Looking back at The Fast and the Furious (in case you’re puzzled by the title, that’s the first one, made in 2001) from 2015, the film looks a lot like a stepping stone. An unassuming genre picture that shared more than a bit in common with the preceding year’s Gone in Sixty Seconds remake, its humble beginnings gave little indication that it would give birth to one of today’s most successful film franchises. But at the time, it looked a whole lot like a different kind of stepping stone for its stars Vin Diesel, Paul Walker and Michelle Rodriguez: one that had the potential to catapult each of them to super-stardom. That never really happened, and the subsequent success of the Fast and Furious franchise tells us a lot about how role of movie stars has changed over the last decade.
To 2001 pundits, The Fast and the Furious was the kind of star vehicle that guns it down the street with nitrous-powered rapidity before slamming to a halt at the next red light for its passengers to tumble out towards their next, more expensive vehicle. Vin Diesel, in particular, seemed poised to accelerate towards greater things, having parleyed a memorable minor role in Saving Private Ryan into prominent roles in Boiler Room and Pitch Black. But there was a sense of mounting potential surrounding his co-stars, as well; Michelle Rodriguez was on the rise after a celebrated debut in Girlfight, while Paul Walker hoped to turn his first leading role into a “director-driven” film: a Michael Mann or David Fincher picture. (Jordana Brewster was and is the odd one out.)
For a while, that narrative – of The Fast and the Furious acting as a stepping stone to greater acclaim for its stars – seemed to be transpiring exactly as expected. The film received middling reviews, though critics were more forgiving of its cast (Variety singling out Diesel for future greatness: “Diesel conveys a suggestive good-guy/bad-guy combo that augers well for future action roles as well as for more complex parts.”). More importantly, it did gangbusters at the box office, converting a $38 million budget into a domestic gross of $145 million and just over $200 million worldwide. Any Hollywood accountant could tell you that a sequel was inevitable.
2 Fast 2 Furious arrived two years later, and looked in every respect like the cash-in it was, right down to the cringeworthy title (it wasn’t a cheap cash-in, mind you, burdened with a budget twice that of its predecessor). Diesel had exited the franchise at the first set of lights, taking Rodriguez and Brewster with him, apparently due to “contract negotiations going sour.” Rumour has it that he asked for – and was denied – a salary of $30 million; new director John Singleton’s comments about “chang[ing] it up with a whole new cast” suggest Rodriguez and Brewster may well have been collateral damage.
At the time, Diesel’s decision looked pretty smart. 2 Fast 2 Furious – which replaced Diesel with Tyrese Gibson, alongside rapper Ludacris and supermodel Devon Aoki – was a mess, saddled with a poor script and an ugly, part-hip-hip video, part-Playstation-videogame aesthetic. Meanwhile, Diesel would go on to helm a handful of action films: xXx, A Man Apart, the Pitch Black spinoff The Chronicles of Riddick. He increasingly seemed to be attempting to emulate Schwarzenegger’s career, appearing in kid-friendly comedy The Pacifier in 2005. Rodriguez, too, looked like she was better off for leaving the series, appearing in Lost, Resident Evil and Blue Crush.
The trend continued with the third Fast and the Furious film. Whatever the artistic failings of 2 Fast 2 Furious (so many artistic failings), it grossed more money than the first film, so the studios dipped into their pockets again. The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift shifted gears from its predecessors, retaining the name, an obsession with cars and little else. The only character to return was Diesel’s Toretto in a last minute appearance which looked a lot the actor charitably choosing to grant the franchise that helped launch his career a pity cameo. Paul Walker had followed his co-star’s lead in seeking out ‘greener’ pastures, accepting starring roles in long-since forgotten films like Timeline, Noel and Running Scared.
End the story with the release of Tokyo Drift and this road looks like its heading towards the end point of any number of ‘80s/’90s film franchises; franchises that haemorrhaged their talent into diminishing returns and, eventually, straight-to-video sequels with limited commercial clout (Granted, Tokyo Drift was a good film in its own right – far better than it had any right to be – largely thanks to the not inconsiderable talents of director Justin Lin). The series had operated as a launching pads for it stars’ subsequent careers – which varied from successful (Diesel), average (Rodriguez, who by 2006 was appearing in Uwe Boll films) to dismal (Walker, who by now had demonstrated he lacked any substantial charisma to pair with his classical good looks). Except, of course, we all know that this road was no dead-end.
The Fast and the Furious franchise didn’t finish with Tokyo Drift. The gang reversed back into the garage for Fast & Furious, then Fast Five, Fast & Furious 6 and, opening this Thursday, Furious 7. You can credit the phenomenal success of the series – which has gone from strength to strength, financially and artistically, which each instalment – for any number of factors: its willingness to adapt to the times, and shift away from car racing towards bombastic action; its charismatic, ethnically-diverse cast (still an outlier in the white-washed world of Hollywood); or its joyous embrace of absurdist idiocy.
However, it’s hard to argue that people are heading to the multiplex purely for Vin Diesel or Michelle Rodriguez (particularly the latter, who made two solid attempts to abandon the films – including getting killed off! – before returning as a regular cast member). Furious 7 will sell tickets – a lot of tickets – off the back of its name, of its brand, of the promise of cars and explosions and gunfire. The presence of those actors – and, now, Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham, who along with Diesel would surely have helmed dozens of action movies had they been born a couple decades earlier – is undeniably a factor, but the conversation has shifted.
I should note, at this point, that I’m somewhat sceptical of the argument that there’s no such thing as a marquee movie star anymore; every few months someone makes the claim that “so-and-so is the last movie star” and it’s never especially convincing. Actors can still sell movies. This is particularly true in comedy – Adam Sandler, Melissa McCarthy, Kevin Hart – but there are other examples out there (Surely you’ve heard someone say, “Let’s go see the new Liam Neeson movie!”). But I do think it’s fair to say that the cachet of movie stars has been eroded substantially over the last decade or so; nowadays brand recognition takes priority. By and large, people head to the cinema to see the new Transformers or Marvel Studios or Hunger Games film, not the new Mark Wahlberg or Chris Evans or Jennifer Lawrence film (Serena is potent proof that even exceptionally popular movie stars can’t singlehandedly sell movies these days).
Exactly where that trend shifted is hard to pin down, but I’d argue that priorities shifted somewhere between The Fast and the Furious in 2001 and Tokyo Drift in 2006 (this shift as a widespread phenoema, not simply in this series), with these films’ box office grosses illustrative of a possible explanation. Let’s compare the North American grosses of the first three Fast and the Furious films (per Wikipedia):
The Fast and the Furious: $144,533,925
2 Fast 2 Furious: $127,154,901
Tokyo Drift: $62,514,415
This is pretty well what you’d expect from a series that’s shedding recognisable stars as it goes, if you subscribe to the theory that audiences buy tickets to see actors they like. And taking into account these figures – and Tokyo Drift’s $85 million budget – you can see why 2006 audiences might have assumed that the series’ next instalment would be heading straight to video, if it arrived at all. But the box office grosses from outside North America tell an entirely different story:
The Fast and the Furious: $62,750,000
2 Fast 2 Furious: $109,195,760
Tokyo Drift: $95,953,877
Yes, Tokyo Drift’s total is still less than the first two films – it remains the lowest-grossing film of the series to date, earning $158-some million worldwide – but the overseas success of 2 Fast 2 Furious and Tokyo Drift indicates the changing paradigm in blockbuster priorities. It’s not that recognisable actors aren’t relevant anymore – just take a gander at the credits of Insurgent – but the concomitant increasing importance of international markets and the increasing prominence of big name franchises doesn’t seem at all coincidental (of course, this doesn’t necessarily imply causality, but I don’t think it’s a crazy inference). Tokyo Drift made serious profit largely thanks to its overseas grosses – grosses surely driven less by the presence of Lucas Black and Bow Wow as the “Fast and the Furious” that precedes its title. Overseas audiences still care about big movie stars, but the wild success of films like Transformers: Age of Extinction – which pulled 77.5% of its $1 billion gross from outside North America despite an undistinguished cast – suggests their importance is dwindling.
This isn’t simply because of the increasing importance of international markets. It’s also driven by wider trends in blockbuster filmmaking, where consistency is more important than personality (the Marvel Cinematic Universe is perhaps the best example of that; for all the films’ apparently diverse settings and characters, they all feel remarkably homogenous). It’s also driven by marketing priorities – marketing, of course, the big factor in determining a film’s financial performance – as it’s a lot easier to sell a series than an actor; especially actors whose public images are increasingly hard to control in the world of social media. Selling the brand, rather than the stars, makes it much easier to cushion any PR disasters, and that’s especially evident when it comes to the rise and rise of the Fast and the Furious franchise.
The Fast and the Furious films will continue after the tragic death of Paul Walker, just as they would continue if Vin Diesel clashed over contract negotiations, just as the Marvel Cinematic Universe shrugged off the departure of Terence Howard and Edward Norton without slowing down. The days of actors like Diesel turning down a role in a franchise film to make more money on their own are long gone. Movie stars might not be at the wheel anymore, but it doesn’t look like the blockbuster engines powering the industry are going to be stopping anytime soon.