How embracing diversity turned ‘Fast Five’ into a worldwide hit

Ultimate Movie Year finds the best films from weekends past to build an all-star lineup of cinema.

“Fast Five”
Released April 29, 2011
Directed by Justin Lin

Back in the early 2010s, movies were about to be revolutionized by a project featuring the heroes of different films coming together to fight a common enemy. This idea became a surprise box office smash and reinvigorated a film series to become a global juggernaut while making its stars household names.

“The Avengers” came out in 2012. The same premise also applies to “Fast Five,” released almost exactly a year earlier. But while the Marvel Studios movies were able to rely on popular characters, decades of story ideas from the comics, and new special effects that could imagine virtually any scenario, “Fast Five” had none of these advantages, and yet still succeeded by driving in the opposite direction.

The film is a modern throwback to the action movies, but the real secret of “Fast Five’s” massive success lies in its commitment to multiculturalism. For the first time, Hollywood promoted a significant action franchise where diversity was not an afterthought, but baked into its DNA.

The History, or “We don’t ever — EVER — let them get in the cars”

The franchise began with 2001’s “The Fast and the Furious,” directed by Rob Cohen. Paul Walker starred as undercover police officer Brian O’Conner, assigned to investigate a street racing heist team led by Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel). For all intents and purposes, “The Fast and the Furious” shares many plot elements from 1991’s “Point Break,” but replaced surfboards with cars. The movie was a decent hit at the box office but received mixed notices.

However, Diesel declined to return for the sequel, 2003’s “2 Fast 2 Furious,” which now featured Walker alongside black actors Tyrese Gibson and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges in a supporting role. For the next movie, Walker was out, but Diesel came back (only for a cameo) when director Justin Lin took over the reins in 2006’s “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift,” which moved the racing to Japan with Lucas Black and Sung Kang in starring roles. Each successive film had produced diminishing box office returns.

Lin convinced the original band to get together (Walker, Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez, and Jordana Brewster) for 2009’s “Fast & Furious.” The focus shifted from street racing to car heists, and suddenly the franchise found new life at the box office. Perhaps everybody involved realized that the original stars should always be part of the equation going forward. Still, the exciting aspect of those lean years was the forgotten sequels were forced to establish new characters to keep the franchise going. It was not only a crucial shift that would pay dividends later on, but also, the foresight to fill these new roles with actors from a diversity of backgrounds set the stage for the success to come.

The Crew, or “Mi Familia”

Enter “Fast Five.” The movie picks up right where “Fast & Furious” left off, as Brian, Mia (Brewster), and crew plot to break Dom out of custody. Now on the run and in need of money, Brian and Dom get involved in an operation that’s beyond the two of them, so they recruit many of those lead characters from the previous movies to help them plot a heist. It not only expands the possibilities of seeing all these people interact, but it also solidifies the entire franchise into a cohesive mythology that retroactively elevates all the movies that came before.

Into the story comes Roman Pierce (Gibson) and Tej Parker (Bridges) from “2 Fast 2 Furious;” Han Lue (Kang) from “Tokyo Drift” and “Fast & Furious;” and Gisele Yashar (Gal Gadot), Leo (Tego Calderón), and Santos (Don Omar) from “Fast & Furious.” The new players include Blacks, an Asian, an Israeli, and Hispanics, which, along with Diesel’s mixed background, not only bring diversity into the team, but also dominates it. Walker’s character is the only Caucasian in Dom’s crew, and, frankly, adds little besides continuity, stability, and attractiveness.

This marks a sea change for a major Hollywood film with an ensemble cast. Cultural commentators have spent much of the past decade discussing diversity and representation on film because it took longer than it should have for significant franchises and studios to spotlight protagonists who were not a white male. “Fast Five” quietly made its cast choices, and before the public realized what was happening, they happily became fans of the Fast franchise to lift it to new heights. However, there was one more piece of the puzzle that made “Fast Five” special.

The Game changer, or “Stay the fuck out of my way”

Dating back to his days as a professional wrestler, there was no doubt Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was one of the most charismatic figures on the face of the planet. He transitioned from the WWE to becoming a movie star in the early 2000s. After a few action hero roles in “The Scorpion King,” “The Rundown,” and “Walking Tall,” he signed onto a variety of projects that showcased his versatility, but overall lacked critical and box office success. Like the Fast franchise, it felt like something wasn’t quite right yet.

The correction came when Johnson signed onto “Fast Five” as Luke Hobbs, a United States Diplomatic Security Service agent tasked with chasing down Dom and his crew. With Johnson in the role, the filmmakers found a compelling, believable antagonist who was capable of taking down the whole team by himself. In contrast, the actor took on a role that perfectly played to his charismatic badass strengths. It was a match made in heaven, lifting “Fast Five” up considerably and bringing new audiences to the theaters. Oh, and by the way, Johnson also has a mixed-race background.

The Reaction, or “I don’t feel like I’m under arrest”

All these elements combine for an exciting, engaging plot, as Dom and his crew attempt to steal $100 million from a Brazilian drug lord, Herman Reyes (Joaquim de Almedia) while avoiding the pursuit of Hobbs. Everything comes to a head in the climax, as Dom and Brian race through the streets of Rio de Janerio, dragging a large safe behind them with the entirety of the city police giving chase. As studios increasingly turned to superhero and animated films conceived with computer effects, the action of “Fast Five” was the cherry on top. Lin treats the safe like it was a wrecking ball, giving the final chase a visual weight that audiences haven’t felt since CGI became the norm. The latter Fast films would become bigger and more outlandish with each installment, increasing their own need for CGI effects, but “Fast Five” strikes a perfect balance to make all the action feel as real as possible.

“Fast Five” opened to its biggest weekend in franchise history, scoring $86 million at the box office in its first three days. It had a decent run in United States theaters, topping out at nearly $210 million domestically, but it doubled its take internationally, with a total worldwide gross of $626 million. Finally, Hollywood had a franchise that was international in every sense of the word.

The latter Fast sequels and spinoffs would continue the success, even surpassing “Fast Five’s” haul several times. Still, there’s something magical about seeing a movie sequel that advances the story, changes the dynamic, and unlocks the keys to transform it into a global hit.

Five films in, you always remember the first.

The Weekend: Hollywood continues to move up the unofficial “summer blockbuster” start date from Memorial Day to the first weekend of May, and now to late April. “Fast Five” was one of the first big movies to open in April to kick off a couple of months of fun, popular entertainment at the multiplexes (ideally, at least), so it was a natural choice for the Ultimate Movie Year this week. Over the next three months, we’ll highlight several of the most beloved and rewatched movies of all time, so it’s going to be an awesome ride.

Going back into the history books for Week Seventeen, one of cinema’s most foundational westerns debuted on April 23, 1953. “Shane” starred Alan Ladd as the titular cowboy drifter, who helps a rancher and his family fend off an organized group of rogues trying to force them off their settlements. The Hollywood Western was once as ubiquitous as superhero films are today, but “Shane” remains one of the most well regarded of the genre.

Another acclaimed film was Woody Allen’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning “Annie Hall,” 1979’s “Manhattan.” While Allen’s controversial personal life has made him a pariah in my eyes, there’s no doubt of his talent as a filmmaker. “Manhattan” is one of his most acclaimed films, but the storyline involving Allen’s character dating a high-school-aged Mariel Hemmingway is challenging to watch now. However, the introduction of the movie featuring shots of the city in black and white, set to George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” is probably the most beautiful three-minute tribute to New York City in cinematic history.

Two cult favorites were released on the same day in 1983. Nicolas Cage nabbed one of his first leading roles in Martha Collidge’s “Valley Girl,” a teenage comedy that boasted a new wave 80s soundtrack. Meanwhile, director Tony Scott made his feature film debut with “The Hunger,” a sensual horror with David Bowie, Catherine Deneuve, and Susan Sarandon. Both films are worthy of a watch if you’re going to deep dive 80s cinema.

Moving into 1995, Ice Cube and DJ Pooh wrote a low budget comedy set in South Central Los Angeles called, “Friday.” The hilarious and earnest comedy transformed the careers of Cube, who also starred in the film, director F. Gary Gray, and co-star Chris Tucker, who stole the movie as Smokey. It was successful upon release and earned even more fans over the years to become a favorite of the era.

Nostalgia for the 80s remains steady at the cinema, as we’re still seeing sequels and reboots to films debuting in that decade. Two movies that play with that nostalgia well are 1997’s “Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion” and 2004’s “13 Going on 30.” “Romy and Michelle” stars Mira Sorvino and Lisa Kudrow as longtime besties who glam themselves up to face their teenage demons and tormentors. “13 Going on 30” combines the premise of “Big” with time travel, as a teenage girl finds herself in her adult body (played by Jennifer Garner). Both films are cute, funny, and have terrific 80s soundtracks.

Michael Bay is a director who’s more into style and excess than critical acclaim, but “Pain & Gain” was one of the few films in his career that combined both. This 2013 movie featured Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, and Anthony Mackie as moronic weightlifters hatching a kidnapping scheme. “Pain & Gain” won Bay some of the best reviews of his career, and while I cannot tell you that it’s excellent, it does have its moments.

Some other films of note: “With Honors” from 1993; “PCU” in 1994; “Identity” in 2003; “Man on Fire” in 2004; and “Baby Mama” and “Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay,” both released in 2008.

As the calendar turns to May, the Marvel superhero movies have come to dominate the first weekend of the month. By the end of the 2010s, Marvel Studios have become such a behemoth in early May that the powers-that-be behind Marvel and Disney decided to bump up the dates of “Avengers: Infinity War” in 2018 and “Avengers: Endgame” in 2019 from their original openings in May to the last weekend in April. To say this move would be financially lucrative is an understatement, as they became two of the biggest box office successes of all time, and “Endgame” currently holds the all-time record for grosses. So needless to say, we’re reaching a point where I just have to talk about the Marvel movies. Assemble here next week for (another) film that changed the industry, again.

Next Week: “The Avengers”

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Originally published at http://www.markciemcioch.com on April 23, 2020.

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