The trailer for The Fate of the Furious, the eighth movie in the Fast & Furious franchise, includes giant wrecking balls smashing military convoys, grappling hooks shooting out of muscle cars, a prison brawl, tanks, a dramatic betrayal, family, and a goddamn submarine emerging from the arctic ice. In a saga that was at first Point Blank with street racing, Fate of the Furious solidifies this franchise as the 21st century’s James Bond, if it isn’t already. But tracing the evolution of Hollywood’s quintessential action series isn’t complicated. Looking back at the exhaustive 16-year journey of Dom Toretto’s family, there is one moment where it all pivoted: the freefall in 2011’s Fast Five.
The Fast & Furious was already on the road to reinvention before the fifth movie. The first three movies were the era’s prototypical street racing movies, with none of the world-ending plots, supervillains, and gimmicky stunts that have become staples since. In fact, everything looked pretty much DOA after The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift from 2006, which behaved like a teen sports movie without Paul Walker or Vin Diesel in major roles (Diesel’s cameo would only become important nine years later). Tokyo Drift felt like a step backward, potentially dooming import tuners to bargain bins like the American Pie spin-offs.
But in 2009, Tokyo Drift director Justin Lin stayed on for the fourth movie Fast & Furious, where Brian (Walker) and Dom Toretto (Diesel) came back in a plot about drug trafficking under the guise of — what else — racing. The film’s return to basics was a palette cleanser, so everything could change in Fast Five — also directed by Lin — which put the kibosh on racing for good. And it wasted no time doing so.
With a hefty 130-minute runtime, an uncommon length for action movies six years ago, Fast Five had the room for bombastic set pieces. The film indulged before the first 20 minutes in a heist to steal sports cars out of a moving train in Brazil. The sequence was a foreshadow for where the series was going: There was more hand-to-hand fighting than ever, the exotic shape of the Ford GT40 wasn’t paid attention to, and most of all, it wasn’t a race. Some of the first scenes in The Fast and the Furious were heists, but Fast Five was more of an evolution than an homage to its humble beginnings.
And the climax brought it home: As the train speeds to a bridge over a steep canyon, Brian jumps onto Dom’s car and the two fall for an entire 15 seconds into the water below. There’s no sound when Brian and Dom fall. Only deafening silence, allowing the audience take in the — quite literal — gravity of the situation. When Brian and Dom splash, it’s almost a relief.
Those 15 seconds changed Fast & Furious forever. Since then, the movies have tried to replicate the breathlessness of the fall with escalating stakes. In 2013’s Fast & Furious 6, the group brings down a cargo plane. In Furious 7 from 2015, well, pick one: It’s the cars being parachuted off a plane, or Brian crawling out of an armored bus as it tips over (another) cliff, or Brian and Dom ramming a Maserati through the Etihad Towers in Abu Dhabi.
The Fate of the Furious looks no different; in addition to huge submarines, a scene filmed in Cleveland has a bunch of cars pushed out of a building and onto the street where they burst into flames. (The filming of the latter was caught on a cell phone and posted on Reddit, which went viral for its awe-inspiring absurdity.)
There was, of course, more to the evolution of the Fast & Furious besides the big fall. Before the cameras even started rolling, Fast Five signaled the shift by casting Dwayne Johnson. The wrestler-turned-actor was languishing in B-grade action movies like Doom and saccharine Disney movies that didn’t fully utilize the actor’s killer charisma. Johnson needed an adrenaline shot, and it came in his Luke Hobbes, a DSS agent whose Biblical name referenced his unstoppable nature. Johnson and the series each benefitted from the other, and Johnson has been a mainstay in the franchise which now grosses billions worldwide.
But Johnson doesn’t appear in Fast Five until after the huge fall, which was filmed as practically as possible. (Elements were filmed separately and put together in post, but the filmmakers really did shoot out a car out of a cliff.) In spite of all the guns and speeding Lamborghinis, the transformation of the Fast & Furious from street racing to borderline superhero action movies isn’t very convoluted, but it sure has been fun to watch.
The Fate of the Furious will be released April 14.