The Reved-Up Action Franchise Says Goodbye To Paul Walker The Only Way It Knows How
DIRECTED BY JAMES WAN/2015
Jim Tudor: Big, loud, macho cool.
It took some convincing to get me to believe that there was anything more to the Fast & Furiousseries than that. By the time part five rolled around, I had still never seen one of these films. The world of gleaming super-charged street racing simply didn’t appeal to me, despite my latent love for the occasional down & gritty car crash movie. Universal, the studio behind this ballooning franchise, once gave the world Smokey & the Bandit, a classic 1970s tire-squealer that’s not afraid to show its seams. The Fast & Furious series are something different. Different from the car crash movies that preceded them, and different from the post-MTV adrenalized schlock that I dismissed them as.
Actually, let me add a big qualifier – I’ve only ever seen Fast Five and Fast & Furious 6 before seeing Furious 7. Yes, they are dumb, loud, prone to moments of leering objectification (of both young women [not okay] and cars [yeah fine, look all you want]), and logically speaking, as dumb as an axel rod. But there’s also a lot of heart, a lot of genuine care for the ongoing characters, and a crackling house style that manages to be cool without being alienating. These are gloriously implausible action films, designed to be enjoyed on a base level; the audience laughing with them, not at them. Somewhere amid this formula, I was mildly shocked to find myself anticipating going back to this world for part Seven.
Furious 7 doesn’t disappoint, even as it plays it way safe. Gone is long-running director Justin Lin, replaced by the prolific horror helmer James Wan. Wan not only got handed the keys to this ever-expanding mega-franchise (far larger than the Insidious and Conjuring director has ever worked) – one with the unlikely dignification of hitting its stride with number Five (or so I’m told) – he also had to navigate the international production through the tragic and untimely death of series lead Paul Walker. Unsurprisingly, Furious 7 sticks to the established formula of the two previous films, while also managing to be a tribute to its fallen star. In this case, the former can be considered as appropriate as the latter. Furious 7 delivers exactly what is expected.
Erik Yates: It is exactly what is expected. James Wan I think had to play it safe given the Fast and Furious canon that now has been built with Justin Lin weaving in all the storylines from each film that, until the fourth entry, were pretty scattered all over the map. Despite the original film, that laid the ground work for the core group, having such a strong appeal, all of the original cast was gone for the second entry besides Paul Walker. He even skipped the third entry as the series looked to reboot itself in Tokyo. The fact that the original cast didn’t reappear until film four is what made Fast Five be the one that truly made this series fire on all pistons, as they were finally growing comfortable as a unit.
For me, Fast Five was maybe the most fun of the seven. It stuck to the heart of the original film while opening things up in a big way. With Furious 6, I felt that the wheels begin to come off the car so to speak in the sense that the stunts, while always a bit implausible, were now becoming distracting to the storyline, despite, as you said Jim, the series maintaining its heart. It is the cast and the faithfulness to their characters development that have helped fans stick around and honestly be more forgiving of its shortcomings and implausibility. For examples of this in Furious 6, simply consider the stunt where Toretto (Vin Diesel) jumps off his speeding car and is propelled over a bridge where he catches Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) in mid-air before their momentum crashes them into a parked car with no protection and they walk away. Or, maybe just the endless runway scene in the film’s climax would do the trick.
With Furious 7, you get a whole new Fast and Furious experience that one can gleam from the trailer: Flying cars! And while the stunts and the impossible number of sure-death stunts the characters survive, the film still manages to be a lot of fun. At the same time, the story has gotten so far away from who these people were in the first film, that they are more or less caricatures of themselves. This, and the increasing implausibility of the stunts in Furious 7 are threatening to derail has series that otherwise might have some fuel left in the tank.
Vin Diesel, who also is a producer on the film, promised the fans that this entry would get the team back to where it all started (Los Angeles). And while that is true, ultimately, most of the film follows the typical studio formula for action films that bigger is always better, leading to even more globe trotting than the last film. And like the Die Hard franchise lost itself as it made John McClane’s world bigger and bigger, Fast and Furious is dangerously close to suffering the same fate.
Jim Tudor: Good points! Furious 7 certainly follows the conventional sequel wisdom of bigger/faster/stronger/louder/longer/MORE!!! While the flying cars (actually parachuting cars… don’t give ‘em any ideas!!) was a kind of glorious inanity, I agree that we’re probably right up to the edge of what’s plausible. And in terms of what the series might be losing because of this… “conventional wisdom” has never been “cool”. And even if the series has never actually been as cool as it has postured, it’s still got something to lose. Perhaps it’s true that good will, a game cast, and yes, a tragedy, help this film positively into the red, any future conformity to what works will simply start to look like an aging cast trying to make hip-hop videos.
In Furious 7 (apparently named that in homage to Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai… To which, if that’s the case, I can only respond with “Bwah hah hah hah hah hah!” But hey, a sense of history has never hurt.) Kurt Russell shows up to recruit Toretto and his team for some sort of government deep-shadow ops unit, in order to stop the evil Jason Statham and his employer and Big Bad, Djimon Hounsou. Again, there’s nothing cool about going to work for The Man, but I’ll be a grease monkey in a china shop if they aren’t trying!
Russell gives a literally winking performance as chief dude “Mr. Nobody”. The crew are jetting all over the planet in search of a crucial hard drive that’s been stashed (inexplicably) into a supercool car that’s been stashed (far more inexplicably) in a room full of highly valued fragile artifacts on the top floor of a high rise in Abi Dhabi. (One guess what happens.) This gives everyone a chance to doll it up in some dashing outfits while crashing the big party. If Michelle Rodriguez getting into a one-on-one glass-wall-smashing, evening gown-flapping brawl (one of two F&F house style fight scenes) with MMA champ Ronda Rousey, then I guess this party is a success. The fight narrowly rivals the one Paul Walker has with martial arts superstar Tony Jaa (playing a glorified henchman) on a sardine-canned tour bus, careening down a desert road.
But it’s Vin Diesel that keeps this motor running. He’s perhaps the weirdest bona-fide action star of all time, in that one has no trouble buying him as an invincible force ready and willing to intentionally crash every car he drives at intense speeds in the interest of showing up the bad guys, but also as a dough boy who’d well up over a Hallmark greeting card. His incessant reminders that his crew is his “family” is matched only by his deep register tough guy one-liners, at least one of which didn’t register at all with me, buried somewhere in the auditorium’s overworked subwoofers.
Erik Yates: I agree about Vin Diesel. When he walked away after the original film, Paul Walker and Tyrese tried to carry the load for the Miami-based sequel 2 Fast 2 Furious, but it wasn’t the same. It was the 10-second cameo of Vin Diesel’s character, Dom Toretto, in Tokyo Drift that got everyone talking about the series again. Eventually the cast would be back, Vin Diesel would come on as a producer, and it is his commitment to his “code” that keeps things moving forward. That, along with the banter between the various team members, and the loud presence of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
Paul Walker’s character of Brian still has his share of the action and leadership of the team, but over the years the series has mellowed him out as he grew more and more content with his relationship with Mia (Jordana Brewster), his wife and Dom’s sister. It is this idea of family that Dom uses to keep his friends together as a unit, but it is also the emerging theme of the last 3 films between Mia and Brian that ultimately will allow Paul Walker, and his character of Brian, to exit this series with dignity.
Jim Tudor: Walker’s death is handled with the expected class and dignity necessary, although the continuous pronouncements of “No more funerals!” does get a bit meta-eerie. The real-world lengths the production had to go to in order to complete this film with his character still a major part of it doesn’t show as often as one would suspect. (Apparently, every trick in the book was employed to achieve Walker’s unfinished scenes: doubles, CGI, editing trickery, etc.) It may come as a shock that Furious 7 wraps up with the most effectively emotional finish of the year. But that’s perfectly cool with me.
Erik Yates: Yes, and the final scene was the only one where I knew they were using a double. I won’t divulge any spoilers, but it is a fitting scene as it was obviously one that was filmed after Paul Walker’s death, and his double is one of his real-life brothers seeking to help the series complete Paul’s character’s arc, and give a fitting goodbye to his family member at the same time. The emotion seen in the cast’s faces at this scene is authentic and will truly allow the series to continue, even without one of its main cast members.
Overall, for me, the series peaked with Fast Five, but even though it’s cruising down hill, it is still moving at an entertaining speed and is certainly better than many of the early sequels. The cast and the formula is tight, as are many of the action scenes, and anyone who has enjoyed this series will find Furious 7 to be a fun entry, even with some of the absurdity of the stunts. Let us hope that as Paul Walker makes his exit and the tightknit group of Dom Toretto gets smaller, that the series will find a way to capture what is working so well and scale the scope back down so that what stands out aren’t the elaborate set pieces but the heart of a group of characters whose bond only seems to grow with each adventure. That is the relationship this series has with its fans, and one I hope they are eager to rediscover in the sure-to-happen 8th installment. Despite the tag-line, this is not their “one last ride”.