I’ve been a fan of the Fast & Furious movie franchise since day one. I imagine that it’s easy to deride these films if you, uh, hate fun. Or if you’ve never watched them because you consider yourself above such base entertainment. Or whatever your problem might be. But for those of us that love them (and judging by the worldwide gross for the franchise to date—$3.2B—there are a lot of us), we have our reasons. Perhaps the most commonly stated is that we can identify on a personal level with one of the characters, and in these films, the characters matter. Yes, there are a lot of action sequences, but in the end it’s the characters’ experiences and relationships that make you care about the films—not the size and number of explosions.
My guy is—well, was—Paul Walker’s character, Brian O’Conner. Brian was, of course, central to the franchise, and now that he’s gone, I’m not sure how the movies will work, or honestly if they will merit my movie-going dollars anymore. My association with Brian certainly isn’t physical—I don’t pretend I’ve got Paul’s looks—but I feel like my professional career has ebbed and flowed in metaphorical harmony with his.
Brian and I got our starts at right around the same time—he was a brash, young undercover LAPD cop, and I was a brash, young lieutenant in pilot training. When he had to choose between his job and his personal loyalties, he chose his personal loyalties (to Dom and Mia). I did too, choosing family over work when presented with similar divergent roads in the wood.
As a result of that decision, both Brian and I had to move around a bit, take some risks, and scrape for a living here and there. And while we didn’t often doubt ourselves, it only slowly became clear as time went on that we had made the right call. After a while, it dawned on Brian that he was the good guy he’d set out to be, even if he’d had to make some hard choices. I’ve been fortunate enough to have been personally and professionally vindicated with regard to my tough calls as well.
By Fast Five, Brian’s no longer the kid shaking with adrenaline after a single straight-line drag race—he’s the stone-cold pro who can handle any action sequence with veteran aplomb. He’s also grown personally. He’s in a serious, committed relationship with Mia. He’s got people (Dom, Roman, Tej, and the rest of the crew) who depend on him and have expectations of him. Through movies Six and Seven, the demands on Brian continue to increase, but he just keeps on delivering. He’s in the groove. I’m happy to be able to say that I am too.
Because of these parallel arcs, it somehow hurt in a very personal way when Paul died. And that obviously was true for far more people than just me. We would no longer be able to go to the theater and check in on our buddy Brian—to see how he was handling the transition we were all sharing, from young, risk-taking adrenaline junkie to mature, dependable family man. So sure, we would miss him.
What really drove home the sense of loss, though, was that everything we liked about mythical Brian seemed to be magnified in all the stories that emerged about real-world Paul after his death. So often, it’s ‘don’t meet your heroes,’ but both Brian AND Paul were cool, good-looking guys that liked cars and did nice things for people. And if they were like that, and we were like them, then, hey, we must be alright too. Without them around, we lose that reassurance. And no matter how far-fetched or small a reassurance it is, it’s gone now, and there’s a void where it used to be.
As silly as Furious Seven can get (and it gets pretty silly at some points), there’s a part at the end when the silliness goes away, and things get very real. It’s when the cast gives Brian/Paul a sendoff. It’s set to a beautiful song, with beautiful scenery, and if you don’t tear up a bit watching it, you probably need to get your soul checked. It ends with two simple words: “For Paul.”
It reminded me of something that happened to me not too long ago, but well before the Furious Seven release. I was on the way to a Porsche Club meeting in my 996. The sun was setting, the sky was tinged with gold, and the traffic was light. As I rolled up to a red light, alone in my lane, I observed in the also otherwise-empty lane to my left a red, late 90’s (2G) Mitsubishi Eclipse GS-T coupe. Except for color, it was the same as the first car Walker’s character piloted in the first movie—in fact, we all first met Brian O’Conner as he was attempting to ascertain his bright green 2G’s top speed in an empty stadium parking lot.
But back here in reality, the license plate of the red Eclipse read “RIP PAUL.”
There were two younger fellows in the car, t-shirts on, windows down. I commented on the brilliance of their license plate, we exchanged some car-related compliments, and we lamented the loss of our friend. The light changed, and we went our separate ways, both happier for our chance encounter.
A movie franchise that can give you something like that…well, it deserves your time.