The most outrageous action sequence in the new blockbuster Furious Seven — the latest chapter in the macho soap opera franchise about a gang of Los Angeles street racers — ends with Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker) plowing a car through a platoon of clay figures that look just like China’s Terracotta Army.
The scene takes place in Abu Dhabi, where the heroes have just crashed a Jordanian prince’s penthouse party, stolen his multimillion-dollar sports car, and driven it through the apartment’s glass walls and into an adjacent skyscraper where, for no apparent reason, there is an art exhibition of generic-looking contemporary art and ancient artifacts on view. While there are paintings and ceramic works nearby featuring Arabic characters and display cases containing other precious objects, the mighty members of emperor Qin Shi Huang Di’s funerary army are the only artifacts destroyed in the scene. The replicas used in the film are conspicuously larger and equipped with more elaborate armor than the real statues — they’re as souped up as the film’s vehicular stars.
Interestingly, one of Furious Seven‘s producers is the China Film Group Corporation, a state-run production and distribution company that enjoys a total monopoly on bringing foreign films to Chinese cinemas and has become an increasingly important financier of domestic and foreign movies. The decimation of the terracotta warriors, then, may be a historical reference intended to resonate with the film’s core audience in China.
A large portion of the Fast and Furious franchise’s appeal comes from its youth-centric, anti-establishment origins — even though its stars are now mostly middle-aged and recent installments have involved doing the US government’s dirty work — and the culture it celebrates has become the subject of generational conflict in Beijing. In this light, the notion of ramming a race-car through traditional Chinese culture, like some blockbuster interpretation of Ai Weiwei’s “Dropping a Han-Dynasty Urn” (1995), may have tremendous transgressive appeal for Furious Seven‘s target audience. (You can catch the destruction at the very end of the trailer below.)
This is hardly the terracotta warriors’ first turn in a Hollywood movie. Most famously, they are brought to life and, once again, destroyed, in the climactic battle scene of The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (see below). But their big-screen redemption is coming soon to a theater near you. The famed sculptures, one of China’s most iconic cultural exports and a potent symbol of its rich history, stand to get a superhero-style makeover in a forthcoming Chinese-US co-production that will see the ancient army brought to life in a contemporary setting “at a time when aliens are invading and the world needs them.” Perhaps then, finally, China’s movie-going youth will cheer for the terracotta warriors, rather than take gleeful pleasure in their destruction.
(nb. No real Terracotta Warriors were harmed in the making of Furious Seven.)