Once upon a time, there was a Hollywood franchise stuck in reverse. All fast cars, bikini-clad women and rip-roaring stunts, The Fast and the Furious (2001) never really had much under its hood. So, it was little surprise that by its third incarnation, the 2006 Japan-set spin-off The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, audiences had begun to do exactly that - drift.
While the film still took in US$158 globally, the lack of original cast members was telling; this was a series running on empty.
"With the first three films, the studio was approaching The Fast and the Furious like a brand; they were just revisiting it," says Vin Diesel, who plays the main anti-hero, Dominic Toretto. Diesel, 45, knows about franchises stalling: it's taken almost a decade to follow up his science-fiction series Pitch Black and The Chronicles of Riddick with a third film, due out later this year.
Yet with the help of director Justin Lin, Diesel has steered The Fast films to become one of the most successful series of its time. In an industry where follow-ups usually follow the law of diminishing returns - both in quality and box office receipts - the franchise has bucked that trend. The last episode, Fast Five (2011), grossed US$626 million across the globe, US$260 million more than the previous Fast & Furious (2009), hitherto the highest-grossing film of the series.
"There are only a handful of franchises that have gone on this long," says former WWF wrestler Dwayne Johnson, who joined the series in Fast Five, "and the bad guys are rooted for, which is always intriguing - and very difficult to do."
But why, given it's basically just fast cars and fisticuffs, has this franchise flourished? "There is such a strong relationship with the audience," says Lin. "It's a very working-class franchise."
Loyalty, it seems, is not just a big theme on screen. Much of this success can be attributed to Diesel, who promised to appear in a brief cameo in Tokyo Drift in exchange for creative control. Coming on board as producer, he laid down a grand plan: a second trilogy that brought back the original cast and turned this one-time tale of illegal street racers into a continent-crossing crime saga. "The fact that the studio [Universal] has regarded this franchise in this saga-like way has proven to be really successful," he says. "They changed their outlook on franchises and sequels."
It means expectations are high for Fast & Furious 6, which picks up after Fast Five, with Toretto and his gang now living off the spoils of the US$100 million heist in Rio. Enter Hobbs (Johnson), the US Diplomatic Security Service agent who failed to stop Toretto's mob last time around. This time, he wants their help - to track down ruthless hardware hijacker Owen Shaw (played by Luke Evans) - in return for full pardons. The bait? Toretto's ex, Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) - thought dead after the fourth film - is alive and working with Shaw.
Rodriguez, the Texas-born tough-girl who has appeared in hits such as Lost and Avatar, says the series has never tried to out-do each preceding episode. "When the writer doesn't understand that, he starts to explore explosions and [asks] 'What can we do that hasn't been done before?' … I've worked in the action movie world for the past 13 years and I can tell when somebody's running out of ideas."
This time, the production has shifted to Europe, with sequences shot in Moscow, Tenerife and London. And while there is a breathtaking street race through Piccadilly Circus, Lin and Diesel have steered the film away from its vehicular origins. "There're only so many car races you can shoot that are going to be interesting. There is a lot more action, in terms of the fighting," Johnson says.
Much of this hand-to-hand combat comes with two new characters - notably Hobbs' sidekick, Agent Riley, played by Gina Carano, who made her debut in Steven Soderbergh's espionage actioner Haywire (2011). Like Johnson, mixed martial arts star Carano has a background in professional fighting - but the two worlds can't be more different. "Fighting on film is more like a dance, where you're really trying to protect and take care [of the other]," she says. "I'm bringing a certain type of realism to the physicality of female fighting on film."
Then there's Shaw, a former Special Ops soldier who proves more than a match for Toretto and his fellow gang member, ex-cop Brian O'Conner (Paul Walker). "They have their own street-fighting formulas but they're not hardened killers," says Evans, the Welsh-born actor who has just completed a role as Bard the Bowman in Peter Jackson's Hobbit trilogy. "Shaw is precise in everything he does. He's never failed - which makes him a threat to the team. Throughout the film he's one step ahead."
You could say the same about Diesel and Lin, who seem to have an innate understanding of what audiences want from the films. Take the inclusion of Johnson. "The first person to ever mention the idea of incorporating Dwayne Johnson was a fan on Facebook," says Diesel. "I simply said, 'Who would you like to see me work with?' And a girl named Jan from Wisconsin said, 'I would love to see you in a film with Dwayne Johnson.' And a role that was originally designed for Tommy Lee Jones became the prototype for the Hobbs character."
Without spoiling anything, Fast & Furious 6 features another fan favourite. "So many of them said one specific name, and they're going to be blown away when they see this movie," says Diesel. Arriving in a brief cameo in the epilogue, this actor should not only have fans salivating, but will set up the plot for the seventh episode, which has already been given the green light by Universal for a July 2014 release.
Originally, the plan was to make it back-to-back with Fast & Furious 6, until this episode got so big, it seemed prudent to concentrate on making just one movie at a time.
Still, if there's anything that has kept this franchise roaring, it's not the sound of souped-up engines but its soap-opera qualities. Take the opening scene of Fast & Furious 6, as Toretto and O'Conner race to get to the birth of O'Conner's son; the mother is Toretto's sister, Mia (Jordana Brewster).
"There is a thread of family with every single movie you see," says Johnson, a theme that seems to resonate with actors and audiences alike. And as those rising box office numbers show, the Fast & Furious family is growing all the time.
Fast & Furious 6 opens on Thursday