AUSTIN, Texas — Furious 7 played to a packed and raucous theater at a last-minute sneak preview screening at the SXSW Film Festival on Sunday night. But before the movie began, producer Neal Moritz worked the crowd into a frenzy by explaining that he'd only thought about bringing the movie to the festival on Saturday morning, an idea that Universal Pictures and the festival programmers somehow made happen in just over 24 hours.
The audience erupted in loud and boisterous cheering before Moritz changed the atmosphere instantly by bringing up the film's late star, Paul Walker. Just as quickly, the audience fell silent.
"We obviously lost a dear friend, brother, comrade while we were making this movie," the producer said. "He was the best guy I met in my world, in my life. We were determined to honor his legacy and our love for him. … I know Paul Walker would be smiling down on all of us."
After Moritz asked everyone not to reveal the ultimate fate of Walker's character, Brian O'Connor, many in the crowd applauded soberly in agreement.
The moment embodied the impossible circumstance in which the Furious 7 filmmakers and Universal Pictures were placed after Walker died in a car accident on Nov. 30, 2013 while sitting in the passenger seat of a red Porsche GT driven by his business partner Roger Rodas. Production on the film was roughly halfway complete, and the movie subsequently went on hiatus as Moritz, director James Wan (his first time working on the Fast & Furious franchise), screenwriter Chris Morgan, and the rest of the filmmaking team reshaped Furious 7 to fit the footage they'd already shot with Walker. They decided to fill in the rest of the sequences that needed to involve Brian by digitally placing Walker's face on the bodies of his brothers Caleb and Cody.
Of course, some people will buy a ticket to Furious 7 to satisfy their curiosity about how well the filmmakers pulled this off — and how they chose to conclude Brian's story. But the Fast & Furious movies are both earnest celebrations of loyalty and family, and rousingly absurd action spectaculars in which elaborate driving stunts operate well outside the laws of physics, logic, and good sense. How could the film pay homage to Walker in that familial spirit and not seem ghoulishly exploitative, while also maintaining the deeply unserious fun and not seem obnoxiously crass?
At the risk of spoilers, the answer is: about as well as could be expected. (Warning: There are a few more light spoilers ahead.) It isn't difficult to note every sequence in which the camera seems to hang further back from Walker than normal, or when his face is shown from behind, or in shadow. But Wan shoots these moments faster than the audience has time to dwell on them. A few dialogue scenes involving Brian evoke Walker's death, sometimes clearly by serendipity, sometimes in ways that feel more eerie — like one in which Brian has a tense conversation with his wife, Mia (Jordana Brewster), about whether he may survive the mission he's about to go on. (In fairness, Brian basically has this conversation with Mia in every Fast & Furious movie.)
The sequence that may give audiences the most pause comes during the movie's crown-jewel action sequence, in which Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) drives a $3.4 million super-car through two skyscrapers in Abu Dhabi. The sequence was showcased in the Super Bowl commercial for Furious 7, but it turns out that Brian is sitting in the passenger seat of that red sports car as it crashes through buildings at a very high speed. Though Brian's place in the car makes sense for the plot, and certainly no one involved with the film meant for it to be anything more than an eye-popping action sequence, it still shares a few unnerving details with the accident that led to Walker's death. But that is perhaps unavoidable, given how closely the real-life details of Walker and Rodas' accident also evoked scenes in the Fast & Furious movies.
By the end of the SXSW screening, the audience was obviously moved by the graceful manner with which the filmmakers chose to honor Walker and his role in the franchise. And fans will likely also be happy that the movie leaves open the possibility for another sequel.