One enduring concept has famously remained at the core of the Vin Diesel-led "Fast and Furious" blockbusters since 2001, through quarter-mile races, torrid bromances, international adventures and high-stakes heists: family.
So why has one family-centric plot twist in "The Fate of the Furious," the eighth installment of Universal's juggernaut franchise, left some fans clutching their Coronas in anguish? (Mild "Fate of the Furious" spoilers follow.)
With Diesel's Dom going dark in "Fate," blackmailed into turning on his own family by cyber hacker Cipher (Charlize Theron), the good guys need help. Which means the return of some familiar faces, including Jason Statham as Deckard Shaw.
Statham's British ex-operative spent all of "Furious 7" trying to decimate Dominic Toretto's crew as that film's primary villain, but is still recruited into the fold after a spirited prison brawl with Dwayne Johnson's Hobbs, a face turn that sets Statham up to return a hero in the next sequel and lend his star power to the "Fast and Furious" ensemble.
The problem for hardcore fans invested in the Toretto family ties? Statham's cameo in "Fast & Furious 6" revealed that Shaw was the one responsible for the death of Dom's perennially snacking ride-or-die crewmate and longtime franchise fave, Han (Sung Kang), at the end of the third film, "The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift."
How, fans and critics wondered in the final moments of "The Fate of the Furious" as Shaw showed up on Dom's doorstep, could the crew's loyal leader welcome his friend's killer to the Corona-less family dinner table and into the franchise's good graces?
In forgiving Shaw for Han's death, does "Fate of the Furious" cross the moral line of brotherhood and loyalty drawn 16 years ago in asphalt by Dom and Brian (the late Paul Walker)? And at what point, in a $4-billion global action franchise like this, does the idea of "family" belong more to its fans than its creators?
Diesel fielded the Han query with an empathetic smile, acknowledging the troubling moral conundrum "Fate of the Furious" has imposed on fans.
"You can only imagine how many creative hours went into even continuing Han's character up until 2013," said the star, who has been a producer on the series since 2009's "Fast & Furious." "We all love Han."
It was Kang's character who helped bridge 2001's "The Fast and the Furious" with 2006's threequel "Tokyo Drift." Diesel's end-movie cameo saw Dom show up in Japan behind the wheel of Han's old 1970 Plymouth Road Runner to challenge Sean Boswell (Lucas Black) to a drift-off, inaugurating a franchise trend of retrofitting character relationships across installments.
Technically speaking, it was also Diesel who first brought Han back after his "Tokyo Drift" demise in "Los Bandoleros," the "Fast and Furious" short film Diesel co-wrote and directed in 2009. Setting up the events of the fourth film, "Fast & Furious," the prologue tells the story of how Dom assembled a crew of friends from across the globe — including a very much alive Han, and a pre-presumed dead Letty — to pull a heist in the Dominican Republic.
According to Diesel, his cast had gathered to screen "Los Bandoleros" when Kang told him he wished he'd been in the series more. "I said, 'Don't worry, I'll find a way," Diesel said. "And he was in 'Fast Five.'"
Wild fan theories abound about why the Toretto clan would welcome Shaw into the fold just one sequel after he killed one of their own, from the idea that Han didn't really die in the exploding wreckage of his Mazda RX-7 to the theory that Cipher has him locked up in a cushy hacker cell somewhere, waiting to use him as another pawn in her grand evil scheme.
After all, Diesel fought to write Michelle Rodriguez's character back into canon with a bad case of amnesia following her character's onscreen death. Couldn't he also resurrect Han — again — from that fiery demise on the streets of Shibuya? "I have a lot of power," Diesel smiled. "I don't have all the power."
Statham said he'd originally been approached to play a more significant role in "Fast & Furious 6," but "it really didn't suit what I wanted to do." He described Shaw as a character of strong morals who, like Dominic Toretto, values family above all and only went after the Toretto crew to avenge his own hospitalized brother.
"I've never been attracted to playing some villainous baddie that wants to blow up the world and steal all the money and the typical cliché villain type things," said Statham, who steals "Fate of the Furious" with his kinetic action scenes, including a memorable "Hard Boiled"-esque shootout involving a baby and a gunfight. "It was really important for me to get involved on a level where I could get behind the character."
"And you know," he added carefully, hinting that the next two sequels will retroactively revisit the circumstances of Han's death, "that whole episode has not fully detailed exactly what happened. I'm not going to say anything more than that! But [writer-producer Chris Morgan] likes to annoy the fans and please the fans and get all these angry protests. So, more to come."
Rodriguez has played the street tough Letty Ortiz, a founding member of Toretto's original familia, through adventures and betrayals and melodramatic script turns since "The Fast and the Furious." If anyone knows the franchise's true definition of family and loyalty — and its willingness to bend the rules — it's her.
"I know," she exclaimed, feeling the pain of the Han faithful. "When [Deckard] was introduced, they didn't even think for us to give him any flack when he walked in. And we were like, 'Yo, dude, this guy killed one of our boys! You know it doesn't fly like that!'"
"At the end of the day, you're talking about a Hollywood demographic blockbuster character overriding story," she said, candidly. "That's the battle that you have when you make movies this big. They were like, 'We know that the grand majority of the audience wants to see this guy be on your side, so that overrides the fact that he killed one of your guys.'"
"I was like, 'I don't know if that's going to fly when we hit the Asian markets, but all right,'" she laughed. "I don't write this stuff. What can I tell you?"
Series screenwriter and producer Morgan does write this stuff. By the time I reached him via telephone as "Fate of the Furious" was charging toward a record-breaking $532.5 million global opening, he seemed prepared to face the "Fast" fandom. With two more sequels in the works, will we see #JusticeForHan?
"Justice for Han … justice for Han," he repeated, turning the words over, carefully considering their meaning. "I think you'll learn a lot more about it, and I don't know if that hashtag will be the appropriate one to put on it down the road. But I can tell you this: We will definitely be talking more about Han."
"Look, I am literally the biggest Han/Sung Kang fan in the world," added Morgan, who also cast Kang in his 2013 Fox crime drama series "Gang Related." "But I would say this. From the initial conceit of Deckard, I've never really thought of him as a bad guy. He was definitely against our team but he's a guy with a code who loves his family."
Dom, after all, almost beat a guy to death in a vengeance-fueled rage after his own father was killed in a fashion similar to Han. But does saving a life in the musclebound, morally fluid world of "Fast and Furious" make up for taking one in such spectacular fashion?
"There's an interesting parallel to play with there, which is what we're starting to do," Morgan said.
So is Han, a character so beloved that fans know him as Han Seoul-Oh, the name playfully given him by "Tokyo Drift" helmer Justin Lin, definitively, totally dead? "He did die," said Morgan, quite apologetically. Kang could not be reached for comment.
Fans may have to see it with their own eyes to believe it — and they'll have to wait until 2019 and 2021, respectively, to see how the filmmakers address the Han pickle in the series' final two films. For now, conspiracy theories run the gamut, perhaps a little more fast and furious than what Morgan and Co. have planned.
"This is a pretty ingenious plan to bring Sung Kang back into the 'Fast' fold," speculated Phil Blankenship, a "Fast and Furious" fanatic and local film programmer in Los Angeles.
"It's beautiful long-form, multi-film storytelling," he argued after "Fate of the Furious"'s behemoth opening weekend, sharing his favorite theory of how the "Fast and Furious" franchise will make good on the aftermath of Han's death.
"The filmmakers had to recruit Statham into the team so that way Han's identical twin can hunt him down in Part 9 to avenge his brother's death. But — that in itself is a ploy! By 'Fast 10,' the ultimate film in the series, they're all friends who form the perfect supergroup."
Evil twins and more soap operatic tricks may or may not be in store for the remaining films in the franchise. Morgan acknowledged that as the screenwriter mapping out "Fast 9" and "Fast 10," he does possess the ability to bring characters back from the dead. But with great power, the saying goes, comes great responsibility.
"You really have to think about choices like that, because if you do it too much then there are no stakes in your world. The cathartic process you've had in grieving Han's death — does it undo that, or are you just so happy that he's back that you're willing to overlook that? You have to be very judicious about resurrecting characters."