Paul Walker's final appearance in the street-racing franchise Fast & Furious left a preview audience teary-eyed at the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival for the first public screening of the last film the actor made before he died in a car crash.
In the film, Vin Diesel's character says "those who are lost go on in the hearts of the living" and that was how it felt for many fans attending the midnight screening on Sunday.
Furious 7, out in theaters on April 7, is Walker's last appearance as law-enforcement officer Brian O'Connor. The 40-year-old died as a passenger in a one-car crash in Malibu, California, in November 2013.
Before the screening, the film's producer Neal Moritz appealed to viewers not to reveal what becomes of Walker's character in the franchise, which has grossed more than $2 billion globally.
"We honestly lost a dear friend, brother, comrade, while we were making this movie," Moritz said. "When we decided we were going to continue this movie, we were determined to honor his legacy and our love for him."
Walker had completed most of his scenes before his death, but Comcast Corp-owned Universal Pictures was forced to put production on hold to figure out how to continue filming without him.
Walker's brothers stepped in for a few remaining scenes, which make a seamless transition in the completed film.
Walker's character Brian appears within the first 15 minutes as a settled family man, but he's restless for the underworld of crime, illegal street racing and heists led by Diesel's Dominic.
The plot, filled with one-liners, sees Diesel, Walker and co-stars Tyrese Gibson, Ludacris and Michelle Rodriguez take on a villain (Jason Statham) in cities across the world.
Despite Walker's death, filmmakers did not shy away from the turbulent storyline of Furious 7 in which his character, along with the rest of the cast, are thrown into high-octane, life-threatening situations. In one scene, all five drive cars out of an airplane and parachute into a mountain-top race.
The film ended with a tribute to Walker, closing with the words "For Paul" written in black against a white backdrop.
What early reviews say....
Perri Nemiroff writes for The Collider, "Director James Wan makes the transition (from horror to action) exceptionally well. He manages to strike the perfect balance between making Furious 7 feel like another Fast and Furious film while also giving it some personal flair."
Talking about the franchise's central themes, the reviewer says, "The Fast and Furious films are about two things, family and getting to watch a slew of explosive car stunts, and in that respect, Furious 7 delivers big, and perhaps even bigger than ever."
The thrills just keep on coming. "The car chases are absolutely insane and take the action in the franchise to a new level. There's endless sass, humor and unforgettable absurd one-liners... Furious 7 is certainly a popcorn movie geared towards delivering big thrills, but it's also oozing with heart and passion."
Matt Singer of Screen Crush is in agreement. "When it ramps up to full speed, it really delivers on the knowingly absurd stunts that Fast fans have come to expect, along with four epic showdowns: Rock/Statham, Walker/Jaa, Rousey/Rodriguez, and Statham/Diesel."
In a nod to Walker, he goes on to say, "This Fast & Furious seems to contain a record number of brutal collisions that characters walk away from like they're invincible. It's a choice that could have backfired, but it feels right, and it makes Furious 7, which is already a fitting and moving send-off for Walker, even more poignant, because the characters in the film can do what people in the real world cannot: Defy death."
John DeFore, writing for Hollywood Reporter, is more critical of the film. He writes, "(The film) is as overinflated, if not as well formed, as the physique of Dwayne Johnson, who gave this ensemble a much-needed charisma boost when he signed on for episode five."
Talking of Walker, he says, "The knowledge of his (Walker's) death in a November 2013 car accident colours our experience of this unintentional swan song in many ways, of course, but viewers trying to spot the scenes in which stand-ins and CGI played Walker's part for him will find it hard enough that they may do the right thing: Stop trying, and instead go along with a reworked screenplay that ushers him off the stage with as much grace as any other development in this muscle-car-melodrama saga."
(With inputs from Reuters)