Sequels are infamous for diminishing returns. The tired formula is to simply takes what worked in the last film, throw more money at it, cook for 120 minutes, leave still feeling hungry. Often times, characters morph into caricatures of themselves. The plucky comic relief turns unbearable, the angsty main character becomes masochistic. By the end of the franchise, you are so turned off by these films, that you usually gotta pretend the last one didn’t even happen. Think of the Terminator franchise, which has been unable to figure out what the fuck it can do that’s new, “Oh, how about a robot with like a liquid metal skin but robot parts inside?!” The new upcoming Terminator film, with the mid-90’s esque title, “Genisys” is doing exactly that, completely forgetting that there already was a robot like that in Terminator 3. A franchise’s biggest enemy is creative fatigue, and it often has to be killed and rebooted for the property to thrive. Batman, Spiderman, James Bond – very few can decide to go out on their own terms. Furious 7 is a marvel, because not only has it not lost momentum, each sequel has improved upon the previous formula.
The Fast & Furious films are the only movies to rival Marvel Studios in franchise building, but more importantly, they show a future for blockbusters that Marvel hasn’t even considered. In Furious 7, it is probably the first film i’ve seen on this scale, that has an entirely minority cast, with the exception of Paul Walker and Jordana Brewster. Almost every cast member can be said to be at least half or partially black in some way, except for Paul Walker. Vin Diesel and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson are both half-black, and although Vin Diesel found his early career in acting to be difficult, due to his “not too dark, not too light” racial makeup (See his early film “Multi Facial”, for an honest look at his own fledgling career), it is partially because of their multi-racial background that i believe they’ve found such success. As a kid, my mostly latino highschool always considered the Rock “one of us”, he might’ve been puerto rican or latino or black, but as the Rock would yell “IT DOESN’T MATTER!” This film the closing of a chapter, referencing its own history throughout the story, and one thing that impressed me, is seeing a film go from this:
It is extremely uplifting to not only see a film that was all about street culture, evolve into a film where you see black and brown, men and women in tuxedos and beautiful gowns. It is so rare to see a mainstream film treat any minority cast as not only being powerful, but also beautiful. Minorities in films are left to be sidekicks, or the kids who need that powerful teacher, or a criminal kingpin, anything but the SUPERTEAM OF GOOD GUYS. Justice League gets their token Cyborg, Avengers gets Falcon and War Machine but never at the same time, that’d be too many black guys. In a way, these other franchises are afraid of alienating a white audience, while Furious 7 ignores that and starts the summer movie season with a record breaking $143 million opening.
Furious 7 knows its roots, and it never shies away from them. Unlike other franchises that reboot once every 3 movies or less, it knows that its power still lies in its history. The film opens with this film’s new villain saying “If you want to know the future, look to the past,” which perfectly encapsulates this movie’s themes. Although retooled into an Ocean’s 11 style mega-heist film with cars, it never leaves behind the street sensibilities that make it unique. Its simply not enough to have a POC character in your film, when that character can be played by any person and nothing would change. When talking about race-lifting famous characters, Spiderman for instance, we like to say there is nothing about Spiderman that says he can’t be a different race. That’s true, but we often don’t examine the fact that a chinese kid from Queens will make a much different Spiderman than a vaguely jewish boy from Queens. POC have histories, styles, roots and cultures and it does a disservice to ignore and treat those stories as interchangeable. I would love more minorities in popular fiction, but I think its absolutely necessary that we have people creating these stories that don’t paint every character with the same suburban brush.
When Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel) confronts Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) there’s no quips about him being a fancy Englishman or Dom being some poor hood-trash. They are on equal standing, they come from different parts of the world with different mean streets, but no matter where they go, they command respect. Having a film treat urban culture as legitimate as any other culture is remarkable. Having a film know that this is about urban culture, but they can still glam up and hang out amongst Abu Dhabi princes and never shy away from this, is inspiring. When Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) and Dom share a quiet moment in a hotel, it’s beautiful to see them remark on their self consciousness, and Letty does the small gesture of buttoning up his top shirt button for him. POC have lives and feelings that matter, and being working class and urban aren’t just stories reserved for punchlines.
The action sets the bar for this upcoming movie season, with Avengers: Age of Ultron probably being the only serious contender in terms of pure spectacle and delight. But while that film will be a CGI FX-splosion, Furious 7 still maintains some semblance of reality by its car-fu constraints. These cars can’t transform, the drivers don’t have special powers, so in this film, the cars ARE the special powers. There is something just slightly more satisfying to me, about seeing an actual physical car with a driver in it being dropped out of a plane versus the overcomplicated transformation porn that is seeing Iron Man suit up.
Don’t get me wrong, i love seeing both, but Furious 7 has a distinctive classic feel, eschewing fantasy and science fiction gimmicks. Its just a good ol’ fashioned bacon cheeseburger and fries. There’s no gods, no eye-patch wearing head honcho. Instead we get the original eye-patching wearing badass, Kurt Russell, who charms his way through his few scenes. Standing amongst the relatively young faces of the Furious 7 cast, you can really get the sense of a B-movie superstar. Furious 7 exists in the same way as so many old B-movies did, at the time they were considered trash and forgettable, but now are the nostalgia fuel for today’s creators. Its strange to even call a film a “B-movie” when today’s blockbusters wouldn’t be possible without yesterday’s trash. Dime novels to billion dollar properties.
But the film has probably the most solid emotional core of not just the series, but of any current franchise. Despite the fact that there’s always a booty-shaking male-gaze montage in every film, Furious 7 succeeds in finally making a leading man who’s neither functionally asexual like Steve Rogers or a hedonistic playboy like Tony Stark. Men in action films are neutered emotionally either way, and the women in these films often only serve as receptacles of the main character’s limited emotional emissions. Beyond that use, they are almost entirely ignored. Consider that the only woman with agency in all of the Marvel Universe has been the go-to female sidekick in now three films. That is three films, and they didnt find it necessary to ever have a new character with new motivations besides Black Widow. In the films without Black Widow, Thor for instance – his girlfriend is a literal receptacle for an infinity gem, Sif becomes her escort and exits stage-left, and his mom gets killed. Not to pick on Marvel, but i wish they made their films with a Letty, Giselle, Mia Toretto, Elena and newly introduced super-hacker Ramsay all kicking ass and taking names.
Letty stands out as Michelle Rodriguez’s most fully developed character. Beyond using her one-note “Tough Chick” persona in every film, she is finally allowed to be vulnerable and scared but never loses an ounce of power. She stands besides her forever dedicated Dom Toretto, and is fully his equal. Not only as a love interest, but as a functioning part of the team. Vin Diesel, for his part, is also shown to be more than just a gruff voice, showing a range of gentleness that quickly reminds you of his effectiveness as Groot in Guardians of the Galaxy or the Iron Giant. Dom Toretto, despite his forcefulness and fearlessness as a driver, is cautious and patient with the still amnesiac Letty. When she asks for space, he gives it. He is given power in the relationship, not by dominating or pursuing, but by submitting and loving without conditions. It is a wonderful love story hidden in this dumb movie.
Despite the testosterone-laden pyrotechnics, the film is not afraid to be soft where it should be. A scene where Dom Toretto meets Agent Hobbs’ daughter shows a dimension to the characters that we rarely see in action films. That these men are more than rock-em sock-em action figures, but are caring and warm individuals. When you’ve seen as many action movies as i have, its refreshing to finally not see the main character who is not a divorced or soon to be, alcoholic, wild card, sonuvabitch, balding, getting-too-old-for-this-shit, antisocial asshole. The good guys are all just good guys more or less, they even make sure not to run over the bad guys when they throw them out of trucks.
A lot of the criticism of the films is often, “They are still making them? Lol,” but in a world where I have Star Wars, Star Trek, Avengers, the inevitable Justice League films, and in these cast of dozens I can usually only count one woman or one POC in each ENTIRE franchise, I insist that they need to keep making these films. Maybe you don’t like car movies, and that’s fine. But there needs to be more than one movie every two or three years that has women and minorities as something more than an after thought. But for now, all we got is Furious 7, and it delivers every single time. If its gonna stand alone, at least it stands tall.