Let’s Track This From the Beginning…
“I live my life a quarter mile at a time.”
That’s a line spoken by Vin Diesel’s Dominic Toretto in a key scene of Rob Cohen’s 2001 schlock hit The Fast and the Furious, and in the context of that movie, the line kinda plays like total bullshit. It’s sort of emblematic of everything wrong with that movie: a film that’s about a bunch of two-bit DVD player-thieving punks who also race cars. They’re about as fake and uninteresting as movie characters can be, and yet the film treats them like enlightened gods among mortals. I couldn’t stand it.
But the Fast & Furious franchise grew. It changed, evolving from a story about a bunch of wannabe tough small-time crooks to being a wonderfully earnest story about family and home and how you find them. As Han said in 2006’s Tokyo Drift, “Who you choose to be around lets you know who you are”, and this eventually became the franchise’s guiding ethos. Along the way, it also became one of the most badass blockbuster action franchises of our time, with director Justin Lin and screenwriter Chris Morgan turning a series that was essentially an anthology collection into a deeply connected mythology (the most impressive achievement of theirs being taking throwaway nonsense elements from the first film and managing to transform them into genuine iconography), finally coming to a head in 2013’s Furious 6, in which our makeshift family finally found their way home.
The Obligation of Escalation
That’s where 2015’s Furious Seven begins, and for the first time in over a decade, there’s a new guy at the helm. The Conjuring director James Wan takes over for franchise savior Justin Lin, and proves that he’s just as adept with action as he is with horror. Wan mostly conforms to the style set by Lin across the previous two movies, but adds a few of his own touches, just enough so that you can tell there’s a new guy behind the camera. Fans of Wan’s horror oeuvre might recognize his tendency to lock his camera on a person, then spin the camera around them using the body as an axis.
The movie sets about telling a tale of how, even after you make it home, the demons of your past can still find you — this being the not-subtle Fast & Furious franchise, this theme is verbalized by Dom saying “Looks like the sins of London have followed us home.”.
Ever since the relatively small ($38 million budget) first film, the Fast movies have been continually upping the ante on scale. The first film was about DVD player thievery, the second involved a climactic chase that ended in a boat crash. The third climaxed with a high-stakes race on a dangerous mountain terrain while the fourth ended in some CGI nonsense I’d rather not bother discussing here. But Fast Five and Furious 6 were the entries where it really kicked up into the stratosphere. Five had a vault heist that damaged a good chunk of Rio de Janeiro and 6 had a tank battle that ravaged a large highway. Of course, the escalation must continue, so Furious Seven tops its predecessors in scale by not only having a sequence where cars skydive into a mountain chase (Wan turning in the franchise’s high watermark for action), but also cars flying between skyscrapers and a drone battle that levels a good chunk of Downtown Los Angeles. Five dealt with local corrupt Brazilian police and 6 had high-tech mercenaries, so Seven tops this by not only giving us Jason Statham’s slasher movie assassin villain Deckard Shaw, who has the magical ability to teleport into scenes and immediately start wreaking havoc, but also the franchise’s equivalent to SHIELD in Kurt Russell’s Nick Fury Mr. Nobody. The street race is relegated to a prologue after the opening credits and the franchise gets down to business in being the second-greatest superhero cinematic universe currently operating.
This escalation continues with Furious Seven increasingly taking the franchise into the realm of the absurd. Dom decides on a whim, while having a heart-to-heart with Michelle Rodriguez’s still-amnesiac Letty at her “tombstone” that he’s going to take a sledgehammer and straight up demolish the thing. Ludacris’ family tech guy Tej Parker has suddenly acquired martial arts skills, seemingly between scenes. Jason Statham’s Deckard Shaw is introduced in a showstopping opener where he singlehandedly blows an entire hospital to smithereens. Dom, in an insane plan to escape from a gang of terrorists led by Djimon Hounsou, drives his car right off a cliff, turning over a dozen times before he gets out and walks it off. Dwayne Johnson’s franchise MVP Hobbs miraculously manages to survive falling several stories, before breaking his arm out of a cast by flexing it and managing to destroy a flying drone by crashing an ambulance into it. The movie has Dom and Shaw crash into each other in a head-on collision, twice (Three times if you count the magical, magical pipe fight).
And, of course, the granddaddy of them all:
Dom and Letty get married, with Letty in a wedding dress and Dom in an undershirt, before Dom changes his mind about dying and comes back to life.
In fact, let’s pump the brakes here for a second and I’ll explain why I think this scene is key to understanding why these movies work. What’s happening onscreen is definitely stupid. It’s insanely stupid. It’s about at the same level of stupid as Sam Witwicky’s visit to Transformer Heaven in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. But the emotions of the scene feel real — you buy everyone despairing over their lumbering Fambly Dad dying. And then when he changes his mind and resurrects himself, they’re euphoric. Brian’s smile of relief, Hobbs’ nod of approval, Letty’s pure joy; These emotions track with what we’ve seen of these characters, and on a personal level, it feels completely emotionally honest. What’s happening is beyond dumb, yes, but it also feels true1.
And that’s how this franchise fixed itself: by going from being fake, insincere and faux-“cool” to becoming as earnest, inclusive and exuberantly joyful as a modern blockbuster film franchise can be.
Brian O’Conner is every bit as integral to the series as Dom. His arc from sensitive cop, to Miami street-racing bro, back to sensitive FBI agent, to sensitive criminal, to American Muscle Car Family Man James Bond, is in many ways the spine of the whole series. He’s also the key link in the cast, connecting the lumbering, gravelly Dom to the rest of the ensemble. As everyone who’s seen these movies knows, Paul Walker died midway through shooting. The filmmakers decided the show must go on, and so, Brian needed a proper sendoff. Luckily, in a series all about family and home, Furious Seven was in a prime position to take yet another stroll down memory lane, so the movie goes about hitting the beats it knows you want it to hit one more time.
While at first glance, Nathalie Emmanuel’s Ramsey may seem like a pointless new character as her skills basically overlap with Tej’s, she serves as an outside window to once again view this ragtag family of outsiders from a new angle. From that standpoint, we get a summation of who all these people are once again — Dom is the leader, Letty has his back, Brian’s the detective/fighter, Tej is the tech smarts, and Roman, of course, is the joker. Through Russell’s note-perfect turn as Mr. Nobody, the series once again emphasizes Dom’s love of Corona (Mr. Nobody, being my kinda guy, is more of a Belgian ale man). Hobbs is gloriously reintroduced via his ambulance stunt. The movie continues Lin’s trend of making nonsense from the first film iconic with Brian reusing a move from the first movie where he escapes from the drone by driving under a truck. We get one more round of Brian and his new family with Mia, complete with a heartbreaking final phone conversation that is so perfect that it’s sort of crazy that they had the footage to cobble that all together. We get Brian giving Roman crap one more time, because Brian giving Roman crap is never not amazing. Last of all, we get Brian’s arc of having an unhealthy addiction to danger, of “missing the bullets”.
And of course, we get the ending, which is so final and emotionally impactful that I don’t even know what The Fate of the Furious will do without Brian.
Look How Far We’ve Come
Furious Seven is a slightly weaker installment than its two predecessors, and I could talk more about why — Brian’s relative absence caused them to pump up Dom’s role, and he’s not very interesting on his own, Brian’s silent, CGI-enhanced presence in scenes sometimes feels slightly odd or disconcerting, the loss of Han and Gisele makes a lot of parts feel weirdly spare, and the main McGuffin plot doesn’t make a lick of sense and often seems at odds with our heroes’ goal — but all of that stuff is relatively immaterial. Furious Seven reminds every viewer, as much if not more than its two predecessors, of how far this franchise has truly come; how it’s gone from half-assed out-of-touch XTREME schlock that no one cared about to a story with actual characters and emotions, albeit one couched in some of the most magnificently insane moments ever put to film.
So the same line I once scoffed at as being vapid nonsense all those years ago is repeated again, at the end of this film, and now, in the context of this ragtag family, both on and offscreen, it feels like it might as well be the truest statement in the world.
“I used to say I live my life a quarter mile at a time, and I think that’s why we were brothers – because you did too.”