As a celebration of both their 20th anniversary, and the upcoming release of F9, Past of the Furious is a series of retrospectives going through the Fast and/or Furious film franchise, one by one, movie by movie. Together we will discover how a series that began about stealing DVD players became a modern-day GI Joe riff and Universal Pictures’ third biggest franchise ever (only behind Jurassic Park and Despicable Me/Minions).
There were a lot of questions surrounding Furious 7 even before the tragedy that hangs over the whole film struck. After four films of increasing box office draws and visibility, Justin Lin stepped away from the franchise to make the criminally underrated Star Trek Beyond. The question then became who would fill the director’s chair. The final choice was a bit of a surprise: James Wan, who had up to this point exclusively been attached to horror films, and nothing close to the reported $250 million dollar budget. It was a gamble for sure, especially for a series that just had found its footing as a major franchise.
The new film’s plot continued the upward escalation that had become something of a self-parody at this point. Following earning full pardons in the previous film, Dom and the rest of the family find themselves in the crosshairs of Deckard Shaw, the brother of the previous entry’s villain Owen. It is revealed that Deckard is in fact responsible for Han’s death, and that he plans to kill the rest of the family as a means of revenge. To complicate things ever further, the Family is recruited by the mysterious Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) to intercept a satellite surveillance system called God’s Eye, as well as protect its creator known mononsynomously as Ramsey (Nathalie Emmerson). There’s…more going on in the film, but suffice to say that the plot gets oversized. Way oversized.
But it is impossible to talk about Furious 7 without talking about the tragedy at the center of it. Paul Walker, one half of the top of the cast for the series from the very beginning, died in a car accident during a break in shooting, having filmed around half of the film. This led to an obvious halt in the filmmaking, partially as a means for cast and staff to come to terms with the real world loss of their family member, but also to figure out how (or if) the film would go forward. The eventual solution was a radical film rewrite to centralize Walker’s Brian O’Conner to not die in world, but rather to permanently retire from the Family’s increasingly flashy antics. Walker’s younger brother served as a body double to film necessary scenes to help flesh out these additions, and WETA was responsible for extensive special effects to superimpose his likeness. By centralizing the final moments of the film as a fitting send off for Walker, and the use of Wiz Khalifa’s “See You Again” swiftly gave the film the reputation of a devastatingly emotionally raw finale.
Any concerns of signing on Wan to helm the film were immediately wiped away when the box office began to roll in, as Furious 7 was the first film in the franchise to cross the billion dollar line; it remains the 9th highest grossing film of all time, and the highest grossing film directed by a non-white director. Off of the strength of the film (and due to increasing tension between the franchise’s stars; more on that next week), spin-offs and series expansions were considered for the first time. Universal officially centralized the Fast films as a cornerstone franchise for themselves, alongside Jurassic Park, with plans to get only bigger and broader.
But what do we think about it?
I love each of the first 6 Fast Franchise movies. Their quality varies, but I’m always happy to watch any of them. This is not the case for Furious 7, a movie I find very bad. James Wan takes over from Justin Lin, and although he clearly understands the elements that one of these movies should contain, he delivers them in a fashion more akin to a bad superhero movie rather than the Fast films I love. Wan is an amazing director — the original Saw and the absolutely unhinged Aquaman are both wonderful.
For starters, if Jason Statham isn’t being deployed by Guy Ritchie or Neveldine/Taylor, I have no use for him. His extremely basic hard man persona needs to have some other bit of flair to it, or else I find him tedious. That said, if Furious 7 had just been a movie about Statham getting revenge on the family, and the family equally out for Statham’s blood for killing Han, I think I could have accepted it. Instead, we are introduced to Kurt Russell’s Mr. Nobody, and the family is once again pressed into service as hired wheelmen for the US government. Stuffing Russell and that whole subplot in here takes the focus off of the characters I love, adding just a bunch of boring gunplay and Belgian ale discussion.
James Wan had a mighty challenge on his hands because of the loss of the heart of the family. Paul Walker’s tragic death mid-filming will always overshadow this movie, and my complaints about the style and tone of the movie feel petty in comparison to the real loss suffered by his family, friends, coworkers, and fans. The epilogue that Wan shot is unequivocally perfect, an artifact that is both fully inside the canon of the franchise and a special moment for the audience to fully process their grief. Even years later after multiple watches, fully exasperated by a sequel I didn’t like, I have the same ugly cry that I did on opening night in the theater. It is a unique gift to fans to say goodbye to someone with the full force of a Hollywood movie and a movie star as talented and charismatic as Paul Walker. This loving and respectful ending may make no sense to someone watching the series out of context a couple of decades from now, but I am grateful for it.
Each week on this column, I assert that the film I just watched was even better than the last… but alas I cannot go there this week. Sadly, I think I prefer the sixth installment to the seventh. However, it’s not as if I didn’t also really enjoy the seventh.
“Why a step back?” you ask. Let’s start with the baddie. Statham felt underwhelming as this film’s big bad in a lot of ways. Despite his action prowess and ability to be a total badass in hand-to-hand combat, his on screen brother was far more menacing and believable as the criminal mastermind. Moreover, I think having seen him in Hobbs and Shaw had me looking at him in a different light than what I needed him to be here. So, while not entirely his fault, he didn’t quite “do it” for me.
I also wanted more Letty and Hobbs in the big parts of the film where they were mostly absent. Both came back into the fold when they were truly needed, but I still yearned for a bit more from both.
On the other hand, the film’s emotional beats, ending, and final dedication to the late Paul Walker legitimately had me bawling like a baby. I am a total sappy sucker and I was done long before the credit montage hit. That just multiplied my tears.
All in all, still a very satisfying film and I’m still fully in.
“You work for the US government” — Ramsey
“We’ve got similar interests” — Dom
Furious 7 is a unique beast in this now aged and storied franchise. It stands out because the real world came crashing into the logic and physics defying franchise in a profound way. Celebrity deaths often don’t hit me personally in the heart. I don’t know these people, after all, nor do I know those who loved them. But for some reason I’ve always personally found Paul Walker’s death to be particularly tragic, and this series’ homage to him to be about as note perfect as could be imagined. It’s borderline profound to me that the whole Fast/Furious team allowed Brian O’Conner to live forever, happily with his family and driving off into the sunset. Rest in peace, Paul Walker, and ride eternal, Brian O’Conner.
And with that pouring out of my Corona, I’ll ask an equally humanistic question: Does The Fambly have a tour manager? Like… who arranged for their fleet of sports cars when they touched wheels down in Abu Dhabi? Who books their hotel rooms? I need to know this stuff.
But speaking of Abu Dhabi… Furious 7 spins its wheels a bit until coming alive in this sequence.
I don’t entirely love the set pieces up until that one as it’s the first time in the franchise that I feel truly delves into The Other Guys territory of our heroes just straight up jumping off of buildings because they assume they’ll land on their feet. As much as the Furious franchise has defied logic and physics and human bone density in the past, Furious 7 strains credulity in its writing. I pretty much hate it that Dom rescues his hacker friend Ramsey by just… building a really strong tank car and then simply hurling it off the side of a cliff. There’s no talent there for the character. Dom himself usually wins because he’s more knowledgable, has a deeper skill set, has the grit to do things others wouldn’t do. Here in Furious 7 he just drives cars off of cliffs and out of skyscrapers and into the abyss for no real character-driven reason, but rather because the script demands it.
That said, arguing for a seventh film in a car racing franchise to be more grounded is a fool’s errand, so I’ll just say that from Abu Dhabi on is when Furious 7 largely sings. It’s overstuffed, so folks like Tony Jaa, Rhonda Rousey, and Kurt Russell are forced into very minimal roles because there’s just not enough screen time for a dozen stars. Even The Rock gets mercifully sidelined through the middle of the movie to allow Hobbs potency versus screen time.
Furious 7 sees The Fambly fully embracing their new roles as globetrotting race car cops and these later entries will always suffer from that loss of outlaw spirit, but it makes up for that loss of rebelliousness by simply throwing money at ever bigger and more ludicrous (see what I did there?) set pieces that deliver on a spectacle like only this franchise can.
I have the luxury of reading every one else’s takes for this series before I have to commit to my own, so I know that both Ben and Justin have relatively cold feelings about this entry. And I can totally sympathize with their logic for their opinions: Furious 7 is an uneven movie that has more plot than it knows what to do with, guided by spectacle rather than especially emotionally grounded plotting, the thing this series is the best at. It doubles down on the Family being just “G.I. Joes in cars”, and as much as I love Kurt Russell and he seems to be having fun, his presence feels weird and slightly disjointed from the rest of the film’s vibe.
But I still kind of love Furious 7, partially because I think Wan brings a distinctive sensibility to the series that he would later perfect in the absolutely bug nuts Aquaman. Namely, he flexes his muscles as a visual stylist in a way that Justin Lin, who favors clear staging and grounded camerawork, never did with the series. As the plot gets outsized, so does the symbology of the film, with action sequences feeling less attached to gravity and more iconic in their scope. The clearest example of this is the final conflict between Deckard and Dom, banging dual-wielded, oversized spanners as if they were trading blows against the backdrop of a space epic and not a series about car-crime.
And I would be dishonest to not recognize that the final five minutes of the film force it to have a special place for me in the canon of the series. It is all the more tragic because Paul Walker, in the scenes he was able to film before his death, is so perfectly in the pocket as Brian at this point, the slightly nervier side to Dom’s calm fury. He never transitioned into being a universal leading man, but he was a key component of these films from the very start. For a major franchise film to have to tackle real death like this seems to be an impossible bear to tackle, and while you can feel the film screeching to a halt in portions to address and set-up the finale, given circumstances it was handled about as perfectly as possible. Yes, I cry every time I see it or so much as hear “See You Again,” and in lesser hands it could be considered emotionally manipulative. But the clear love that is communicated from the cast in these moments are so genuine that it is hard to not empathize with that sadness and grief. For all of the movie’s bravado and overstuffed grandeur, the film’s most effective sequence is grounded by honesty and heart. As this franchise’s best moments always are.
Our Next Pit Stop: Next week, it’s the final stop (thus far) for the Family proper as we increase our international intrigue, convoluted plotting and wild coincidence. And behind the scenes tension begins to boil over onto the screen as we consider The Fate of the Furious.