I remember where I was when I watched The Fast and The Furious. The first film that launched the careers of Vin Diesel, Paul Walker and Michelle Rodriguez into the Hollywood stratosphere of invincibility. I saw it with my dad at Esquire in St. Louis when the theater was a hot spot. The theater was only half full because the cast was a bunch of nobodies then.
Unknown faces yet interesting ones. Who were these people? Rob Cohen directing the flick with barely a resume. Here was this cheap little independent action flick about hot rod cars, muscle bound men and tough babes. Innocent, simple, ridiculous and entertaining. By the end of the film, something else peeked up and showed its head. A heart. Something most action films dispose of before the credits begin and before the first bullet is fired.
Leaving the latest film, Furious 7, I felt an overwhelming sense of nostalgia. Part of it was due to Walker's death back in November of 2013, with filming only half finished. Part of it was looking at myself now and how I have changed since the first film back in 2001. Movies, especially the ones you love, help you mark the time in your own life. That takes these seemingly ridiculous characters and puts a real context around their effect on the big screen. They propel us to another world with their action abilities(in this one cars find a way to fly and another is revealed to be nearly superhuman) but they ground us with their reliance on family. In order to fully appreciate Furious 7, you have to realize the labor of love that went into finishing the film.
When Walker died, Universal and Diesel nearly pulled the plug, feeling it was too hard to go on and complete a film without one of its founding fathers. Diesel could barely hold himself together because he had lost a true brother, in the business and in his own life. Somehow, the cast and crew came together and decided to soldier on. The cynics will say it was money that swayed their minds but I don't buy that. The stars has made boatloads off Fast Five and Fast & Furious 6, so there was no need to break the bank because it already got broke. Throughout the promotional tour, Diesel and co-star Tyrese Gibson kept mentioning, "a labor of love". In a way, that's what has made this franchise a true success and something that stretches all over the globe. Rarely do films appeal to every single country in the world and every single race. The cast of Furious are multi-racial and it never felt put on or set up. It's natural and so is the action and thrills in this seventh edition, which I could say is the best but I am not sure. The last three films have been pretty special but Furious 7 pierces the heart due to Walker's presence.
This was his last film and every time he is on screen, my heart raced a bit faster and an emotion crept up inside me. Here was a guy who loved life, had fun making movies and did a lot of good with charities around the world who left at the age of 40 due to a horrific car accident. In a way, his death makes this film endeavor supremely bittersweet because of the action on screen and the manner in which Walker went out. If it wasn't for the filmmakers and cast giving him the most poignant of sendoffs, the whole film may have felt off. Instead, the emotion was unexpected and took the film to another level. In his death, Walker made his final hurrah as fast and furious as ever.
What was this one about? Simple. Cold hard revenge. In the sixth film, Dominic Toretto(Diesel) and his crew leveled Owen Shaw in London and helped Hobbs(Dwayne Johnson, who seems to gain 10 pounds of muscle per flex as the film progresses) save the world or at least part of it. Well, here, Deckard Shaw(played by a gleefully ruthless Jason Statham) is back to get revenge for his brother and starts hunting Dom's crew. After being badly injured in a tussle with Shaw, Hobbs gives Dom a special treat in government spook Mr. Nobody(Kurt Russell, filling the air with effortless cool). The spook tells Dom to find a hacker named Ramsey, who apparently created this "God's Eye" device that can track anyone anywhere in the world through cameras on streets, cellphones and wherever. In exchange for that, the spook will help Dom and his crew find Deckard. Got all that? It's okay if you don't. Screenwriter Chris Morgan isn't gunning for an Oscar here. Just a guy setting up his GI JOE's and Hot Wheels on a field before setting them to blow.
The filmmakers should add "BIGGER" to the title because with every film, the stunts and action get bigger and more ridiculous and ambitious. Remember when the crew dragged two large safes through the streets of Brazil with Dodge Chargers in Fast 5? That was child's play compared to the Tank fight and airplane runway dance in Fast 6. How does Furious 7 top that? Well, they literally drop six cars out of an airplane for an appetizer. It was NOT CGI. It was real. Cars were dropped, skydivers got the footage and through movie magic the actors were inserted later for a heist sequence that will keep your blood pressure at an all time high. Don't go to the bathroom during this film UNTIL that moment.
For the main course, Diesel and Walker crash a 250,000 dollar car through three skyscrapers in Abu Dhabi. Why? Doing cool stuff like finding a small device and well, because they want to replace ridiculous stunts with more ridiculous stunts. Furious films are the kid on the playground that keep searching for the big stick to slap other pretenders around. The dessert here is a battle in LA between helicopters, fast cars, tracking devices and the Rock sporting a Gatling gun on a freeway assuring a teammate, "Lady, I am the Calvary". This is Macho Man territory. Can you feel me...OH YEAH!!!
Diesel and Statham eventually tussle atop a crumbling parking garage because it wouldn't be cool or BIG enough if they wrestled in a Starbucks or Shell gas station. After engaging in three car races through three different cities while having chilly staring contests, these two magnificent action baldies have a pretty good scrap involving steel car scraps, pipes and tight t-shirts. It becomes a metal piece sword fight until the punches start landing and ribs crack, movie stars growl and the seat and viewer start to separate due to the action explosive device onscreen lifting them from their seat. This is throwback delight. Two well known guys fighting like there's no tomorrow. For the first time, the franchise has a true bad guy. They both lost blood and have to finish this. The movies supply more than action. It's an action ballet that transforms into an artform through sheer fearlessness from the stunt crew. The fight scenes don't lack sizzle or finish second to the car races here. The hand to hand combat is fierce and guess what, the stars do most of it and make it real. Walker gets in on the fun with martial artist Tony Jaa and Rodriguez gets to tangle with MMA star Ronda Rousey in hot cocktail gowns. Classy!
Walker gets to shine in his final moments. With every film, his work got better and better, and his once bright blonde locks turned to trimmed dark blonde/gray cuts. He was a martial arts lover in real life so his fights with Jaa aren't otherworldly and his scenes with Diesel are so sweet its hard to remind yourself they were merely best friends and not separated at birth. His death was untimely because of the man he was off the screen but he created something truly special in Brian O'Connor here. The whole film is a rollicking good time but after every laugh or smile is a small moment of heartache because real life stares us down when the lights come up. Walker proved to be an agile action performer in his final films and struts his moves in a pair of fights with Jaa. Huge respect to Walker's brothers, Caleb and Cody for lending their bodies, hearts and time to fill out the rest of Paul's work. The doubles and CGI work is seamless and doesn't take a viewer away from the movie or distract them while watching Walker. Wan and the filmmakers did a great job there.
Diesel is the "alpha" hero as usual, staging all the heart and soul in his epicenter of presence on screen. The man knows what he is good at and shines here as Dom the fearless leader. Rodriguez also is in her comfort zone as Letty, the hard to kill tough broad who can punch and kick as good as the boys. Tyrese and Chris "Ludacris" Bridges create the comic relief with their banter yet acquit themselves well in the fast go go action sequences. Unlike most films, every actor feels at home in this world because it's designed for one thing. Fun.
The end will make choke you up and it's appropriate. That's a movie connecting with a viewer. This guy shed a tear and that hasn't happened in a movie theater since Road to Perdition. If you don't feel a hint of sentimental emotion creeping around your eye lids watching the crew on a beach look on as their brother in arms plays with his wife and kids, something is truly cold inside you. The sendoff is poignant for both Walker and Diesel, because their friendship in the films mirrored their real life bond. Here, they end where they so frequently met up throughout the series. Staring each other down inside fast cars with the future in front of them and the sky standing as the limit. Director James Wan added something truly signature to an already great film. He gave Walker's character a first class moment and sendoff. There wasn't a dry eye in the house.
The Fast and Furious films have turned action into an art form over the past 14 years and seven films. The one thing they have never forgotten at the door is the true touch of class and heartfelt emotion. Wan, Diesel and company don't just think of their movies as entertainment. They think of their audience as family and intend to send them home on a full stomach. Furious 7 is proof that action and drama can co-exist inside the most ridiculous circumstances.
Do I want Faster and More Furious 8? You bet. Every couple of years, every movie fan needs to live their cinematic life a quarter mile at a time.