No one expected The Fast and the Furious to develop into a billion dollar franchise. The original was a solid hit, earning $200 million plus worldwide, and the sequel 2 Fast 2 Furious had a similar box office, though it cost twice the original’s $38 million. Paul Walker, the lone holdover for the sequel, thought the idea had run its course and chose not to do the third installment. It looked like the series would go the way of most sequels, with new movies featuring unknowns trading on the original’s name before disappearing onto video. If you were to go back to 2005 and tell Universal executives that the seventh movie in the series, Furious 7, would obliterate the box office record for an April opening, beating out the fourth and fifth entries that also set records, they’d likely have laughed in your face. Funny what can happen in 10 years.
But it did, and there are two main reasons for it. The first was finding the perfect director to get the series on track. Justin Lin was born in Taiwan but was raised in Orange County in a working class neighborhood. He got his MFA in film down the road at UCLA. Lin’s first solo directing project caused a stir at the Sundance Film Festival. Better Luck Tomorrow told the story of Asian-American kids caught up in a spiral of crime, and in the Q&A after its premiere Lin was asked if it was irresponsible to portray Asian-Americans in a negative light. Roger Ebert stood up and took the questioner to task, stating that the person “wouldn’t say that to a white filmmaker.” After a forgettable first studio film – Annapolis – Lin did the third entry in the series, Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift, and guided it to a respectable world-wide gross of $150 million. Lin was brought back for the fourth movie, and continued through the sixth installment. He’s currently in preproduction on Star Trek 3, and has also been tapped for the next Jeremy Renner Bourne picture.
The second reason was that in the fourth movie they return to the heist feature of the original with the first film’s cast. For Fast and Furious, the main characters returned: Vin Diesel (Dominic), Paul Walker (Brian), Michelle Rodriguez (Letty), and Jordana Brewster (Mia). The movie recaptured the intensity of the first film right from the opening sequence where Dom’s team hijacks the load from a four-trailer gas truck while it’s driving. But what was more important was the group became a family, augmented by Tyrese Gibson (Roman) and Ludacris (Tej) who’d appeared in the second movie, Sung Kang (Han) who’d come to the series during Tokyo Drift, and Gal Gadot (Giselle) who started in the fourth film. Such a multi-ethnic cast is unusual for a Hollywood film, even though it reflects more families these days. When Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson joined the cast in the fifth film as Federal Agent Hobbs it cemented the series as the current pinnacle of the action universe.
But while families grow, they also suffer losses. Giselle died during the climactic sequence in Furious 6, and Han is killed after the credits. But no one was prepared for the death of Paul Walker during the filming of Furious 7. That a car accident took his life, after all his daring action behind the wheel in this series, was the bitterest of ironies.
Justin Lin had turned over the director’s chair for 7 to James Wan, more known for his horror pictures (Saw, The Conjouring) than for action movies. But the opening sequence eliminates any questions about Wan’s abilities. It was set up in the tag after the credits of 6 that Jason Statham would be gunning for Dom and his crew. Statham plays Deckard Shaw, the older brother of the bad guy in 6, Owen Shaw (Luke Evans). 7 begins with Deckard standing over the bed where his comatose and broken brother lays, and he vows his revenge. The camera then follows him out of the hospital, revealing the carnage that Deckard has wrought on his way inside.
Deckard takes out Han in Tokyo, as previously shown, and almost eliminates Dom, Brian and Mia. Then comes a match action aficionados have dreamed of when Deckard squares off against Hobbs, a battle that pretty much destroys a building. But Deckard’s vendetta is interrupted by a shadowy government operative who goes by the name Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell, in a wonderful piece of casting). He promises to give Deckard to Dom, but his price is for Dom, Brian, and the rest of the crew to rescue a hacker named Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) from the terrorist Jakande (Djimon Hounsou) and recover a surveillance program she created that can find anyone in the world.
The plot mostly gives excuses for the extended action sequences, and 7 has three chase and fight sections that match and exceed anything the series has done so far. The first, with cars parachuting from a transport plane, has been featured in the trailers. Much of that sequence was done the old school way, rather than with digital effects. There is also a sequence that involves jumping a super car between the towers of an Abu Dhabi skyscraper. But those are just lead-ups to the climatic chase and battle, back on the streets of LA where everything began.
In the aftermath of Paul Walker’s death, it was clear that the fans of the series felt like they’d lost a family member as well. Director Wan rallied the cast and crew to finish the film. Walker had completed most of his scenes, and for shots that still needed to be filmed Wan used Walker’s younger brothers and computer graphics to overlay Walker’s face on them. But the original ending, which was meant to set up the next film, was thrown out. Instead, the film ends with a graceful and cathartic tribute to Walker.
See Furious 7 for the characters and the action, the two hallmarks of the entire series. But make sure you have a couple of tissues in your pocket for the end.