It was just over a week ago that the unexpected news was announced: actor Paul Walker was dead at the age of 40. At first when I saw the news on Twitter I thought it was a mistake or a “death hoax.” TMZ was the only outlet reporting the news and while they are actually pretty accurate for the tabloid journalism genre, they are far from infallible. They had erroneously reported that rapper Lil Wayne was on his deathbed and receiving the last rites, when the situation was not nearly so dire. So I dismissed the story until it was confirmed by at least two “legitimate” new outlets that weren’t only citing TMZ as their source. Only then was it real.
Now, I admittedly was not a huge Paul Walker fan; he was nice to look at and seemed like a pretty amiable guy, but I didn’t necessarily think that he was that great of an actor. He had, however, found a movie franchise that totally played to his strengths in the Fast and the Furious movies. Those movies don’t require Oscar worthy performances or a lot of emotional depth; they are simply full of action and stunts and are based on adrenalin. They were pure popcorn movies and escapism; you go to see one of the Fast and the Furious movies because you like cars or you like the action. I’m a very recent convert to the franchise; while the early films are pretty dreadful – do not even mention Tokyo Drift in my presence – I think they finally figured out the right formula in the later movies that made them work. The films became less about the cars per se and more about the stunts and the pseudo family that was created by the rapidly increasing cast. I saw Fast & Furious 6 in the theaters and walked out of the film entertained and for the first time kind of looking forward to the release of the next installment. Even I like a mindlessly fun movie every once in a while.
Walker’s unexpected death raises some questions for what Fast & Furious 7 is going to look like. Though the films are ensemble in nature, Walker and Vin Diesel have always been the de facto stars of the franchise; they have been in the films the longest and the relationship between Dom and Brian is really at the heart of the films. Though they had started filming the newest installment, a lot of scenes involving Walker had yet to be shot. The studio has vowed that the movie will be released despite his untimely passing, but production was temporarily shut down while the cast and crew mourned the death of their friend and colleague and story lines are re-written to reflect the changing circumstances.
It is not at all surprising that the film will be released; while it could serve as a nice tribute to Walker’s life and give fans a chance to see him in one last performance, it would be naïve to not admit that this was also a business decision. The Fast & Furious movies make a TON of money and there was no way that Universal was going to walk away from that kind of stew unless they absolutely had to. That might sound crass, but that’s business; the 7th installment will probably gross even more money because it is Walker’s last film and there is built in curiosity as to how the studio will address real life events. When a singer dies, their records suddenly appear back on the charts as the artist is back on everyone’s radar; there is no reason to believe that the same boost will come to Fast & Furious 7 whenever it is released.
I had already planned to see the newest film, but I will be very curious to see how the powers that be decide to handle Walker’s death. There was already one death planned for Fast & Furious 7 – that was pre-ordained in Tokyo Drift – but I’m curious if they will decide to kill off Walker’s character as well. On the one hand that seems like the easiest solution to wrap up that character, but on the other hand I’m not sure if that is the best way to handle the situation. I guess it would depend on how they decided to kill the character, assuming that they choose that route; it can’t parallel real events too closely or it will be perceived by some as in poor taste. They could alternatively have the character of Brian decide that he wants to “leave the life” and spend time with his wife and child, but depending on what footage is already filmed that may not seem like the most organic choice. It may feel too shoehorned in.
Unfortunately, Fast & Furious 7 isn’t the first film that has had to deal with handling the real life death of a star. One of the most famous examples of a film having to react to the death of its star was The Crow, when actor Brandon Lee was killed during an on-set accident while filming. There is no textbook way of approaching the situation; the circumstances of the death and how far they are in production has a large bearing on the resolution. With The Crow, most of the film was completed at the time of his death and because the film was so dark and Lee was in makeup they could use a stand in to film any necessary scenes. I think that the Walker death is even more problematic in some regards because of how he died; because he was in a car accident that so closely parallels the scenes that are in the Fast & Furious movies, there is a heavier burden on the writers and director. While in the past the crazy car chases and stunts have always seemed a little cartoonish and over the top, it is going to be hard to watch them now and not think of the real life consequences. Walker’s death would have been tragic regardless, but the fact that he was killed in a way where life imitates art makes this a trickier situation to resolve. For me, the films that were always about fun and escapism just became a little more somber.
I’m not sure what the future of the Fast & Furious franchise will be beyond the 7th movie; the large ensemble cast gives them a lot of options for continuing the story and the Walker didn’t appear in all of the films of the franchise. They could shift the focus to Diesel’s relationship with The Rock, which would seem like the most logical route to take. The addition of Jason Statham to the cast also raises some possibilities. A lot will depend on if the actors are under contract and their willingness to continue with the franchise. Audience reaction will play a part as well; if they have difficulty separating the films from Walker’s death, the films may cease to be as successful as they once were. And of course, how Walker’s death is handled in the 7th film will have some bearing as well; I would hope that they wouldn’t do anything tasteless or upsetting, but until we see the finished product you just don’t know how people will react.
In theory, the franchise could continue without Walker and financial interests may outweigh everything else. Right now his death is fresh in everyone’s mind, but by the time the 7th film comes out emotions may have cooled and opinions may change on the right course of action to take. A lot is riding on this next film and how it is received. Time heals all wounds and people may want to see more of these movies as a tribute to Walker’s legacy. It’s really too early to tell, but right now I’m glad that there is some distance between his death and the next film. R.I.P., Paul Walker.
How do you think the Fast & Furious movies should handle Walker’s death? Should the franchise go on beyond the 7th film? Share your thoughts in the comments below.