With the release of the much-anticipated Furious 7 in less than two weeks, we will soon be living in a world in which you could watch a different Fast & Furious movie every night of the week. This is a very good thing for anyone who prefers their movies to be saturated in layers and layers of baby oil.

The Fast & The Furious film series launched in 2001 as a humble Point Break-ripoff inspired by a Vibe article about street racers ("Racer X") with a title borrowed from a 1950s Roger Corman B movie. Through its many sequels, it somehow transcended floppy disks, forgettable villains, chronological anomalies, endless backyard BBQs, and the death of one of its lead actors in real life to become the most brilliant, batshit-crazy, ethnically-diverse popcorn action film franchise of the 21st century. It has a legitimate claim to having elevated stupid-fun into the realm of commercial art (or at least into the realm of obsession-worthy devotion).

It's an understatement to say these films are more popular now than ever—the last three films in the series have made $363 million (Fast & Furious), $626 million (Fast 5) and $788 million (Fast & Furious 6) each. The new one is poised to make even more; the first film might as well have been an indie considering its budget ($38 million).

Even marathoning the FF series has become something of a sport in recent years. People find glee in overanalyzing every line from the trailers. Hell, they even find meaning in the clouds on the posters. Whatever these films have lost as they've shed every shred of plausibility, they've gained two-fold in manic hyper-entertainment value.

But what if you have missed out on the phenomenon completely? Maybe you have seen people on Twitter ranting about tanks bursting out of trucks; maybe you have friends who have raved about mid-air collisions and Vin Diesel's refusal to utter more than one syllable at a time; maybe your mother told you it was the most fun she's had at the movies outside of Spring Breakers; or maybe you've heard the phrase "Ride or Die" bandied about so much that you're finally curious why the hell everyone is being so fatalistic all the time.

Below, we proudly present the definitive guide to the world of Fast & Furious that you can skim through and use to keep up with conversations at your next cocktail party. If you've never seen one of these films before, you can get an idea of what the films are about and how they've changed over the years. If you want to know which movies you should check out before seeing Furious 7, that's there too. And if you've already drunk the Nos-flavored kool-aid, consider this a warmup for the big show.

[SPOILERS FOR THE ENTIRE FF SERIES AHEAD. However, if you are actually bothered by FF spoilers, you are doing everything wrong]

WHAT THE HELL IS THE FAST & FURIOUS ABOUT

Sometime just before 9/11, an LAPD officer (Paul Walker) goes undercover with a group of underground car racers who moonlight as truck hijackers. In addition to participating in a racing competition called "Race Wars," they're all addicted to Nos (nitrous oxide boosts which give their cars video game-style super speed—it's basically The Force, but for cars) and BBQs. The undercover cop falls in love with the little sister (Jordana Brewster) of the car gang leader (Vin Diesel). A few drivers die (in addition to the hijackings, there's also turf wars with other car gangs) and some DVD players are stolen. In the end, the cop lets the gang leader go. It's almost exactly the plot of Point Break, except with more scowling (courtesy of the gang leader's one true love, Michelle Rodriguez).

This is just how our story is set in motion. None of this really matters to enjoying any other film, because everything that subsequently happens is completely insane—like, salvia fever-dream at the end of Burning Man insane—and far more interesting. Walker's character, Brian O'Connor, goes from fugitive to FBI agent to retirement to FBI Most Wanted List to chameleonic super agent who can slip in and out of maximum security prisons without detection (all without losing his Surfer Brah accent and predilection for staring blankly, but sweetly, at Brewster).

Diesel goes from a gravely-voiced human Q-tip to a modern day Marlon Brando. At some point, The Rock shows up to spark a forbidden romance with Diesel built on a foundation of smoldering glances and hand shakes. People die and then return with amnesia; doomed love stories are built into the narrative ass-backwards; Ja Rule, Bow Wow and Ludacris are all given prominent roles, and they're all pretty good (well, not Ja Rule).

The story drifts from Miami to the Dominican Republic, from the Mexico/U.S. border to Rio, from London to a magical land filled with never-ending tarmacs. Over the course of Fast Five, everyone has been permanently transformed into superheroes who can defy the laws of gravity, overcome gaping plot holes, and brush aside international extradition laws.

And most importantly, the franchise morphs from racing movies to action/heist/Bond-esque films. Those SoCal racers who were dabbling in DVD theft are now international criminals who just keep getting roped into 'one last job.' Basically everyone who survives (even comedic relief like Leo and Santos) becomes a BBQ-munching family member for life. No film series has embraced change more readily, and to more success both creatively and commercially, than FF.

WHY THE HELL IS EVERYONE TALKING ABOUT IT NOW

The newest movie in the franchise, Furious 7, will be released Friday April 3rd. Star Paul Walker died in a tragic car accident in the fall of 2013, delaying the release of the film for over a year and requiring lots of reshoots to give his character a fitting send-off. Judging by all early accounts, it really worked well.

Look how excited Vin Diesel is: "Universal is going to have the biggest movie in history with this movie," Diesel said in an interview with Variety. "It will probably win best picture at the Oscars, unless the Oscars don’t want to be relevant ever...There is nothing that will ever come close to the power of this thing."

WHY IS THE FAST & FURIOUS DIFFERENT FROM OTHER MOVIE SERIES?

The power of FF lies in the fact that these are glorious dumb and demented films that believe that a movie ticket is a promise to always throw in the kitchen sink, the plumbing, the underground moldings, and maybe the entire house. FF movies—particularly the most recent ones—are the cinematic equivalent of injecting yourself in the cornea with a speedball of Five Hour Energy. It is AP Physics as taught by a teenage boy on a sugar high. It is like sky diving naked while eating a steak; you may not want to do it in real life, but god damn if you aren't going to watch that video.

Watching an FF movie is a Rorschach test that defies all notions of elitism—it erodes cynicism one bonkers action sequence at a time. If you can't find something to enjoy about these films, you're probably a bore.

The films are also a lesson in contradictions: on the one hand, it's easy for casual fans to jump in and out of each film without having seen the other films. This is not Game Of Thrones we're talking about. At the end of the day, you really don't need to know anything about what happened in the previous one to enjoy the next one. And the most recent films have done a ridiculously good job of giving every character a catch-up moment right at the start (like in Fast Five, when The Rock goes one by one doing an information dump about each major cast member by saying, "I've read your file...").

At the same time, FF also contains within it a sprawling and complicated continuity that allows fans the space to obsessively piece details together (...like the fact that Han is dead in some movies but alive in others). It is built for mindlessly watching on a Sunday afternoon, and it is also the perfect thing to drunkenly debate with friends, because no one can really remember what came when or who or why.

And it's really not all dumb: has a Pulitzer Prize-winner ever made a feature on Crank one of the centerpieces of their official submission? Wesley Morris's essay on the franchise is a must-read for anyone who takes diversity in film seriously:

The most progressive force in Hollywood today is the “Fast and Furious” movies. They’re loud, ludicrous, and visually incoherent. They’re also the last bunch of movies you’d expect to see in the same sentence as “incredibly important.” But they are.

Time and again, the series has been praised by critics for being an ethnically-utopian sweat-shedding reflection of modern culture; for its close ties to its online fan community; and for its shockingly cohesive world-building. Even The New Yorker has gotten in on the FF love.

Roxane Gay wrote a lovely essay about the "not so guilty pleasure" of embracing FF:

Great movies also offer the audience an opportunity to disappear. The lights go down and we disappear into these bright and beautiful images, twenty feet high. We fall into different times and places. We are allowed to step away from our own lives for a time. The loveliest thing about the Fast & Furious franchise is that both actors and viewers get to disappear together, and what a time we have.

There is no underestimating how much fun it is to hang out with these fools.


THE THREE MOST PIVOTAL MOMENTS WHICH TURNED FF FROM RACING B MOVIES INTO SUBLIME WORKS OF ABSURDIST ACTION MOVIE ART

1. Tokyo Drift Chronology Shift: Corn chip aficionado Han Seoul-Oh is the glue which ties the entire series together (he's not even in the first two films!). The chronological placement of Tokyo Drift (see the chart farther down) is probably the thing that causes the most confusion for newbies to the FF. So let's do this:

  • Tokyo Drift, the third film made in the series, actually takes place between the events of Fast & Furious 6 and Furious 7.
  • This was the film when Justin Lin was given the reins of the franchise. He decided to start sowing seeds of a larger universe with a multi-film storytelling approach, which had not been a part of the series up 'til then.
  • None of the actors from FF1 & 2 made the trip to Tokyo (besides a Diesel cameo at the end).
  • Han is introduced as the mentor of boring aw shucks-accented main character Sean Boswell. He seems really existential about life and racing, and dies before the film is over. There's something haunted about him that you can't put your finger on, but he makes the most impression in the film.
  • Han was then woven into FF 4, 5 and 6. My favorite thing about this: in each of those movies, the writers force Han to make an awkward mention of how he always wanted to go to Tokyo (or how he is looking forward to living there), just to remind the audience of his predestination. His doomed love affair with Gisele (Gal Godot, auditioning for Wonder Woman in FF 5 & 6) adds even more pathos to this.
  • Even in death, Han is driving the series forward: his death has now been retrofitted to act as the inciting act for the plot of FF7.
  • Complicating matters even more: Han was actually a character in Lin's first film, Better Luck Tomorrow. Although it's never explicitly stated, Han's name is the same, and the two share a lot of similar characteristics (including a former smoking habit).
  • On top of everything, Han is arguably the best character in the series who doesn't resemble the Hulk.

2. Driving Through The Mountains In Fast & Furious: Although Tokyo Drift made the least amount of money of any of the films, it did enough to justify going ahead with Lin's plans for the sequels. He then brought back the heart of the original cast, and designed 4-5-6 as a heavily serialized trilogy with soap opera touches, lots of returning characters, international villains, and an escalation in action that would radically change the makeup of the series. The moment when Brian and Dom race through the mountains in Fast and Furious (the fourth film) is when the series once and for all ceases to be about "racing" and turns into one of the most clever and stupidly pleasurable action film franchises in history. And they did it all backwards, getting better which each sequel instead of falling off with diminishing returns, like say the Die Hard, Terminator or Lethal Weapon series.

3. The Rock Arrives in Fast 5, And Nothing Will Be The Same: Dwayne Johnson refers to himself as "franchise Viagra" for a damn good reason. The man has never met a one-liner he couldn't deliver.


WHICH ONES SHOULD I WATCH

The FF series has arguably the most complex cinematic universe outside of Graymalkin Lane, with chronological swerves and continuity galore. Wikipedia scholars have two schools of thought on the order one should watch the films.

ff2.jpg

Obviously if you have the time and the willing spirit, go ahead and watch everything. But if you're just trying to catch up on the essentials before Furious 7 comes out, there's no need for casual fans to see some of these films. So let's whittle them down one by one from least to most essential, with the most important takeaways from each one.


DON'T WORRY ABOUT THESE ONES

7. Turbo-Charged Prelude & Los Bandoleros are both DVD extras (remember those?!). Turbo is a short which bridges the gap between FF 1 & 2; Bandoleros takes place between 2 & 4 (although it only concerns the misadventures of characters last seen in 1, but don't worry about that). Neither are that worth seeing unless you're a completist; the only thing interesting about Turbo is that Minka Kelly makes a cameo, and Bandoleros reveals how Han Seoul-Oh and Dom met in Mexico. It is also worth noting that Bandoleros was directed, written, produced by auteur Vin Diesel.

6. 2 Fast 2 Furious The second film in the saga is the worst one by miles and miles. None of the cast from the first movie returned except Paul Walker, who is now a fugitive on the run. He gets into a bunch of races down in Miami; director John Singleton used a lot of weird close-up zoom shots and drew out the campy tone that was lurking under the surface during the Race Wars in the first film. There's so much camera tilting, it's a headache to watch at times.

I've never met a human being who could remember the plot of this film, besides the fact that Eva Mendes is in it (and remains the only major character to not return in a full length sequel YET). This is the FF movie with the most number of "Bros" uttered. Here's all you need to know to appreciate the later, greater films: Walker is childhood friends with Tyrese, who talks a lot. Ludacris is a hacker, or something. They're all friends by the end of the film.

5. The Fast & The Furious The film that got everything started is both better and worse than you remember: it almost feels like an entirely different film series. (Floppy discs! Race Wars! Rap-rock soundtrack! Bro hierarchies! Ja Rule!) It's also by far the most grounded movie in the entire series (Tokyo Drift comes close, but the inherent premise—corn-fed Cali kid is sent to Tokyo to live with his dad—is pretty hard to take).

It contains some of the most memorable lines of the entire series ("I like the tuna here") and establishes the mythology of Dominic Toretto's crew (strict adherence to family values, Diesel's ever-present cross necklace, the BBQ addiction, Nos, the rules of street racing and prevalence of underground racing cults in every major city around the world, etc). It's got a strong emotional center with Diesel and Walker working off each other; while neither are particularly good actors, you completely believe their bromance could cause Walker to go rogue by the end of the film.

Having said all that, while the filmmakers have stayed relatively consistent to that character well (and they've brought back people like Vince), the series is so far removed from this world now that it's barely recognizable. There's a decent chance if you've only seen one FF movie, this is the one. If not, it's worth seeing only after you've seen 3-4-5-6 (and probably 7). Think of it almost as a prequel to the madness ahead (in which case, think of 2 Fast 2 Furious as a failed spin-off for Tyrese & Ludacris. It works much better that way).


WHAT YOU SHOULD WATCH, IF YOU HAVE TIME

4. Fast & Furious The fact that they brought back the major players from the original cast (except Michelle Rodriguez), threw Han into the mix in the opening, and had people literally racing through mountains distracted somewhat from the fact that this is probably the second weakest film (after 2 Fast 2 Furious, of course). This is the 'emo' one, in which Vin Diesel stares out longingly at beaches and there's a lot of talk about guilt. It breaks the cardinal rule of the series: nobody has any fun (except for the whole mountain thing) and everyone is pretty miserable.

So why this high even? Because the plot actually affects/sets in motion everything that happens in 5 & 6, the two peaks of the series thus far. There were a lot of kinks to work out before we got there. Here are the takeaways you should know before diving into Fast Five:

  • Dom broke up his crew and left Michelle Rodriguez (to protect her).
  • Three months later, Michelle Rodriguez suddenly dies after going undercover for FBI Agent Brian O'Connor.
  • Dom feels guilty. Brian feels guilty. Jordana Brewster is around.
  • Dom and Brian make-up and team-up to take out drug lord Arturo Braga. He was doing...drug stuff? Evil drug stuff.
  • Gisele (Gal Godot) was a liaison for Braga who Vin Diesel flirted with a little. It turns out she's not a bad guy.
  • Dom is tired of running and is sentenced to 25-to-life. Brian quits the FBI in protest.

3. The Fast & The Furious: Tokyo Drift: This is by far the best racing movie of the entire series (and the one when Justin Lin took over). The whole concept of drifting is the biggest philosophical idea posited in these films that is not beaten into the ground via repetition in every subsequent film (unlike "Ride or Die," "Family Good," and maybe "BBQ Tasty"). It's actually shocking it took three films to get to it, because it's the only car-related action that I regularly think about in real life while driving.

The problem with this film is Shane Black's lead character, and his fish-out-of-water story, which makes little sense when you think about it. All the Han stuff is great though (which we covered about 30 graphs above).

Here are the important takeaways for fans who don't get to watch it before seeing FF7: After the events of Furious 6, Han moves to Tokyo (finally). He becomes mentor to a Southern dude and teaches him how to drift. Then he dies under strange circumstances during a race. That's it.

WHAT YOU NEED TO WATCH

2. Fast Five The first four films were all 106 minutes long. Fast Five is 140 minutes. It earns all 140 minutes. From here on out, each FF movie has very specific goals: it will never go more than 10 minutes without a giant action set piece; it will pack in as many characters as possible, and they will all genuinely like spending time together despite being international fugitives, which will in turn make us all love spending time with them even more; and The Rock's dialogue ratio of one-liners to exposition with be 1:1.

It's glorious. Don't just take my word for it, hear what the screenwriter had to say:

1. Fast & Furious 6: Basically follows the same pattern at Fast Five, just substitute the centerpiece bank heist sequence with a tank and a never ending runway (it's been estimated to span about 28.75 miles). The series also fully-embraces a Bond-ian view of globalization, with stops in Moscow, London, LA and the Canary Islands.

Also, it's lovely because The Rock and Vin Diesel become best friends for ever, for all intents and purposes.


What About Furious 7: We direct your attention to the video below, which is all about the complications of skydriving (or carflying). Both Jason Statham and Kurt Russell have joined the franchise. This film might make you cry. What more do you need to know? Life is what happens while you're busy doing donuts in the sky.

What Does The Future Hold: Despite Walker's death, there is no talk of slowing down; at the very least, there are three more films being discussed, though much of this will depend on the participation of "saga visionary" Vin Diesel. Suffice to say, it seems like we'll have FF movies for at least another decade (and we'll be first in line to see them...at least until the inevitable reboot).

There's also a new 3-D ride planned for Universal Studios Hollywood later this year. The Times writes it will be "a hybrid movie and thrill ride in which occupants of Universal’s famed backlot trams will be encircled by 400-foot-long movie screens" that will "make it feel like those trams are being pulled through the streets at speeds of over 100 miles per hour." What more could you ask for?

Here's video of the old FF ride which was based around Tokyo Drift a few years back.


SHORTLIST OF ACTORS WHO COULD AND/OR SHOULD APPEAR IN FUTURE FAST & FURIOUS SEQUELS

  • Scott Caan: Maybe he was already in it and we just forgot?
  • Jason Momoa: Unless DC specifically prohibits their actors from working with Marvel actors (Diesel=Groot).
  • Cara Delevingne, Rihanna & Jennifer Lopez: A trio of sexy female international car bandits led by the wizened J-Lo who once had a relationship with Vin Diesel before he met Michelle Rodriguez.
  • Kelsey Grammar In A Bucket Hat: 2-1
  • Literally Anyone From The Expendables Series: If Stratham hadn't already jumped aboard the good ship FF7, we'd be riding-or-dying for an Expendables/FF crossover film. Now The Expendables want The Rock to be the villain in their fourth film (or maybe that's the other way around). Eric Roberts could slip right into FF8 as a shady southern California car importer/exporter. Jean-Claude Van Damme could play the long-lost cousin of the evil guy from FF5. Mickey Rourke could be Vince's grandson from the future who comes back in time to kill Letty (again) for whatever reason. The possibilities are endless!
  • Denzel Washington: He already turned down the chance to play a major role in FF7. Will he reconsider, or does he exclusively make films with Antoine Fuqua now?
  • Keanu Reeves: NO BRAINER. Get him in FF8. Let him takeover the token white guy role on the team from Paul Walker. Give him some overly-complicated backstory with Kurt Russell (making his debut in FF7). IT WRITES ITSELF.
  • Ja Rule & Bow Wow: LOL JK never coming back.


Okay, Nobody Needs 4,000-Odd Words About The Motherfucking Fast And The Furious Film Series, But I've Been A Good Sport And Sat Here Skimming Through Your Manifesto. I've Concluded That You May Need Professional Help, And Also That I Don't Really Want To Watch Two Or Four Or Six Movies About Street Racing. What Else Ya Got?

LOL, no one is reading this right now, but in case you are, this is an eminently reasonable perspective to have. Here's one solution: you can dip your toe in the water by watching a supercut of the first five films (crammed into 43 minutes) below.


Thank You For That. I Know You Spent Entirely Too Much Time Thinking About Fast & Furious, And This Is The Only Outlet You Have Now That Your Friends Stopped Returning Your Phone Calls & E-Mails.

If you think I've thought about it too much, then check out the best movie podcast in the world, How Did This Get Made. Hosts Paul Scheer, June Raphael Diane and Jason Mantzoukas and a guest watch terrible movies and then have a gut-busting conversation about it. Actor Adam Scott has joined them to discuss both Fast Five and Fast & Furious 6, and if you have any affection at all for these films, these are ESSENTIAL LISTENING and almost more fun than watching the movies themselves.