Vin Diesel: Fast & Furious is about family and multi-racialism

As producer of the Fast & Furious films, Vin Diesel sets out to define family by shared values and not blood or race

Vin Diesel. -- PHOTO: UIP
Vin Diesel. -- PHOTO: UIP
Actor Dwayne Johnson, who joined the Fast & Furious films in the fifth instalment, reprises his role as federal agent Luke Hobbs in Fast & Furious 7. -- PHOTO: UIP

As far as Vin Diesel is concerned, it was not until the fourth movie, the tersely titled Fast & Furious (2009), that the DNA of the franchise as fans know it today was formed.

That fourth film ushered in the signature touches that mark the action series today - the importance of family loyalty, the multiracial cast and the globetrotting adventures.

Diesel, 47, born Mark Sinclair Vincent, talks about how the breakout success of the first movie, The Fast And The Furious (2001) led Universal Pictures to make him an offer to come back for 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003).

He said no. The script felt like more of the same.

"I felt they were just 'sequelising'. I turned down US$25 million. I sounded crazy. And I'm a poor kid from New York. When I see a subway turnstile, my instinct is to hop over it. I was a street performer as a teenager," he tells the press in Beijing last week, where he and others in the cast are promoting the new instalment, Fast & Furious 7, which opens in Singapore tomorrow.

Diesel made a cameo in the third movie, The Fast And The Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006), that anticipated his return as racer and vagabond Dominic Toretto in the next film.

What got him finally on board was control - he became a producer, through his company One Race Productions.

He jokes that he was so picky with the script in the second and third films, that by the time the fourth one came along, the studio was so fed up that it dared him to take control of the story and make it a success.

Along with the producer credit, he won the rights to the Riddick anti-hero character from the 2000 sci-fi thriller Pitch Black (which would lead to the third film in the series, Riddick, 2013) and the power to push the Fast & Furious story in the direction he wanted.

He points to his One Race T-shirt. The name means more than cars on a racetrack, he says.

"As the producer, the first thing I addressed was multiculturalism. In the first film, you had the Asian, Hispanic and African-American cliques all divided. When I came back as a producer, I had to break those barriers. Hollywood wasn't even thinking about that," he says.

The movies since then have dealt with how family is defined not by blood or race, but by shared values.

"That's my No. 1 contribution as producer. You can be from anywhere in the world and you know that you can be at Dom Toretto's barbecue," he says, referring to the frequent family cookouts hosted by his character.

The fourth movie ushered in what was to be the core crew: Diesel as Dom; Paul Walker as Brian, his closest friend; Michelle Rodriguez as Letty, Dom's love interest; Jordana Brewster as Mia, Dom's sister and Brian's wife; and Sung Kang as Han.

In the subsequent movie, actor Dwayne Johnson joined the cast in a recurring role as federal agent Luke Hobbs.

The Fast & Furious franchise is a cash cow for Universal. The six films have grossed more than US$2 billion (S$2.7 billion), making the franchise the studio's highest-earning asset.

With the two- to three-year gap between each Fast & Furious movie and the previous instalment - a long time by Hollywood standards - it is strange that there is no spin-off.

Diesel says the idea of spinning off movies has been talked about for years, based on characters such as Hobbs (Johnson) or team member Tej (Chris Bridges, aka rapper Ludacris).

But nothing came out of the discussions because breaking apart the team would cause it to lose the multicultural, multiracial chemistry between the core characters.

Being a member of the core group has its privileges.

Actress Rodriguez says she talked a screenwriter into changing the story so she could wear a dress for a change.

In a party scene shot in Abu Dhabi, she was supposed to be a sniper dressed in military gear and watching the festivities from afar. The rest of the team were at the party, wearing glamorous gowns and tuxedos.

"After a little whining from me, the writer caved in and decided to put me in a dress and throw me in the party too," she says happily.

She adds later that she gets to ask for rewrites not because she has power, but because in action movies such as Fast & Furious 7 (simply called Furious 7 in the United States), no one cares about changes to non-action scenes, she says.

British actor Jason Statham appears in the new movie as baddie Deckard Shaw, a former special forces soldier avenging the death of his brother, Owen (Luke Evans).

While he says he enjoyed his time with the Fast crew, for his next film, he is glad to be going back to his roots as an actor.

Statham, who rose to fame playing London gangsters in Guy Ritchie movies Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and Snatch (2000), will once again play a criminal in Viva La Madness. The film is a sequel to crime thriller Layer Cake (2004), directed by Matthew Vaughn.

Neither Vaughn (Kick-Ass, 2010; Kingsman: The Secret Service, 2014) nor Ritchie, known best for helming the Sherlock Holmes movies (2009, 2011) starring Robert Downey Jr, is likely to direct Viva La Madness.

"Guy is very busy making big-budget movies. He's too expensive," says Statham with a laugh.

Fast & Furious 7 opens in Singapore tomorrow.

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