Saturday, April 4, 2015

"Furious Seven" (2015)

Starring: Vin Diesel, Paul Walker and Jason Statham
Written by Chris Morgan
Directed by James Wan
Rated PG-13: Violence, language
Running Time: 140 Minutes

After defeating Owen Shaw and finally returning home to the United States with full pardons for their crimes, Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel) and Brian O'Conner think they're in the clear. But while Dom struggles to help Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) deal with her amnesia and Brian can't quite seem to settle into domestic life with his wife Mia (Jordana Brewster) and his son Jack, something is going quite wrong. Shaw's brother Deckard (Jason Statham) is out for revenge. In short order, he puts Hobbs (Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson) in the hospital in LA and kills Han (Sung Kang) in Tokyo.

A CIA agent calling himself Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russel), in need of some help, makes Dom an offer he can't refuse: rescue a genius hacker named Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) from a terrorist organization led by Mose Jakande (Djimon Hounsou) and Dom will be granted use of a top-secret surveillance system that can find anyone, anywhere in the world, to track Deckard Shaw and end their feud once and for all.

To pull off this job, Dom reassembles his crew including Brian and Letty, as well as Tej (Chris 'Ludacris' Bridges) and Roman (Tyrese Gibson). And then it's on.

What a winding road this franchise has driven. Morphing from a decent "Point Break" with cars ripoff into one of the biggest, wildest and most pure fun action franchises on the planet is no small feat. Along the way, "The Fast and the Furious" not only raked in billions of dollars at the box office, but also not only garnered an ardent fan base, but, somehow, critical respect as well. Something happened when Justin Lin took over the franchise in "Tokyo Drift," and after that, each entry has only gotten bigger and better as the producers realized exactly how stupid these movies are, and how to milk that for all it's worth.

With "Furious Seven," things are a little bit different. The tragic death of series star Paul Walker in 2013 nearly derailed the film, pushing its release date back an entire year so the filmmakers could figure out how to not only complete the film but retool it as a sendoff for Walker's Brian O'Conner character. Somehow, they've worked a miracle. And that's the biggest elephant in the room for this film: how well do they complete a movie without one of its main stars? By employing several stunt doubles, including Walker's own brothers, and millions of extra dollars worth of CG special effects pumped into the budget by Universal, director James Wan and the Hollywood effects wizards managed to keep Walker in the game with only a couple of minor hiccups.

There are maybe a couple of shots in this film where something seems slightly off about Walker's face, but it's so rare and usually during a scene where there's some kind of inhuman stunt work involved — a scene where Brian is attempting to escape a bus that happens to be falling off a cliff right beneath him, for example.

Additionally, the film's final scenes are essentially a thinly veiled goodbye to Walker, not to his character. It's actually quite well done and effective, and surprisingly restrained for a franchise known for its ridiculous, over-the-top tendencies...

...which, of course, the rest of the movie has in spades. Each of this movie's main action sequences would probably be the climax of a lesser film. But by far the movie's best is a centerpiece action sequence that involves an attempt to hijack the aforementioned bus using cars dropped out the back of an airplane. But by now we know that this is the sort of wild and wildly entertaining buffoonery that this franchise excels at, and boy do they pull it off.

It feels like each movie in this franchise will now attempt to top the vault sequence from "Fast Five," a climax so madcap, so full of pure, unrestrained cinematic pleasure that it instantly converted people who formerly scoffed at this franchise. There's going to be one sequence in each movie that will just say, "fuck it" and go for the gusto. In "Furious 6" it was the tank chase. In "Furious Seven," it's the airdrop bus hijacking. But don't worry, there's lots of other totally ridiculous nonsense that happens in this movie.

Jason Statham makes an excellent villain for this cast. In fact, with him, Diesel and the Rock in the same movie, this franchise starts to feel like what "The Expendables" should feel like, but rarely achieves (though I do enjoy those, as well). When it comes down to it, the "Fast & Furious" films are better at showcasing their ensembles than "The Expendables," and better at delivering the kind of cartoonish action fans want. Is that a result of having three times the budget? I'm not sure, but it definitely feels like aside from the second film, "The Expendables" writers haven't quite realized the niche that series needs to fit into yet.

Like with the previous entries, "Furious Seven" can feel a little over-long, but to its credit, it actually gets a few things right that "Furious 6" had some trouble with. Fewer of the bits of comedic banter between Tyrese and Ludacris fall flat, for instance; the two are more consistently funny in this entry. And while the ridiculousness seems boundless, it's kept better in check than in the previous film's head-scratchingly long runway climax (someone on the Internet calculated that runway to be something approaching 30 miles long, given the amount of screen time involved). "Furious Seven" feels just a bit tighter, given just the right extra oomph.

Likewise, the rest of the cast, I think in response to Walker's death, seem to be trying harder than ever before. This is the most openly emotional of the "Furious" movies, even when it's still just dealing with the kind of soap opera antics like Letty's amnesia, but the earnestness of it all makes it work. Because while the plot may exist on the flimsiest of logic known to man and physics have long since left the building, ultimately we can rely on each and every one of these characters being who we know them to be. Never does any of them make a decision or take an action that's out of character; each of the film's ensemble is predictable because we know them so well by now. After fifteen years and seven movies, that's the only way for it to be. So while Dom might be laying on the "family" speeches pretty thick, at this point it feels like the audience is included.

While "Fast Five" will probably always be special for taking the series into the stratosphere by coming seemingly out of nowhere, "Furious Seven" will probably always feel like the moment everything came together for "The Fast and the Furious" even as it was saying goodbye to a key member of the family.

See Also
The Fast and the Furious (2001)
The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006)
Fast & Furious (2009)
Fast Five (2011)
Furious 6 (2013)