It’s been two weeks that I’ve struggled to figure out how to speak out my mixed feelings about Furious 7 and I’m just going to come out with it.
There are obviously reviewers and bloggers, many of whom I follow and admire, that believe that not only is it less than imperative to involve matters off-screen into assessing a film, it’s actually more stunted to involve those matters.
I don’t think they’re wrong at all, but when it comes to some pictures, I can’t help but invoke everything I know about the production history as a context. And while, I’m sure practically everyone now knows one of the main reasons that I will have to approach Furious 7 in this way. But I promise there is more to it than the obvious fact of Paul Walker’s tragic death in the middle of production.
So… let’s come back to 2006, when the terrible terrible terrible The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (also debuting director Justin Lin, who would helm the franchise up until this point) came out, I guess Universal realized they had a true stinker in their hands because after test screenings came back extremely negative, they all but begged star of the first picture (and subsequent face of the franchise) Vin Diesel to please agree to a cameo in the finale of the film. Diesel finally said yes on the condition that he is allowed a hefty amount of creative control on the franchise (as well as the Riddick franchise, but that doesn’t seem to have gotten the kickstart boost of popularity that Fast & Furious has received). For the rest of the series, Diesel has been a name producer alongside franchise founder Neal H. Moritz.
In the meantime, pretty much every subsequent Fast & Furious film had been fast-tracked into production (Fast & Furious and Fast Five were announced subsequently and originally intended to be shot back-to-back). And the increased critical acclaim and popularity of the pictures had been sort of justifying Universal’s craws insistence on making these pictures a bunch at a time. For four pictures, Lin was in fact able to keep with the schedule, but in the middle of post-production of Fast & Furious 6 in 2013, Universal demanded Lin wrapped his shit up and get to shooting up Furious 7, Lin said he couldn’t do that – he felt that not enough post was done and that it would actually hurt the quality of the final cut of Fast & Furious 6.
Universal said “fine” and so fast-tracked production on Furious 7 for the first time without Lin and bringing onto the director’s chair horror movie guru James Wan (coming off of the 2013 successes of the fantastic The Conjuring and the shitty Insidious: Chapter 2, with nary a car chase in either film – I don’t know if it’s more racist of me to assume Universal picked Wan for their car heist franchise because he’s Asian or of Universal to possibly have picked Wan for their car heist franchise because he’s Asian). Lin is unlikely to return given his attachment now to the second season of True Detective and Star Trek 3, I think it’s safe to say he’s out of the franchise for good.
Anyway, in the middle of production, Paul Walker and his assistant unfortunately died in a car accident unrelated to the franchise, and that veered production off-course and ended up forcing Universal, Moritz, Diesel, and company to figure out what to do with the franchise from there…
And eventually, the plot becomes loud and clear from the wikipedia page: Villain from the previous film, Owen Shaw (Luke Evans in a wordless literally comatose cameo) has an older brother named Jason Statham (although the movie swears the character’s name is Deckard Shaw, which is a cool name, but I’m under the impression Statham is playing himself). Statham wants revenge for his brother’s grievances and so goes about killing Han (Sun Kang in another wordless cameo despite being top-billed) before setting his sights on the rest of our gang.
The intention of the picture becomes even more clear from its marketing and the hype it packages and markets itself: “We, the makers of the Fast and the Furious franchise, intend to give a goodbye to Paul Walker’s character of Brian O’Connor”.
From the black and white funereal feeling of its presentation of its posters (with the added tagline of “One Last Ride” in spite of everyone involved being clear in their intention for the franchise itself to continue), to the fact that Diesel and Gibson alone (I recall particularly an interview where Gibson outright wears a T-Shirt with nothing on it but Walker’s face which recalls feelings I had when my own deceased best friend back in ’07 had T-Shirts made of him, but I didn’t get one because it felt exploitative towards his life and my own grief. That said, people grieve however they feel is best.) seems to have kept running around the year-long marketing hype of Walker having a final goodbye in the film, part of what makes the final movie itself sloppy is how much it devotes of its TOO DAMN LONG 137-minute running time to the wacky hopefully self-aware action setpieces and how much it devotes to a very sappy and sincere yet kind of hamfisted emotional arc (not just with Brian’s departure, but with Michelle Rodriguez as Letty’s amnesia from the previous film – both of which feel like afterthoughts) in pseudo-Dear Zachary manner. But that’s fine with all of those setpieces absolutely thrilling – the three major ones taking place in the middle of a truck heist on a mountain road (after the famous car-diving sequence), Abu Dhabi, and a sprawling Los Angeles multi-level chase that is only slightly less messier than the climax of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but still quite able to keep itself intact.
I mean, sure those emotional beats are loud and obnoxious and not really carried by the best actors ever (You will never see Diesel, Rodriguez, Walker, Jordana Brewster, Ludacris, or Gibson described as thespians) and even get annoying after a while (Diesel’s lines are almost entirely laughable “wisdom and insight” that he never felt compelled to give himself previously in the franchise, making Dominic Toretto surprisingly the most annoying character in the film above Gibson’s Roman himself). A friend of mine, who hadn’t seen the movie, stated just from the advertising that “Universal has been better at parading a corpse than a lynch mob” and that’s sadly accurate.
And keep in mind that with each movie prior to Furious 7, Brian was becoming less and less of a lead and more among Dom’s +group.
But I do feel this is quite honestly from Diesel and Gibson’s heart in spite of how loud and obnoxious it comes off. Not only to Walker, but to the fans of the franchise who honestly come off as not the most stonewalled bunch, but just a tad tied to the sort of fans that enjoy mindless Transformers works. They kind of give the illusion of depth to this story with all these wonky emotional beats (complete with, once again, a shitty fucking soundtrack that sounds like a mixtape though composer Brian Tyler gives some cheekiness in his score with choral work in the climax and all) so that fans can feel like their franchise is a lot more epic rather than just being BIG.
So, I just spent 1100 words on the production history and the hype and background of Furious 7, particularly Diesel’s part in it, and why?
Because James Wan is credited as the director of a franchise film in a genre he has never once touched or given any inclined intention to touch. But I don’t believe for a fucking second that Wan was the sole director of this film.
While Wan probably took over the action sequences and more of the Deckard Shaw/God’s Eye driven storyline (which, even if Kurt Russell wasn’t being best in show, is silly in its own regard – the crew want God’s Eye to catch Deckard, but Deckard is always popping into every setpiece to say “hi” with a big fucking gun), I feel like its not exactly impossible to imagine that Diesel took the director’s chair with the more character-inclined moments, like Letty and Dom in the cemetery or the final montage (a moment I admire heavily as perhaps the most earnest minutes of the film, but never feels like it belongs in the same film where the Rock blasted the fuck out of a Black Hawk in the middle of downtown with the remains of a drone he destroyed).
Maybe that’s just insane speculation coming out of me, but it feels like these scenes are moments Diesel (no stranger to directing – while I haven’t seen Strays, Multi-Facial wasn’t much more than Diesel attempting to showcase his kind-of-nonexistent range as an actor and sort-of-existent social insight as a writer) would have wanted to helm for himself in his own hands.
And so I can’t begrudge the faults in Furious 7 as one of the biggest messes I’ve seen on-screen as much as I’d like to on account its sincerity and all the sort of things it gets right (Walker’s CGI presence and stand-in is almost seamless all things considered and you probably will only see the slips if you look for them). I still begrudge it its faults – unnecessary runtime, story is neglectful when it shouldn’t be (it makes a big deal that Brian loves the dangerous lifestyle too much to completely devote himself to his family and yet we never get to see a moment where Brian finally makes that mental shift to the arc’s resolution – or we kind of do but the soundtrack and the actors are still not good enough to communicate it beyond lines that are too chewy to come out clean), Wan’s editing style is not as clean as Lin’s (though it never goes into the incoherence of Transformers nor the sterile manner of the first film) – but it definitely tries to overcompensate for those faults.
And I mean overcompensate in the very innuendo-ish manner as well. Bigger scale (in the air, all over the city, between buildings), Bigger Stakes (The whole because Djimon Hounsou and terrorism), even when the Rock, Tony Jaa, and Jason Statham stand on screen (Jaa and the Rock gets such a tiny role but Johnson’s still best in show behind Kurt Russell feeling like a young man again – and making me want to try Belgian Ale), these guys’ screen presence have their own great big gravity.
Again, granting themselves self-awareness, but enough of a serious demeanor to insist that maybe their fans are not all that brainless.
It’s a mess, but in the end, it was a mess I ended up having fun with, even in spite of its running time (I’ve never walked out of a major blockbuster overhearing so many people saying they’ve fallen asleep), and certainly for all of its sincerity. If Diesel actually made this movie, then it’s because he believed in it and you can tell he did. Obviously believed in it more than he should have but enough that we 100% for the running time of the film are game with whatever they’re going to say or do.