There comes a point in most film series, usually around the third or fourth entry, when the franchise becomes critic-proof. There’s nothing left to write about, because everybody knows exactly what to expect already. Those who want to see the next film are going to, those who don’t want to see it won’t, and there’s nothing anyone can say or do to convince anyone otherwise. At this point, the franchise becomes self-sustaining.
The Fast and the Furious series, quite oddly, is an exception.
Granted, the film has always been built on a foundation of cars, babes, and brainless adrenaline-fueled action, but let’s take a closer look at the details. After the original film came the second one, which had the audacity to replace every single member of the first film’s cast, save only for Paul Walker. Then came the third film, set on an entirely different continent, with nothing but a perfunctory Vin Diesel cameo to connect it to the previous two films.
In fact, all three of these movies had completely different writers and directors on board. Aside from the involvement of producer Neal H. Moritz, and aside from the fact that they were all little more than pop culture punchlines, none of these three films seemed to have much of anything in common. Which means that no one could possibly have expected what came next.
Director Justin Lin and writer Chris Morgan both stayed on after the third film, and continued to shepherd entries four through six. These three movies represented a huge paradigm shift for the franchise, bringing together cast members from every film in the series so far and turning them into a ragtag bunch of antiheroes pulling heists on shady villains. Even more improbably, the filmmakers stitched together all these disparate films into a single unified continuity, utilizing callbacks in such a way that rewarded longtime viewers without alienating newcomers. The movies were still mindless high-octane fun, but now we had a rotating cast of characters to root for, a strong emotional heart with the central theme of family, and plotlines that were just complex enough to be interesting while simple enough to not distract from all the stunts going on.
And now, for Furious 7, it’s time for another paradigm shift. And I’m not talking about the departure of a main character, though we’ll definitely get to that. No, I’m talking about the arrival of James Wan, the first new director to board the franchise since the second film. Wan is primarily known as a horror director, behind such films as Insidious, The Conjuring, and Dead Silence, to say nothing of his crucial part in creating the Saw franchise.
(Side note: It perhaps bears mentioning that Chris Morgan is still the resident screenwriter of this series.)
So what did Wan bring to the table? Well, a whole ton of wonky camera movements, to start with. There were so many times in this film when the camera flips in weird ways, to say nothing of all the slo-mo going on. We also see a lot of erratic editing choices, particularly when Wan is trying to show off exotic locales and scantily clad women. I get the strong impression that these stylistic flourishes are supposed to look cool, but they don’t. They look distracting.
To wit: This film gives us Jason Statham and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in a hand-to-hand deathmatch. Do you really think we need any more help to sufficiently appreciate how awesome that is? Kindly get out of the way, Mr. Director, and let us watch them fight.
Moreover, these characters have been through some heavy stuff in these past few films. They’ve all dealt with falling in love, mourning their dead, and even the arrival of some kids. I know it sounds crazy, but this series has definitely matured in some crucial ways since the first film. And a juvenile, gratuitous fixation on half-naked women takes away from that maturity. Hell, does anyone else remember when Gal Godot’s character used her sexuality to manipulate the villain of Fast Five? That was two movies ago, and it’s still a huge leap forward from all the rampant female objectification seen here.
Getting back to the action, it is of course suitably huge. This series continues to find new and exciting methods of vehicular mayhem, gunfights, fistfights, and ways of blending them together. The last film had our heroes against a tank, and this one pits them against a fucking Predator drone. The last film had a midair battle on the world’s longest runway, this one literally throws cars out of a plane. The action scenes are all beautifully destructive, cleverly staged, and they’re always a blast to watch. There are still some problems, however.
First of all, Michelle Rodriguez gets a fight scene with Ronda Rousey. For those who are not aware, Rousey is the first woman in American history to win an Olympic medal in Judo, and she’s currently the world’s #1 ranked female MMA fighter with an undefeated record. I should also remind you that Rodriguez squared off with Gina Carano in the previous film, back when Carano was ranked as the third best MMA fighter in the world.
And I’m supposed to believe that Michelle Rodriguez kicked both their asses? Bull fucking shit! There is absolutely no plane of reality in this whole multiverse where Rodriguez could ever have stood a chance against either of these champions, never mind both.
But of course, that’s just a minor nitpick compared to the REALLY big problem that comes during the climax, when we’re supposed to believe that a major character might be dead. This despite the fact that 90 minutes ago, we saw this exact same character drive straight off a fucking cliff and walk away without a scratch. And I should also add that an hour ago, we saw this exact same character lift a car right off the ground with his own two bare hands. I’m not even kidding.
It’s very difficult to keep getting invested in these life-or-death stakes when the characters have already proven that they’re invincible. After seven movies of increasingly over-the-top vehicular stunts and fight scenes, these characters have been through so much that there is no longer any plausible way to kill any of them. You could drop a nuclear bomb onto Dominic Toretto’s big bald head, and that still wouldn’t be enough to kill him. In fact, given the way these films keep one-upping each other, I’ll be very disappointed if that doesn’t happen eventually.
Which of course brings us to the elephant in the room. This was always going to be Paul Walker’s epitaph, since his career rose and fell with the fortunes of this franchise. The man was 40 when he passed on, and he was still only just beginning to hit his stride. It was tragic when he died, but the PTB promised that Walker’s work in this film would be completed with generous use of CGI. His brothers, Caleb and Cody Walker, were also of material assistance as body doubles. And they all did fine work, because I was looking for the seams and I couldn’t find them. The CGI work looks fantastic and Brian O’Connor remains a highly active and vital character from start to finish.
I don’t mind spoiling that the character is simply retired instead of killed off, mostly because for reasons already stated, Brian is effectively immortal. His send-off serves as the film’s denouement, and I must confess that they laid it on a little thick. Without the real-world context, it is a little ridiculous that they put together a whole tribute montage and voice-over for a character who’s still alive. But since the cast and crew were grieving for a beloved friend and colleague, I’d have to be a totally heartless bastard not to let it slide.
Anyway, because O’Connor has been effectively retired, this most likely means that his wife will be leaving the franchise as well. That really is for the best, because this series has officially run out of things for Jordana Brewster to do. She doesn’t even work as a damsel in distress like she did in the last film, she’s just someone stuck at home to worry about our heroes while all the action goes on someplace else. It’s a significant downgrade from the fifth film, when she could still help coordinate the team’s activities and run surveillance from the security of home base.
Instead, it seems that job will now be delegated to Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel), a new character who works as a world-class hacker. And because it’s Hollywood, this means that Ramsey can make computers do impossibly magical things and she operates in ways that anyone with a basic knowledge of computer science would find laughable. I should also add that Ramsey is entirely useless during the action scenes. She can’t do anything but scream as the other characters pass her between them like a hot potato, and I swear to God they actually call her that at one point. Still, on those rare few times when the film slows down and Ramsey can get a word in edgewise, we see that she’s a very smart character who can interact with the rest of the cast in refreshing ways. So long as future installments keep her behind a computer and away from the driver’s seat, I’ll be interested to see what she brings to the table.
Another new addition to the cast is Djimon Hounsou, who really deserves so much better than the bland and forgettable villains he’s been playing lately. Faring much better is Snake Plissken hisownself, Kurt Russell. It was so great to see Russell back on the screen getting laughs and acting like a bona fide badass with nothing to prove. The guy looks like he’s having a ball of a time, as well he should. Though I’m sorry to say that it doesn’t make up for his running gag with Vin Diesel, which may very well be the worst product placement I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s annoying, it’s implausible, it’s not funny, it’s blatantly untrue, it’s impossible to ignore, it’s just plain insulting in every possible way.
With the rest of the cast, you should already know what you’re getting. Vin Diesel and Paul Walker both play their signature roles like they always have. Michelle Rodriguez gets a somewhat useless story arc regarding her amnesia, but at least she plays it well enough. Ludacris works very well as the tech expert and he even gets a neat action moment in, though his attempts at comic relief still fail to land. Yet he still works better than Tyrese Gibson, who continues to play a character so useless and aggressively annoying that I wanted to pour bleach down his throat every time he opened his mouth. Compare that to Dwayne Johnson, who gloriously sells every hokey action one-liner like a boss.
As for Jason Statham, again, you know what you’re getting. It’s a Jason Statham role played by Jason Statham, plain and simple. That said, it’s interesting to note that Statham is playing Deckard Shaw, the brother of the previous film’s villain (Owen Shaw, played by Luke Evans, who briefly appears here). And Deckard is out to avenge his fallen brother. This seemed like a golden chance to comment on the franchise’s overarching theme of family, yet the movie never thinks to do so.
It’s especially perplexing, considering that Owen was defined in large part by his detached attitude. It’s strange that Owen’s brother should have such a strong familial attachment, since Owen wouldn’t even treat his own teammates as anything more than disposable tools. He was the perfect antithesis to Dominic, who goes out of his way to make sure that his teammates are as good as blood to each other. And that brings me to another problem.
The previous two movies went very far out of their way to make the family theme an integral part of the story. Whether it was the news of Mia Toretto’s pregnancy or the conflict with Owen’s worldview, the previous two films used the concept of family to help develop the characters and inform their motivations in the plot. The theme had a crucial importance to previous films, which gave it an emotional heft. Here, not so much. The hell-and-back loyalty between characters is most definitely there, and they do love talking about family, but all the talk just feels like lip service now. Up until Paul Walker’s send-off at the very end, there’s nothing in this film to advance the franchise’s concept of family and nothing to lend it any kind of poignancy. That’s a significant problem, since this was the beating heart that set it above and apart from other action-packed Hollywood extravaganzas.
I really am sorry if so much of this review sounds negative, because Furious 7 is absolutely worth seeing. The characters (save only for Tyrese Gibson’s) are all still entertaining to watch, the chemistry between them is still endearing, and this franchise is still the high watermark for brainless action spectacle. Eat your heart out, Michael Bay, the king has been dethroned.
That said, there’s a very strong sense that returns are beginning to diminish. It disheartens me that the camerawork and editing are so distracting, as if the filmmakers are losing confidence in their ability to present such jaw-dropping action scenes. I’m also disappointed that the film’s emotional hook is starting to lose its punch, and the film’s egregious product placement is very worrying. I didn’t even get to talk about the Iggy Azalea cameo, which was so pointless and obnoxious that I had almost walked out of the theater before this film had even really started.
This franchise very badly needs to start winding down before it wears out its welcome entirely. The series can’t be allowed to continue forever until it runs out of fumes. These movies deserve to go out with a bang, and their longtime fans have earned the right to see it.