A Furious Affair: My Strange Affection for This Very Strange Franchise

PHaRoB0Baft1db_1_mLast year I spent a considerable amount of time, mental energy, and words (so many words) going after big, dumb, bloated, ridiculous action franchises like Transformers and even Guardians of the Galaxy, a film I genuinely enjoy, but can’t help but see in the context of the ever-growing Marvel/Disney Empire that seeks to dominate the entire pop-culture landscape.

The Fast and the Furious franchise (whose entries, thanks to the creative sway of the Universal marketing department, are sometimes titled Fast & Furious, or just Fast 5, or Furious 7—I suppose one of these days the ampersand will get its own title: The & and the &), are just as big, dumb, bloated, and ridiculous as any of those other action movies… and yet… I’ve always had a soft spot (right in the middle of my skull, it seems) for these F&F flicks.

Furious 7, the entry latest in the series (written by series regular Chris Morgan but directed by horror maven James Wan instead of the franchise’ directorial savior Justin Lin, who helmed 3-6), is bigger, dumber, more bloated, and ridiculous than the last. With each movie, the Looney Tunes laws of physics get bent further past breaking; the cars get louder; the bikini bottoms get smaller; and there are even more muscle-bound bald men (hey, evil Jason Statham!) speechifying about loyalty and family. (And family. And then some other stuff about family. And, wait, yes, let’s talk about family just a little bit more. ‘Cause family is important, you know.)

And yet… Despite my not being much of a “car guy,” what ultimately endears me to these movies is they aren’t great movies, but they have no delusions about themselves. They know exactly what they’re for and what they’re very good at, and while all involved in front and behind the camera seem to really enjoy doing it and take pride in it, they never seem to think they or their films are all that important as anything other than loving odes to those two most American ideals: cars and explosive mayhem.

Furious-7-Diesel-Statham(The F&F franchise’s exception to this perceived humility is its grunting star, Vin Diesel, who I know gets the joke, but either his muscled-up ego can’t bring itself to admit it, or, as I prefer to believe, he’s taken to simply playing in public a WWE-type wrestling character called “Vin Diesel” who says, with thick tongue firmly in cheek, things like Furious 7 will win Best Picture.)

Compare that to Transformers’ dark maestro of destruction, Michael Bay, who thinks he’s so inhumanly brilliant at orchestrating on-screen chaos that it must all somehow matter, even if it’s about giant space robots punching each other. Like Bay and Transformers, so many action films feel, at their core, mean—cynical, arrogant, and anti-life. The Fast and Furious films and their characters certainly walk (and drive) with testosterone-loads of swagger, but they always do so with a knowing, self-aware wink and an odd sort of warmth.

(When Dwayne Johnson’s giant-sized Agent Hobbes returns to the fray to save the day at the end of Furious 7 after sitting out most of the film, Michelle Rodriguez’ Letty asks, “Did you bring the cavalry?” To which Hobbes—holding a BFG yanked off a predator drone he knocked down—replies with that special faux-macho gleam in his eye that Johnson always plays so perfectly, “Woman, I am the cavalry.”)

Furious-7-Dwayne-JohnsonAs seriously as these F&F films like Furious 7 take all their talk about family and friendship and their “ride or die” credo, they don’t take their action seriously—the increasingly wild and unbelievable car stunts are central to the films’ appeal, but the movies don’t act like it.

Unlike say Bond or Optimus Prime, Diesel’s Dominic Toretto and company always howl their way through their completely cray-cray four-wheel escapades (which in the new film include driving cars out of planes, leaping them from skyscraper to skyscraper, hurling them off cliffs, and just plain smashing them into each other headfirst in some sort of 8-cylinder joust-turned-failed-game-of-chicken) with complete and utter “oh holy f**k!” disbelief.

It’s a subtle distinction (to the extent anything in these films is subtle), but it makes all the difference—with the characters’ eyes popping out of their heads in stunned, self-impressed mix of pants-pooping terror and glee over the insane stuff they’re doing, it gives the audience permission to not just suspend disbelief but to embrace that disbelief as part of the cartoon fun.

Parachuting-cars-in-Furious-7-trailer-screen-shotFor example, the highlight of Furious 7 is the aforementioned dumping of a half dozen reinforced muscle cars out of a military para-drop plane, and every damn thing about the stunt and its ginned-up supposed narrative purpose is utterly stupid and contrived, and yet… the scene is absolute, howlingly giddy fun, both visually (come on, who doesn’t want to not just see cars freefalling thousands of feet, but see it from behind the drivers’ seats?) and because the actors sell every adrenaline-rushing, nutty moment of it.

With moments like that, The Fast and Furious movies have gone from relatively lean and gritty crime films in the early part of the series to total fantasy films over the course of the last four films. (Except instead of dragons, there are cars and instead of giant cave trolls, there’s Vin Diesel.)

At some point around the fourth film (when, their non-F&F careers not going as well as hoped, Diesel and Paul Walker returned to the franchise), the car stunts didn’t just get bigger, they began to so obviously ignore all known laws of physics and reality that it fundamentally changed not just the tone of the films, as semi-angsty hand-wringing over moral and legal melodramas took a back seat to plain old silly, jaw-dropping spectacle. It also changed how we process the action on the screen. We no longer watch the films’ car shenanigans as if at a live thrill show and think, “Wow, it’s amazing what they can do with these vehicles”—instead, we get a big, dumb, goofy grin on our faces at the sublime silliness of it all, feeling more like kids coming up with new, impossible things to do with our Hot Wheels collection.

fast-and-furious-7_625x300_51414995625Despite all this wacky, imaginary fun, there’s also a very real reason for the change in the F&F franchise, especially entries five through seven. 2001’s The Fast and the Furious was an all-American story of the LA streets (both street racing and street crime) and only 30% of its overall box-office earnings came from overseas.

That ratio shifted over the course of the next couple films as the movies themselves played to foreign markets (most obviously The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, which was the first film in the franchise to earn more overseas than in North America) and Hollywood studios like Universal began to make overseas marketing and release a bigger business priority. By the time the old gang got back together for the fourth film, 2009’s Fast and Furious, the domestic-foreign receipts had flipped: since then, North American ticket sales for the films make up only a third of the international totals.

More than anything else, that simple box-office ledger tilting (itself part of a larger, decade-long paradigm shift in how Hollywood does business these days), accounts for the different look and feel of Fast Five, Fast & Furious 6, and now Furious 7.

Furious-7_Emirates-PalaceThe bigger, wilder, unrealistic action sequences (which feel more like ‘70s and ‘80s Bond films than car-racing flicks) play better in foreign markets; the films’ core cast, which had always been impressively multi-cultural (and, more pragmatically, allowed it to tap into multiple demographic profit streams), became even more international, with characters signing on from South America, Asia, Israel, and, in Furious 7, South Africa; and the films themselves began globe-hopping (to Rio, London, and Spain) with the same “we know this doesn’t make a lickspittle of narrative sense” wink to the audience as they approach their car hopping. (Even when Furious 7 returns to LA for its finale, the return to old-school F&F roots now comes with with predator drones and high-stakes computer hacking.)

Like all these F&F trends, Furious 7 takes that globe-trotting to even greater nonsensical heights—quite literally, para-dropping those cars out over the Caucasus Mountains and then detouring to Abu Dhabi where the cast gets to play fancy dress up in gowns and tuxes and jump an expensive sports car from high-rise to high-rise in what feels like the ultimate Top Gear fevered wet dream.

_1422836923Both quests come from an egregiously tacked-on subplot that has absolutely nothing to do with the film’s core story (and includes roping Kurt Russell into the proceedings as a shadowy, sardonic CIA guy who looks like a foam Spitting Image Kurt Russell puppet), but, also like all those F&F trends, Furious 7 looks square at the audience and says, “Yeah, we know, it’s too much, right? But isn’t it fun?”

All of this makes Furious 7 and the Fast & Furious franchise some of the most loveably weird films imaginable. (And we haven’t even touched on the serie’s chronological recon that means films 4-6 actually take place before film 3.) Tim Burton only wishes he could concoct movies that seem to simultaneously fly apart in all aesthetic, thematic, and narrative directions and yet hold strong and steady to their core creative and entertainment values.

Of course, what makes Furious 7 even more of an oddity than the rest is the unfortunate (and all-too ironic) real-life death of Paul Walker in a fiery (off-set) sports car crash halfway through filming of Furious 7. And yet, how Furious 7 handles Walker’s death—and the removal of his character, Brian O’Conner, from the narrative going forward—is touchingly in keeping with the franchise’s overall approach. It’s not hard to imagine another action franchise simply rolling back and writing O’Conner out of the story with some sort of crassly tragic, off-screen death (a la Charlie Sheen/Harper’s fate in Two and a Half Men).

Fast-Furious-7Instead, the F&F filmmaking family seems to have bent over backwards to give Walker and O’Conner a proper, dignified, and respectful send off, using previously unseen footage of Walker from earlier films and the actor’s own real-life brothers as body doubles with Paul’s face CGI’d onto them.

The result isn’t entirely seamless (especially as we viewers can’t help but morbidly scan for the trickery), but it works better than expected both visually and narratively. Maybe the decision to keep Walker and O’Conner in Furious 7 was ultimately a financial one (some studio bean counter probably crunched the numbers and figured it was cheaper to finish the film with a few narrative fixes and visual slights of hand than try to rework the script from the start), but it never feels like that.

That’s because, at the film’s very end (SPOILERS AHEAD, if you care about spoilers in a film that’s entire plot is “cars do crazy stunts and things blow up”), the film makes the admirable, non-exploitive choice not to kill O’Conner off (despite plenty of red-herring feints in that direction), no matter how much easier and more logical it would make the franchise narrative going forward. Instead they give the character a graceful, kinda dopey/kinda lovely coda on a beach that retires O’Conner from the franchise so he can devote himself to his growing family.

fastfurious7-directorsBut here’s the fascinating part: Dom naturally gets to preside over the closing send off, and yet as his growls his voice-over platitudes about O’Conner and his family, the veil drops and it’s very clearly Diesel, not Toretto, talking about Walker, not O’Conner. As O’Conner (or rather, CGI-enhanced older footage of Walker) literally drives off into the sunset, Furious 7 makes no pretense about who it’s sending off, right down to a final montage of Walker/O’Conner scenes from all his past F&F films.

The clip reel’s overt nod to Walker’s death is completely outside the film’s narrative and the parameters of a big, dumb action film—it’s a huge international action franchise stopping everything to say to its audience, in a way that feels much more sincere than just fan service, “We know, we’re there with you. One of our family is gone, and we miss him.” It’s totally sappy, totally manipulative, and it totally works—you’ll find yourself asking, “Why the hell am I tearing up at a damn Fast and Furious movie?”

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“While all the other arts were born naked, [film], the youngest, has been born fully-clothed. It can say everything before it has anything to say. It is as if the savage tribe, instead of finding two bars of iron to play with, had found scattering the seashore fiddles, flutes, saxophones, trumpets, grand pianos by Erhard and Bechstein, and had begun with incredible energy, but without knowing a note of music, to hammer and thump upon them all at the same time.”

--Virginia Woolf