Dec. 1, 2013 at 11:45 AM ET
Humor website The Onion loves to poke fun at the "Fast & Furious" movie franchise, the films that made late star Paul Walker famous. In a 2011 Onion video, two faux TV hosts interview the supposed screenwriter of that year's "Fast Five" -- who in the website's re-imagining, is just 5 years old.
"So when you sat down to write this installment, were there certain elements you wanted to include?" asks one of the hosts.
"I want the cars to drive fast and then some of them explode," chirps the kindergartner, while a caption over him reads, "Morgan wanted to return to franchise's roots of cars driving, going boom."
The Onion gets it. The "Fast & Furious" franchise delivers exactly what the title promises -- car chases, explosions, impossible stunts, speedometers pushing numbers the average driver will never see. And Walker's everyman character of Brian O'Conner nicely balanced out the gym-rat physiques of Vin Diesel, The Rock and others. He may not be able to bench-press a car, but he sure knew how to drive it like he stole it.
In a classic scene from 2003's "2 Fast 2 Furious," Walker's character kicks out the windshield of a 1969 Yenko Camaro, cranks it up to 120 mph, soars off of a dock and lands -- somewhat safely -- on a yacht.
Before the jump, co-star Tyrese Gibson's character, riding in the Camaro's passenger seat, looks from yacht to Walker in disbelief. "Boat. Car. Boat. You're not gonna do what I think you're gonna do."
But of course he is. That's the beauty of the "Fast & Furious" franchise. For every driver who's sat fuming in traffic, who's tapped their fingers on the steering wheel impatiently willing a raised drawbridge to lower or a train to finish blocking the road, these movies are sheer wish fulfillment.
It doesn't hurt that they surround the cars with a little eye candy for everyone. Musclebound men, beautiful and tough women, exotic locales, truly bad villains. The formula may be simple, but it works.
Boxoffice.com calls the franchise a model for global blockbusters, noting that the films have moved away from simply being about street racing and embraced the round-the-world thriller motif, a theme which surely doesn't hurt its international success.
The most recent release, "Fast & Furious 6," blew away the competition at the Memorial Day box office, earning $120 million nationally and $300 million globally. Hopes were equally high for 2014's "Fast & Furious 7," scheduled to come out in July 2014. But with Walker's death, plans for that film, as well as future films, are unknown.
Writing on RogerEbert.com, critic Steven Boone compared the series to a "Star Wars" or "Star Trek" franchise for those who love driving like others love space. Boone wrote, "Just like those perennial sci-fi geekouts, this saga about super-heroic street racers is essentially about friendship." Buzzfeed agreed, calling the series, "Harry Potter with muscle cars."
That's part of why Walker's death is so shocking. Characters died in the "Fast & Furious" series, yes, but Walker's character was never in danger. He was a mainstay. To lose him offscreen, as a passenger in the very kind of gleaming, super-fast sports car that his character handled so skillfully on celluloid, feels like a horrible joke.
Boone's right about the films being more about friendship than the simple titles ever let on. Friendship between a group of people for whom "pedal to the metal" is a literal, never a figurative, statement. Friendship between men and women who come from all races and nations, united in the Tracy Chapman-esque belief that a fast car can overcome all obstacles.
The "Fast & Furious" cast played a family onscreen -- not all related by blood, but a family nonetheless. And in tweets and Instagrams and interviews, they came across as a family offscreen as well. For them to lose one of their own so publicly, and so young, is a devastating blow.