Twenty years ago this month, Rob Cohen’s The Fast And The Furious debuted in cinemas.
Made for a modest budget and boasting an up-and-coming cast, it was a surprise hit thanks to the exciting action as well as the charisma of leads Vin Diesel and Paul Walker.
However, while it was a success, few could have predicted the box office titan it would become two decades on. The secret to its success was not repetition, but evolution.
The 2001 original was an undercover cop story set in the world of underground street racing. While Diesel and Walker won plenty of fans, the cars were the stars – colourful, modified beasts that seemed torn from a video game.
The races became a proving ground for characters, a way to introduce villains, and resolve feuds. It was a formula that worked, and while 2003’s 2 Fast 2 Furious lost Diesel, it kept the concept of a crime caper wrapped around the race circuit.
The fan base came back, with the first two movies making respectable money at the box office but never reaching the same bracket as Harry Potter or Lord Of The Rings, which dominated at the time.
Fast And Furious: Tokyo Drift brought in a younger cast and a new location, but it was clear that the film’s racing theme was beginning to wear thin. So much so, that after poor test screenings Diesel was brought in for a cameo.
Things began to change late in the decade, however. 2009’s Fast And Furious was the biggest success to date, having brought back the original cast for the first time since the 2001 movie, also shifting the emphasis on to action rather than racing.
While people were less fascinated with neon paint jobs and NOS canisters, it’s clear that was still enormous affection for this ensemble.
Studio Universal took the hint, and with Fast Five (2011) the series went into the stratosphere creatively and commercially.
Out went the car culture, in favour of a heist movie formula that allowed for big, ludicrous stunts and a bulging cast.
Yes, much of the action still featured our heroes behind the wheel, but it was usually pulling off some elaborate raid or tearing up a city evading a villain.
Part of that evolution was also bringing in new muscle – literally. The resurgence of the Fast franchise coincided perfectly with the rise of a one Dwayne Johnson, who had been toying with various genres before becoming the action star he was destined to be.
Gigantic in stature and personality, the series found another male to butt heads with Diesel, before eventually becoming part of his ‘family’.
It signalled the start of a deliriously successful decade for Johnson, and the series he had joined.
Five films in, the ethos was simple: more is more. More action, more explosions, more banter, everything had to be revved up with each new movie.
Originally revolving around one setting, the team would now hop across the world in pursuit of their enemies, finding increasingly novel ways of getting from A to B. Who could forget Dom dragging a vault over a bridge in the fifth film, or driving between skyscrapers in the seventh?
By the time 2017’s eighth movie came around, the team were chasing submarines across a glacier in Russia, hoping to deploy an electromagnetic pulse.
Just as the stunts got bigger, the stars did too. While the additions of Jason Statham and Kurt Russell seemed a natural fit, Oscar winning dramatic actors like Dame Helen Mirren and Charlize Theron came out of the left field.
Mirren herself made her love of the series very public on a talk show appearance, which led to her being cast as the mother of Statham’s Luke Shaw in Fast And Furious 8.
Her appearance, as well as that of Theron as the villain Cipher, cemented the series’ transition from a niche genre favourite to a global phenomenon that the industry’s biggest names want to be a part of.
The franchise truly arrived with Furious 7, the 2015 blockbuster that made over $1.5billion at the box office, double that of Fast And Furious 6, and at the time becoming the fourth highest grossing film of all time.
The West Coast street racers had gone global, but tragically it would be the final ride for one of their founding members. Paul Walker died in November 2013, and production on the film shifted to account for some missing scenes and the direction of his character Brian Conner, who is portrayed as retiring.
While the film’s action was a big hit with audiences, it’s safe to say that at least some of the film’s box office success came from fans wanting to pay tribute to the late star.
Over the course of seven movies and fourteen years, he had been an integral part of a team that had become dear to movie fans, and the shocking loss was a reminder of that affection.
While its roots are never forgotten, the franchise continues to evolve in the same way that it has for almost a decade.
It’s believed the tenth and eleventh films will be the last in the main storyline, but as it has always done, the series moves into new areas and spin-offs.
A planned Hobbs And Shaw sequel will bring Johnson and Statham back together in the future, while a female-focused film is also in the works, and a family animated show (Fast And Furious: Spy Racers) is in its fourth season.
From a modestly budgeted drama inspired by a magazine article, the Fast franchise has grown into something that has left its tyre marks on movie history thanks to always moving with audience tastes, and giving them a reason to come back.
With this in mind, who knows what lies ahead for the characters who always lived their lives “a quarter mile at a time”.
Fast And Furious 9 is released in UK cinemas from 24th June.