Why ‘Fast and Furious 8’ Will Be the Franchise’s Most Important Film

With Paul Walker gone and the series soaring to new action heights, the next installment will have its work cut out for it.

With nearly $384 million in the bank and another four weeks that it can more or less dominate the box office, it’s clear that Universal’s Fast and Furious franchise is a monster hit — and it shows no signs of stopping. What once was a paltry post-modern attempt to merge underground street racing with a police procedural has now turned into an ever-increasing exercise in action genre excess.

The main characters have gone from outlaws to semi-good guys, given a pass by the powers that be in order to prove their superhero like mantle both behind the wheel and outside a vehicle, and the core narratives have shifted from speed to espionage.

As big a hit internationally as it is at home ($240 million of that previous figure comes from ticket buyers around the world), it’s clear that, without much hesitation, the studio will greenlight Part Eight. We’ve even heard whispers from cast members Vin Diesel, Kurt Russell, and Jason Statham that the next film is already in the planning stages. Granted, no director has been hired (James Wan, who took over from Justin Lin this time out, has been mum about his desire to return) and there’s a 8,000-pound elephant in the room that needs to be addressed, but given its already miraculous staying power, it’s not hard imagining the suits instructing potentials screenwriters about making things “bigger”m and hopefully better, the eighth time out.

Going back to that panic-inducing pachyderm for a moment, there is one major obstacle that Furious 8 (or Fast and Furious 8, or Fast 8, or whatever they choose to call it) had to overcome, and that is the absence of the late Paul Walker. Killed in a car accident not associated with the filming of Part Seven, he left producers with a problem: how to address his untimely death without ruining the overall experience for Fast and Furious fans everywhere. After all, it seems surreal that a series centering on death-defying stunts and crash sequences would have to be wary of how it addresses one of its stars posthumously. Of course, Walker died in a high speed car collision, which makes the situation that much stickier.

All of which leaves Part 8 with a potential set of pitfalls that could make or break the series. Since each installment has shown a remarkable resilience, even with major players coming and going, the last three films have found a clever formula that Walker’s absence affects. He was the straight-laced family man, the serious member of the Toretto crew which included hot head Dom (Vin Diesel), genial coward Roman Pearce (Tyrese Gibson), angry amnesiac Letty (Michele Rodriguez), tech guru Tej Parker (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) and ‘roid rage government agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson). He brought balance to the bombast, a grounding to the motorized mayhem on display.

Now he’s gone, and with him goes that particular part of the puzzle. For Furious 8 to succeed, it either has to find a way to replace Walker, add in a new character like him, or redefine the ensemble without him. Granted, the series has lost other characters before (Sung Kang’s character Han was killed off at the end of Part 6, while other former players — Lucas Black, Bow Wow — have turned up via archival footage), but never anyone as important as Walker. Outside of Tokyo Drift, he was one of the few recurring individuals in the series. While one imagines it being possible to go on without him, his Brian O’Connor will be sorely missed.

The other problem is overexposure. For a while, all social media could talk about was the Fast and Furious films. Fans wanted to see how the studio would handle the Walker situation while others were curious if Wan could “outdo” Lin when it comes to action. It’s become a little like the whole Michael Bay/Transformers thing. As the shape-shifting battling robots became more and more popular, the King of Blockbuster bombast kept upping the ante. Now, faced with the dilemma of where to go next, it looks like Bay is jumping ship while Paramount proposes a whole Transformers Universe approach to the property àla Marvel. Still, if and when the next installment of the series is announced, fans worldwide are going wonder what the filmmaker and his F/X friends will do for an encore.

Furious 8 will face the same issue. Currently, many agree that Furious 5, 6 and 7 contain some of the most mind-boggling, jaw-dropping, inventive and imaginative car chase/fistfight/action sequences in the genre’s history. Forget Tom Cruise handing from the tallest building in the Middle East — Wan took a supercar and crashed it through three skyscrapers — 90-plus stories in the same air. Walker is involved in a sequence where he fights with a bad guy on a runaway bus, only to defeat his enemy before attempt to escape as the vehicle slowly falls over a cliff. Imagine the similarly styled scene in Jurassic Park: The Lost World on steroids and you get just part of the idea.

So how do you top that? How do you top bringing down a massive cargo plane (Furious 6), dragging a bank vault through the streets of Brazil (Furious 5), or seeing Dwayne Johnson break his arm cast àla The Hulk so he can head down to the streets of LA, pick up a massive machine gun from a downed helicopter, and start shooting (Furious 7)? While they clearly haven’t exhausted all possibilities, it’s going to take someone with a great deal of skill at the genre to top what’s come before. And if it doesn’t? Does that doom Furious 8? Not necessarily, but this is a franchise that is all about flash. Turning down the vehicular bling and replacing it with a character study won’t work.

So as its predecessor starts its journey toward a billion dollars at the box office (which it has an excellent change of achieving), the brains behind a potential Furious 8 have their work cut out for them. They have to make-up for a lack of Paul Walker while keeping the current mythology fresh. Oh yeah, and they have to devise a series of stunts more impressive than the stunners we’ve already seen. It’s an uphill battle for sure, but knowing the studio and its desire for dollars, it’s a challenge they will face with their typical bottom line bravado. For fans, it will be interesting to see what happens.

Splash image: Vin Diesel and Paul Walker in The Fast and the Furious (2001)