Fast & Furious Is the Greatest American Blockbuster Franchise. This Is How it Happened
"Substantial lack of gaudy jewelry. No entourage. No . . . honeys. Clearly you’re not a baller.”
In Fast & Furious 6 (2013), a snooty British auctioneer has just mistaken Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and Tej (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) for kitchen help at a fancy classic-car auction in London. They are in streetwear. The auctioneer is in a suit. The less-than-subtle subtext: You can’t afford these nice things. It seems as if Hobbs might throw this Savile Row reject into the Thames. But the crime-fighting duo take the high ground, buying the entire lot of rides with cash—plus the clothes off the auctioneer’s back.
In a movie franchise that follows heisters with heart— primarily people of color—coming together to make ends meet and occasionally save the world, this is one of the only moments when the series confronts identity and discrimination head-on with “What did he just say?” discomfort. When I ask Justin Lin about this scene, the director responsible for turning the series into a multibillion dollar juggernaut has a faint look of pain on his face.
“That’s basically what happened to me,” he says.
It’s February and we’re in a South Pasadena storefront, which Lin has repurposed as his writing office. Over the course of a five-hour conversation much of it turns towards representation in Hollywood and his experience as an Asian American director replete with casual and not-so-casual racism, from not being recognized by guards when driving into the Universal lot to worse. Lin tells me about his complicated early relationship with clothes as a Taiwanese immigrant in California’s Orange County in the ’80s. “We were fucking poor. Kids would make fun of me for the Goodwill shit that my parents bought me. And you know, as the Asian kid, you’re always getting made fun of, and you just want to be left alone.”
Box-office receipts worldwide for 2006’s Tokyo Drift, a sleeper hit and Lin’s first Fast film, totaled $158.9 million. The Lin-directed Fast & Furious (2009) and Fast Five (2011) made hundreds of millions each. “I never really wanted to be rich,” Lin says. “I just wanted to be able to afford to buy sushi.” Figuring he deserved an outfit upgrade before shooting Fast & Furious 6, he walked into an upscale clothing boutique in London and got the same treatment as Tej and Hobbs. Lin doesn’t recount the exact words that were exchanged. Doesn’t need to: it’s the same situation any person of color has experienced at many points in their lives. Lin mimics the face of the salesperson—which matches the haughty auctioneer’s. It reads: You don’t belong here. “And I’m just like, ‘I have money, motherfucker.’ ”
You could simply accept the Fast franchise as sublimely absurd action cinema. If you think these are movies made by boys-at-heart who still play with Matchbox cars, you’d be right. When Lin shows me the opening of F9 in an editing suite, there on the coffee table, next to a candle with Vin Diesel as a saint, are several miniature cars. (Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the film’s release date has moved to Spring 2021.) But it’s also arguably the most inclusive tentpole franchise in Hollywood—and that is a key part of its success. Don’t see someone like yourself in other movies? Fast & Furious has your back. The paint-by-numbers diversity found in many other blockbuster series—we need a black person here; an Asian over there; and, oh yeah, let’s have a lesbian kiss!—does not exist in the Fast universe.
Justin Lin directs Vin Diesel in 2009’s Fast & Furious.
A lot of this is due to the casting of the core characters in the original movie, 2001’s The Fast and the Furious: Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez, Jordana Brewster, and the late Paul Walker organically inhabit their roles as do Ludcaris and Tyrese who were introduced in 2 Fast 2 Furious (directed by John Singleton.) The concept for the first film stemmed from a 1998 Vibe article about street racing with highly tuned import cars, which started with a group of Asian kids in southern California. But Fast & Furious, with its increasingly insane stunts and color-blind casting, was truly born once Lin entered the mix with Tokyo Drift. Through this reboot, he essentially reclaimed a co-opted culture. In many ways, the saga begins and ends with the character of Han Lue (Sung Kang), the series’ sole Asian-American lead—often considered the true fan’s favorite character—and the only Asian-American cool guy in a movie of this magnitude. And it’s Han’s introduction, death, reintroduction, death, and re-reintroduction (we’ll explain) that have come to symbolize the care with which Lin has handled representation on and off the set.
Rewind to 2004. The indie director of Sundance darling Better Luck Tomorrow, a powerful story about identity in the Asian-American community, is suddenly in the room talking with studio execs but finding old stereotypes still exist. “I’m, you know, a short Asian dude. I didn’t look like a director. And so after Tomorrow, after Sundance, you go to meetings and you can tell people are just looking at you funny and you get feedback like, 'Can he actually work with real actors?' And I’m like, 'What the fuck is a real actor?' But they didn’t even consider Asian Americans real actors back then. On Better Luck Tomorrow John Cho was the big shit because he was the MILF guy. That was our greatest achievement as Asian Americans in Hollywood: the MILF guy.”
Universal sought Lin out several times to direct Tokyo Drift. But he turns the studio down. Didn’t want to be their patsy. How could he work on a franchise wherein all of the Asians are depicted as villains? The original script for Tokyo Drift read like Karate Kid 2 with an extra dose of white savior-ness
“Stacey Snider, the head of Universal, was like, ‘What if I let you do whatever you want? Every complaint you have with Asian-American representation, you can figure it out.’ And I was like, ‘Really?’ And she's like, ‘Here’s the catch: It's going to production in two and a half months, so you better get going.’”
He removes the Geisha girls and Buddhist statue cliches and develops the main character, Sean (Lucas Black), as a fish out of water, weaving in elements of Romeo and Juliet, while remaining authentic to drifting culture. Lin's complete creative control also allows him to do something ingenious: he takes the character Han Lue, first seen in Better Luck Tomorrow, and places him squarely in the action of Tokyo Drift. It was a success, reviving the Fast franchise.
Justin Lin directs Lucas Black in 2006’s Tokyo Drift.
Initially, Lin didn't want to do another Fast. But, then he had a moment with Kang (whose character Han died in the end of Tokyo Drift) at an Arby's. “We pull off of the 5 outside of San Francisco. We're just eating and these little young little Latino kids came up to Sung telling him how much they loved Han. They just swarmed him! And this is 2006—fans weren't really on the internet too much. This was the first time where I was like, oh my God Han has this really strong, genuine connection with people.”
“I was driving back onto the 5 and I was like, ‘That's too bad Han’s dead.’ And then Sung turns to me and says, ‘Well, does he have to be?’ And then it dawned on me that, when trying to get Vin back on Tokyo Drift I had this amazing conversation with him about Dom’s relationship with Han...four hours by his pool talking backstory. So I called the studio. I said, ‘I'm doing it. I gotta bring Han back.’ And they were like, ‘what the fuck?’” The 4th, 5th, and 6th installments ultimately became prequels to Tokyo Drift, and Han was back. “We had these great relationships with the studios. They understood I never want to do a Fast movie again unless I feel like we can evolve.”
Over the course of Lin’s tenure as Fast overlord, from 2006 to 2013, some notable things occur from an identity standpoint in addition to the creation of Hollywood’s only cool guy Asian-American character. Vin Diesel is elevated to a bonafide, multicultural box-office draw in Dom Toretto. Tej becomes the hacker brains of the crew. Letty (Rodriguez) emerges as a groundbreaking action hero. Because of Lin’s insistence on color-blind casting and an untraditionally wide search for actors, Gal Gadot is cast as Gisele, her first film role. And at the end of Fast Five, we see Han and Gisele share a kiss on the autobahn, creating the coolest interracial coupling of an Asian dude and an Israeli woman, well, ever. That was in 2011. It still feels like a groundbreaking moment even today.
“Hollywood is supposed to be this enlightened place. And there are great people here, sure. But there's some fucked up people here that are just able to use the right buzz words," he says. "I've always felt like diversity is not me going: 'I need an Asian for this role.' It's like, ‘No man, that’s not what diversity is about.’ It’s about creating an environment to let the best person grab that role. To have the right to say: 'hey, we had the world come in and we found the right person.' That’s always been my M.O. with Fast. I'm not on a crusade. When you’re excluding people, mathematically, that just doesn't make sense.”
Then Lin left the series to direct Star Trek Beyond and episodes of True Detective and Community. He needed to grow. But something happened with Han that would change everything.
Here’s an explanation of the time-bending soap opera-like drama: At the end of Fast & Furious 6, it’s revealed that it was Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) who killed Han in Tokyo Drift. Shaw ends up in jail in Furious 7, directed by James Wan. Cool. All seems right in the Fast universe. But then at the end of the eighth installment, 2017’s The Fate of the Furious, Shaw is casually indoctrinated into our core heroes’ crew with an invite to their barbecue. So Han’s killer is suddenly exonerated over some hot dogs? Fans were pissed. A movement called #justiceforhan started to bubble up from the corners of the internet.
Lin first hears of all this, quite poetically, during a 15th-anniversary screening of Better Luck Tomorrow. “Shaw’s at the barbecue?” he says to the person delivering the news. “I’m like, ‘Fuck! Why would you fucking do that?’ ”
Lin finally sees Fate, directed by F. Gary Gray. His initial sentiment of the barbecue scene is confirmed. “That was a fucked up move on eight,” he says. “Han is special. It really made no sense and, as an Asian-American, it kind of did shake me to the core. You're like: 'Wait, did we just get reduced to a fucking character that you don't even address? That nobody fucking cares about anymore? Are we fucking back to Long Duk Dong shit again?'”
Fast-forward to Super Bowl weekend 2020. Universal Studios has thrown an elaborate, expensive “trailer drop” for F9. It’s a concert with interviews of the cast, Justin Lin, and musical performances from Cardi B, (who is in this sequel). Wiz Khalifa shows up and plays “See You Again” the often tear-inducing Paul Walker tribute. When the four-minute trailer for F9, which marks Lin’s return as director, is unveiled, it teases a few mind-blowing scenes. A Dodge Charger swings, Tarzan-style, from a cliff! Dom (Diesel) has a long lost brother named Jakob ( John Cena)! Then this: Han materializes from a tunnel. He hugs Dom. He drives the new Toyota Supra. The marketing tagline for the movie is: Justice is coming. Within a few days it becomes one of the most-watched trailers of all time.
“I’ll admit that what drove me back to this final chapter creatively was the idea of Jakob,” Lin says. “But on the cerebral and emotional level, it was Han. And entering from the cerebral level is the hardest way to do any kind of creative process. You’re checking yourself all the time to make sure you’re not just doing it because people want it.”
Will justice be served for Han? “It won’t be fully served,” he says. “There will be other things I feel should be explored. As this universe expands into other mediums, maybe TV, and when this character gets his due respect? That’s when I think justice for Han is served.”
As for justice in the other Hollywood franchise of which Fast is often compared with, I ask Lin if James Bond should be a woman or a person of color. He shares the opinion of one of his editors that he has come around to. “He said, ‘James Bond cannot be a person of color or female. James Bond has to be white. That’s his superpower: He’s a fucking privileged British fucking asshole. He can get away with murder.’ ”
He adds, “Because you know what? My life would be really different if I wasn’t Asian-American, right?”
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.