In a series where sleek cars are sexualized as much as scantily clad women, where plots run thin and muscles run thick, this might be the last place you’d think to find yourself crying. But that’s exactly what happened as my screening of Furious 7 concluded. I, along with most of the theater, sat transfixed in our seats, tears flowing, during a montage send-off to the now passed Paul Walker. Walker was the Luke Skywalker of the series, the co-star of the franchise launching The Fast and the Furious and who provided a necessary counter to Vin Diesel’s meaty alpha. Melancholy would always run deep in a film whose star passed before it hit theaters, and short of a Heath Ledger-like transformation ala The Dark Knight’s The Joker, the heartbreaking reality could easily tug at you like a black hole sucking out the sun. It was the duty of the filmmakers, namely newcomer director James Wan, to take to the knife and scalpel in order to rewrite, reshape, and solve an unfinished film--one impossible to finish in its current state of affairs--into a finished one, albeit in an evolved form.
A few awkward CGI-Paul Walker shots aside (which are still an amazing technical achievement), it’s an engine roaring success. The built-in worldwide audience will eat up Furious 7 with the same grinning bliss Vin Diesel’s Dominic Toretto drinks a Corona. What elevates The Fast and the Furious movies above their contemporaries of “dumb-fun-cinema” is a gleeful knowingness of itself equally as much as it knows its audience. Abandoning all pretentions of taking itself seriously, Justin Lin’s fifth and sixth entries transformed slick but absurd action movies into an act of loving self-parody, which at once let everyone be in on the joke while succeeding on a visceral level in a way the first few couldn’t. Terrible dialogue is excused because attractive people deliver their lines with an undercurrent of overplayed sarcasm, inviting people to laugh with the script rather than at it. Wan’s Furious revels in its own ridiculousness, letting you cheer at lines like “I am the cavalry” with fist-pumping fun.
The gang’s new adventure is the shakiest and most outlandish, amazingly using a plot that’s not underfed so much as anorexic. Retired former FBI agent and street race extraordinaire Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker) is taking it easy with his partner Mia Toretto (the gorgeous Jordana Brewster) until a package from Tokyo explodes, effectively destroying his house and nearly him and his family, including best friend Dominic Toretto. The package was sent by Jason Statham’s Michael Myers-esque villain, an opaque character that’s relentless in his deadly pursuit. He’s the older, badder brother to the last film’s villain Owen Shaw (Luke Evans). Kurt Russell plays a government agent in a thankless role of smart assery and cool sunglasses, but his arrival spurs life into the gears of the film’s plot mechanics, explaining to Toretto he needs their help to track down an advanced version of PRISM (I’m waiting for the spin-off where Toretto and Edward Snowden team up) in exchange for finding Shaw.
This is an unlikely series to please critics, but it’s done just that. The enjoyability goes beyond the meta, taking after Mission Impossible to up the action ante in increasingly imaginative, breath stealing ways. A freeway car chase with a tank? Why Not?! Lin directed action with a charisma and confidence to match the larger-than-life characters (literally, in the case of the hulking but crazy lovable Dwayne Johnson), leaving mega-plane size shoes for Wan to fill. He’s mastered horror and invented (semi-accidentally) the subgenre of “torture porn” through Saw and recent mega-hit and critical darling The Conjuring, making this an odd pairing. Instead of a road block, it’s actually complimentary. Wan doesn’t hesitate to put his own spin of Furious 7’s tornado of vehicular mayhem, following a screenplay that’s fan-pleasing and referential.
It takes enduring a shaky and, dare I say, boring, first act to get to the goods. It’s the only section where Walker’s absence casts a phantasmic shadow over the otherwise fun, uplifting tone. Walker, or the computer-generated ghost of him (an eerie thought that’s similarly eerie to see on the screen) has an awkward smile and glare, looking as though he’s zoning in and out of dead space. The character is reduced to a standing presence in coverage shots for much of the first act, although hoping for a seamless final result may be asking too much. He’s in the film enough to function as a fine farewell for the beloved (and charity-focused) actor, and even a late-film fight scene without a single good shot of his face works more than you might expect.
Straight out of Looney Tunes in the best way possible, the crazy action sequences are so brazenly defiant of physics, science, and logic, so fiercely unapologetic in their dismissal of gravity and reality, they become an art form of their own. The action centerpiece begins with a muscle car, an import, and a Humvee skydiving from the rear of a plane, tumbling and whirling around and somersaulting in circles before planting on the highway to stage a high-stakes, high-speed heist that detonates cars like a Michael Bay fetish. An early brawl between Statham and Dwayne Johnson’s lawman, complete with a spinning camera to match the spinning velocity of their acrobatic but hard-hitting martial arts, perfectly summarizes each character. There’s a sophisticated symmetry where action, plot, and character become an entangled entity, which lets the characters speak through action as action speaks through the characters.
Sorry, Vin Diesel, Furious 7 won’t win best picture, but it doesn’t have to. In the hearts and minds of audience members is the mostly great and surprisingly poignant close to a series that has learned to reinvent itself while keeping a strong pulse on nostalgia. Adding to the emotional wallop of the finale is the recurring series motif of family, and by the seventh film you feel like you’re a part of it. Each member in the group probably harkens to your own group’s dynamic in real life, from Michelle Rodriguez’s Letty, Tyrese Gibson’s Roman, and Ludacris’ Tej. It’s the rare blockbuster that excites in equal turn as it moves you, and even if you feel a headache from the over-edited action finale, you’ll leave the theater enthralled and emotional. From a series that ought to be pandering crap, you can’t ask for more.
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