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The Tragic Real-Life Story Behind The Fast And The Furious Films

"Fast X" released its first full trailer in February 2023, dropping a joyous bombshell on longtime fans in the midst of all the shots of cars hanging from grappling hooks and a host of explosions. In prep for the 10th installment, "F9: The Fast Saga" revealed that series protagonist Dom Toretto had a brother — a terrorist, played by John Cena. But the truly insane thing about "Fast 9" was the return of fan-favorite Han Seoul-Oh after being killed off way back in "The Fast & the Furious: Tokyo Drift."

If one thing has always been true about the "Fast & Furious" franchise, it's that sudden returns and outlandish explanations are just a part of the Toretto story. Headlined largely by Vin Diesel and the late Paul Walker, the franchise — which began as a movie about street racing — has grown into a franchise far more ambitious. In the last film, they even launched a car into outer space. 

Beyond pulse-pounding set pieces, the "Fast & Furious" movies focus on creating a family wherever you find it. Though it's become something of a joke to audiences, the "found family" cliche extends far beyond the end credits. The stars behind "The Fast Saga" have stuck firmly together in the years since it all began, sharing accidents and even a tragic death.

A seriously injured stuntman

You don't have to look far to find an example of tragedy on a "Fast" set. Vin Diesel's stunt double, Joe Watts, was injured in a terrifying fall while "F9" was shooting in the UK in July 2019. According to UK tabloid The Sun, Watts fell 30 feet from an elevated stage at a Warner Bros. studio in Leavesden, England. The movie's second unit was filming an action sequence, shuting down for the day after Watts suffered a severe head injury. 

Watts was put into an induced coma, according to unnamed sources (via The Hollywood Reporter). A little over two weeks later, he was able to leave the intensive care unit, much to the relief of his family and the team behind "Fast 9."

"While Joe remains in hospital and there is still a long road ahead, he has been moved out of the ICU and doctors are pleased with his progress," a statement from his family read. "We'd especially like to send an enormous thank-you to the air-ambulance crew, all the fantastic doctors, nurses, and staff at the Royal London Hospital who have provided amazing care to Joe." 

Universal also shared a statement about the news that Watts had been moved out of the ICU. "We know he'll continue to inspire us throughout his recovery," it read. "Everyone in the 'Fast' family sends our heartfelt wishes, and we will continue to support Joe and his family however we can."

Could Vin Diesel leave?

In the wake of Watts' accident, rumors swirled that franchise star Vin Diesel was considering leaving the franchise behind — again.

Of course, Diesel famously left the "Furious" franchise after the original film to explore his newly-minted leading man status — and after such films as "A Man Apart," xXx," "The Pacifier" and "Find Me Guilty," came back for a "Tokyo Drift" cameo and has been the face of the franchise ever since. 

There was well-documented animosity between Vin and his former co-lead Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, who played Luke Hobbs in "Fast Five," "Fast & Furious 6," and "Furious 7." So, is there any truth to the talk that he could just ... walk?

Unsurprisingly, the talk of Diesel leaving is nothing more than straight gossip. The actor has shown no public sign of splitting from the series, especially after it has given him just about all he could want. He's been a producer on the "Fast & Furious" movies for years, a credit that his two behind-the-scenes rivals The Rock and Jason Statham haven't been granted. With only two more films slated for "The Fast Saga" — including "Fast X" — there's no doubt that Diesel will finish the race strong, seeing Dom Toretto through to the finish.

The death of a core cast member

If there was ever a time when the "Fast & Furious" franchise could have crumbled, it was when series co-lead — and real-life friend of Vin Diesel — Paul Walker died in a car crash in November 2013. 

Walker played the protagonist of the original film, an undercover cop-turned-street racer named Brian O'Conner, who went on to be the co-lead of the franchise. His sandy, So-Cal look and laid-back attitude was the yin to Dominic Toretto's brooding and guarded yang. No wonder the star headlined the film's immediate sequel, "2 Fast 2 Furious," and then returned with Diesel for "Fast & Furious," which effectively revived the dying street racing series. 

It would have been easy for the cast to call it quits when he passed, particularly given the specifics of Walker's death. Walker died while in a speeding car, a friend's Porsche Carerra GT taking both their lives when the driver lost control and crashed into a concrete light pole. As a result of the impact, the car ignited and both men were killed. 

Further investigation found that the car collided with the post above 80 mph, placing the blame for the accident on excessive speed and worn tires. Since the "Furious" films are all about car culture and street racing, it couldn't have been easy to revisit such themes after his death.

The cast reacts

Often, the themes from a movie can be forgotten when the cameras turn off, but that's not the case with the "Fast & Furious" cast and crew. It seems that the cast of these movies took the franchise's core ideals regarding the importance of family to heart. It goes without saying that Walker's sudden passing deeply shook them. Immediately following the news, almost all of the film's major players shared tributes to Paul. Vin Diesel, one of Walker's best friends off camera, noted that he was "absolutely speechless."

Tyrese Gibson, who has played Roman Pearce in nearly every installment since 2003's "2 Fast 2 Furious," posted a screenshot of his last conversation with Walker, where he told the actor that he loved him. Ludacris, who plays Tej Parker, shared a photo of the cast sitting together, along with a brief, rhyming remembrance. "Your humble spirit was felt from the start, wherever you blessed your presence you always left a mark, we were like brothers & our birthdays are only 1 day apart, now You will forever hold a place in all of our hearts," he wrote in the post's caption.

Likewise, Dwayne Johnson shared his condolences to Walker's family while paying tribute to his friend. "All my strength, love & faith to the Walker family during this heartbreaking time. We find our strength... in his light," he wrote on Twitter. "Love you brother." 

A touching sendoff

After immense build-up over the course of the previous six installments, "Furious 7" had a lot to live up to. Aside from connecting every installment together, it marked Walker's final performance as Brian O'Connor, which meant the stakes were high. Clearly, the film poured a ton of the cast and crew's grief into its final scene. After successfully pulling off yet another car-based caper, Brian makes good on a promise to retire.

The remaining characters observe Brian and Mia playing with their child on a beach and all come to the conclusion that they are ready to let him leave the gang. It's a fitting end that, after a half dozen adventures together, feels earned. The emotional scene — which doubles as a moment of catharsis for the cast and crew — appears to end when Diesel's Dom drives off without saying goodbye. However, Brian catches up with Dom and asks him for a rematch of the drag race that ended the original film. 

As they race, Dom finally works up the nerve to say goodbye. At that point, Brian peels off down another path while Dom carries on and the Wiz Khalifa/Charlie Puth tribute song "See You Again" plays. Despite the difficult circumstances behind the "Furious 7" production, the final product speaks for itself, serving as a love letter to both the franchise and its fallen star.

See You Again

While the "Fast & Furious" movies have been dismissed and mocked by their detractors, there's no denying their cultural impact and appeal. "See You Again" is a clear indicator of the insane reach of the franchise, which extends far beyond box office numbers. 

It's impossible to say that the song's connection to "Furious 7" is entirely the reason for its success, though it was clearly a factor. The Wiz Khalifa/Puth collaboration was no doubt lifted into the Top 40 by its universal themes of grief, a great hook that is somber but memorable, and radio's love affair with Wiz Khalifa's voice.

The music video itself acts as a tribute to the franchise, specifically Walker's character in it. Showing clips not just from the seventh installment, but Walker's previous appearances as well, reminding fans of how far the character of Brian O'Connor came from undercover cop to career criminal to family man and beyond, it's a powerful clip.

However, the song was much more than just a passing radio hit. The outpouring of grief over Walker's death by fans helped push the song to impressive streaming numbers. It broke the record for Spotify's single-day and week streams at the time and still ranks among the most-viewed videos in YouTube history. "See You Again" was nominated for three Grammys and a Golden Globe, and became the best-selling single of 2015.

Charlie Puth wrote the song in 10 minutes

"See You Again" has had lasting success and is irrevocably tied to the stories of the "Fast & Furious" franchise, as well as Paul Walker and singer Charlie Puth. Given its outsized space in the culture, you might think that Puth slaved over "See You Again" to avoid turning an uplifting pop song into a mawkish ballad, but according to Puth, the song fell out of him in a matter of minutes.

As Puth revealed in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, he met with DJ Frank E in a session to possibly create the song for "Furious 7." "We were just getting to know each other and he had these chords up. I was like, 'What if we just played this on the piano?' And they were the chords to 'See You Again,'" he said, adding that he improvised the first and final line of the chorus. 

Puth said it took them about 10 minutes to build the chorus from there. Part of the reason it came so quickly is because he was thinking of events from his own life. "I was thinking of my friend who had passed away in a very similar way. But it worked so well with everything going on with Paul," he said. "I'm really honored that the 'Furious' franchise thought that I captured it the best."

Carrying on without Walker

The cast has frequently addressed what it's like to carry on without one of the pillars of the series. Vin Diesel was closer to Walker than perhaps any other cast member, having named his daughter Pauline after him. He's even admitted that he thinks about Walker every time they set out to make a "Furious" movie. "I'm still reeling from the loss, the idea of continuing along without my brother Pablo and what that felt like and the complexities of that," he told Entertainment Tonight while promoting "The Fate of the Furious."

Ludacris revealed that the cast prays on each movie and intentionally thinks about how to best honor their late friend with each new project. "We start off with prayers. We always talk about family and how important family is, and this is a whole family, this entire cast. I'm talking about on and off-screen. I think that's what makes our chemistry so well," he said at a press event for "Fast 9," according to The Associated Press. "And it's always in remembrance and in motivation of how we're doing our duty and honoring Paul Walker."

Diesel echoed these sentiments, adding, "His spirit must live in this saga, because his spirit, in so many ways, is what drives me to continue the saga." 

Paul Walker's brothers carried the torch

When Walker died during production of "Furious 7," director James Wan and the crew had to re-work the film to account for Brian O'Connor's exit. After it was reported that Brian would be "retired" rather than killed, many speculated just how the seventh installment would be able to pull it off. Family is everything to the "Fast" cast and crew, and Paul Walker's real-life brothers stepped up to the task. Caleb Walker and Cody Walker stood in as Brian O'Connor, hoping to honor their brother's memory.

With the help of Weta Digital, Peter Jackson's effects house which had previously worked on "The Lord of the Rings," Paul's face was digitally recreated on his brothers — who don't look too dissimilar in the first place — as well as actor John Brotherton. After his death, the three took turns standing in for Walker, helping "Furious 7" become a fitting conclusion for Brian's on-screen journey.

Though digitally re-creating one's likeness is a bit strange, a possible ethical concern when it comes to deceased actors, with the blessing of the Walker family production continued on "Furious 7," and the late Walker's memory was preserved.

Brian O'Connor lives on

Despite retiring the character after "Furious 7" in Walker's honor, the "Fast" films continue to allude to the fact that Brian O'Connor is in fact still out there. 

In the eighth film, "The Fate of the Furious," Dom makes a point to leave Brian, Mia, and their family out of the latest festivities. After the criminal Cipher (Charlize Theron) targets Dom and his crew, going after his own illegitimate son, the former street racer does everything within his power to keep his brother-in-law hidden from the villain's plot. Not including Jordana Brewster, who plays Dom's sister and Brian's wife Mia, certainly helped, further emphasizing their retirement following the previous film.

By "F9," Mia comes out of retirement when she and Dom's brother Jakob (John Cena) returns, threatening to hurt Dom and his newfound family. Naturally, Brian remains with their children to keep them safe from Cipher and those who might want to hurt them, but it makes sense that Mia would return for the family reunion. Following the events of the film, which restore fan-favorite character Han Lue, who had been killed during the events of "Tokyo Drift," Dom's team unites for a family barbecue to celebrate their victory. When asked if Brian was coming, Mia responds with, "he's on his way." Just then, he pulls into the driveway in a blue 1999 Nissan Skyline GT-R R34. Though the viewer can't make out any distinct features, it's clear who this is meant to be.

Walker returns in Fast X, sort of

In the first official trailer for "Fast X," part one of the two-part finale for the series, it's revealed that Jason Momoa's character Dante Reyes is the son of "Fast Five" antagonist Hernan Reyes (Joaquim de Almeida). The trailer flashes back to clips from the fifth installment, including brief snapshots of Dom and Brian's bank heist in Rio de Janeiro. While it's unclear how much Brian will be involved in the present, one thing's for certain: His actions in "Fast Five" are still impacting the franchise five installments later.

According to an interview with "Fast X" director Louis Leterrier in Total Film, Brian's return will be exclusively via flashback. "Well, Brian is very much alive in the world of 'Fast & Furious,' and they've teased him a lot in the previous movies," the director said. "In ["F9"], we see the car coming. It's something that is planned. This movie jumps back and forth between the past and the present. You will see Brian in the past, you won't see Brian in the present." 

He continued to elaborate that Paul Walker's family was completely onboard and remains involved in the franchise. In any event, it will be nice to see Brian back on screen after nearly a decade. Likewise, Vin Diesel told the site that he couldn't imagine the franchise ending without Brian's involvement, leading some to wonder if Paul Walker's likeness (perhaps once again via his brothers) will return for the upcoming eleventh installment.