Writer’s note: At the time of this writing, I have not seen F9: The Fast Saga
In Fast & Furious 6, when Dominic Torreto (Vin Diesel) told Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker) that he should stay and look after his newborn son, Mia Torreto (Jordanna Brewster) said, “You’re stronger together. You always were”. This line ended up being far more important to the franchise then screenwriter Chris Morgan would realize. In the wake of Paul Walker’s passing in 2013, the franchise didn’t just lose one of its leads, it potentially lost its heart.
Strip away all the crazy physics defying stunts and you’re left with the core of the franchise: family. Vin Diesel’s and Paul Walker’s brotherly relationship wasn’t just on screen, it was off too. These two were reportedly so close that when Diesel arrived at the home of Walker’s family, Walker’s mother said that she was sorry Diesel lost his other half. Many memories have been shared since Walker’s death in 2013. The two of them had a bond that brought out the best in each other. But more than anything, Paul Walker grounded Vin Diesel, which only really became apparent when he wasn’t there to reign him back. Sure, the franchise kept getting bigger and bigger with each installment, and arguably it wouldn’t have gotten to nine movies if it didn’t…but should it have?
Both Vin Diesel and Paul Walker had put the franchise in their rear view mirror in the early 00s, only deciding to return if the other did for 2009’s Fast & Furious. Diesel seemed to struggle for a number of years before this to get his other franchises XXX and The Chronicles of Riddick, the latter of which was a major passion project for the actor, off the ground, so returning to a known commodity probably seemed like the right thing to do at the time. He even used the money he earned from the successes of Fast & Furious and it’s sequel, 2011’s Fast Five to partially fund 2013’s Riddick. When it became clear that general audiences weren’t interested in the adventures of the last Furyan, he put all of his effort into building the Fast franchise.
When Fast Five rolled around, the franchise introduced B-list action star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and critics credited him with revitalizing the franchise. While that sort of praise would reportedly begin to weigh on Diesel, It wasn’t a problem for him at first, since he still believed in his Riddick franchise and most importantly, he still had Paul Walker (or Pablo as he affectionately called him). However, between Fast Five and The Fate of the Furious, the 8th installment in the franchise, Dwayne Johsnon began to cultivate a new on-screen persona, a leading man in the vein of Stallone or Schwartzenegger but infinitely more likeable. He carefully cultivated a fun loving, strong man personality and he grew into an A-list movie star.
Johnson began to assert more creative control in all the films and franchises he was a part of, even the Fast franchise. He successfully turned Hobbs into a more modern Dwayne Johnson character as his creative hand began to be felt within the franchise that Diesel had spent almost 20 years shaping. From the outside looking in, it looked like Johnson was trying to take the franchise away from Diesel, something that Tyrese Gibson would allude to in his own instagram posts. This didn’t really come to a head until after Walker had passed away, which led to Johnson getting a series of spin-off films and leaving the main franchise.
Paul Walker would always talk about how Diesel was breaking the story with writer Chris Morgan, even getting in on the writing action himself at times. For example, when they announced the first release date for Furious 7, it was with a picture of Walker and Diesel writing a scene together. Walker was always there to make sure Diesel was brought back down to the heart of the franchise, one time saying “Things are going to come around the way they’re supposed to. Let’s be organic. Let’s sit down, let’s talk and see how it flows.” It makes sense then that after Justin Lin left the franchise, and Paul Walker passed away, Diesel probably felt like he was the most important creative voice in the room (which might explain why Chris Morgan didn’t return to write F9, but that’s just conjecture). Without Walker there to ground him, Diesel’s desire to go bigger began to turn Dominic Torreto into Xander Cage from XXX.
Without Paul Walker there to keep Diesel grounded, Dominic Torreto went from a really good driver who could hold his own in a fight to an international superspy who knows mixed martial arts and can lift cars. Even the rest of the cast changed, becoming only caricature versions of who they used to be. The Fast franchise isn’t as elastic as the Marvel Cinematic Universe or Star Wars, regardless of what Diesel might think. It’s also strange that the two films post Paul Walker’s death are instances where Brian O’Conner would be there for his brother. Not killing the character of Brian probably made sense at the time, but why wouldn’t Brian show up when Dom went evil or his long lost younger brother showed up out of nowhere (that’s made extra weird since Jordanna Brewster is returning in F9)?
The earnestness of the franchise disappeared after Paul Walker passed. The heart of the franchise went with him. Without him, Diesel’s ego went unchecked and the franchise changed to be a vehicle for his macho-ness. Now the movies are in on the joke, and they’re moving in a direction of espionage and super soldiers that moves further and further away from the core of the franchise. It was the combination of Chris Morgan, Justin Lin, Paul Walker and Vin Diesel that made the fast franchise what it is, with Paul Walker serving as the heart that kept that magic formula of creative voices grounded. There’s no denying that Vin Diesel still has love for Paul Walker, but without him, the franchise is going to end as a shell of what it was. Furious 7 was released with the tagline “one last ride” and maybe it should have been…