What is the Fast and Furious franchise exactly? I mean what is it about? Pirates of the Caribbean is about pirates, for instance. You can say it’s about the characters, but I’d venture a guess that if Captain Jack Sparrow was, say, a lawyer or a dentist in the next film, that would probably throw some people. The Fast and the Furious, I thought at least, was’ a movie about street racing. It was also a little bit about crime and a fairly obvious knockoff of Point Break, but that’s beside the point. You had the racers and family (Vin Deisel, Michelle Rodriguez, Jordana Brewster, et al), you had the police (nobody anyone cares about), and you had Brian (the late Paul Walker), the undercover cop caught in the middle.
With Furious 7 what’s left of that original impetus? The seedy street photography and neon lights of the original have been phased out, replaced by a general sheen of blockbustery brightness and bigness. The outlaw racers are no longer outlaws or racers. They’re a globetrotting, crime fighting force that could easily be swapped in for the Mission Impossible gang or John Rambo in a pinch. They break into high security fortresses, hack military computers, jet set to exotic locales, and even save the world a time or two. There’s a brief racing sequence, but it could easily be cut with no impact to the plot whatsoever.
So I made a rough Venn diagram of every element in every film and narrowed them all down to three consistent qualities: muscular bald dudes, fast cars, and butts. That’s it. Gone is the sense of moral ambiguity. Gone is any consistent notion of gravity. I don’t think any of the main cast members have been in all seven films. I wonder if there’s a model out there whose cheeks have recurred in every entry to provide some continuity.
The new bad guy in this film is Jason Statham. I could look up his character’s name on IMDB but that would be more work than the writers did. He’s tough. He’s bad. He kills people. His motivation, equally straightforward, is to avenge his brother who was the bad guy in Fast 6. I don’t remember his name either. These movies wear simplicity like a badge of honor on their rippling pectorals, and I have to admit I’m getting it. Vague European Bad Guy with a Tank from Fast 6 had a plan that was so complicated it didn’t matter. Dark Transporter’s goals are so obvious I don’t have to spend any time thinking about them. Either way I don’t care, but the simplicity in this case cuts down on the dialog and makes room for a few more explosions. That’s what you call streamlining the product.
There’s a general sense of escalation throughout Furious 7. For instance, at one point our muscular, bald heroes have to break into a really fast super car guarded by golden butts. I’m not joking about that. That happens. Diesel’s Dominic Toretto meanwhile has conquered the laws of physics and capitalism not unlike Neo at the end of The Matrix. In the first film Toretto stole to provide for his family and looked concerned by a measly train. Now he drives million dollar cars off mountains and skyscrapers like a god who knows nothing in this world can hurt him. Granted on some level this is just realistic character work. After so many miraculous close calls over the last fifteen years, it makes sense that he finally just accepted he was invincible. His whole team, likewise, was scrappy before, but now they exhibit near-supernatural physical prowess. Brian, a modest ex-cop from LA, is going toe to toe with this guy. I was waiting for him to look at the camera and declare, with some surprise, “I know kung-fu!”
I realize there’s no real point in nitpicking. At most preview screenings I’ve attended, security made a big to-do about putting away cell phones, often times making people leave them at the door. Here the promoters were actually encouraging tweeting from the theater just before the film began. These movies are tailor-made for an audience that is only half paying attention. The action is too big to miss. If you didn’t catch that last line, don’t worry; it will be repeated. If there has been any development over the last four entries, it’s been the slow move away from anything, be it character, story, or any sort of genuine conflict, that might make the viewer uncomfortable in any way. In that sense they’re not really movies. They’re explosion-themed wallpaper.
In the series’ most self-aware moment since the random cutaways to a cockfight in Fast 4, Brian’s two-year-old son throws his toy hotrod, causing his father to explain, “Cars don’t fly.” Later, when Toretto drives out the window of a skyscraper Brian shouts the same thing.
“Cars don’t fly!”
And yet they do fall with style, whether they’re bursting through windows a thousand feet off the ground or dropping out of planes because their drivers are like action figures that can’t be removed from the driver’s seat. Toretto constantly talks about family and a code, and yet he would be no different from Michael Corleone in The Godfather if people died every time he put their lives in serious danger. He merely enjoys a more forgiving, likely five-year-old screenwriter. And that’s what makes these movies so aggressively, unprecedentedly, and yes, endearingly stupid. At some point they stopped caring about anything resembling good taste. Now they just trade destruction and sentimentality like a child playing with Hot Wheels. You can blow up a whole city and still care about a puppy crossing the road? Why? The better question is, why not?
And I’m tempted to believe that, like children, the filmmakers are honestly not aware of just how stupid it all really is. They really think Letty’s (Michelle Rodriguez) amnesia is a genuine tearjerker and not the most generic plot device ever conceived. They think including drones and computer surveillance (reduced here to basically “hacking the internet”) somehow makes their film socially important.
When Toretto (who by this point might as well be named Vin D. Furious) faces off against Statham’s faceless baddie, they wield giant wrenches like swords atop a crumbling parking garage and an epic choir kicks in like this is freaking Luke Skywalker fighting Darth Vader. I want to believe the writer pitching this scene said something along the lines of, “The concrete is crumbling under their feet like they’re modern gods battling in the final conflict of good against evil!” and everyone else nodded with tears in their eyes.
The big elephant in the room is the death of Paul Walker. The filmmakers handle this with all the tact and delicacy they bring to every other subject. Most films do their best to honor their deceased within the bounds of the film itself (see The Dark Knight‘s treatment of Heath Ledger or The Hunger Games‘ approach to Philip Seymour Hoffman). Fast 7 seems ready-made for tragedy, with a scene featuring all the leads dressed in white hugging on the beach like they’re in Tree of Life. However, they also clearly rewrote the ending to include a eulogy followed by an Oscars-style in-memoriam montage. It’s blatantly sentimental and utterly artless; the exact opposite of what you would consider good taste in most cases, and yet…
It reminded me of another famous final performance — that of Bela Lugosi in Plan 9 From Outer Space. A lot of people like to call Plan 9 the worst movie ever made, but that’s not quite right. Plan 9 doesn’t just endure because it’s bad. There are lots of bad movies. It endures because Edward D. Wood Jr., the “worst” filmmaker of all time, also happened to be sincere. He loved Lugosi as Dracula in the old Universal monster movies, just like he loved spaceships and monsters and long, idiotic speeches. You could always reduce his movies down to those three basic elements. Somehow that love carries over. In Wood’s mind, wedging sentimental footage of the actor into his film to no end whatsoever was a genuinely respectful send-off, not an instance of dancing on a grave for a cheap tear. He didn’t have the digital trickery the Furious team has to recreate the lost actor, but he had his girlfriend’s dentist hold a cape over his face.
Maybe that’s why these movies have struck a chord. It’s not just that they’re big, dumb action movies. There are a lot of big, dumb action movies. Maybe these movies are so dumb they actually dumb their way past Hollywood franchise cynicism. It’s hard to argue when a series reaches such a rarified level of critical and commercial success. We’ve now spent as much time with these cars and their drivers as we did with Harry Potter and Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings. That’s almost twenty hours and a hundred dollars in tickets over the last fifteen years! There has to be something there, right? Maybe these films remind us of our inner five-year-old or some hokum like that. Maybe they signal the triumph of the common man over the bourgeois forces of high culture. Maybe, to paraphrase J.R.R. Tolkien, “If more of us valued muscles and fast cars and butts above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”
Photos courtesy of: Universal Pictures