April 10, 2015

Seven is a lucky number for the Fast and Furious franchise

The most common critique leveled against big budget action films such as Furious 7 is that they lack a soul. Film has been commercialized since its inception, but in the current age of blockbusters—from the Marvel Studios machine to the young adult literature gold rush—film has scarcely ever felt more like a product. The Fast and Furious franchise now basks in the glow of this era. The latest installment brought in absurd box office earnings, but its success actually predates the current paradigm by quite a few years. Fourteen years after its beginning and one and a half years after the highly publicized death of star Paul Walker, the franchise stands at something of a crossroad.

Furious 7 picks up a few years after the events of Fast and Furious 6, wherein Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and his team of street racers help the military bring down terrorist Owen Shaw (Luke Evans). Shaw’s brother Deckard (the always enthralling Jason Statham), a rogue black ops agent, vows to avenge him by killing off Toretto’s crew one by one.  He begins with Han Seoul-Oh (Sung Kang), whose death in the series’s black sheep The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift had previously been thought to be an accident (the films do not take place in strictly chronological order).  After an assassination attempt on Toretto himself, the rest of the team is brought back together to take down the elder Shaw brother before he kills them all.

In the lead-up to the release of Furious 7, my house spent a week watching all six of the previous entries in the franchise, and we were able to track the series from its humble beginnings to its thunderous present.  At the outset, Toretto’s crew is nothing more than a group of mid-level thieves ripping off shipping trucks and street racing in their spare time. After trying out a few different directors, casts, and settings, the fourth film (confusingly titled Fast and Furious, as opposed to The Fast and the Furious, which is the first film) settled on director Justin Lin and a main cast which has essentially been static since 2011’s Fast 5.  Lin’s M.O. during his tenure was one of upping the ante, constantly trying to crank up the action and the absurdity. From Toretto wiping out cop cars on a Brazilian bridge with a giant safe attached to his car, to a chase sequence with a tank in Spain, to a 15-minute action sequence based around a moving plane, the films begin to feel alien from their predecessors.

They may have been fighting international paramilitary groups, but in a way they were still the same people guzzling Coronas after a street race.  At the end of the day, they were still a family, even if they've been thrown into a world that no longer fits them in search of box office dollars. The film still has a soul.  Nowhere is that more apparent than at the film's end, when reality is all but suspended for a tribute to the late Paul Walker.  The characters watch Walker's character from a distance, reflecting on their past adventures as he is said to be retiring from future jobs in the world of the film.  Death itself is never mentioned explicitly, but this is an undoubtedly melancholic scene. Walker is ghostly and removed, and the dialogue could just as easily be the actors' real selves ruminating on his passing.  They all know just as well as we do that this is goodbye.

It is a genuinely moving sequence, even when juxtaposed against the insanity that comprises the rest of this film. One has to wonder if this is, in a way, the end of the series as we know it.  Walker did not bring the most star power to the table, but he brought a boyish enthusiasm that complimented Diesel’s grizzled monotone.  The films that don't feature them together noticeably suffer.  The driver is far more important than the car, but that’s a question for later.  If this is the last ride for the Fast stars, if they never make another good film again, that would be alright.  To outsiders they will always look like more Michael Bay fodder, but we know better.