, who called Five “Embarrassingly fun, the sort of speedy, senseless, violence-crammed action flick that virtually defines the summer season, with superheroes who aren’t gods or crusaders in tights but guys in T-shirts and jeans who can drive cars really fast.”
The Fast and Furious franchise has openly defied the laws of diminishing box-office returns — not to mention physics — over the course of its long lifespan, but it isn’t entirely immune to real-world concerns, as fans were sadly reminded when star Paul Walker was suddenly killed in a car crash while still in the midst of production on Furious 7. Walker’s death cast a shadow over the movie, adding a dash of poignancy to the action, and his surviving cast members proved up to the responsibility of sending off their co-star with the hugely lucrative saga’s most critically successful entry. “When a film is this exciting in its action set pieces and this meaningful in its quiet moments,” argued Tulsa World’s Michael Smith, “the filmmakers are getting it right.”