I remember how stunned I was when I first heard of Paul Walker’s passing. Later that night, I remember walking into a store and seeing ads for Furious 6’s Blu-ray release and just freezing and staring at Walker’s face. I’m somewhat surprised by how much his death affected me. He’d never been a particularly gifted actor… but there was definitely something likable about the guy. His role in the explosive and wildly popular Fast and Furious franchise certainly helped. But with his scenes in Furious 7 not having been completely shot, there were concerns about how the filmmakers would finish it without him. Fortunately, they were up to the challenge, sending Walker off in a style only the Fast and Furious movies could.
Picking up chronologically after Furious 6 and The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (which was the third Fast and Furious movie released), Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker) are enjoying their relatively calm lives until Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) comes seeking revenge for what Toretto and crew had done to his brother Owen (Luke Evans, the villain of Furious 6).
It’s pretty astonishing to see how far the Fast and Furious franchise has come from the relatively straightforward and grounded story about an undercover cop and badboy street racers that the first film told. Since at least Fast Five, the audience has become accustomed to seeing at least one car falling hundreds of feet with the drivers/passengers/surfers calmly figuring out a way to escape what should be inevitable death. Furious 7 continues this new tradition of the preposterous couched as the usual for these lovable renegades and ups the stakes, which is about what everyone who’s excited to see this movie was hoping for. We get plenty of jaw-dropping, heart-pounding, absurd action and it’s about as entertaining as you’d expect. Of course, these thrills often come at the expense of believable logic (and physics) from the characters and the world, but honestly, who’s watching this movie for the taut, contemplative writing? I pity those precious few.
Despite the slew of irrational decisions and behaviors that define the madness of the reborn franchise, the filmmakers have managed to really make us care about these characters. These movies (and Furious 7 in particular) have tons of heart. While they’re about stunts, driving and general action, these movies are also about this tightknit family of misfits. And that’s what makes Paul Walker’s death especially powerful. There are moments throughout the movie where the veil of cinema is pulled back and we get to see the actors behind the characters mourning Walker and celebrating what he had meant to them and to the movies. The final sequence of the film, a tribute to Walker and his moments in the films, did something I would have found absolutely unbelievable just a few years ago: it had me fighting back tears (I’m confident I wasn’t alone). This cast was a family on and off screen.
I had been deeply curious to see how the movie would handle Walker’s death and it was a relief to see that it was indeed handled with grace. It actually struck me as rather seamless. Until that tribute at the end, I didn’t feel I’d been able to notice any places where movie magic had been worked (and I could certainly be wrong about the tribute as well) to smooth over his absence, which seems like a grand accomplishment to me.
The strong ensemble cast brings the energy and bravado required to buy into the ridiculous scenarios that the film presents. Vin Diesel is cool and terrifying, Paul Walker is cool and inoffensive, Michelle Rodriguez is cool and tough, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges is cool and nerdy, Tyrese Gibson is cool and funny, Dwayne Johnson is cool and The Rock (although we definitely could have used more of him), and Jason Statham is cool and deadly. No surprises there… and it all works. Well, except for Ronda Rousey. I love her, but she was distractingly bad (and she would have broken Rodriguez’s arm in about a few tenths of a second in an actual fight).
It’s 2015 and this franchise has evolved into something that could not have been predicted back in 2001. At this point, you should pretty much know what to expect, and Furious 7 delivers the goods. It also gracefully delivers the emotional impact you would hope for, providing a fitting end for Paul Walker’s run as Brian O’Conner and giving the audience reasonably satisfying closure. While it isn’t my favorite film of the franchise (Fast Five still holds that distinct honor), it’s a wild and surprisingly poignant ride that is without question worth watching, especially if the idea of the Rock wielding a heavy machine gun piques your interest. If you have a pulse, it really should.