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Entertainment, Food & Beverage

Fast road to success

The Fast & Furious franchise started with a B-film, but has now earned over US$1.5 billion and beaten superhero blockbusters
The Straits Times - May 22, 2013
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Fast road to success

The Fast & Furious story began in 2001 as an exercise in trash-movie excess. Its relatively modest US$38-million budget was not spent on stars or special effects, but on fast cars, a hip-hop soundtrack and a contingent of female extras in unfeasibly small items of clothing. The whole motley set-up was framed by a bone-headed plot about an undercover cop who infiltrates a bunch of heist-happy street racers.

Twelve years and five films later, with more than US$1.5 billion (S$1.9 billion) in box-office earnings to the franchise's credit, no one doubts that the brutally simple formula of speed, sex and shattering explosions works.

Fast Five (2011), the last one in the series, topped the series chart with its US$600 million in earnings. The movies, sniffed at by critics as extended rap videos or street-racing video games with dialogue, now play in the same league as a summer blockbuster based on a superhero or best-selling novel.

The feat is all the more remarkable considering that superhero movies come with built-in name recognition from television and comic books, an advantage the Fast movies never enjoyed.

Globally, Fast Five's takings beat its summer competitors Thor (US$181 million) and Captain America: The First Avenger (US$176 million), without a cent of it going to the comic-book rights owners Marvel and DC, who own copyrights on almost every superhero brand.

The comparison between the Fast films and the caped-hero genre is not lost on actor Vin Diesel, 45, speaking to Life! during a press tour passing through Manila last week.

The shaven-headed, muscle-packed man looks thoughtful as he ponders the question about whether his character, the street racer and occasional criminal Dominic Toretto is mortal or something more than human. When he premiered the role in 2001, Toretto was a working-class hero with a gift for piloting a car at high speeds on city streets.

In Fast & Furious 6, which opens tomorrow, Toretto is capable of astounding feats of strength. In one sequence, he leaps, bird-like, from a moving car into the air to save a companion from falling off a bridge.

"That's a great question. I never thought about it until I saw Fast 6," says Diesel, whose real name is the less tough-sounding Mark Sinclair Vincent. "There is something of an evolution of that character, of upping the ante in action and energy.

"In our sequences, our guys are heroes who sport street clothes. But they have a heroic essence and it's one of the things we embraced in this movie," he adds, before launching into a breathless, slapstick imitation of a man overcome by happiness. He has been known to take interviews into odd directions.

"We are really, really, really, really excited about this. I can't wait till we get up against the other guys. It's DC versus Marvel and we will crush 'em," he says, thrusting his shoulders up and down rapidly with child-like glee. It is not clear if he is truly overjoyed by the idea of an epic battle or if he has sat through too many reporters' questions that afternoon.

It was Taiwan-born American director Justin Lin, 41, who conceived the idea of building a mythology for the Fast characters. Lin stepped in for the third movie, The Fast And The Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006). The first movie had been directed by Rob Cohen and the second by John Singleton.

Lin was hired after disappointing box-office results for Singleton's 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003).

Lin decided that Diesel, who skipped the second movie because of scheduling conflicts, had to make a cameo appearance at the end of Tokyo Drift to create a sense of continuity with the past and to prepare the audience for a more thematically unified world.

In subsequent movies, the focus would shift away from street-racing culture in favour of globe-trotting locations and spectacular, credulity-straining action set pieces.

The core characters, including ex-cop Brian O'Conner (Paul Walker), Toretto's love interest and racer Letty Ortiz (Michelle Rodriguez), Toretto's sister and O'Conner's girlfriend Mia (Jordana Brewster) would also morph under Lin's hand.

From being blue-collar Angelenos, they would evolve into an ultra-cool criminal team with a global reach, pursued by federal agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson). Lin, who was not present at the Manila press call, would go on to helm the fourth movie (Fast & Furious) and then the staggeringly successful fifth. The sixth movie will be his last in the franchise as he moves on to other projects.

Actress Rodriguez, 34, seems to have adapted well to the more action-oriented tone of the films directed by Lin. She is known for taking on tough-girl parts and played a military pilot in Avatar (2009) and a commando in the Resident Evil series (2002-2012). "I love action. I don't get enough of it to do. It's my favourite thing," says Rodriguez. She spoke about how, in almost every film, she plays an angst-ridden character whose personality is split between good and evil, and needs to choose one path.

"I am damned to it," she says with a laugh, about always being forced to play women in moral agony.

"I guess I am a conflicted person. When you are a strong woman, you give that strong woman some conflict, so that she can service her will. You have a good story," she adds.

She gets plenty of action and angst in Fast 6. Her character Letty makes a return, despite an apparent death scene in the fourth movie. Letty will appear in the seventh movie in the series, she reckons. "You can count on me coming back. I am sure they are not gonna kill me twice... they might want to wait a movie or two," she says, laughing.

The actress appears in a brutal hand-to-hand fight scene set in a London Underground station. Her opponent is mixed martial arts fighter- turned-actress Gina Carano, 31.

Carano, who got her first major role as super-spy Mallory Kane in Steven Soderbergh's Haywire (2012), makes her debut in the film series as federal agent Riley.

She tells Life! that it was "intimidating" to enter a well-oiled production like Fast. But she found the experience of joining the team to be quite painless, as did other newcomer, British actor Luke Evans, 34.

As an actor, he admits that he has run the gamut of roles that British actors tend to get in Hollywood. He has played gods (Apollo in Clash Of The Titans, 2010; Zeus in Immortals, 2011), fairy-tale creatures (Bard in the forthcoming Hobbit films, The Desolation Of Smaug, out this year, and There And Back Again, 2014) and in Fast 6, he plays a supersmart villain, a part that Brits in Hollywood have locked up.

Evans is Owen Shaw, a former special forces soldier-turned-underworld ringleader. He remembers the first scene he acted in, one in which he came face-to-face with the core cast.

On that first day, he had to shoot a scene in which Shaw is captured, tied up and taken to Toretto's group for an interrogation. The setting was less than ideal, but that moment would have to do as a welcome ceremony of sorts, he says.

"I am handcuffed and brought in for the whole team. I was manhandled by Dwayne Johnson. Paul Walker punched me twice in the face and then Vin Diesel hit me in the eyeball. That was my initiation," he says, laughing.

Another person soon to receive his initiation into the Fast world is Kuching-born, Australia-raised director James Wan, 36, who is helming the seventh movie, due in July next year. Diesel, who has been a producer with the series since the fourth film, has been in discussions with Wan, the writer-director of Saw (2004) and the indie horror movie Insidious, the breakout hit of 2011.

The actor says: "I've met James and he's a great film-maker, and a lot of things are going to happen in the movie... we'll reset the location back to Los Angeles and for fans of the franchise, it will be going home. But there's also a need for us to go back to Tokyo and some other locations, such as the Middle East. And China, sooner or later."

johnlui@sph.com.sg

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