When Universal released “The Fast and the Furious,” a gasoline-soaked “Point Break” riff set in the world of illicit street-racing, in 2001, few could have foreseen the high-mileage, big-budget franchise it would eventually ignite.
Leads Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Michelle Rodriguez, and Jordana Brewster were hardly household names at the time, and though box-office returns were solid, reviews turned out to be mixed. The gearhead-geared plot, too, didn’t suggest an international audience.
And yet, with each subsequent entry, the “Fast and Furious” franchise has evolved, adding an international array of speed-freak sidekicks to a growing “family” for Diesel’s reformed criminal Dom Toretto, and building an exotic universe that spans continents, replete with wealthy crime lords, malevolent mercenaries, and shadowy spy syndicates. Along the way, box-office returns and critical reception have improved — with 2015’s “Furious 7” emerging as the series’ highest-grossing entry.
Now, with the octoquel “Fate of the Furious” hitting theaters Friday (and opening-weekend box-office predictions clocking in north of $100 million), the franchise is still accelerating, with little sign of slowing down.
But to hear it from Rodriguez, who plays gifted driver-thief Letty Ortiz, the series’ relentless momentum — and global success — makes all the sense in the world when one considers how “Fast and the Furious” has consistently broadened its scope while staying true to its family values and sense of cultural inclusivity.
“People look to the franchise like it’s the Olympics of Hollywood, and I think that’s why it’s survived for so long,” Rodriguez says by phone from New York. “It just had the timing of hitting that global market, and representing global markets substantially in its themes, story, and content.”
The actress, one of Hollywood’s most prominent Latina stars, says it’s been a joy to watch “Fast and Furious” emerge as a multicultural phenomenon.
“We’re the only franchise in the action-movie market outside of sci-fi that shows other cultures in the spotlight,” says Rodriguez, 38. “The movie market has gone global, but with the grand majority of lead actors in most of the franchises outside of sci-fi and superhero movies, you’re looking at white people. The world isn’t white. . . . It’s got its own culture and its own essence.”
In keeping with the storytelling’s globetrotting tendencies, those steering the franchise have consistently made it a priority to roll cameras in multiple countries. As such, locations for “Fate of the Furious” included New York City, Iceland, and — in a pioneering moment for the US film industry — Cuba.
Filming in the capital, Havana, as diplomatic ties were being restored with the United States proved one of the most challenging parts of the shoot, says director F. Gary Gray.
“We had the US government and the Cuban government interact with each other in ways they’d never interacted with each other in order to create the opening of this film,” says Gray, also by phone from New York. “The fact they didn’t have the infrastructure to take on a movie like this created another challenge.”
That said, Gray, who’s best known for the heist thriller “The Italian Job” and the NWA biopic “Straight Outta Compton,” insists that shooting in Havana made thematic sense for a franchise he calls “multicultural” and “fearless.”
“Cubans have a natural car culture, and oddly enough — and it’s just ironic that it’s vintage American cars — but you can draw a straight line to Dom Toretto and American muscle cars, and draw that line straight back to Havana, Cuba,” says Gray. “That is part of what made it exciting for me to direct.”
Rodriguez said she also relished the chance to explore Cuba.
“There’s something about that culture that’s refreshing,” she says. “I’ve never felt that kind of warmth anywhere else. It’s really refreshing to see young guys hugging old ladies in the street and people actually talking in coffee-shops instead of looking at their phones.”
Gray knows audiences will appreciate the predictably explosive stunts and high-octane car chases but he believes they’ll also marvel at the movie’s commitment to showcasing international locations and diverse cultures.
“Hopefully, there’s a message underneath the obvious message of entertainment in the Cuban opening,” he says. “Hopefully, there’s a metaphor about what’s possible. That’s really why you go to the movies.”