“Fast & Furious 6” (Universal)

Ties Shift from street racing to heists supercharged grosses

Hardly a low-budget actioner in 2001, when it was made for around $38 million, “The Fast and the Furious” sequels now cost Universal Pictures north of $125 million for. The sixth installment opens May 24, with a seventh to follow in 2014, and U is aiming to spin off Dwayne Johnson’s character into his own franchise.

With Justin Lin in the director’s chair, the “Fast” franchise has thrived by steering away from the first three films’ narrow focus on street racing and urban car culture in the U.S., which appealed to a limited audience, and reframing the series as stories about a close-knit team that pulls off daring heists around the world.

“At Justin’s core and what makes him a really special filmmaker, he’s always a champion of the underdogs,” says Troy Craig Poon, president of Lin’s production company, Perfect Storm Entertainment.

“I think what people resonate with in “The Fast and the Furious” is these characters become a family, an unconventional family. People from around the world can’t wait to see this non-traditional family come together.”

Donna Langley, co-chairman of Universal Pictures, says that while “Fast” has evolved into a legitimate action franchise, “what’s unique is that we’ve maintained the heart and soul of the original film — a movie about family, people with a code and characters that are archetypal even though they’re anti-heroes and on the wrong side of the law.”

Langley says with the original stars coming back and that theme of family, “the team is now assembled as a team of Robin Hoods. They have a noble cause.”

So the franchise can go anywhere in the world their driving skills might be needed: Los Angeles and Miami, the Mexican desert, Rio de Janeiro and now Spain and London.

The shift in tone clearly helped Universal, and longtime producers Neal H. Moritz and Vin Diesel, expand its audience for the “Fast” films — especially in overseas territories.

Langley says the plot of the fourth installment forced the series to shoot abroad: the characters can’t return to the U.S. since they were extradited. “So we set it in Rio to maintain the Latin roots of the franchise before heading to Europe (something fans had asked for).” With the sixth film also set partly in Spain, the studio also hopes to appeal to Spanish speakers.

Casting has also revved interest, with the addition of Johnson, Luke Evans and Gina Carano to a multi-racial cast that includes Tyrese Gibson, Michelle Rodriguez, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Sung Kang, Gal Gadot, Elsa Pataky, plus original stars Diesel, Paul Walker and Jordana Brewster.

Says Poon: “It can’t be underscored enough how much people want to have characters to identify with, whether it’s gender or ethnically or belief-wise. Justin has done so much more in that space than most filmmakers.”

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