By Drew Taylor | The Playlist May 21, 2013 at 12:59PM
This weekend sees the sixth (!) film in the "Fast and Furious" franchise, "Fast and Furious 6" (or, according to director Justin Lin, just "Furious Six") race into theaters. Once thought of as a kind of also-ran franchise in the Universal canon, it has quickly become one of the studio's most important properties, with each subsequent film getting bigger and more bombastic (if not genuinely better). Sure, these movies might not be high art but they are consistently entertaining in a way that few Hollywood franchises are, full of muscle cars and beautiful women and tough guys who pummel each other just for the heck of it. We've already run our official review of "Fast & Furious 6," but in the spirit of the series, we thought we would run down every entry in the entire franchise, from worst to best. So put on your tiniest muscle shirt, grab that energy drink, and buckle up.
Already it seemed like the franchise was running out of gas, when John Singleton took over for Rob Cohen (the original film had revitalized his flagging career), and Vin Diesel instead chose the tent-pole non-starter "XXX" (about an extreme sports-loving secret agent) over the sequel. This entry swapped Southern California for Miami and saw Singleton, already an underappreciated stylist, go fucking HAM. The original's over-the-top stylistic flourishes like the zooming-through-the-engine shots are nothing compared to what Singleton employs – single tracking shots that zoom between each car, shots of just the drivers' eyes (a cue quoted verbatim from old episodes of "Speed Racer"), and the "warp speed" gag from the first movie pushed to delirious, almost psychedelic heights. All of this has the cumulative effect of leaving the whole thing feel more like "Mario Kart" than "Vanishing Point." The elasticity of the physical "Fast and Furious" universe was being pushed further, with an opening sequence involving a group of racers jumping across a drawbridge that is being raised. The fun of "2 Fast 2 Furious" is somewhat undermined by the lack of original cast members and original plotting (thieves are replaced by drug runners and that's about the only difference in terms of narrative), feeling the most like an unnecessary cash grab in a film series designed to feel like unnecessary cash grabs. Perhaps the movie is most notable for introducing the characters played by Tyrese and Ludacris, who would become major players in subsequent films and intrinsic pieces of the "Fast and Furious" mythology (as it were).
Unfortunately, the first film to reunite the original "Fast and the Furious" cast (the title was shortened and an ampersand added, presumably for variety's sake?) is also one of the more awkward entries, a weird in-between movie that's got to set up a bunch of things and find a way to reunite the characters in an organic way, but instead comes across about as subtly as two super-charged cars smashing into each other going 100 miles per hour. Dominic Toretto's lover, Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) is murdered (or so it seems), which leads him back into the United States to try and solve the murder and get revenge. The best part of "Fast and Furious" is a prologue set in the Dominic Republic with Dom and his crew hijacking a fuel tanker that’s like something out of one of the "Mad Max" movies. Meanwhile, FBI Agent Brian O'Connor (Paul Walker) is hunting a drug boss that has a connection to Letty's murder – do you think these old friends and rivals will cross paths? Possibly while performing some illegal street racing? While Justin Lin shows much of the same ingenuity and exuberance that was present in "The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift" (the GPS-aided race is a really nice touch), this kind of narrative, a holdover from the first two films, feels like it has hit a patch of rough road, leading to the abrupt (and wholly welcome) tonal shift of "Fast Five." Even though the events of "Fast & Furious" ripple out into the other parts of Lin's little mini-trilogy, it's probably the least essential entry, besides the second installment.
Well, this is the one that started it all. For better or worse. The title was borrowed from an old American International Pictures B-movie and the plot was lifted wholesale from "Point Break," with a plucky cop (Paul Walker, with frosted-tips farm-boy good looks and limited acting ability) going undercover to bust some criminals who take part in underground street racing (led by Vin Diesel, equal parts charisma and muscles). Until 'Tokyo Drift,' this is the entry that was most engaged with the culture behind the illegal streetracing, which lends a certain amount of realism to a movie otherwise defined by huge leaps in logic and gang members that wouldn't be out of place in some millennial remake of "The Warriors." It was based, in part, on a Vibe article called "Racer X" by Ken Li that chronicled illegal street-racing in New York City. So far none of the movies have been based, in part or whole, in the Big Apple. Compared to the other movies, it's pretty leisurely paced (director Rob Cohen is fond of long, glacial establishing shots that sometimes aimlessly survey an entire city), and way more comic book-y than you probably remember (there are moments where the world outside literally bends around the car like they're going into warp drive). It is also hopelessly dated-- yes, that's a Limp Bizkit song on the soundtrack, and Ja Rule in the cast, and at one point Jordana Brewster flirts while seductively sipping a Snapple. The almost painfully awful script allows for some philosophical pontificating on the part of Diesel's Dominic Toretto, with things like, "it don't matter if you win by an inch or a mile – winning's winning" and "I live my life a quarter mile at a time." Deep stuff. But of course the thing that really matters are the races – this is easily the most race-centered entry in the entire franchise, with the most memorable moment probably be the sequence involving an eighteen-wheel truck and a jellybean-sized sports car zipping underneath it. In this moment, the physical reality of the "Fast and Furious" franchise, where actual physics is only loosely considered, was born.