Thursday 27 April 2017

Deconstructing the Success of Fast and Furious

This post contains spoilers for The Fate of the Furious

Like a torpedo fired from a Russian nuclear submarine, The Fate of the Furious has gone off like a rocket at the box office. But what factors have gone into transforming this series from humble beginnings to the titanic takings its currently enjoying? I unpack the popularity of the Fast and Furious series...

If someone slipped into a coma back in 2001 and only just woke up this week, there would be a lot of stuff that would feel alien to them; since then, real estate mogul Donald Trump has transformed himself into a reality TV star before becoming the leader of the free world, Star Wars has both concluded and been revived, and the Apple iPod has gone from a radical and expensive concept to essentially redundant, replaced by streaming services and smartphones that do pretty much everything, not just play music.

But perhaps the strangest development in the world of pop culture and cinematic trends is the emergence of the Fast and Furious franchise from niche Point Break rip-off to the gargantuan box office behemoth that it is today. Since first zooming onto cinema screens back in June 2001, The Fast and the Furious has spawned a string of sequels that currently total eight and may surpass 10 by the time Universal has squeezed every last drop of milk from its increasingly lucrative udder, not to mention the proposed buddy cop spin-off with Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham.

Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson in The Fate of the Furious
In its first weekend in cinemas, The Fate of the Furious blew past even the most generous industry expectations to notch up the largest international opening weekend ever, with a total of US$532.5 million (AU$702 million) in just four days, positively racing past the previous record set by Star Wars: The Force Awakens (US$529 million) in 2015.

How has this happened? How did the series go from a relatively straight-forward first film about street racing through Los Angeles to the most recent entry, The Fate of the Furious, which sees a sprawling ensemble cast that includes two Academy Award winners enact vehicular mayhem through Havana, New York, Berlin and a Russian nuclear submarine base?

There are a multitude of factors working in tandem to get us to this point, the first and potentially most important of which is the wholehearted and natural inclination towards inclusivity and diversity.

You only need to take a cursory glance at the cast list of the Fast and Furious franchise to see that a lot of work has gone into shaping a culturally and racially diverse ensemble. Aside from Paul Walker's heartland America blonde hair and blue eyes, the cast has recruited the likes of Tyrese Gibson, Michelle Rodriguez, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Jordana Brewster, Gal Gadot, Nathalie Emmanuel, Elsa Pataky and Sung Kang, not to mention that fact that Diesel himself comes from a mixed race family. It's the same story behind the camera, with Justin Lin, James Wan, John Singleton and F. Gary Gray on directorial duties.

Gal Gadot, Elsa Pataky, Jordana Brewster and Michelle Rodriguez (L-R) showcasing how the Fast and Furious
series has provided a prominent platform for mixed race and non-Caucasian women.

(Clockwise from left) Sung Kang, Tyrese Gibson, Chris Bridges and
Nathalie Emmanuel in the Fast and Furious series. Again, showcasing
the diverse casting choices that have struck a chord with audiences.
According to Box Office Mojo, American viewers on opening weekend were 41 per cent Caucasian, 26 per cent Hispanic, 19 per cent African American and 11 per cent Asian. 

Audiences were skewed in favour of men, but the crossover appeal generated by The Rock's biceps was evident, with 42 per cent of the audiences being female. The cast is reflecting the diversity of its audience back at themselves and finding success in the process - an aspect that should cause studio execs to sit up and take notice.

The next strand is the explosive action with which the series is synonymous. The great thing about action is that you don't need a translator or subtitles to understand or enjoy what is unfolding up there on the big screen. Understanding and appreciating action is universal, and since hitting it big with the transformative fifth entry Fast Five, the Fast and Furious series has only gotten more imaginative and outlandish in how it stages and executes said action. 

In The Fate of the Furious, we bear witness to all manner of ridiculous mayhem, including but not limited to The Rock leaning out of a truck that is speeding across an ice field so that he can redirect a torpedo sliding alongside the vehicle with his bare hands. It's that kind of goofy action that transcends both language and geographic barriers.

The climactic submarine chase in The Fate of the Furious.

You could also argue that the series has gradually begun to adopt a soap opera style of narrative storytelling, another element that is easily relatable and recogniseable for international audiences in Latin America, Japan or Korea who live and breathe telenovelas, dorama or K-drama series' respectively. 

Whether it's characters like Letty (Rodriguez) returning from the dead with amnesia, villains like Deckard Shaw (Statham) undoing past misdeeds by switching sides or previous lovers like Elena (Pataky) resurfacing with a baby that turns out to be Dom's, the Fast and Furious franchise thrives on soap opera plot twists and reversals that are easy to for international audiences to digest, owing to their familiarity to the same long-form storytelling in primetime television. At this point, I wouldn't be surprised if it was revealed that Dom was separated from his evil twin brother at birth in the next movie.

After dying in a fiery crash, Letty returned from
the dead with amnesia, just like something you'd
see on a telenovela or soap opera.
Unlike series' like Star Wars and to a lesser extent Marvel, Fast and Furious isn't steeped in lore or encumbered by deep mythology that spans 50 years. There is depth to be found when viewed in its entirety, but the series can also accommodate newcomers, even in its eight installment. The characters are broad enough that they don't require backstory; the plot is action-packed enough that the tech jargon, to a certain degree, doesn't matter.

Lastly, the series is built on a bedrock of values and themes that translate easily to audiences who speak English as a second language. The number of times someone says the word 'family' in these films is something of a cheesy running joke to some, but to international audiences it's something to latch onto and identify with. Family comes first; supporting them is sacred; always respect your rivals, and so on and so forth. Salute, mi familia isn't just a cute line they cast constantly echo - it's a mantra the series has modelled itself on.

Essentially, the Fast and Furious films are the purest cinematic distillation of the globalised world we live in. It's very telling that as domestic takings start to dip (The Fate of the Furious made only US$100.2 million in its first weekend, down from the US$147 million its predecessor - Fast and Furious 7 - made on its opening US weekend), international gross has climbed - roughly US$430 million came from international markets during the first weekend.

As the Fast and Furious juggernaut rolls inexorably onward, it becomes increasingly evident this series is pitching itself as the encapsulation of what modern blockbuster cinema should be, for better or for worse. It's diverse, broad, high-octane and vastly appealing to wide range of demographics across the globe. 

Its cast is eminently marketable and savvy on social media; the mish-mash of ethnicities embraces multiculturalism and reflects the audience back at themselves, whether they're watching in a multiplex in Brooklyn, Mexico City or Seoul. The narratives are both simple and interlinked, mimicking the nature of episodic soap operas in that it's easy to jump in midway through and pick it up. 

It's the ultimate 21st century film series in every sense of the phrase. Love them or hate them, the Fast and Furious films have built themselves up as the go-to mainstream blockbuster films for a range of audiences across the globe, almost certainly readjusting the compasses belonging to many a Hollywood studio in the process.

The Fate of the Furious is in cinemas across Australia now.

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