More surprising than the $392 millionFurious 7 took in at the box office over Easter weekend has been the number of positive reviews the action flick garnered. This usually doesn’t happen to movies starring Vin Diesel, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and exploding vehicles.
There may be a somber explanation for the positive reception, considering the movie is something of a memorial to co-star Paul Walker, who died in 2013 after completing filming. The final moments of Furious 7 nod to this in a touching way, which possibly softened reviewers’ hearts.
To be fair, though, the Fast and the Furious franchise - about a team of street racers who straddle both sides of the law - has frequently earned the admiration of critics, most of whom wouldn’t know a torque wrench from a spark plug. (I think a torque wrench is a thing.) But we do know cinema - and when things like movement and color and camerawork and editing are as skillfully employed as they often are in these movies, it’s a beautiful thing.
What distinguishes this franchise is the way the outrageously impossible action is depicted with uncommon clarity, precision and control. There is a sublime ridiculousness to these pictures. I’ve taken to calling it zen chaos, in order to distinguish it from the ugly chaos that is the hallmark of something like the Transformers films. But a Christian spin on this idea might be to say that the Fast and Furious movies create order from chaos. Granted, the filmmakers had to invent the chaos so that they could order it, but in some ways Furious 7 echoes the Genesis narrative. Upon the formless, empty void of the movie screen, light and dark are separated. Purposeful shape is given to a chaotic mass. We sit back in our seats and realize: Furious 7 is very good.
A Christian spin on this might be to say that the Fast and Furious movies create order from chaos.
Take, for example, one of the standout set pieces, which begins with Brian O’Conner (Walker), Dominic Toretto (Diesel) and their team parachuting in their cars from a giant cargo plane onto a winding mountain road. Their goal is to rescue a hostage from a terrorist convoy, but things quickly go awry. Dom finds himself side by side with an enemy car, while a truck full of bad guys follows closely behind. He swerves off the road, down the mountain, as the car next to him keeps pace through the rocky terrain. The money shot comes when each rumbling car takes up one side of the screen, leaving just enough of a window between them to allow us to see the pursuing truck misjudge the turn, flip in the air and do a barrel roll down the mountain. In an instant, chaos has been given a thrilling clarity.
Such moments make me think of the “kinetic beauty” David Foster Wallace discussed in his 2006 New York Times piece “Federer as Religious Experience,” a profile of tennis great Roger Federer. When Wallace wrote that “great athletes seem to catalyze our awareness of how glorious it is to touch and perceive, move through space, interact with matter,” he was referring specifically to the way sports can help us appreciate the created possibilities of our own bodies. The Fast and the Furious movies are mostly concerned with car bodies (at least when they’re not leering at women, one of their significant faults), yet the ways they capture physical movement through space can be similarly transcendent.
It’s worth noting, as well, that the truly transcendental moments in the series are not necessarily those of assault - when the team is on the attack. Rather, they're the moments when our heroes outwit certain death. I’m thinking of Dom and Brian’s slow-motion leap from a Corvette that’s plummeting off a cliff in Fast Five, or the last-second burst across a railroad crossing they make in The Fast and The Furious, the train a bulleting blur behind them. Is it too much to make an Easter connection here, considering all of these are examples of death being turned on its head, making way for new life? Perhaps. But then we do have Dom citing one of the franchise’s catchphrases: “Ride or die.” In the Fast and Furious films, to ride is to live.