How Vin Diesel Drove the Fast Saga to Success
What started as THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS is now, after eight chapters and a spin-off movie, "The Fast Saga." It isn’t slowing down any time soon. That’s a grand moniker that matches the soap-operatic action of the nine movies.
What began as a sort of car-based revamp of POINT BREAK has become a powerful juggernaut franchise with interconnected stories that switch back and turn on a dime like the most nimble drift racer in the series. The centerpiece of the entire franchise is undoubtedly Vin Diesel’s Dominic Toretto character. He's the glue that holds everything together, and he has gone through seismic shifts over the course of the series. The journey to F9: FAST & FURIOUS has certainly been a saga, and it turned Vin Diesel into a superstar.
When the FAST AND THE FURIOUS debuted back in 2001, Diesel’s Toretto was nearly a villain. He was the ringleader of an underground crew that would boost merchandise for resale. (Since the movie came out in 2001, among the crew's hot products were DVD players.) Paul Walker played the clean-cut cop sent to infiltrate the gang. Walker’s Brian soon discovered that Toretto was a nice guy who got himself into sticky situations, and Brian also fell in love with Toretto’s sister, Mia (Jordana Brewster). That added levels of complication and even some ROMEO & JULIET vibes to the character dynamics.
In the first movie, Diesel’s character feels almost intentionally vague. What begins as a screenplay sketch familiar to anyone who has seen a few movies about crime, but is brought to life by the actor’s swagger. Watching THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS now, it's clear that there were no franchise ambitions. It was a fun Saturday afternoon programmer that exploded into an unexpected smash. Vin Diesel's unique charisma was a huge part of that success.
Tapping the Brakes
Diesel sat out the first sequel, 2 FAST 2 FURIOUS, and his absence had a great impact on the franchise. The movie introduced characters played by Tyrese Gibson and Ludacris, and they became integral to the series, but only a couple of years after the fact. At the time, Diesel's no-show status felt like an indication that there wouldn't be many more sequels to come. Instead of getting back in the FAST driver's seat, Diesel threw his weight behind THE CHRONICLES OF RIDDICK, a sequel to his 2000 sleeper hit PITCH BLACK.
While it has subsequently been folded into the larger Fast Saga, the third film, THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS: TOKYO DRIFT, was designed almost as a standalone. Diesel did appear in a pre-credits sequence, however, as part of a deal with Universal to maintain the rights to the Riddick character. (Hollywood works in strange ways!) If the studio thought the FAST movies were running out of gas, however, audiences thought otherwise. Nothing surprises like this franchise; TOKYO DRIFT was an unexpected blockbuster, which pushed the pedal to the metal for the franchise.
TOKYO DRIFT came out two years before the first IRON MAN — which means that Diesel's return in a brief credits scene, which promised the character's return to the franchise in general, igniting wild fandom — took place well before Marvel Studios turned similar brief moments into franchise-building teases.
Full Speed Ahead
[Image credit: Universal Pictures]
All of which is to say that Vin Diesel's stardom and the fortunes of the FAST & FURIOUS movies are fully intertwined. Beginning with the fourth film, FAST & FURIOUS, each story has emphasized Dom's relationship with his immediate family (including his wife, Letty, played by Michelle Rodriguez) and to his larger “family” – the crew that he and Brian put together and who now go on daring, spy-style missions all around the world.
This would take on a poignant dimension after Walker’s tragic death, leading to the most emotionally devastating entry, FURIOUS 7. Diesel's line, "I don’t got friends, I got family," turned out to be a defining moment for a series that was already popular around the world. While the FAST movies are known for cars, action, and sex appeal, "family" is somehow always the main takeaway. Diesel's character is a prime mover on that front, and the actor's own personality — that of a stern but loving father figure — is crucial to the image of the series.
This all comes to a head in F9: FAST & FURIOUS, with Diesel encountering a new foe, played by John Cena, who also happens to be Dom’s brother. It’ll be interesting to see how that key theme of family unity will be tested by a character who should ostensibly be a part of the family but who is actively working to destroy it. (The family theme is also developed on the other side of the divide, with the villainous Shaw family becoming an increasingly important part of the movies.) Dom's evolution into a family man guided by a singular moral compass has become the backbone of the FAST AND THE FURIOUS franchise. So how will the reintroduction of his brother change the character (and the saga) even further? We’ll find out soon enough.
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All images courtesy of Universal Pictures.