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

Summary: Today Locke Peterseim reviews Fast and Furious 7. Not only is this a fun film, it shows why we’re running reviews of popular films and books — they illuminate the great geopolitical issues of our time. The F&F series shows the clash of civilization in action, and that America is winning. Decisive victory seems inevitable.  My explanation follows at the end of Locke’s review.  {2nd of 2 posts today.}

Fast and Furious 7 Poster

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

By Locke Peterseim.
Posted at the film blog of Open Letters Monthly, 5 April 2015
Reposted here with his generous permission.

Last year I spent a considerable amount of time, mental energy, and words (so many words) going after big, dumb, bloated, ridiculous action franchises like The 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.

Fast & 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.

Car jumps from building in Fast and Furious 7

(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.”)

As 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.

Dwayne Johnson as Agent Hobbes
Dwayne Johnson as Agent Hobbes.

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.

For 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.)

Michelle Rodriguez as Letty Ortiz.
Michelle Rodriguez as Letty Ortiz.

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.

Despite 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.

Switching cars the hard way.
Switching cars the hard way.

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.

The 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.

Flying car in Fast and Furious 7

Both 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).

Car from airplane in Fast and Furious 7
One of these does not belong in this photo.

Instead, 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.

Paul Walker as Brian O'Connner and family
Paul Walker as Brian O’Connner and family.

But 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?”

Click here to buy the Fast & Furious Collection (1-6).


Why the F&F series shows our decisive win in the clash of civilizations

Imagine yourself as an Iranian Mullah or Saudi Imam watching F&F 7. How do you feel? How do you react?

America attacks other societies at their most vulnerable point: their children. Our culture is our weapon, which no walls can keep out. Like the Pied Piper, we steal their children by offering a different vision of life. They listen to our music. They watch our movies. They want to sing our songs and dress like our stars. Our heroes are theirs. Our values are invisibly attached to our entertainment.  All this is totally incompatible with many cultures. Only those that can adapt (e.g., as China, India, Indonesia, Japan have done) will survive.

Fundamentalists — like those of Islam and Christianity — know this, and fight a hopeless and often violent resistance. They blow up abortion clinics and the World Trade Center. They declare jihad in a dozen languages. They’re losing, which gives desperate strength before they fall into history’s dustbin. For more about the clash of civilizations, see:

About the author

Locke Peterseim writes the Hammer and Thump film blog at Open Letters Monthly, an online arts and literature magazine. A film critic whose work has appeared on Redbox, WGN Radio, and in the Magill’s Cinema Annual, he also serves on the board of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

These days he still enjoys films on their artistic and entertainment merits, but also finds himself as much if not more interested in them as cultural mirrors; artifacts of how we want to see ourselves — and how mainstream studios want to sell those desires back to us.

Some of his other reviews:

  1. “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” asks if you want a Revolution.
  2. Transformers 4: the Greatest Film Ever Made About 21st Century America.
  3. 300: Rise of an Empire – The Half-Truths and Bloody Fog of Cartoon War.
  4. “Edge of Tomorrow”: Cruise, Again and Again.
  5. A new Man of Steel for 21st century America: a warrior superman.
  6. Hollywood transforms “The Hobbit” into The Desolation of Tolkien.
  7. Interstellar’s Quantum Love and Other Cosmic Horses#*t.
  8. Star Trek reboots to give us simple stories, the cartoons we like.

For More Information

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2 thoughts on “A Furious Affair: My Strange Affection for This Very Strange Franchise”

  1. I’ve looked through this post and other similar ones related to this issue on this blog. I guess I basically agree with your assessment, but just one thing: do you think that this is a good thing, or no? I mean, the imminent disappearance of the rest of the world’s indigenous cultures at the hands of the onslaught of Western postmodernism? And, perhaps more importantly, do you think that the gains that the West has made thus far in disseminating its culture is reversible?

    I ask this because lately I’ve been reading the work of a certain, terrifically controversial (that is, in the West) Russian philosophy and political scientist, Aleksandr Dugin, who makes exactly the same point that you have made: that, as things stand right now, the triumph of the West in the global culture war is inevitable — but, he adds, instead of despairing at this fact, what the rest of the world needs to do is to not only react defensively, but also offensively, to destroy the West before it destroys them, while also reversing the gains that it has made globally. What do you think of this?

    As well, I’m interested in the list of countries that you say have successfully adapted. I’m pretty sure that India is well on its way to being Westernized from what I know of it, although that may not seem to be the case from the outside, though I am open to debate on this question; as for China, I have no opinion; as for Japan, it doesn’t matter either way because of their phenomenally low birthrate; but what is particularly interesting is Indonesia — why do you say that it has adapted?

    Sorry for the somewhat disorganized and rambling character of my post.

    1. Irving,

      Thank you for this insightful comment, raising an important point. It is addressed on the “About” page:

      “Are these things discussed here good or bad? Please consult a priest or philosopher for answers to such questions. This author only discusses what was, what is, and what might be.”

      My guess is that this century will see fantastic changes, probably bigger even than those of the past 300 years. We could lose a lot even with a good outcome, and there is substantial odds of bad outcomes.

      I believe we must focus on what we can save. As Americans we have to work with other peoples on areas of common interest, such as the environment, peace, and trade. But we are responsible for our culture, which (to put it mildly) need work.

      I don’t worry about other people’s cultures. I doubt they are interested in my verdict or advice. Imagine the Saudi Iman and Iranian Mullah cited in this post. Do they want my advice? I am certain they would not like it.

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