Who would have thought that a "Fast & Furious" movie would inspire tears? Yet the scene on Sunday night was one of emotional catharsis as SXSW held the first public screening of "Furious 7" starring the late Paul Walker.
The unlikely franchise that has brought in more than $2 billion worldwide inspired intense support and loyalty from its fan base and is now soldiering without Walker. The seventh film in the series was in production when Walker died in a November 2013 car crash.
The high-revving action film temporarily halted production as filmmakers tried to figure out their next steps. Eventually Walker's brothers Caleb Walker and Cody Walker were brought in as stand-ins, and computer effects were used for facial replacement to complete Walker's remaining scenes. (The technique, with a few exceptions, largely works and is unobtrusive to viewers.)
Heightening the excitement around South by Southwest, the screening -- officially scheduled for 12:07 a.m. -- came together very quickly. It was announced earlier in the day, and yet the Paramount Theatre was packed with fans. Festival chief Janet Pierson said after the screening that she first heard of the idea to show the film around 10 on Saturday night.
Neal Mortiz, producer on the franchise, introduced the film and said he had been to SXSW three years ago with "21 Jump Street." (The film's directors, Chris Miller and Phil Lord, were in the audience on Sunday.)
"Literally yesterday morning I woke up, and I'd been reading all about South by Southwest, and I was like … Why is 'Fast and Furious' not here?
"So I called our good friends at Universal, and I said, 'Is there any chance we could play South by Southwest?' And they said to me, 'Are you kidding me? These things are planned months and years in advance.' So this morning I wake up and there is a text that said, 'We're on. It's happening.'"
Heartfelt shouts of "We love you, Paul Walker" and "Rest in Peace, Paul Walker" came from the audience as Mortiz continued: "On the serious side, we honestly lost a dear friend, brother, comrade when we were making this movie. And he was really the best guy I've ever met in my world, in my life. And when we decided that we were going to continue this movie, we were determined to honor his legacy and our love for him forever.
"This movie is the highlight of my career, and I'm so proud of what we've done and know Paul Walker would be smiling down on all of us tonight."
Mortiz then brought out writer Chris Morgan, director James Wan and star Tyrese Gibson. Noting that star Vin Diesel couldn't make it on short notice, Moritz held up a smartphone to film the crowd as he led them to chant for Diesel, first something vulgar, then something affectionate.
Wan, making his first entry in the series, noted that he just finished work on the film last week.
One of the things that has likely made the franchise such a continued success is the way the filmmakers have inherently understood how to grow and change from film to film, mostly meaning the car action set pieces get bigger and more preposterous each time. The "Fast" films have smartly embraced how ridiculous they are, and "Furious 7" Is no exception.
Within moments of opening, action star Jason Statham, as a character teased at the end of "Fast & Furious 6," is walking away from an explosion and then almost immediately after that there are images of bikini girls before a street race in the desert. The film's story has something to do with who has control over a powerful surveillance program, but it's really just a chassis for globe-hopping, rip-roaring action.
Altough the franchise has been based in no small part on fan service, giving the people what they want, some fresh faces are in the mix. Kurt Russell appears as a government operative, Nathalie Emmanuel appears as a computer hacker, Djimon Hounsou is a warlord and pop star Iggy Azalea appears as a woman at a car race. Besides Diesel and Gibson, also returning to the film are Michelle Rodriguez, Dwayne Johnson, Jordana Brewster and Ludacris.
Relatively seamless computer effects render even the most preposterous ideas as relatively realistic while also blurring the line between what might be real and the imagination of the filmmakers. After the cars are parachuted in via cargo plane, an extended chase along narrow mountain roads is particularly effective. Later the crew must steal a multimillion-dollar, ultra-rare sportscar from the penthouse vault where it is stored. The finale is an extended showdown between cars, a drone and an assault helicopter in downtown Los Angeles.
The story hops from London to Los Angeles, Tokyo, the Dominican Republic, the Caucasus Mountains, Abu Dhabi and back to Los Angeles. (The film was shot in Los Angeles, Atlanta, Abu Dhabi and Colorado.)
Although the film leaves the motor idling for more sequels, the audience was shedding many tears Sunday night as the credits rolled.
Before the film got underway, Moritz joked that Gibson would not leave the stage without a chance to speak. As Gibson took the microphone, everyone else left the stage and he said, "Listen, everything that could have been said has already been said. We want y'all to understand that we don't look at y'all as just fans of a movie. Most of y'all grew up with us. Y'all been following us, every time we do one of these 'Fast and the Furious,' you show up.
"We love y'all, we appreciate y'all and as y'all already know, the reason that we kept this thing going became on behalf of our brother Paul Walker. Enjoy the … movie, you beautiful people."