With the release of Furious 7 Friday, the Fast and the Furious series reaches its apparent conclusion, so let’s raise a Corona to the best, and the most culturally significant, action franchise of our time. This may sound like hyperbole for a series that, at one point, required Vin Diesel and Paul Walker to drag a 10-ton bank vault behind a pair of Dodge Chargers through the streets of Rio de Janeiro. (Fast Five: See it to believe it!) But that vault, and the windfall within, reminds us that these movies—which have evolved into the grandest ballet of car wreckage and hand-to-hand combat in current cinema—feel perfectly built for the post-global economic crisis era.
The first Fast and the Furious opened in theaters in 2001, the same year that gave birth to two other franchises, Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings. Variety’s Todd McCarthy, one of the few critics who sensed long-term potential in the initial nitro-pep between Diesel’s Dominic and Walker’s Brian, hailed it as “the sort of film that used to be a Hollywood staple but is now in short supply.” Proving him right, The Fast and the Furious made $144 million at the box office. Anyone with a passing knowledge of Furious lore knows what happened next: two more movies, 2 Fast 2 Furious and The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, followed, garnering progressively worse reviews and lower ticket sales.
Then in April of 2009, six months to the day after President Bush signed a $700 billion economic bailout bill into law, Fast & Furious, the fourth one, arrived in theaters. The reviews were still bad, but the audience was once again willing to go along for the ride. Just as the bailout didn’t solve all America’s problems, Fast & Furious didn’t solve the franchise’s—but it was a start. The Fast epic began to rebuild and reinvent itself as America’s laid-off, over-mortgaged, and Bernie Madoffed did the same. The movies went big, transforming themselves from humble urban car-racing movies to over-the-top, IMAX-ready action assaults. The result? 2013’s Fast & Furious 6 made $238 million domestic and $550 million overseas, and Furious 7 seems set to have a historically huge opening weekend.
Now, were all those multiplex rubberneckers going to the Fast movies because they tapped into a post-economic-crash hunger for financial and personal restoration? Pffft! They were going to watch Vin Diesel drive a Dodge Charger SRT8 through the nose cone of an airplane as it bursts into flames, obviously. But the franchise rebooted itself at the same time that the country was attempting to do the same. The notion that an action series could take what was, arguably, its worst example—that would be Tokyo Drift—then turn that into a building block for its subsequent narratives, and, after that, encounter greater critical and financial success than it had before: Talk about the audacity of hope! The wonderfully American idea that everyone gets a second chance—or a third, fourth, or Furious 7nth one—is deeply embedded in the Fast and Furious sensibility. No matter how many times the core characters get involved in spectacular car accidents, they usually live to come up with yet another ludicrous plan that will lead to yet another spectacular wreck.
That isn’t always the case in real life. (Fans of Paul Walker know that, sadly.) And in real life, members of the working class rarely enjoy the luxuries normally reserved for the one percent. In fact, the gap between the rich and poor in this country seems to be widening every day. But in Fast and Furious land, there is no gap. A blue collar, one-time mechanic like Dom—a guy who, offered a Belgian beer, will go Corona every time—gets to wildly drive cars that cost more than actual mechanics will make in a lifetime.
Of course, the movies themselves have no hang-ups about their cultural relevance. The Furious movies just keep doing their crazy, car-sky-diving thing, inviting fans to join their multi-cultural, perfectly-reflective-of-contemporary-society ensemble for the ride. And why wouldn’t we? If the economic calamities of recent years have taught us anything, it’s that a crash can happen at any moment. So what the hell—you may as well hop in, hit the gas, and lean into the hard turns.
Read more in Slate: