Unlike the super-charged excitement surrounding this month’s biggest film (not to mention the biggest film this year to date), April’s slate of films has started with a whimper. Over the past two weeks, only two movies have opened in wide release, and in order to keep my anti-Nicholas Sparks streak alive (that’s right friends, I am lucky enough to have yet to be Notebook-ed), The Longest Ride was never an option. So unless I wanted to avoid the cineplex for two weeks straight (or go see an independent film or two that didn’t interest me in the slightest), the only other choice was Furious 7, the new addition to a franchise that has never been high on my must-see radar. I still have yet to see Tokyo Drift (although I am a big fan of Lucas Black) or Fast and Furious (which would be the fourth, for those keeping score), I only saw The Fast and the Furious (with those pesky definite articles, that would be the original) when it hit cable, and I’ve probably only seen bits and pieces of 2 Fast 2 Furious. (Bet you can’t guess which one that is!) I probably wouldn’t have gone to see Fast 5 if it hadn’t have been for my friend, but it was then that I understood something very pivotal about this franchise — it’s like a drug; once you’ve submitted yourself to its high-gloss stunt work and expanding story arc, you can’t keep from coming back for more. I went to see Fast and Furious 6 on my own accord two years ago, and even though I roll my eyes more often than not when it comes to everything about this series, I gave in to Furious 7 and its high-octane absurdness.
The franchise that ogles cars as much as it ogles women, Furious 7 changes gears as much as it changes locations. Seeking revenge for what the team did to Owen Shaw (Luke Evans) in the last film, his brother, Deckard (Jason Statham) hacks into the FBI database to seize the names of those who tried to kill him. He begins his revenge tour with agent Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson), which then leads him to Han (Sung Kang) in Tokyo where the franchise finally catches back up to the timeline. In order to keep anyone else from dying, Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) rallies his team once again to help a shady government agent, Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell), find and protect Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel), a computer hacker who has created The Machine… no, I mean Samaritan… no wait, excuse me — God’s Eye — which can activate and utilize any camera, cell tower and satellite in the world to track anyone anywhere in order to keep it out of the hands of a terrorist.
The plot, of course, is only an excuse to gorge on adrenalized action porn (that is, plenty of obligatory shots of hot women in short skirts, hotter cars in exotic locales, and stylized stunt choreography). But the franchise, which was once at least grounded in a modicum of realism, has completely gone of the rails by slowly pumping the characters with nitrous oxide, turning them into a team of unlikely gods. Hobbs was never the most realistic character to begin with, but by the end of this film, the producers have blatantly turned him into the Hulk of this series, which does what? Turn Dom into Captain America? Almost. But I get it; this is where the franchise has decided to go — into this weird world where a team of mismatched criminals who get a hard on for the newest and latest supreme sports car (earn that paycheck, Tyrese) can defy almost every law of physics and survive accidents, explosions, falls, jumps, fistfights and crashes that would normally have killed every character ten times over with nary a scratch to prove their heroism (or their sheer luck, depending on how you look at it).
As has been the trademark of this franchise, heroes come in all shapes and sizes, colors and creeds, ages and sexes. This outing adds three new players to the mix (four if you count Djimon Hounsou’s terrorist, which I don’t since he is once again completely wasted and underutilized as a stock villain with nothing to do but sit and bark orders), all of whom, despite their flaws, fit perfectly into this world. Emmanuel is cute as a button with just enough snark to match wits with the boys, but what she’s asked to do for her first time out borders too far on the side of ridiculous and unbelievable. Statham adds just the right amount of gravitas to the role of Shaw, but matching machismo toe-to-toe with Diesel only goes to prove why Statham has found so much success and Diesel has yet to find a footing outside of the films that made him. And finally, Russell brings old school charm to the high-tech adrenaline, but is given a send-off that doesn’t suit either the actor or the character. On the totally missed opportunity side, though it was nice to see Lucas Black make a return to the franchise, it would have been a lot more fun to have had him brought into the fold, not only replacing his mentor, Han, but also the now departed Paul Walker. (Maybe Fast 8 Furious will rectify this. Who knows?)
Speaking of Walker, the real marvel (and one reason I believe more people may be going to check this movie out) is the visual effects wizards behind the pseudo-resurrection of Walker. I’m not sure if it was the team at Weta Digital, Scanline VFX or another visual effects studio associated with the film, but the way they, along with director James Wan and his production crew, were able to seamlessly integrate Walker’s brothers and a series of visual effects techniques to complete the scenes Walker was unable to finish after his tragic death halfway into filming is truly remarkable. Other than a couple of minor points in the film, I couldn’t tell where Walker ended and the effects began. That includes matching his voice to the necessary dialogue. It all helped lead into an incredible tribute to a man who was more dedicated to this franchise than any other actor (having starred in six of the seven movies).
Filmed after Walker’s death, the loving, sentimental tribute at the end of the film not only encapsulates the end of Brian O’Conner’s journey, but highlights the recurring theme of the overall franchise, which is love and loyalty to family. The authentic emotion is evident in the actors, but none more so than Michelle Rodriguez and Vin Diesel. They aren’t just saying goodbye to a friend who they’ll more than likely see again in the future at some sport car convention or family gathering, they are saying goodbye to a brother they well never see again. And in that bittersweet moment, we see a glimpse of what the filmmakers are capable of and why this series has found the foothold it has in its millions of fans. If only the rest of the film, and the franchise, were as authentic as that five minutes of pure, raw emotion.
My Grade: B
Next week, new movies include Unfriended, Child 44, Monkey Kingdom and Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2. If you would like to see a review of one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.