(SPOILERS) With the way the sixth sequel to The Fast and the Furious has been understandably overshadowed and informed by the loss of Paul Walker, you’d be forgiven for thinking it might exhibit a more sombre, reflective side to the series. Not a bit of it, any more than a franchise that continues to make an asset of the glib emotional inclusiveness that is Dom’s decree “I don’t have friends, I got family” has previously shown depth, thematic or otherwise. Rather, the most appealing aspect of Furious 7 is how far it goes to embrace the absurdity of the series in ever more excessive ways; this whole movie feels like it’s taking its cues from the ludicrously endless runway climax of Fast & Furious 6.
I can’t say James Wan’s inheritance of the series from Justin Lin (numbers 3, 4, 5 and 6) has made a huge visual difference. Assured horrormeister Wan has been careful to follow Lin’s lead, both to good and bad results. There remains a surfeit of unnecessary shakycam during the fight sequences, either through decree that this is what works for the series or because of some deep-rooted insecurity over the choreography. It doesn’t quite seem him (his thing for rotating the camera during a smackdown is much more like it). He also appears to be delivering the booty call moments as a contractual obligation, rather than putting his heart and soul into the lady lumps and humps.
In contrast, the automotive set pieces are mostly clearly defined in geography. They even occasionally allow several whole seconds between cuts. Wan has fully embraced the visual hyperbole inherent in a series that, like the Bond movies, needs to get bigger and bolder each time. As a consequence, there’s sufficient room to embrace a signature “wow’ moment in the same way 007 reveals his Union Jack parachute at the start of The Spy Who Loved Me; Dom and Brian flying a car through not one but two Abu Dhabi skyscrapers achieves a batty magnificence, particularly because Wan hangs back and allows them sail through the air in long shot.
That’s not the best sequence, although it’s a delirious doozy. Furious 7 is frontloaded (by which, it seems to take an eternity to get going but at two and a quarter hours the best material still comes during the first half), with an immediately preposterous but superbly sustained rescue bid.
Dom’s “family” are set on a quest to release hacker Ramsey (Game of Thrones’ Nathalie Emmanuel) from the clutches of mercenary Jakande (Djimon Hounsou). The reasons for this are about as convoluted and unimportant as the plots of the last two pictures; it’s all about the MacGuffin, which is tentatively linked to vengeance-vowing brother of Owen Shaw (Luke Evans), Deckard (the Stat). There was a hi-tech MacGuffin last time, and so it goes again, with God’s Eye, a device that can use any digital recording device to track any given person anywhere in the world (anyone looking for a commentary on the surveillance state herein best look elsewhere). The US government, personified by Kurt Russell’s covert ops guy Frank Perry, wants to secure this device, and in return for his help Dom gets to use their resources to stop Deckard.
While they vow at the outset to finish him off for good, Dom’s the sort who hits people repeatedly with a couple of iron bars rather than shooting them in the head (a sad indictment of our times that so many of our heroes today appear happy to inflict GBH but blanche at the whole enchilada). Brian seems to have no such qualms but, as he’s an ex-police officer, the makers presumably consider it acceptable for him to shoot people with impunity.
The rationale for embroiling Dom et al in this mission is slim. Basically along the lines of “You have to go and get him before he comes and gets you”. Since Deckard continually pops up, like an unstoppably bald and British T1000, wherever Dom’s international trek leads them, this doesn’t seem to be a particularly well thought out scheme. Especially since, when they get the device, they promptly lose it to the bad guys, so the finale becomes exactly what they were trying to avoid in the first place.
All this is forgivable, since the sequence that starts with skydiving cars (it’s a nice touch that, in one of the innumerable establishing scenes, Brian tells his son “Cars can’t fly”; Wan goes on to prove the exactly opposite on more than one occasion) landing in the Caucasus Mountains, where they engage in an extended high speed pursuit that leads to an Italian Job-homaging bit where Brian attempts to avoid being expunged on a big bus hanging precariously over a cliff. Parts of this were shown off in early trailers, but such spoilering does nothing to dent the kinetic thrill of this sequence in context.
Following jaunts in the Caucasus and Abu Dhabi, the return to LA ought to be grounding, but contrarily the problem is it lacks of focus compared to the previous set pieces (however OTT). It’s a “drive around, blow shit up” affair, in which keeping a track of who needs to do what and why at any given moment is hit and miss. In particular, Letty seems to arrive on scene only when everyone else gets into trouble, the lazy cow.
The big fisticuffs face-off is de rigueur, but it’s never especially enthralling to see Dom in a fight (Diesel’s other franchise character Riddick, on the other hand). Much more arresting is the manner in which Dom manages to climb out of ever-more fatality-inducing car wrecks without a scratch, like a giant walnut refusing to crack. Until Dwayne Johnson enters the fray, this sequence also lacks sufficient self-consciousness to its silliness (there’s a military helicopter, and a drone, flying about Los Angeles wreaking maximum carnage and no one, military or police, has been scrambled to bring them down? It’s like terrorist alerts never happened).
As ever, the ensemble is wafer-thin in characterisation. Dom doesn’t even have a character, at least not one that I can make out, and Vin’s complete lack of chemistry wit Michelle Rodriguez never fails to impress. In a particularly illustrative touch, we get to bypass all the uncomfortably unconvincing lovey-dovey stuff between the twosome when it is revealed they were hitherto married. Letty had quite understandably forgotten.
Walker is, as ever, kind of non-descript (he was at his best back in 2 Fast 2 Furious, where he was de facto lead), but even more so as so much of his presence is the result of dialogue-lite body/brother double/CGI stand-ins. It makes for a curious send off, simultaneously sincere and overdone, since any viewer with a paucity of background knowledge will be increasingly considering focusing on where the joins are.
When it comes to not one but two send-offs, both fairly passively presented (and both quite touching in their way) it all becomes a little bit strained. The “Too slow” line, with which Brian is mocked by a bad guy early on, is given a satisfying pay-off, however. Worryingly, as in 6, Mia (Jordana Brewster) is content to do f-all and happily send her husband into harm’s way. It’s almost as if she wants to get rid of him.
It’s no surprise then that, yet again, Tyrese Gibson (Roman) and Ludacris (Tej) who steal the show whenever they’re onscreen. They’re the ones with real chemistry in these pictures, and their good-natured repertoire of insults never gets old. Tyrese is particularly well catered for, puffed up with the desire to be acknowledged as an alpha male (then dissolving into abject cowardice) and an impromptu compering gig.
Lucas Black also returns, 9 years older than in his last appearance but required to act as if it’s the blink of an eye. If the series continues (and box office decrees that it will) they could do worse than get an actor of Black’s chops on board full time (it’s been suggested he’s signed for two more sequels).
The real knockout here, in a manner that makes one wonder how one goes about ensuring he’s best used elsewhere, is Johnson. He’s merely required to bookend the picture, having a (quite good, better than Diesel’s) punch up with the Stat at the start that leaves him hospital bound. It’s when he is roused from his hospital bed during the finale that Wan really goes for broke drawing attention to have utterly daft this all is. The Rock tears the plaster cast off his broken arm and goes to work, telling his doting daughter a sitter is coming.
He then proceeds to drive an ambulance off a bypass onto a drone and picks up a very big gun that he uses to lay waste to all and sundry. These scenes are an absolute hoot, and completely salvage a rather so-so final act. Perhaps Johnson be showing up in all his movies for about 20 minutes only, in a state of maximum self-awareness, and he'd finally bust out as a bona fide mega-star.
New additions-wise, well the Stat fits right in, but no one has bothered integrating him into the story. He’s also allowed a chance to come back at a later date, Hannibal Lecter style, the closest 7 gets to suggesting a continuance of the series. Hounsou is actually pretty poor. Aside from sporting a white goatee, there’s nothing memorable about his character or performance. Emmanuel is very cute, and provides a requisite bikini moment.
The greatest of the newbies, however, is the great Kurt Russell. Snake Plissken, RJ MacReady, Jack Burton, Gabe Cash, Captain Ron. Frank Petty might not be up there with those iconic roles but Russell is having an absolute blast, revelling in the cocksure wit of his character and his penchant for Belgian ale. The only shame of it is he doesn’t get a scene with Johnson. The particular highlight has Kurt going all kick-ass, donning night vision glasses with a gun in each hand. They’ll be wise to bring Kurt back for 8.
If the series were to end here, it would be in a good place. I’d probably have to see them all again to judge, but off the top of my head I’d put this just behind Fast Five as the second best of franchise. How they will go forward with movies all about family when that family has been forcibly reduced is questionable but, as I said at the top, it’s always been a rather facile hook. Wave wads of cash under the main players’ noses and the show will go on. Diesel certainly needs his one viable movie series, and he’s been talking up both 8 and 9 (with Russell involved). With the Universal marketing team’s capacity for truncation, I wouldn’t bet against F8 (“As F8 would have it”) arriving sometime around 2017, just in time for Vin’s 50th celebrations.