“Furious 7” is Insane, Important for Minorities, Terrible for Feminism

If you thought this franchise pushed the limits of believability before, you ain’t seen nothing yet. It’s hard to remember this close-knit crew of expert drivers got its start by hijacking truckloads of DVD players in 2001’s The Fast and the Furious. Led by best buds Dom (Vin Diesel) and Brian (Paul Walker), now they’re taking down dictators, international criminals, and terrorists.

The Fast and Furious franchise is essentially equivalent to Marvel now. Everything the Avengers can do, this crew can do. Fly? Smash buildings apart? Link up to create video game-style combination attacks? Check, check, and check. They just need to be in their cars to do it.

This time out, Dom and Brian need to get to Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) before he succeeds in assassinating their entire crew. To get to him, they need to steal a surveillance program for a government spy (Kurt Russell). To get the program, they need to rescue the hacker who created it (Nathalie Emmanuel). This A to B to C chase artificially extends a paper-thin plot, but you’ll be having so much fun you just won’t care.

Analysts keep wondering why this franchise gains more and more momentum with each new entry. It’s as big a franchise as Marvel now. Marvel’s stories may span galaxies, but Furious 7 takes place in a world that feels bigger. Here we have the chance to see Latin-American, African-American, Polynesian-American, Asian-American, and Caucasian heroes team up. I love Marvel, I really do, but to-date each film in the Marvel Universe has been built around a white male lead. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but without branching out and being more inclusive, it all starts feeling like it’s happening in a universe the size of a shoe box.

On the other hand, Furious 7 spans the globe. That’s not what matters: the wilds of Azerbaijan and the lush interiors of Abu Dhabi all look suspiciously like California. What matters is this cast is from around the world, and that makes the movie’s world feel awfully big. This is the one franchise with a real budget where 40% of the U.S. gets to see heroes with their shade of skin on screen. Don’t underestimate how important that is.

Much of the movie was shot focusing around, rather than on, Paul Walker’s Brian. Walker died midway through production. His two brothers, a few stand-ins, clever editing, and some face-fusing CGI ultimately make it easy to forget that Walker wasn’t there for most of it. Throughout, there’s a struggle in Brian. He’s addicted to the adrenaline of pulling heists with his crew. He feels trapped in suburban life. At the same time he has responsibilities as a father now. Because Walker himself wasn’t available to record the dialogue, it’s usually Dom and amnesiac girlfriend Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) who address this.

It starts to make Furious 7 about something: the choices we make about living up to our responsibilities. It deals right there on the screen with Walker’s loss. This doesn’t transcend the film or change it into anything other than an over-the-top action movie, but there’s no cop-out here. It doesn’t shy away from what happened. In between all the punches and crashes, the film episodically finds ways to reflect on Walker’s loss. This gives Furious 7 an occasional melancholic and emotional heft the other films have lacked.

There are two reasons this works so well. The most difficult emotional moments are almost entirely handed off to Rodriguez, the best pure actor in the cast. It’s easy to forget just how good she can be, but there’s a later moment where, swear to god, she’ll get you tearing up.

The other reason is that Shaw is treated less like a villain and more like a horror monster in a ten thousand dollar suit. He stalks every set piece, showing up to throw a wrench in the works just when you least expect him. In horror films, the metaphor of the lurking monster always a step behind you is often used to symbolize our fear of death. Statham’s dressed better, but he serves the same purpose. He’s not so much a character as he is the inevitability the movie will have to face Walker’s passing.

This is an extraordinarily clever component that defines the movie. The characters on-screen may be running from death, but we already know it’s caught up with one actor. Make no mistake: Furious 7 isn’t scary in the least. The action and humor is ridiculous and you’ll be smiling 90% of the time. Yet treating Statham like a lurking Grim Reaper lets horror director James Wan create a narrative that passes through all the stages of grief. It’s represented through Brian’s struggle with domesticity and Letty coping with amnesia. They each find their own ways to come to terms with loss.

You may not think of it until later. You’ll be too giddy over the action. When cars aren’t flying on-screen, Diesel, Johnson, Rodriguez, and Walker all get their chance to face off in fist fights. Facing them is a rogue’s gallery of martial arts actors: Tony Jaa, Ronda Rousey, and Statham. When camera moves and edits are getting “oohs” and “ahhs” as much as the fight choreography on display, you know Wan’s got you eating out of the palm of his hand.

Everything you’ve hoped for from a Fast and Furious movie is on display here. The stunts are only occasionally real – we’re in comic book territory by now – but this is a cast and crew at the top of their game. The car chases are better, the fist fights are better, and there are greater emotional stakes. It doesn’t involve the ensemble as well or have as clean a plot as Fast Five. Which one you prefer as “best of the franchise” will come down to what you like in a film.

Does it Pass the Bechdel Test?

This section helps us discuss one aspect of movies that we’d like to see improved – the representation of women. Read why we’re including this section here.

1. Does Furious 7 have more than one woman in it?

Yes. Michelle Rodriguez plays Letty, Jordana Brewster plays Mia, Nathalie Emanuel plays Ramsey, Elsa Pataky plays Elena, and Eden Estrella plays Samantha Hobbs.

2. Do they talk to each other?


3. About something other than a man?

Usually, when a man’s discussed, it’s between a man and a woman. Rarely in the film do two women bring up a man in conversation. They focus on the plan and action at hand.

The entire franchise can be addressed from two different angles. Firstly, it all takes place squarely in the male gaze. Is the crew in a new setting? Good. We’ll get one or two establishing shots of the place and about a dozen quick cuts of women’s butts in bathing suits or lingerie.

Sexualization isn’t in and of itself a problem if it’s contextualized or balanced out, but I was sitting next to a kid who couldn’t have been more than 8. His father had brought him and I don’t know if they’re going to have a discussion about not objectifying women afterward.

This would be less of a problem if the film treated men the same way – lord knows there’s enough muscle here. I really won’t mind if films want to show off Johnson’s thighs or Gibson’s abs more. Women are 52% of the moviegoing public. Why is it always my gaze that’s catered to and not theirs?

It’s not that the kid sitting next to me saw close-ups of women’s butts. That’s not going to teach him one thing or another. It’s how women and men are valued differently by the film that’s going to have a bigger effect. Women are celebrated for sex, men are celebrated for hitting things. That’s the message kids (and adults) take home with them. It puts pressure on both genders to inhabit those roles. Then we’re surprised when so many men hit women for not giving them sex. Social science isn’t always calculus.

The opposite angle is that the franchise has featured more female action heroes than most. I don’t know that Furious 7 gets to make that same argument, though. Brewster is sidelined throughout the film being a mother, Emanuel is a McGuffin who needs to be protected, and Gal Gadot is nowhere to be found. Our cast of action heroes is as slanted as it’s ever been – six men (Diesel, Tyrese Gibson, Johnson, Ludacris, Kurt Russell, and Walker) compared to one woman (Rodriguez). Ronda Rousey briefly adds a female henchman, but she and Rodriguez only ever get to fight each other. It’s too bad – I’d love to see Rousey vs. Diesel or The Rock, or Rodriguez face down Tony Jaa.

Compare it to the franchise’s other best moment, Fast Five. That movie’s still slanted toward men, but it’s more balanced in the gender count and in equal opportunity sexualization. Furious 7 is more easily distracted.

It passes the Bechdel Test, but it’s obsessed with the male gaze. This doesn’t keep it from being a fun movie, but it’s helpful to put it in context. Enjoying a movie with unhealthy perspectives is OK, just like eating junk food is OK. It only becomes unhealthy when we lie to ourselves about what we’re taking in and we substitute it for something healthier, like our real world perspectives. If you’re taking a young viewer to see it, it’s useful to talk about the difference between perspectives on film and in real life.



Gabriel Valdez
Gabriel Valdez
Gabriel is a movie critic who's been a campaign manager in Oregon, an investigative reporter in Texas, and a film producer in Massachusetts. His writing was named best North American criticism of 2014 by the Local Media Association. He's assembled a band of writers who focus on social issues in film. They have a home base.