Make no mistake: Furious Seven is everything you’d expect and want out of a post-Fast Five sequel in the Fast and Furious franchise. Supersonic cars, high danger with lots of white-knuckle suspense, gorgeous men and women (the latter played up in the opening scenes almost as a knowing wink-and-nod to how critics have perceived the treatment of women in this series), and a whole lot more, resulting in an absolute blast at the movies. There’s also an almost total lack of physics which requires a heavy suspension of disbelief – half the time, you’ll be saying to yourself, “Get the f**k outta here!” with each hair-raising stunt – but you don’t go into these movies for according-to-Neil DeGrasse-Tyson, bullet-point accuracy with its physics, do you?
No. Conversely, you go to a Fast and Furious movie for the high-flying outrageousness, which new-to-the-franchise director James Wan (Insidious, The Conjuring) delivers with both barrels. He nails the excitement, tone, and spirit that previous director Justin Lin used to reinvigorate the franchise with his gravity-defying Fast Five and Furious 6 installments. What’s a little bit lacking is the intensity that Lin so wonderfully captured with his films, and I think it has to do with the overuse of the shaky-cam, in-your-face photography that certainly wants to match the busyness of what’s going on in the scene. Whether it’s a car chase, explosions, or the gladiator match between Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) and Diplomatic Security Service Agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), Wan often chooses to let the camera speak for the action, not the action itself.
Eventually, this technique leaves us relying on sound, not sight, to amp up expectations and get the goosebumps on your arms going. Instead of wide shots that let the audience appreciate what goes into these fight scenes and radical stunts, we’re left with dizzying close-ups of each punch being thrown (not necessarily landing – that’s what the sound effects are for) or a body being flipped or a car being crashed. The kinetic camerawork by Stephen F. Windon and Marc Spicer definitely keeps us in the scene, albeit too close for my liking – Furious Seven wants to put us in the passenger seat for a more visceral ride, and there’s no denying that it works most of the time. The PG-13 rating this franchise so desires makes the filmmakers resort to camera tricks that upset the balance between showmanship and energy, but in the case of Furious Seven, they get a lot more right than they get wrong.
Another thing holding back the intensity of this installment is how scattered it can seem at times. One minute, the Toretto gang is up against Shaw, who’s blown up the Toretto house and killed their friend Han Seoul-Oh (Sung Kang, whose character’s last name has finally been made canon, no matter how jokey it may be). The next minute, they’re working with US government agent Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) to rescue hacker Megan Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) from warlord Mose Jakande (Djimon Hounsou), who’s taken Ramsey for a piece of software called the God’s Eye, which turns every camera and microphone (even those on cell phones) into surveillance equipment worthy of many Fifth Amendment protests. All of a sudden, we find ourselves in Abu Dhabi, with Roman (Tyrese Gibson) trying to distract guards and looking like a vapid idiot (more than Roman usually does) while Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker) steal a Lykan Hypersport and… well, you’ve seen the ads, right? By the time our heads stop spinning, we’re back in Los Angeles again, with so many things to pay attention to that we feel like we’re missing out on some of the fun just trying to keep up.
See? That last paragraph was a mouthful, and I’m not even bothering to delve into the interpersonal stories that keep the drama going. There’s a lot happening in Furious Seven, and its pacing keeps us on our toes during the Toretto gang’s globetrotting adventure. By now, we’re used to the kind of antics they can get up to, but said antics have been tempered by the shadow of Han’s death brought about by their most dangerous rival yet. Shaw is written as something out of James Cameron’s The Terminator, only without the metal endoskeleton underneath the living tissue. He is the ultimate badass, trained to be the best possible killer, capable of inserting himself into any situation to take or give out beatings and walking away from his victims while things explode around him. Accordingly, Statham plays him as such, stone-cold with a severe case of the “I’ve got nothing to lose” streak running through his body. He strolls (and runs, at one point) seemingly unharmed through merciless trauma, be it the aforementioned savage bareknuckle fight against Hobbs, or one of many car crashes resulting in damage that would probably end in death for you or me; to Shaw, it’s just another weekday afternoon.
The last three Fast and Furious films (this one included) have been about high-tech heists that require the Toretto gang’s special set of skills, and it’s always fun to see them reunite and play off of each other. You know that jokes are going to be made at Roman’s expense, and you know what his reaction’s going to be every time, but that’s the fun of his character. Chris “Ludacris” Bridges makes a further case for himself as the man who tends to slip under your radar with how good he can be as Tej, the master of a million tricks and one of the film’s most stalwart heroes. As amnesiac Letty, whose memory may finally coming back, Michelle Rodriguez steps back into that hardass role she inhabited so well in the first and fourth films, transitioning believably from amnesia victim to someone getting their footing after a long wait.
However, the real stars of these latter Fast and Furious films have been and always will be Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, and the action scenes. Without these three factors, the Fast and Furious films are just another set of B-movies drying up in a DVD cut-out rack in your local big-box electronics store. The hulking Diesel has a way of commanding your visual respect as he strides purposely through each scene, being the backbone for each operation and a menacing presence, even when he’s doing something innocuous like having a Corona with Mr. Nobody. During the non-innocuous stuff, he’s even better, whether it’s wielding two heavy, long-handled torque wrenches as Arnis sticks in his death match with Shaw, piloting his Dodge Charger through a bullet-filled rescue mission, or even a game of chicken where you may or may not get to see what happens when neither driver swerves.
Lastly, we come to the big story behind this movie’s release: the late Paul Walker, who died in 2013 during the filming of Furious Seven while doing charity work. From 2001’s The Fast and the Furious, a film that could easily be mistaken for Point Break with cars instead of surfboards, Walker made his mark as one of action cinema’s up-and-coming talents. Through six of the Fast and Furious films (he declined to appear in Tokyo Drift), we’ve watched his performances get better and better, from being a slack-jawed sportster to a square-jawed family man. Furious Seven may not be his best performance in the franchise (I think that honor belongs to Fast Five, and Furious Seven is more Dom’s film than it is Brian’s), but he gives it his all, throwing himself into each stunt with gusto and tackling his dialogue scenes with the appropriate gravitas. When the film wraps up and pays its utterly poignant, bittersweet in-character tribute to O’Conner and to Walker himself, we’re reminded that both will live on through the power of film, and so will the underlying theme of these Fast and Furious films – love for the family you’re born with and the one you earn. Walker is an ingrained part of this cinematic family, and its franchise fans could not ask for a better send-off for him or his character. I believe Walker would have been proud of this movie, and it shows with every scene he’s in, even where he’s represented by a CGI double. Bring a pack of tissues or a really long shirtsleeve, ‘cause you’re going to need it in those last five minutes.