Real life tragedy intersecting with entertainment is nothing new. Sometimes it’s outside forces that result in release delays because the plot mirrors real life events a little too closely. Other times the tragedy is within the project itself and it’s something The Fast and the Furious franchise had to deal with on November 30, 2013.
At about 3:30 p.m., Paul Walker and his friend Roger Rodas, left an event for Walker’s charity Reach Out Worldwide for victims of Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda). Rodas was driving his Porsche Carrera GT in a 45 miles per hour (72 km/h) speed zone on Hercules Street near Kelly Johnson Parkway in Valencia, Santa Clarita, California, when the car crashed into a concrete lamp post and two trees before catching fire. Rodas died of multiple trauma while Walker died from the combined effects of trauma and burns.
With Furious 7 in the middle of filming at the time of Walker’s death, Universal announced an indeterminate hiatus on the production, citing a desire to speak with his family before determining what to do with the film. Ultimately the film went through script rewrites, and his brothers, Caleb and Cody Walker, were used as stand-ins to complete his remaining scenes. The franchise has always really been about family at its core so the Walkers coming in to help complete the film, allowed his “Fast Family” to carry on and finish the project because it was determined it would be what he ultimately wanted.
I said that Fast Five is arguably the best film of the franchise, and it purely is from an entertainment standpoint, but Furious 7 hits an emotional nerve that the franchise never reached before. The untimely death of Paul Walker looms large over the project but it’s never exploitative. His presence adds a poignancy to the proceedings that is surprisingly powerful and it provides a respectful send off to not only the character but the actor who helped turned these films into a worldwide phenomenon.
The story picks up where Fast & Furious 6 ended with Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) deciding to take revenge on the Fast and Furious group for the death of his brother. An ex-black ops “asset”, Shaw is an expert at staying under the radar. He’s a ghost who leaves a trail of dead bodies. Furious 7 opens with a bang as Deckard first goes after agent Hobbs (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), sending him to the hospital, then blows up the house of Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel) while his sister, Mia (Jordana Brewster), and best buddy, Brian (Walker), are visiting with their young son. For a while, Furious 7 is a hunter-and-hunted story with Deckard targeting Dom and his crew: Brian, Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) and two others: computer whiz Tej (Ludacris) and comedic relief Roman (Tyrese Gibson). Before the halfway point, however, a mysterious government agent played by Kurt Russell enters the proceedings and Dom, Brian, and the others end up in the middle of a plot straight out of a Bond movie complete with a beautiful woman (Nathalie Emmanuel) and a vicious terrorist (Djimon Hounsou). During the film’s second half, Deckard becomes an afterthought who occasionally shows up to take pot shots at Dom while the film draws to the likely conclusion of Brian retiring to live a true family life with Mia and his son.
I didn’t really notice it the first time I saw it but upon multiple viewings, you can tell that this is a film that went through some rewrites and changes after Walker passed away. He was about halfway completed with filming before he died and did get to film a good chunk of the movie but it’s obvious that the more mundane action was cut back a bit to be able to pay proper tribute to him. Stepping into the director’s chair this time around is James Wan, who has seen great success with films like Insidious and The Conjuring. Wan is a talented director and doesn’t miss a beat picking up on Justin Lin’s style yet making it his own. Wan wasn’t expecting to deal with a tragedy of these proportions when he signed on to direct but kudos to him for handling it as effectively as he did. Having to put together a fun action film yet dealing with the complicated ins and outs of showing respect to Walker while making sure he has a complete conclusion had to be difficult but he pulls it off. After seeing the film multiple times it’s easier to see what Walker completed and what was finished by his brothers and other actors filling in as stand-ins with the use of decent enough CGI to place Walker’s fact on their bodies. The only time it’s distracting is the first time you watch the film because you’re looking for it but subsequent viewings make it feel relatively seamless.
Character building has always been a gripe for some critics when it comes to these films but this installment does a credible job, particularly with Brian’s character. Brian feels torn between the high-adrenaline ride he gets with his friends (“he misses the bullets”) and his responsibilities as a father and husband. Although Walker’s death adds an unintended layer to some of those scenes, it’s clear the movie was originally scripted to retire Brian – or at least provide Walker with an “out” if he wanted to step away and focus on other projects. This is what makes the final scene emotionally resonate. The fact that what some call a mindless action film takes a moment to step back and pay tribute to not just the character but the actor who plays him, is a pretty bold move. When I saw this opening day in theaters the packed crowd grew silent during the final moments and while some cried, and others gave a congratulatory cheer, the moment definitely left its intended mark.
Despite the seriousness that surrounded those working behind the scenes, Furious 7 is still a fun action romp. It has what we have all come to love from the franchise and it doesn’t really miss a beat. Viewers who are here for the spectacle certainly get their money’s worth. Furious 7 is all about action with some scenes being more inventive than others. Staying true to its pedigree, the film offers a variety of fast vehicles and high-speed chases. The crashes, including an instance of chicken in which no one blinks, are satisfyingly loud with bits of twisted metal flying in all directions. There are several mano-e-mano clashes modeled after Schwarzenegger/Stallone fights from the ’80s – no matter how hard someone gets punched, kicked, or clobbered, they come back for more. Then there is a scene where a car sails across the gap between two high rise buildings that is the definition of over the top but is so visually stunning that you forgive it for defying the laws of physics.
The returning cast members, including Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez, Jordana Brewster, Dwayne Johnson, Tyrese Gibson, and Ludacris are all top notch. There is a sense that they are giving it a little bit more in order to get the film right for their fallen friend. New additions such as Jason Statham, Nathalie Emmanuel, and Kurt Russell fit right in but one wishes Statham didn’t become an afterthought during the film’s second half because, much like Luke Evans, he’s a pretty solid villain and leaves an impression.
The franchise continues to move on with the release of The Fate of the Furious this weekend and I’m sure it will provide fans with what they have come to expect from the series. That being said, I don’t think the films will ever reach this level of poignancy ever again. It’s a shame that real life tragedy is the reason for this emotional resonance but all involved should be proud of the finished product and that they were able to honor their friend onscreen in a way that was respectful and not in any way exploiting the tragedy of his death. When the title card “For Paul” appears at the end you feel that truer words have never been spoken.