WE SAT DOWN just in time for the opening credits. Chugging four Coronas in the parking lot had taken precedence over catching the previews—an expression of solidarity for what we were getting ourselves into. White text zoomed across a black screen as I scanned the aisles to get a feel for my fellow moviegoers: high school and college kids, mostly. My gaze lingered over a family of four just ahead of us. The parents seemed young, but experienced. This wasn’t their first trip to the movies with their two sons, one around 10, the other pushing five. They sat poised like lanyard string—parent-kid-parent-kid—mom and dad ready to swoop in at a moment’s notice.
My instinctual reaction to such a scene is to empathize with the parents, the constant threat of a cry or accident making it impossible to fully relax, let go. (Plus, I’ve seen enough Louis C. K. bits to understand that parenting critique is no business of the un-married and childless.) Settling in for this particular film, though, I couldn’t help but think: Furious 7? Aren’t these kids too young?
I haven’t seen all of the movies in the commercial juggernaut that is The Fast & the Furious franchise, but I’d seen enough to have what seemed a trustworthy overall impression: These are movies fueled by bare skin, brawn, and bullets. They are movies that have perfected the slow motion, toe-to-head, girl-walking-on-beach-in-bikini camera shot. They are movies that glorify the type of driving that parents would cite beneath only “hard-drug sampling” on a list of things they don’t want their kids to do. But amidst the buttery popcorn and peanut M&M’s, I was momentarily disengaged from the action that was about to explode on the screen before me, perplexed by this unlikely demographic. Who brought who here? Did these parents want to see the latest installment of the series so badly that they were willing to expose their young boys to the cleavage and carnage that was sure to follow? Or were they there at the behest of their eldest son, who just really wanted to see some fast cars?
Either way, my concerns were quickly tempered (if not completely dispelled). My memory of previous Fast & Furious viewings had retained the films’ general bravado without recalling their relatively tame execution. I soon realized that Furious 7, like the rest of the franchise’s enormous money-makers, wasn’t as explicit as I had assumed it would be. As has oft been cited in reviews, the Fast & Furious films share DNA with classic superhero comics—exciting, imaginative, and visually arresting (if not intellectually stimulating). Maybe this is why people who come to these movies for anything other than sheer hedonistic thrill are usually disappointed.
Furious 7 makes good on the roller-coaster ride cliché—not so much for its sweeping highs and lows, but because the lows exist either as a means of manufacturing ever-peaking highs or as a way to bring you back down to a safe, reassuring place. Cars crash off cliffs, out of airplanes, through skyscrapers, and yet, all of the characters survive with enough vigor to work in a snappy retort. Like when Brian O’Connor (Paul Walker) scales the length of a bus from nose to end as it’s falling head first off of a cliff, and Letty Ortiz (Michelle Rodriguez) saves his life by spinning her car out at such an angle that he could grab hold of her spoiler. Once the dust settles, Letty casually asks, “You good?” And lo: After a scene of swallow-your-tongue action, we’re eased back down into the coaster’s comforting valleys. Letty’s repose is so incongruous with the scene that just unfolded that we can’t help but laugh.
Even the mano-a-mano scenes feel like a comic-book version of the real thing: fists CRUNCH!, bones CRACK!, pipes THWAP!, and yet, we barely even see a drop of blood. The sexuality is also tamer than what my imagination had conjured in concern for these two young boys (whose presence I couldn’t shake through the entirety of the film). Sure, there are butts, but really more like the suggestion of butts—shadowy undercurves peeking out from beneath whisper-thin fabric. And later, during an Abu Dhabi penthouse party scene, there are butts painted gold—less sexual than saleable. Please don’t misinterpret this: It’s not that I think these representations of women as pretty, painted objects are good for a young, pre-sexual child to see. But they are undeniably mediated, more thrilling for those who already understand the full picture.
All this is to say that these young boys, arching their necks to take in all of the sprawling, heart-stopping eye candy that is Furious 7, probably weren’t especially shocked. Sure, they were seeing scantily clad women and near-constant use of assault weapons, but they weren’t seeing the repercussions of these adult set pieces: disturbing sex scenes, say, or insides coming out. Furious 7 only grazes the surface of the mature content that it revolves around—all of its explosiveness somehow also seemingly contained, settling in some limbo area between wide-eyed juvenilia and the disturbing realities of adulthood.
Maybe this is why these movies are so fun: They grant you permission, for over two hours, to indulge whole-heartedly in an unbelievable world—unbelievable partly because the set pieces are so over the top, but also because they do not occupy any space that we would readily identify as the “real world”. People get hit and hurt in real life. They bleed, break bones. But in The Fast & the Furious, they get hit and get up. They break bones, and then break out of casts with the mere clench of a fist. There’s an intense persistence in these movies—a persistence tuned to the pitch of commercialism that mainstream American action films have long subscribed to. The Fast & the Furious franchise, which has generated upwards of $3.5 billion at the worldwide box office since its debut in 2001, masterfully embodies this ability to sustain engagement. In order to achieve this level of popularity, the films have had to capture and carry the imagination of millions of viewers over a seven-movie, fourteen-year franchise with no end in sight. That means keeping a certain level of distance from graphic authenticity—protruding bones aren’t for everyone.
So, on November 30, 2013, when 40-year-old Paul Walker died in a fiery car accident after the red 2005 Porsche Carrera GT that he was riding in crashed into a light post at 100+ mph, Furious 7’s cast and crew were up against unexpected odds—forces that threatened their clean, consumer-friendly solutions to all of the potentially distressing scenarios whose edges are pushed at but never crossed irrevocably.
Choosing a favorite Fast & Furious character is difficult. Not because they’re continuously one-upping each other for the title of King or Queen of high-octane bad-assery, but because when it comes down to it, the characters are one-dimensional—more symbols than humans. A new character in Furious 7—the smart-as-she-is-lovely British hacker, Ramsey—addresses this one-dimensionality almost immediately upon meeting the indestructible Fast squad:
Dominic Toretto: How ’bout you tell us where that device is?
Ramsey: I mailed it to a friend. In Abu Dhabi.
Brian O’Conner: That was pretty easy. That other team wanted to torture you for that information.
Ramsey: I didn’t trust them. I trust you.
Letty: [Letty scoffs] Now why would you trust us? You barely know us.
Ramsey: I know enough.
[looks at Brian]
Ramsey: Ex-cop. Military, something like that. The way you took out those guys shows training.
[looks at Tej]
Ramsey: Tech guy, offended by the hacker mock, naturally.
[looks at Dom and Letty]
Ramsey: Alpha. Ms. Alpha.
[looks at Roman]
This exchange is maybe a convenient way to smooth over the potential plot inconsistency of Ramsey’s immediate forthrightness with this crew of hooligans—one of whom just literally drove a car that she was riding shotgun in off of a cliff. But it also points to something more about these characters: They give themselves away; we’ve seen them before. As in Northrop Frye’s definition of archetype—“A symbol, usually an image, which recurs often enough in literature to be recognizable as an element of one’s literary experience as a whole”—these character types have been repeated to the point of familiarity, and therefore provide a certain level of comfort. Ramsey trusts the Fast crew. She does not have to search beyond her set notions of how the world works to understand them. Ramsey, as well as the audience, can simply adhere to a prescribed set of meanings that have long influenced the ways in which we interpret experience.
So when I say that Brian O’Connor is my favorite Fast & Furious character, I do so with little critical reasoning to back it up. Sure, his big blue eyes and dimpled smile don’t hurt his case, but he’s no more fleshed out than any of the other characters. Regardless, there’s something about Brian that’s always appealed to me. For one, you could probably get close to wrapping both hands around one of his arms, unlike the otherworldly muscles of Luke Hobbs (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) or Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel). Also, he fights bad guys in an unzipped hoodie and the same pair of skate sneakers that are probably in the back of your closet right now. He’s the crew’s ex-cop, military man, but he also represents an archetype that we’ve identified with before: He’s the crew’s everyman.
In the 15th-century morality play “Everyman,” the titular protagonist embarks on a journey toward death in an attempt to find salvation. On this journey, he’s met in turn by a cast of allegorical characters: fellowship, beauty, knowledge, material goods. He discovers that in the end, these things aren’t the true essence of life—they’re transitory, perishable. To achieve true salvation, one must let go of the earthly temptations that inevitably present themselves throughout one’s life. Everything we own, we’ll lose. Everyone we love, we’ll lose. Everything we know, we’ll lose. All we’re left with, in the end, is our good deeds. Salvation is awarded if you’ve done good while on earth, which is synonymous with letting go of life’s material distractions, false assurances.
With just about every new scene, the Fast characters are set on a similar trajectory toward death, calling on all of life’s earthly possessions to get through it: cars, guns, Men-in-Black-style shades equipped with night vision. The difference between the Fast crew’s journey and Everyman’s is that material goods don’t work against them. Rather, objects of the most extravagant variety are instrumental in the crew’s survival. With each film, the cars get flashier, the stunts crazier, The Rock’s arm muscles bigger. And protected by their armor of steel and metal, the Fast characters always manage to get through to the other side. That is, until they don’t. Fast cars crash through buildings and people jump out, unscarred, or else they crash into concrete lampposts and people die.
Paul Walker’s death injected Furious 7 with an unexpected, unintended, and downright uncanny pathos. The laughable bloat of the Fast & Furious universe was employed to terrific effect in this seventh installment. But some element of the franchise’s mythos was deflated on a very real, very disturbing emotional level—one that undoubtedly made audience members with even a smidge of existential awareness uneasy. People who come to these types of movies seek escape: escape from the monotony of the real world and into a fantastical, enlivening universe on the other side of the screen, where everything always turns out alright in the end. But what happens when this paradigm shifts, and the real world starts to imitate the stuff behind the screen? Furious 7’s makers didn’t intend for viewers to have to grapple with the disconcerting reality of Walker’s death in every otherwise transfixing action scene. And yet, it was there: in every sucker-punch to the face (Is this it?), in every laws-of-gravity defying stunt (Will he make it?).
When we’re finally led to believe that a character might die, it’s not Brian O’Connor. It’s Dom Toretto, lying supine, unconscious, a single trickle of blood down the side of his face signifying that we’re finally (after nearly two hours of cross-continent combat) encountering some serious physical danger. In this last action scene, audience members held their breath—“Are they really going to do it? Kill off the franchise’s main character?” In true big-budget action-movie style, we didn’t have to hold our breath for long. They didn’t. Dom snaps back to life with a smirk and a clever remark, undercutting all of our anxiety—granting us the opportunity to feel it, fleetingly, but then escape from it.
A main character was killed, of course, but not in the movie. In the movie, Brian O’Connor’s granted the elusive dream that every Fast character longs for in the end: a way out. Detachment from earthly possessions to become the everymen and women that deep down they dream of being someday. We think that’s what they’re giving Brian at the end of Furious 7, with the crew sitting on a beach, teary-eyed, watching as he dances along the shore with his wife and son, a serene ocean of possibility extended before them—a picture that’s got to be the closest version of modern-day salvation we can get.
But that’s not how Furious 7 ends. Brian O’Connor isn’t left in the world of peaceful salvation, finally disconnected from a dangerous life fueled by cars and weapons. Rather, Brian’s send off is of the Fast & Furious variety. The last image we get in the movie is of a CGI’d Walker, one arm extended coolly over his steering wheel, ready for one last ride. Paul Walker’s last ride will not be Brian O’Connor’s. His last moment isn’t furious, but it’s fast—speeding off alone down some road-less-traveled, always ready for another job, always poised for some grand adventure that will never come. Though his red Toyota Supra moves swiftly down the open road into the sunset, the viewer is left at a disconcerting impasse. What do we make of Brian O’Connor’s ending—embodying the Fast and Furious spirit of the ever-searching frontiersman? And of Paul Walker’s—paying the price of such an ethos? Of course, the truest ending lies somewhere in between.