Vin Diesel and Paul Walker in the movie that got it all started, 2001’s “The Fast and the Furious.” (Universal via AP)

When “The Fast and the Furious” came out in 2001, no one could have imagined where it was headed. the Age of the Franchise hadn’t yet begun. The first “Harry Potter” and first “Lord of the Rings” landed just that year; “Iron Man” and the Marvel revolution were years away.

It’s pretty obvious producers never envisioned this little no-star action flick as a franchise-launching origin story  — just a potentially lucrative little one-off. The bumpy, 14-year road to “Furious 7” makes clear that there was no long-range plan. These days everyone would be signed to a multi-film contract, but Vin Diesel didn’t even show up for the first sequel, nor did director Rob Cohen. By the time the third movie landed on screen — to poor box office results and worse reviews — the story and the cast had completely changed. Today, we’d call that a failed reboot.

But amazingly, the “Fast” franchise made a perfect U-turn. Since the fourth film the movie’s popularity has soared — and since “Fast Five,” critical praise has too. It’s a case study in how to turn a middling series into an unstoppable enterprise. Just look at these charts.


Data courtesy of Box Office Mojo.

Data courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes.

How did we get here? Filmmakers finally found the right mix of endearing characters and charismatic stars — a gorgeous, multi-ethnic crew with global big-screen appeal. They elevated the fun-but-simple car chases into insanely elaborate set pieces — cars dropping out of planes! cars soaring from one skyscraper to another! — whose James Bond-caliber inventiveness and sheer grace let you ignore their absurdity. And they tapped into a surprising emotional core in the loyalty of these engine-revving, brawling, backyard-barbequing street racers-turned-heist artists who consider themselves “family.”

Let’s look at the evolution:

“The Fast and the Furious” (2001)

The first installment in "The Fast and the Furious" franchise was released in 2001 and follows undercover cop Brian O'Conner (Paul Walker) as he tries to stop semi-truck hijackers led by Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) from stealing expensive electronic equipment. (Universal)

Plot: An undercover FBI agent falls under the spell of the Corona-chugging leader of a crew of street-racing thieves. It’s almost exactly like “Point Break,” but with flashy cars instead of surfboards and presidential masks.

Cast: Vin Diesel as ex-con Dom Toretto, Jordana Brewster as his sister, Mia, and Paul Walker as Brian, the secret agent who loves them both. Plus Michelle Rodriguez as Dom’s lady love Letty.

Memorable scenes: Dom schooling Brian after a too-close street race. (“You almost had me? You never had me! You never had your car.”) The closing-scene drag race between Brian and Dom, filmed in bromantic slow-mo, as they narrowly miss getting T-boned by a train; after which Brian sweetly hands over his keys to let Dom escape to Mexico.

Reception: Not bad for its small ambitions and theatrical niche — $144.5 million domestically, $207 million worldwide. Critics were split on whether it was a childish excuse to rev engines and ogle cleavage, or a fun excuse to rev engines and ogle cleavage.

Lessons: Despite his perpetual mumblemouth and totally inert facial expressions, Diesel had an almost hypnotic appeal. Also, audiences really like fast cars.

[‘The Fast and the Furious’ series started with a magazine. Based on a true story!]

“2 Fast 2 Furious” (2003)

Plot: Two old friends looking to clear their names team up to bring down a Miami drug lord through street racing. It’s almost exactly like “Bad Boys” but with flashier cars and criminal antiheroes instead of cops.

Cast: Walker returned as Brian, now a disgraced former agent; but Diesel was replaced by Tyrese Gibson as ex-con Roman Pearce. Plus, a spectacularly afro’ed Ludacris as a car mechanic extraordinaire, Cole Hauser as the bad guy and Eva Mendes as an undercover agent.

Memorable scenes: Brian staring at Mendes’ character with those baby blues while speeding down a street (“You might wanna keep your eyes on the road, playboy,” she says.) One car flying over another during a race, a car flying off the road and onto a yacht during a chase, and a crew of huge trucks rolling over police cruisers, “Road House” style.

In the second installment of the series, ex-police officer Brian O'Conner (Paul Walker) relocates from Los Angeles to Miami to start over, but winds up working for the FBI. (Universal)

Reception: Meh. The sequel made less in the U.S. than the first. Said Post critic Stephen Hunter: “It’s a kind of ‘Miami Vice’ with many more carz and numberz where all the adjectives used 2 go.”

Lessons: Too many uses of the word “bro” in a single script. And it’s just not the same without Vin.

“The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift” (2006)

Although "The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift" is the third installment of the franchise in terms of chronology, it takes place after the events of the fourth, fifth, and sixth films. A trouble-making kid gets sent to live with his dad in Japan where his new friends introduce him to drift racing. (Universal)

Plot: A trouble-making kid gets sent to live with his dad in Japan where his new friends introduce him to drift racing. Honestly, it was more like a 5th generation “Karate Kid” sequel than anything to do with the previous FF films.

Cast: With the exception of one cameo, a completely new roster. Lucas Black as the ex-pat teen, Bow Wow and Sung Kang as his racing buddies.

Memorable scenes: None. Just a lot of drift racing and teen angst. Until! The very end, when Dom shows up to race Sean!

Reception: Bad all around. Domestically, the film brought in less than half of the first two movies. Critics weren’t any more charitable.

Lessons: Bring back Dom, obviously.

“Fast & Furious” (2009)

The fourth installment of the series serves as a sequel to the second film, "2 Fast 2 Furious" and set before the third installment, "The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift." (Universal)

Plot: Two men, formerly at odds, team up to avenge one of their own and take down an L.A. crime boss using their street racing skills. It’s almost exactly like “The Fast and the Furious,” but with older actors and newer cars.

Cast: Whew — finally, a reunion for Walker, Diesel, Brewster and Rodriguez. Kang was carried over from “Tokyo Drift” and joined by newcomer Gal Gadot (who has since been cast as a forthcoming “Wonder Woman”).

Memorable scenes: The epic brawl after Dom blames Brian for (spoiler alert, sort of) Letty’s death. Cars zipping through tunnels like gerbils on meth. The cliffhanger ending with Brian and Mia in hot pursuit of a prison bus carrying Dom.

Reception: Critics viewed it as a cheap retread of the first — and that’s exactly why audiences loved it, to the tune of $363 million worldwide.

Lessons: If at first you don’t succeed at making a sequel, just recreate exactly what worked before.

“Fast Five” (2011)

In the fifth installment, the gang plans a heist to steal $100 million from a corrupt businessman Hernan Reyes while being pursued for arrest by U.S. Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson). (Universal)

Plot: A glamorous team of outlaws attempts to perform a near-impossible heist in Rio, in search of money and retribution. It’s almost exactly like “Ocean’s Eleven,” with flashier cars, ripped physiques and tinier skirts.

Cast: This time they really did get the whole band back together — Diesel, Walker, Brewster, Kang and Gadot, plus Gibson and Ludacris (now a tech wiz, but whatever) from “2 Fast,” as well as Tego Calderon and Don Omar from FF4. AND THEN, they brought in Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as Hobbs, an FBI agent whose goal is to arrest Dom and his team.

Memorable scenes: The deliciously confusing scenes where Hobbs and Dom fight each other. The inevitable moment when Hobbs joins forces with the gang. Dom’s many poignant speeches about “family.” The spectacular final chase involving two turbo-charged cars dragging a massive safe-slash-impromptu wrecking ball through the streets of Rio.

Reception: Two thumbs up! Four stars! High fives all around. Critics finally got it — the movie has a 78% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes — and fans flocked. It made more than $620 million worldwide.

Lessons: A franchise can benefit from shifting gears and even genres, abandoning the street-racing storyline for a heist. And no one really minds if your action scenes don’t respect the laws of physics, as long as they’re crazy-inventive.

“Fast & Furious 6” (2013)

In the sixth installment of the series, an FBI agent (Dwyane Johnson) needs to track down a crime lord and turns to his ragtag team of on-the-run convicts. (Universal)

Plot: An FBI agent needs to track down a crime lord and turns to his favorite ragtag team of on-the-run convicts. It’s almost exactly like “Ocean’s 13,” except — well, you know the score.

Cast: The gang’s all here, plus an unexpected special guest — read on for that — and this time the baddie is played by Brit Luke Evans.

Memorable scenes: Spoiler alert! It’s Letty! [Gasp.] She’s alive?! Yes, and she stays alive, here, thanks to Dom, as usual.

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There’s also a thrilling final scene involving harpoons and cars chasing a massive airplane on what has to be the world’s longest runway.

Reception: Nearly as many positive reviews as “Fast 5,” and even more money.

Lessons: It’s all about family. You don’t turn your back on family. Why are you fretting about the laws of physics? Family’s the only thing that matters!

Related:

‘Furious 7’ review: There’s no sense in resisting it

Paul Walker died while filming ‘Furious 7.’ How did other movies handle the sudden loss of a star?

The seventh movie in the "Fast & Furious" franchise features actor Paul Walker, who died while the latest installment was still filming. (Universal)