What I’d Watch 4/3/15: The Frankenchise

The year is 2006, and The Fast and the Furious is dead.  The third entry in the franchise, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, has limped its way to a domestic gross of $62.5 million, barely half what the second film grossed three years previous, which itself was down from the box office take of the original film.  The original stars — Vin Diesel and Paul Walker — are long gone, and the audience has apparently gone with them, and for all intents and purposes, Fast and Furious was finished as a going concern.

Now the year is 2015, and Furious 7 is opening on over 4,000 screens, the sole wide release this weekend, and fully expected to top $100 million for its opening.  The previous two entries in the series, Fast Five and Fast & Furious 6, have done almost $1.5 billion in combined worldwide box office and, more astonishingly, garnered not just positive but downright enthusiastic reviews.  The franchise is not just alive but thriving, and there’s no indication that Furious 7 will do anything but exceed its lofty expectations on a weekend without any real competition.

With all due respect to the other big resurrection story this weekend, that’s a hell of a return from the dead.

And they did it by doing pretty much what Marvel has done with its cinematic universe, just on a smaller scale.  They’ve built a connected on-screen world (even managing to add some significance to the long-derided Tokyo Drift).  They’ve maintained a primary creative presence (in this case director Justin Lin, who helmed the 4th, 5th and 6th films, although he’s not around for the newest one).  They’ve assembled a bunch of insanely likeable characters played by insanely likeable actors.  And they’ve put them in the middle of some of the best vehicular spectacle this side of a Mad Max movie.

And while there’s definitely a through-line for fans who have been on board for all six films, the newer films haven’t felt the slightest bit insider-ish.  I’d never seen any of the films before I saw Fast Five, and I’ve been able to take the ride just fine so far.  Too many franchises get too wrapped up in their own mythology, and if you miss a step, you’re lost.  Here, the beats are so big and broad — fast cars and family — you can jump on at any time.  It’s a lot like Toho’s Godzilla franchise in that sense; there are knowing nods for the long-time fans, but first-timers can hit the ground running.  The wheel isn’t being reinvented every single time.

In the end, for all the elaborate and complicated stunts these films pull off, they work because they’re simple.  Heroes want a thing, bad guy doesn’t want them to have a thing, conflict, action, resolution.  Appropriate for a franchise about finely tuned cars, these films are well-oiled machines, built for a specific purpose.  Undoubtedly franchise fatigue will set in at some point — even the seemingly eternal James Bond wasn’t immune to it — but right now, the only thing the F&F franchise seems to be running out of steam on is what to call the films themselves.  The next one is going to be called And 8 if they’re not careful.


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