Why 'Fast & Furious' Is Our Best — And Worst — Franchise Critic Linda Holmes argues that as mindless as The Fast & The Furious may seem, it's also brilliant for surviving and thriving in Hollywood for 20 years.

'Fast & Furious' Owner's Manual: A Guide As The Best Worst Franchise Turns 20

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

OK, so Bob just mentioned the inevitable next sequel. There are even talks already of other character spinoffs in the "Fast & Furious"-ly productive universe. Maybe you're also wondering how exactly these films have endured for this many sequels. The series began 20 years ago as a small, grimy action film with relatively unknown stars. Now it's an industrial-scale super-machine that includes helicopters and spaceships.

Linda Holmes is one of the hosts of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast, and she's been thinking a lot about what the survival and the swerving focus of the "Fast & Furious" franchise says about modern Hollywood. She's just written an owner's manual to the series for npr.org, and she's here with us now. Hi, Linda.

LINDA HOLMES, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: So when the first movie in the franchise came out in 2001, do you think anyone would have predicted that we would be talking about the ninth installment in the franchise with likely more to come these 20 years later?

HOLMES: I don't think so. You know, the first movie was received as almost like an exploitation picture. The trailer made it look like it was about, you know, nightlife and hot women and fast cars. And, you know, critics at the time talked about it as the kind of thing you would see at a drive-in. And so I think they sort of thought of it as almost like a cheap little movie, which is funny now, of course.

SHAPIRO: I mean, you point out that in the first one, they were stealing DVD players.

HOLMES: Yes.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) This was not about world domination.

HOLMES: First of all, that's how low the stakes were. And second of all, that's how long ago it was. They were stealing DVD players. And when they had rivals and enemies, it was, you know, other street racers because street racing was kind of the culture that these guys were all part of. And so there was some, you know, kind of low-level thievery and car racing, and that was what the stakes were.

SHAPIRO: But there was something special about this franchise. So way back then, in 2001, what made it distinctive?

HOLMES: Well, I think, you know, people responded to the cop story. It was very similar, actually, to the previous Keanu Reeves movie, "Point Break," in that it was a cop, played by Paul Walker, who kind of went undercover and infiltrated this gang, led by Vin Diesel, and kind of fell in with them, became loyal to them, grew to like them. I think people responded to that story. I think they also responded to car racing. Car racing is fun. And this is not the first time Hollywood had learned it, but I think they responded to the fast cars and the good time.

SHAPIRO: Of course, during the filming of the seventh movie in the franchise, Paul Walker, who had become kind of the centerpiece, died before the movie was finished.

HOLMES: That was a real challenge for them because, you know, obviously, yes, he had been in the first film. He had been in all of them except the third one. The third one had kind of been a whole different group of people. But because they had kind of switched out the settings and the characters, I think it made it a little bit easier for them to write a graceful retirement for the character. And they had this kind of big team. But it was definitely one of the most challenging and difficult things that could happen to a franchise of this size. And it's kind of amazing that it went on the way that it did.

SHAPIRO: You talk about how the franchise sort of shifted and expanded. And as you write in your essay, from the very beginning, "Fast & Furious" embodied inclusion and really progressive representation.

HOLMES: They really did. And, you know, at a time when a lot of franchises like this did not have diverse casts and characters, they did in this one. You know, they began to - maybe not in the very first one, but once they were adding actors like Tyrese Gibson and Ludacris and obviously starting with Michelle Rodriguez, who was in the first one, and - it's something that has meant a lot to the fans of this franchise who have valued that inclusion quite a lot.

SHAPIRO: So what's the secret of its success during a tough time for Hollywood?

HOLMES: Well, you know, I think flexibility. They have adjusted a bunch of different times. They actually moved one of the movies around in the timeline in order to have somebody who had died kind of undie. And at times, they have really found the sweet spot of spectacle, good humor. You know, now I think they're a little bit collapsing under the weight of sheer escalation of stunts.

SHAPIRO: Bigger, bigger, bigger.

HOLMES: Bigger, bigger, bigger. But, you know, at times they have really found that sweet spot. And it has been a lot of fun, I think, especially around, like, the fifth to the seventh - great, great fun to go to these.

SHAPIRO: Does it even matter if critics like them?

HOLMES: You know, it doesn't necessarily matter, but critics have actually liked some of these movies quite a bit. I think particularly the fifth one, the seventh one have really gotten good reviews. Critics like these when they're good.

SHAPIRO: Linda Holmes of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast, thanks a lot.

HOLMES: Thank you, Ari.

(SOUNDBITE OF BT'S "THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS THEME")

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