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Ten Years Ago, ‘Fast Five’ Turned Its Street Racers Into Superheroes

The choice to unite every major character and give them seemingly superhuman strength not only resulted in one of the best action blockbusters of the 2010s—it saved the ‘Fast & Furious’ franchise

Scott Laven/Universal Studios

The two trailers for Fast 9, released more than a year apart because of pandemic-induced delays, check off a comprehensive list of epic moments that’ll finally play out on-screen in June: Han Seoul-Oh inexplicably returning from the dead; Dominic Toretto secretly having an evil younger brother played by John Cena; cars equipped with supercharged magnets to repel other cars; a plane equipped with its own supercharged magnet to catch cars midair; Dom using a rope to swing a Dodge Charger off a bridge like he’s Tarzan; Dame Helen Mirren drifting in a Lamborghini; and last but certainly not least, Tyrese Gibson and Ludacris wearing makeshift astronaut suits in a beat-up Pontiac that’s been converted into a rocket ship, potentially fulfilling the fan-ordained prophecy that the Fast & Furious will send its characters into outer space:

“Y’all ever thought about the wild missions we’ve been on?” Tyrese’s Roman Pearce asks the crew in the second trailer. And while the line is objectively ridiculous coming from a character who once skydived in a car—when wouldn’t you think about this stuff?!—it’s actually worth unpacking within the broader context of the franchise. Perhaps everything that’s set to happen in Fast 9 doesn’t seem too far-fetched when the previous movie, The Fate of the Furious, culminated with Dom and Co. battling a nuclear submarine. (Obviously, the sub didn’t stand a chance when the Rock redirected a missile at it with his bare hands.) But it’s easy to forget that the Fast & Furious wasn’t always operating at this scale: the original 2001 film was essentially a pared-down Point Break for gearheads, centered on Dom and his crew as street racers who stole VCR players.

In fairness, Vin Diesel’s star wattage was evident even in much humbler settings. (He also displayed an easy bromantic chemistry with the late Paul Walker, who played the undercover cop, Brian O’Conner, tasked with infiltrating Dom’s gang.) But the franchise made a shortsighted turn for its next two films, doubling down on the street racing without Diesel’s involvement, save for a brief cameo. 2 Fast 2 Furious and Tokyo Drift have their admirers—Christopher Nolan among them for the latter—but Universal’s confidence waned so much that the third film was nearly dumped into straight-to-DVD purgatory. Diesel returning to the fold gave the Fast & Furious the jump-start it needed, and while the fourth film is widely regarded as a low point, it helped lay the blueprint for how the franchise could become a worldwide sensation.

Going forward, the Universal strategy was that centering movies on street racing had built-in limitations as a box-office draw, and by expanding the scope of the Fast & Furious movies into globe-trotting action blockbusters that just so happen to feature supercars, the franchise would, ideally, level up in a big way. The fourth entry, Fast & Furious, had moments that hinted at this tonal shift, particularly the climactic set piece when Dom and Brian zoom through a collapsing underground tunnel at the U.S.-Mexico border. But Fast Five, released 10 years ago, was basically a $125 million gambit that street racing could completely give way to absurd, massively scaled car-related high jinks. As far as a statement of intent goes, you can’t get much better than returning director Justin Lin (Tokyo Drift, Fast & Furious) flipping over a prison bus to spring Dom from jail before the movie’s title sequence even rolls. This desire to go bigger—and faster, and more furious—was fueled in part by bringing back established characters from earlier films, and it also paved the way for the franchise to compete with the superpowered cinematic universes of the evolving blockbuster landscape.

At this point in the series, Dom and Brian are wanted by authorities and go off the grid in South America. But the fellas are short on cash, and further complicating matters is that Mia, Dom’s sister and Brian’s girlfriend, has learned that she’s pregnant. The trio take on a job in Rio de Janeiro stealing muscle cars from a moving train, but their mysterious coconspirators neglect to mention the cars had been seized by the DEA; a shootout ensues, and Mia drives away with the off-the-books financial records of Brazilian kingpin Hernan Reyes. The incident puts our heroes not only on Reyes’s radar, but also Luke Hobbs’s, a swole Diplomatic Security Service agent who’s led to believe that Dom and Brian killed the DEA agents. Dom knows where Reyes has stashed his $100 million in safe houses across Rio, and his solution to the dilemma is pulling off a grand heist to steal the cash and start a new life. But first, he’ll have to assemble a team.

Fast Five’s master stroke is bringing together nearly every major side character from the previous four movies under one roof, including Ludacris’s Tej Parker and Tyrese’s Roman Pearce from 2 Fast 2 Furious, Gal Gadot’s Gisele from Fast & Furious, and Sung Kang’s Han from Tokyo Drift (he also had a cameo in Fast & Furious establishing his relationship with Dom). In order for this heist-movie pivot to work, the characters underwent significant changes: Tej goes from owning a garage in Miami to becoming a hacker with some very convenient knowledge about cracking high-tech vaults, while Roman is reduced to pure—and occasionally grating, if we’re being honest—comic relief. (Such was the power of “ejecto seato, cuz!”) Meanwhile, Han was such a fan favorite that his “death” in 2006’s Tokyo Drift was retconned away by shifting the franchise’s chronology so that the events of that movie take place after everything in the fourth and fifth films. (This also means that the world of Tokyo Drift is one in which Japanese teens are really into flip phones even though it’s the 2010s; fans were willing to accept anything if it meant getting Han back.)

For all the jokes made at the franchise’s expense that Dom talks only about how much he loves his family, the cliché didn’t really take root until Fast Five. Even without the presence of the franchise’s signature Coronas, Dom gives his most enduring speech in the film. “Money will come and go, we know that,” he says. “The most important thing in life will always be the people in this room.” The cheesiness is part of the appeal, but so is the conviction with which Diesel delivers the monologue; it’s little surprise this dialogue was singled out for Furious 7’s tear-jerking tribute to the late Walker.

But while the “family sticks together” ethos is genuinely endearing, Fast Five’s real draw—and what elevated the franchise into a blockbuster behemoth that’s generated billions at the box office—was the film’s brazen disregard for the laws of physics in the interest of executing spectacular action sequences with characters who turned into superheroes overnight. An early tell that Fast Five changed the rules of the game was Dom and Brian jumping off a giant bridge after the train heist. It’s an unconscionably high plunge that would absolutely obliterate a normal human being’s body. Our guys, though? They get out of the water unscathed. The other game-changing moment was Fast Five essentially giving Dom a superpowered foe in Hobbs. As played by Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson, who was only just beginning to emerge as an action star in his own right, Hobbs is so cartoonishly indestructible that Dom’s first glimpse of the man is after he literally runs through a wall chasing him. When Dom and Hobbs finally duke it out near the end of the film in an absurd orgy of testosterone and baby oil, you’d be forgiven for assuming both characters were injected with the Captain America super serum off-screen.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been Hollywood’s greatest moneymaker of the past decade, but through the same period, the Fast franchise has gleefully evolved from a series that nearly went the VOD route into a viable blockbuster alternative. (Starting with Fast Five, the franchise has made nearly $4.2 billion worldwide.) Diesel himself has described Dom and his family as “proletariat superheroes,” and you don’t exactly have to squint too hard to see Fast Five as a car-centric spin on The Avengers. (For whatever it’s worth, Fast Five actually preceded the MCU’s first Avengers movie by a year.) From that movie onward, each entry in the franchise has functioned at an Avengers-like scale while adding more members to the “family.” For instance: Hobbs went from a Fast Five antagonist to being invited to Toretto hangouts in the sequels—at least until a certain someone was called a “candy ass”—and the same thing happened for Jason Statham, whose Deckard Shaw went from killing Han to starring in his own buddy comedy with Hobbs.

That the franchise turned its characters into de facto superheroes just as the Marvel boon was coming into effect might’ve been a happy coincidence. But much in the same way the Mission: Impossible franchise has continued to one-up itself by having Tom Cruise fulfill some kind of death wish on-screen, the Fast and Furious is a wonderfully silly enterprise that knows exactly what it’s doing every time the movies up the ante. (It’s not a coincidence that in the series’ first spinoff film, Hobbs & Shaw, Idris Elba’s cybernetically enhanced villain refers to himself as “Black Superman.”) Perhaps the surest sign that the Fast franchise’s superhero-ification has paid dividends was when, in 2015, Furious 7 made more money than Avengers: Age of Ultron. This year, it wouldn’t be the least bit surprising if Fast 9 ends up being the highest-grossing movie.

In light of all the ridiculous stunts Dom and the rest of the Fast family have pulled off in the past decade, which could even include sending a couple of characters into outer space in a couple of months, maybe dragging a huge vault containing $100 million across the streets of Rio doesn’t carry the same weight. But Fast Five was a major turning point for a franchise that was still on life support at the time. It’s among the best high-octane blockbusters of its decade—surpassed by only the gnarly Mad Max: Fury Road—and the franchise hasn’t taken its foot off the gas ever since. Roman Pearce might need reminding of all the wild missions the Fast family has been on, but the rest of the world certainly doesn’t.