In Part 1 I wrote about things that caught my eye, but which weren’t really the central chasis of the story. In this part, it’s time to tackle the real meaning of Christmas: Jason Statham.
Action movies are built on a basically adversarial model of storytelling that goes back to Homer. At the end of The Iliad, Achilles must defeat Hector in single combat. The whole story builds to that point, begining with Achilles’ rhetorical assessment of Hector. Who amongst the greeks, asks Achilles, will be able to fight “man-slaughtering Hector” if not Achilles himself? Yet Homer must walk a delicate line, because he can never let Hector appear to genuinely be superior to the famed Greek heroes who are beseiging Troy, because his work is an epic celebration of the Greek heroes; it is the very foundation of their later fame. Homer needs to make Hector terrifying without actually allowing him to be “man-slaughtering”. Thus, when Ajax confronts Hector the encounter ends in an argreement not to fight on the basis of some fairly spurious-sounding familial connections, rather than ending with one combatant dead. Patroclus is the sacrificial lamb, the one hero who is slated to die in order to finally prove Hector’s credentials and end Achilles’ political stalemate with Agamemnon in order to allow the final confrontation to proceed.
This is precisely the challenge faced by the makers of Fast and Furious 7. We have a major antagonist who must balance the competing story demands of being a match for the whole gang, while being less awesome than their champion, Vin. The emotional logic of this conflict is what drives a number of the apparently-incoherent plot maneouvres; it’s basically why the audience leaves the theatre punching the air and high-fiving rather than scratching their heads in puzzlement. It’s worth noting again, that this emotional logic is something that reviewers have sensed but struggled to articulate. It’s also what makes Fast 7 epic.
Homer manaes to keep his antagonists separated by a plot contrivance – Achilles has a disagreement about the spoils of war with Agamemnon and so sulks while other heroes interact with Hector. This allows him to simply shelve the conflict that underpins the story. In fact, Achilles himself is the biggest advocate for the supremacy of Hector, telling Agamemnon that only he can stop “man-slaughtering Hector”. In detail, however, Hector receives little real glory. Each of the Greek Heroes has a long rampage where they kill a large number of Trojans, but Hector does not, so his victories are mainly symbolic rather than numerically impressive. As a consequence of parking Achilles on the edges of the action, while the main over-arcing plot of The Iliad is resolved by Hector’s death, most of the chapter-by-chapter action is tangential. A lot of the minor action is easily forgotten – I can’t remember now the name of the minor Trojan that Odysseus and Diomedes kill in their scouting raid. In Homer, these scenes heighten anticipation for the “real” fight we all know is coming. [One of my favourite scenes in Shakespeare is the confrontation between Achilles and Hector in Troilus and Cressida, because he never quite plays by the rules, old Shakey-spear!]
In the confines of a 2-hour film, however, you can’t introduce your main villain and then have him do nothing for the bulk of the film. And if you could, the conflict in Fast 7 is numerically uneven. Without Statham, the gang has literally nothing to do. The challenge then is for each of the scenes to showcase and escalate the conflict.
After the astonishingly economical cold opening, the film wastes little time in framing the conflict in heroic terms. Statham confronts The Rock in his own headquarters. This shows boldness and daring, and by ceding the advantage in location, Statham shows that the main characters can’t be safe. The fight itself is well-staged and as brutal as you could hope – Statham for all that he is impressive physically, looks puny next to the Rock and the idea that he can more than hold his own makes us concerned about how the eventual fight will go with Diesel. Ultimately, the Rock’s side-kick enters the fray and creates the crucial weakness that allows Statham to win the fight. It’s not clear who would have won without the opportunity created by the rrival of “help”, but as it is, honour is satisfied on both sides: the Rock doesn’t lose, but Statham gets to eliminate a main character and prove his credentials directly.
It is then imperative in narrative terms that the principal antagonists get to face off against each other in a scenario where there is no possibility of resolution. As Diesal chases Statham from the funeral, we get a preview of their conflict. It pays to bear in mind that the Staith made his name as an action star behind the wheel of a car, so this sequence is as much Martin v. Tureto as Shaw v. Tureto. Of course, Statham cheats in their show-down and a virtual deus ex machina is needed to prevent a one-sided slaughter – in this case more like a spy in the machine, but still.
One slightly observant reviewer pointed out that the objective of the spy subplot is to obtain a MacGuffin that will allow the gang to find Statham – but Statham seems to follow them around, so the MacGuffin is somewhat irrelevant. In fact, the MacGuffin has an entirely different funtion, in that it allows the film to eliminate all the non-princpals from the final fight. In that light, each of the subsequent encounters is purely about proving that anything other than a direct one-to-one conflict between Diesal and Statham can’t really resolve which is the greater fighter. This does cut both ways – as Statham is unable to take the vital shot while Diesal is surrounded by Statham’s cronies. It is only once all the other characters in the drama are caught up in the MacGuffin sub-plot, that we can leave our two principal fighters to really settle who is greatest.
Far from being a complex plot-laden behemoth, I think we can see how much care and attention has gone into one truly central story activity. For me, this was entirely effective, as I bought into the escalation progressively on an emotional level. It was only afterwards that the pieces came together for me – and that is as good a criterion for artistic merit as I need, really. It is a little tragic that one bemused reviewer after another wrote off the story as merely bonkers fun, when in fact, this is a re-telling of the oldest basic story in the Western Literary Canon.