On Thursday, Vin Diesel posted a response to a fan’s comment on his Instagram post announcing the next installment in the Fast & Furious franchise (Fast X, if you’re keeping count). Diesel’s reply was long, sprawling, deep in feelings, full of subtle potshots at his former series costar Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and generally more interesting than the PR-ified junk that most celebrities post on social media.
Buried within that big ol’ chunk of text, however, was a fascinating detail: the part of Lucas Hobbs—the law-enforcement agent played with iconic bravado by Johnson, who made his debut in 2011’s Fast Five—was actually conceived for none other than Tommy Lee Jones, the pride of San Saba and one of America’s most reliable and beloved stars. In his post, Diesel explained that the part was rewritten for Johnson because the series’s fans, whom he loves and thinks of as—yes—family, wanted to see Johnson join the franchise. And Diesel, a humble servant to the desires of Fast fans, made it happen.
Needless to say, the fateful decision to cast Johnson instead of Tommy Lee Jones had profound implications for the Fast & Furious franchise, Johnson’s career, Diesel’s artistic ambitions, and more. But how much more? Join us as we venture into the multiverse and explore what happened in the timeline in which Tommy Lee Jones stars as Lucas Hobbs in Fast Five.
The impact on the Fast & Furious franchise
In our reality, the Rock’s entrance marked a decisive turning point for the franchise. What had started as a relatively small-scale, character-driven drama about street racing and the external circumstances that lead individuals to pursue a life of crime turned gloriously cartoonish once he burst into the frame. It may be hard to remember now, especially after the most recent installment, F9, in which Ludacris and Tyrese Gibson drove a car into space to save the world, but the first movie was literally about a small family gang that ran stolen DVD players.
Even in the series’s fourth installment—Fast & Furious—the stakes were relatively small-time, focused on the bonds of friendship that had formed between Diesel’s Dominic Toretto and Paul Walker’s Brian O’Conner. The action was more intense and the vehicular heists more spectacular, but nobody was driving cars from the top of one Dubai skyscraper to another—until the Rock showed up.
In the JonesVerse, the casting of Tommy Lee Jones in Fast Five was a stark choice, grounding the series rather than escalating it. In this universe, Fast Five—which has at least as much Ocean’s Eleven in its DNA as it has the heightened absurdity of F9—was a return to the series’s real-world roots. Rather than macho brawls between the two leads, we saw Jones and Diesel engaged in verbal sparring as part of an ongoing game of cat and mouse, similar to the one in the film for which Jones earned his Oscar, 1993’s The Fugitive. Instead of “Will Dom smash Hobbs in the head with a wrench?” as a source of tension, it was “Does Dom’s lifelong yearning for the father he lost have him chasing Hobbs’s approval, even as he plans the very heist that Hobbs has come to Brazil to stop?” We knew Dom could take Hobbs in a fight—the question was why he didn’t want to.
The emotional arc of the film (grown men cried when Jones’s Hobbs called Toretto “son”), combined with the dizzying action sequences—including the famous, climactic vault heist sequence—steered the Fast & Furious franchise onto a path that seemed inevitable to critics and audiences alike: as a grounded series about morally ambiguous criminals whose muscle cars were effectively armor they used to protect their wounded hearts. Diesel, long an artist in his heart, perfected the formula over the next two films. In 2013’s Fast & Furious 6, the crew assembled under Hobbs’s guidance to prevent a terrorist organization from obtaining a lethal pathogen. “I’m proud of you,” a smiling Hobbs tells Toretto as the two crack a pair of Coronas at the film’s conclusion.
By 2015’s Furious 7, in which the death of his erstwhile father figure at the hands of the international terrorist Deckard Shaw (Kenneth Branagh) drives Dom to uncontainable fury, critics and audiences alike were mesmerized by the series. That film—in which Dom alienates his found family in his single-minded pursuit of justice—culminated in a bloody showdown not seen in an Oscar contender since the final moments of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (the film to which most critics compared it). Sure, the characters still drove cars—Jones’s Hobbs doted on his souped-up 1991 GMC Syclone—but what audiences turned out to see was what drove the men behind the cars. (The film lost Best Picture to Spotlight, but Diesel secured his first Best Actor award in an upset over Leonardo DiCaprio, while Jones’s third and final appearance as Hobbs easily earned him his second Academy Award.)
Following the success of Furious 7, Diesel and series costar Paul Walker agreed that the franchise had run its course, and fans—unable to imagine a more fitting emotional climax than what had been delivered in the fateful game of chicken between Diesel and Branagh—agreed. Buoyed by his Oscar win, Diesel pursued the sort of artistic, emotionally complex cinema he’d dreamt of since his student film days. He earned his second Academy Award nomination in 2017 for his role in Call Me by Your Name, and his third two years later in Noah Baumbach’s A Marriage Story. Walker, meanwhile, continued to pursue mainstream blockbuster fare, most famously his ongoing role as Star-Lord in Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy franchise. Ludacris, freed from the dual expectations of his acting and music careers, earned a Grammy for Album of the Year in 2020 for his collaborative project with Solange, which also saw the two stars performing nightly to packed arenas around the world.
The impact on the rest of the world
In the JonesVerse, 2010 was a frustrating year for Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. The Tooth Fairy, the Disney comedy in which he played the titular creature, was a modest commercial success; the more mature fare he yearned to make, such as that year’s Faster, was a box-office bomb and a critically panned mess. He sought a franchise to anchor him, but had largely been relegated to novelty roles in films such as Get Smart and The Other Guys. In 2011, after losing out to Diesel on a leading role in the adventure film Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, Johnson began assessing his Hollywood endeavors and, finding them unsatisfying, turned his gaze from the West Coast to the East: specifically, to Washington, D.C.
Johnson announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination for president of the United States late into the primary campaign, in the fall of 2011—just one week after former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty withdrew from the race. Johnson’s presence energized a field that lacked star power, and his earnest approach to politics, combined with a talent for soundbites honed over years in the WWE, made him a difficult opponent to debate. (Rick Perry attempted to attack Johnson during a December debate over which government agencies he’d eliminate, but this backfired after Johnson said he believed the “jabronis” running them simply needed to be replaced. When asked if he regretted engaging the actor, the former Texas governor famously replied, “Oops.”)
The largely charisma-free 2012 GOP presidential field had no counter to Johnson. Just before the Iowa primary, he scored a major political coup by being the first figure in the country to announce the death of Osama Bin Laden, breaking the news before even President Obama had the opportunity to inform the nation. Most of Johnson’s GOP opponents quickly dropped out of the race after back-to-back wins in Iowa and New Hampshire; only the quixotic Texas congressman Ron Paul continued campaigning while Johnson coasted to the nomination.
America’s love affair with political celebrity—especially Republican celebrities in politics—goes back to the days of Ronald Reagan’s governorship in California, and Johnson presented himself to America’s political establishment in precisely the same way that he, in another timeline, might have presented himself to Hollywood: as a more charming, more approachable version of Arnold Schwarzenegger. It worked. Barack Obama, prepared to run a 2012 campaign as a choice between his own presidency or that of a Wall Street elite like Mitt Romney, had no answer to the question of whether he could smell what the Rock was cooking. During debates, it appeared that the two men genuinely liked each other, and a nation curious about what a Dwayne Johnson presidency might look like couldn’t resist pulling the lever to find out.
Largely, America was happy with the results. Johnson governed as a pragmatic centrist with the support of the nation behind him. Political observers noted that he governed much the way that Obama might have, albeit with a considerably more agreeable Congress. And in foreign policy, Johnson’s easy charisma and sheer physical size made him an avatar for exactly how Americans liked to imagine themselves on the world stage. Even his Hollywood ambitions weren’t entirely dashed. While appearing on-screen wasn’t an option during his time as president, he found time in 2014 to voice the role of Groot in Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy.
In 2016, Johnson easily dispatched former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley on his way to reelection, and his second term was similar in many ways to his first. The years between 2016 and 2020 in American history were marked by a sense of national purpose, unity, and civic-mindedness from Republicans and Democrats alike. In late 2019, the Johnson administration faced what at first appeared to be a potential world-altering challenge, when China reported an outbreak of a highly transmissible pathogen known as SARS-CoV-2. The robust Centers for Disease Control presence in Beijing scrambled, along with Chinese health officials and the U.S. Agency for International Development’s coronavirus detection office in Wuhan, to contain the pathogen—and succeeded. Through the Johnson administration’s focus on both international cooperation and its decision to maintain long-standing policies of funding pandemic preparedness, the outbreak in China remained a mere curiosity, though Infowars host Alex Jones spent a week declaring the virus a hoax, noting its similarity to the pathogen in Fast & Furious 6.
The impact on Tommy Lee Jones
Oh, everything was pretty much the same for Tommy Lee Jones. Nothing fazes that guy.