As we head into the 10th movie of the Fast Saga, much excitement and many questions abound, none larger than the following: What, exactly, is this? How has a film franchise best referred to with two vague adjectives gone on to attract some of entertainment’s biggest names and gross several billion dollars? What has given these otherwise hazy dual descriptors such incredible, basically religious meaning for fans?
A few important through lines, besides the obvious one of cool cars doing groovy tricks, give weight to this world. A major one is escalation—both in terms of the celebrity castings and the unreality of the physics afoot, the movies boast a trajectory of scale that can only inevitably take us into outer space, and then whatever’s beyond that. Dinosaurs?
None of these delightfully absurd level-ups after level-ups would work, however, without something gluing the ladder together, and the glue here is family. Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) has become blockbuster cinema’s pre-eminent toast-giver over the course of these movies—a Don Corleone for car modders, ready to apply his velvet tone to the denouement of a Corona-soaked barbecue supper after every climactic car frenzy.
And the family at these barbecues, clearly not bound by genetic or legal understandings of the word, is always growing. First it was just Dom and his sister Mia (Jordana Brewster), the love of his life Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), and some of his other buddies. But it’s grown to include Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker), Roman Pearce (Tyrese), Tej Parker (Ludacris), Luke Hobbs (the Rock), Han Lue (Sung Kang), and even Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), among others.
More than one of these people once sought to kill or imprison Dom, but his deep feel for the world of vehicular bonanza, combined with interpersonal warmth and charismatic gravitas, has inspired complete moral reconfigurations in them. Such is the power of family. The team-switching in these movies is perhaps unprecedented in cinema, and only otherwise found in an entertainment domain the franchise is set to draw from again in its latest iteration: professional wrestling.
In F9, John Cena steps in as Dom’s brother and rival Jakob, working with the cyberterrorist Cipher (Charlize Theron). Whether Jakob Toretto is the franchise’s latest enemy-cum-friend remains to be seen—hell, even Cipher might join the barbecue, given Dom’s history of winning his foes over. He’s a very inclusive guy. But before we speculate about any of that stuff, let’s walk through all the glorious team-switching we’ve seen so far.
The Fast and the Furious
Brian O’Conner is, technically, our first proper protagonist, and the first person in the franchise to switch teams. An undercover detective assigned to the car-racing underworld to suss out the particulars of a DVD player theft and resale racket, Toretto is his mark. But when Brian races Dom for the purpose of integration and research, he loses and ends up on the wrong end of an iconic, razzing monologue. Dom accuses Brian, beside his smoked-out car, of “granny-shifting, not double-clutching like you should,” which the crowd loves. The conviction of the monologue, which really does get quite mechanically specific, seems to open an ethical dilemma within Brian.
Then, Brian falls in love with Mia. It doesn’t take long before he’s clearly compromised, caught between his sense of duty and his love for the streets. O’Conner ultimately gives the police enough evidence and intel to arrest some people, but not Dom, who he gives an out after being forced to explain who he really is.
The movie ends with their relationship in an ambiguous place, their new bond perhaps soiled by Brian’s lies.
2 Fast 2 Furious
After shirking his duties as a cop, O’Conner heads to the Miami chapter of slick car folk. His FBI boss finds him, though, and leverages him back onto the force. Brian needs a real driver to help him out on the mission—the FBI’s guy thinks pizza places make motors—so he tracks down his old friend Roman. Roman, as it turns out, had a similar experience with Brian as Dom did, and feels too burned by O’Conner’s general narc-ery to join him.
O’Conner explains that he never ratted Roman out, though, which tells the viewer that—like Toretto—Roman is well-versed enough in the universe of car gymnastics to paralyze O’Conner’s allegiance to his cop oath. If you’re dope enough at driving, you get a pass when O’Conner is on duty. O’Conner succeeds in making Roman his fellow playing-both-sides officer for the course of the movie, a conversion that will help him out later as well.
The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift
There isn’t really team-switching in this one. It’s a bit too much of an offshoot to have those kinds of moral liquidity stakes. But it does introduce us to Han Lue, one of the easiest characters to root for in all of film. Han “Seoul-Oh,” as he is known, is way too sweet of a dude to ever jump teams on us, to ever be anything but a bro to all car bros. And, yes: Bow Wow plays a character named “Twinkie” in this movie too.
Fast & Furious
The host of the most momentous team-switch in the franchise. O’Conner and Toretto’s paths converge once again during Brian’s pursuit of Mexican cartel boss Arturo Braga. Yes, Brian is still a cop—even more of one now, as they force him to wear a suit on the job, marking the first time we see him not dressed like an early 2000s Hurley model.
It’s clear in their reunion that Dom doesn’t like Brian’s cop vibe, whether Brian has chosen this life or not, and that he isn’t ready to forgive Brian’s previous trespasses. The two get into a race, during which Dom knocks Brian’s car into a spill-out just as he’s in his NOS-fueled hyperspeed mode, summoning memories of his seminal embarrassment in The Fast and the Furious.
Dom is even more soured by the prospect of restarting a friendship because of his bitter, tragic loss: Letty has died. It happened when Dom fled the country, which he thought was going to save her from his growing web of criminal consequence. Not so much. In Dom’s absence, Letty took a job with the FBI, via Brian, as an undercover driver for Braga, but was then assassinated by one of Braga’s men once the job was finished. Dom is pretty pissed about it.
O’Conner and Toretto both earn spots on Braga’s new team of drivers, for different reasons, and head to Mexico together. Somewhere along the way, Dom and Brian become true homies again, so when Toretto is then apprehended by American law enforcement, that’s the last straw for Brian. Along with Mia and two other friends, Brian intercepts the prison bus transporting Dom, and—as we see at the beginning of Fast Five—topples that thing all the way over, in spectacular fashion. No longer a cop, Brian has thrown it all away for his main man Dom and a permanent membership within the Brotherhood of Cars.
Introducing: Luke Hobbs. Dwayne Johnson sports a geometrically precise goatee to portray the vicious Diplomatic Security Service agent, who is determined to scoop O’Conner and Toretto out of their exile in Brazil and bring them back to America. One of his first lines is spoken to a subordinate agent, to whom he says “Stay the fuck out of my way.” Later in the movie, O’Conner refers to Hobbs’s style as “Old Testament.” It is especially important to Hobbs that Toretto and O’Conner never get their butts into one particularly cool car, a GT40.
Hobbs and Toretto have a big, nearly fatal fight that results in the destruction of multiple walls and ends in a draw, possibly because both Diesel and the Rock have “can’t lose a fight” clauses in their contracts. But after that, things get more confusing, and a bigger baddie is discovered in the form of Brazilian crime overlord Hernan Reyes (Joaquim de Almeida), who gives Hobbs a lot more trouble than Brian and Dom. Hobbs gives up his professional duty to let his new almost-buddies have at Reyes, and then gifts them 24 hours to run away to find fresh exile when the job is done. They basically screw him over, presumably resulting in his termination from the DSS—but he just can’t help but respect those bastards.
Fast & Furious 6
An even bigger baddie emerges: Owen Shaw (Luke Evans), a dastardly British sort who favors extremely skeletal cars. Hobbs determines he needs Toretto, O’Conner, plus Tej, Roman, Han, and Gisele (Gal Gadot) to track down Shaw and arrest him. So yeah, they’re all on Hobbs’s team now. They have all gone from cool urban car criminals to being informal international super-cops.
Also: Letty is back, but she is amnesiac as hell, and she does not know who any of her old friends are. And after almost dying and losing all of her memories, she switched over to working for Shaw. It’s all very telenovela-y. Dom chases her around a bunch, trying to get her to remember their love, but for most of the movie she remains skeptical, and still fairly open to the idea of killing him and all his friends. Eventually, though, the happy ending hits—just after she and Dom hit the windshield of a car. She makes it back to the family barbecue, and though she definitely still doesn’t remember anything, she feels like she’s at home.
Dom and Letty’s transition back into their relationship is complicated by Dom’s newfound love with Elena Neves (Elsa Pataky), a Hobbs associate whose goal to send him to an American jail is softened so much that, instead of doing the whole law enforcement thing, they go on a sex vacation together. Incredibly, though, Elena is extremely understanding of the bizarre Letty situation when it arises, and respects Dom’s journey back into her arms.
(Note: Another team-switch here comes in the form of a different Hobbs associate, Riley Hicks—played by a pre-canceled Gina Carano—who reveals herself as a deep-cover agent of Shaw’s. There is so much team-switching in this franchise that when this team-switch happens everyone more or less shrugs.)
What was a happy ending for our favorite car gang was a very bad one for Deckard Shaw. Like Dom, he very much values family, and is hell-bent on avenging his critically injured brother. He’s also considerably more dastardly than Owen (which he seems to rub in Owen’s face while Owen is in a coma). The key escalation here: This motherfucker has killed Han. He also raids Hobbs’s office for more intel on all of our friends, and whups Hobbs so badly in the process that he ends up in the hospital. And then he shows up to Han’s funeral, and crashes into Dom’s favorite car so hard that he destroys it. Just to be sure he’s fully scary, he also blows up Dom’s iconic family home, the site of all those wonderful, integral barbecues.
This installment does not feature team-switching. It’s more about escalation. Deckard Shaw is so bad that he solidifies the allegiance between Hobbs and Toretto, and ultimately strengthens the resolve of the whole team as they have to pull everything out of their bag to beat him.
The Fate of the Furious
Otherwise known as The One Where Dom Becomes a Bad Guy. Dom Toretto’s heel turn is the most notable team-switch in a chapter that makes us dizzy with them. Under the pressure of a mysterious kompromat—a cypher who is literally named Cipher—Dom turns against his friends mid-mission, shocking us by flipping Hobbs’s car and getting away. As Dom then goes on to secure a nuclear football on Cipher’s behalf, all of his usual teammates are helpless to stop him. Cipher and Dom make out in front of everyone. Dom and Letty then have a moment in an alley, and we see that not even her usually straightening love can get him back into the squad’s good graces.
What Cipher has on him, we eventually learn, is the knowledge that Elena gave birth to his son after he went back to Letty. For good measure, Cipher has also kidnapped Elena and said son. The situation is so messed up that, beneath Cipher’s nose, Dom turns to the Shaw family in search of help, appealing to Deckard’s mom Magdalene (Helen Mirren).
Like Deckard before her, Cipher is so freaking bad that she makes enemies into friends, expanding the sense of family within the franchise further. By the end of the movie, Deckard—one chapter removed from KILLING HAN—is trusted to run around with Dom’s infant son, protecting him in deadly circumstances. And then at the end of the movie, he’s at the barbecue!
Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw
The new, tenuous working relationship between Luke and Deckard is sent into overdrive by the franchise’s usual mode of forced family ties: more escalating evil. This time it’s a super-virus that can kill lots of people but make other people more powerful, including a cyborg named Brixton Lore (Idris Elba). Hobbs and Shaw hate each other—one of their fights once kicked off all-out hysteria at a max security prison—but they become close enough in this one that Shaw is all right with Hobbs getting on quite smoothly with his sister Hattie (Vanessa Kirby).
The meta-ruptures of this franchise sidebar prove the most interesting aspect, though. What I mean is that, in real life, Tyrese was very upset about the whole thing, taking to social media to show how important the movie’s themes are to him and to accuse the Rock of leaving the team—of breaking up the family—by doing his own thing instead of only extending their awesome car canon collectively. With Hobbs not in the cast of characters for F9, one has to wonder whether this team-switch out of the usual crew is permanent or not.
I reiterate: Cipher at the barbecue. That’s where all of this is headed. When you’ve team-switched to the point that the guy who (presumably) killed Han is capable of joining the good guys, literally anyone is team-switchable. Whether or not we get Cipher at the barbecue is what’s at stake here, in terms of how much team-switching a franchise can bear, how much family-widening is possible. If there is an emergent badness so powerful that it makes her good enough to be mentioned positively within Dom’s toast, the fastness and the furiousness of these movies will have truly—and, in all likelihood, transcendently—left earthly logic behind.
John Wilmes is a writer and professor in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter at @johnwilmeswords.