Bones crunched. Cars flew. Tears flowed. And at the end of the first public screening of Furious 7, two words said it all for the Fast and the Furious family: “For Paul.”
When the high-octane sequel opens everywhere next month full of dazzling stunts, uber-macho one-liners, and a surplus of exotic ladies and locales, Furious 7 will also include a built-in tribute to the late Paul Walker that packs an emotional wallop harder than a Hulk smash to the face from Dwayne Johnson.
“We lost a dear friend and comrade while making this movie,” producer Neal Moritz told the sold-out audience Sunday night in Austin, where Furious 7 surprise-premiered so last-minute, even some Universal staffers had no idea it was happening.
“He was the best guy I’ve met in my world and in my life. We were determined to honor his legacy forever,” he continued. “I know Paul would be smiling down on us tonight.”
Director James Wan, writer Chris Morgan, and Tyrese Gibson also made the trip to SXSW, where fans lined up for hours to get in once the surprise screening was announced Sunday afternoon. The audience cheered throughout the film for the late Walker, who died at age 40 in a car crash in Valencia, California on November 30, 2013, three months into filming.
Walker’s tragic death mid-production put the tentpole on hold for months while Universal, Wan, Moritz, and their grieving cast figured out how to proceed. Walker hadn’t finished filming his scenes, either. So Furious 7 got a script rewrite to soften his character’s fate, and Caleb and Cody Walker came onboard as stand-ins to help complete their brother’s final Fast and the Furious work, to be digitally face-swapped using CGI. The result: A noticeable number of back-of-head cheats and a few facial shots that don't quite transcend the uncanny valley.
A melancholy mood had already permeated the action-packed revenge sequel before Walker’s death. In a franchise known as much for its “ride or die” #family themes as its brawny bromantic streak, Furious 7’s set-up is already an elegy for a beloved member of the crew: Han Seoul-Oh (Sung Kang), the gang’s resident Tokyo Drifter, whose death in the third film directly leads into the events of Furious 7.
Furious 7 sees Vin Diesel’s Dominic Toretto deal with new pals (Nathalie Emmanuel, Kurt Russell) and new foes (Jason Statham) in stupendously, wondrously far-fetched ways, all in the name of avenging Han. But the film also gives the other O.G. Fast & Furious star a chance to shine posthumously.
Walker gets major screen time in Furious 7 as Brian O’Conner, the cop-turned-crook who first infiltrated Toretto’s Boyle Heights gearhead crime ring in 2001’s The Fast and The Furious by ordering terrible tuna sandwiches from Dom’s sister, Mia (Jordana Brewster). These days he’s a husband and father with an itch to get back to the action. He gets his wish and gets to go a few rounds with the gravity-defying Tony Jaa in a few brutally contained fight sequences.
Furious 7 has quite the nostalgia jones, and yet, like Letty’s still-foggy memory, the world’s not quite the same as it once was. Race Wars—the desert fracas where Jesse once lost to Tran and Letty threw the meanest right hook in history—is still around, for example, only now it’s where a cameoing Iggy Azalea gets her kicks.
But some things stay the same. The film closes with a tribute to Walker as seen through the eyes of the Fast & Furious franchise and brings things back to the bromance that started it all. Diesel bids farewell to Walker by allowing Dom to bid farewell to his best bro.
“Whether I’m a quarter mile away or halfway across the world, the most important people in the room are mi familia,” Dom says. “…You’ll always be my brother.”