by Philip Price
At this point, if you're into what the ‘Fast & Furious’ films are doing then you're completely into it. There is no way out if you've come this far and I can't imagine anyone having a problem with that if you indeed have. At this point, it also seems the films feel the same way. Up to a certain point, one could have taken in the individual films as such, but the mythology has grown, the cast continues to expand and if you're not caught up with the going-ons between Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and his gang in correlation with the Shaw brothers (Luke Evans and Jason Statham) as well as with Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and how it all ties in with ‘Tokyo Drift’ then you may as well start from the beginning. For, as much as it is the insane action sequences and over the top fight scenes that keep the masses hungry for more it is the history of this now 15 year-old franchise that keeps the heart pumping as healthily as it is. People will come for the action, but stay for the characters. It's really as simple as that and there essentially isn't much more to say, but the seventh entry in what was originally a street racing franchise has way too much going on to relegate it to little more than a footnote in a bigger universe. More than another chapter in an ongoing saga, “Furious 7” will always be significant for the real world circumstances surrounding Paul Walker's untimely death and how that plays into this film. It was also always going to be rather significant, if not a turning point for the franchise at large, because it was the first time we'd be moving past ‘Tokyo Drift’ chronologically. When Han (Sung Kang) showed up in “Fast & Furious” to hint that these events, five years after the original film, came even before the events of the third film (which technically, would actually be the sixth film) there has been a building towards a certain point and by the end of “Fast & Furious 6” that point had been reached. What happens next? “Furious 7” is the answer to that and while this latest film is certainly more poignant for reasons beyond its control it never forgets its main mission and continues to thrive on its self-awareness of just how outlandish it has become.
In what may be one of the most badass openings ever (that I won't spoil here) we are introduced to Deckard Shaw (Statham), the big bad brother of Owen (Evans) from the previous film. Deckard doesn't like that his younger brother has been placed on life support and is rotting away in a hospital bed and so he intends to seek revenge by making a hit list of the team that put him there. In order to grab this information he goes first to the official source of all that has guided Toretto and his team over the last two installments in Johnson's Hobbs. Elena (Elsa Pataky) has returned to work with Hobbs and barely escapes the wrath of Statham's Shaw as he goes head to head with the behemoth piece of granite that is The Rock. If you stayed for the post credits scene in “Fast & Furious 6” then you know where Shaw heads next and from here it becomes a game of picking Dom's crew off one by one, that is, until the intervention of a mysterious man who calls himself Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell). Mr. Nobody maintains his mystique throughout while being played with exceptional cool by Russell who makes his presence valuable by striking a deal with Dom and his team. This deal includes them tracking down and freeing a genius hacker named Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) and taking possession of a program she invented known as "God's Eye". This tool grants the holder the ability to be able to locate anyone on the planet within a matter of hours as it taps into anything with a camera or microphone. If Dom and his crew can successfully retrieve Ramsey and her invention from the bad man who's kidnapped her, Jakande (Djimon Hounsou), they can in turn use it to track down Shaw and exact their own revenge. With Han and Gisele (Gal Gadot) gone and Hobbs laid up for most of the action this time it certainly feels like the team is slimming, but the addition of Emmanuel is a welcome one and the subplots of Dom attempting to help Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) retrieve her memory and Brian (Walker) transitioning to full-on domestication with Mia (Jordana Brewster) and their toddler son Jack more than suffice in terms of balancing the heart and the brawn.
While I wasn't initially a fan of these films with the first three in the series being fun enough, but hardly necessary I imagined it all going the way of the ‘American Pie’ series after ‘Tokyo Drift’ already seemed like a direct-to-video release that somehow snuck into theaters. Instead, with director Justin Lin given the go ahead after ‘Tokyo’ he began building the interconnected universe we have come to love today and from that point on, I was hooked. While “Furious 7” is the first film since ‘Tokyo’ to not be directed by Lin it was left in the more than capable hands of James Wan. Wan, who is primarily known for his small-scale horror films was certainly something of an interesting choice, but with all he had to take on and all he and his crew went through during the production of this film it is something of a miracle it came out as solid as it has. There are certainly a few issues here and there, don't get me wrong. Like “Fast & Furious” there is a lot of ground to cover in the first twenty or so minutes. Putting all the pieces in place and doling them out in the necessary order so that everything fits together nicely, you can feel the slightly patched together nature of what is essentially the epilogue before the film finds its footing with the first Dom and Deckard showdown. Once we reach this point, once the cards are on the table and the plans begin to be put into action you can feel the ease of the scenes begin to gel together more congruently. It is within this core section of the film that it excels in both action and moving the story along. Book-ended on the front by the necessary exposition and on the end with the ever-looming question of what the film will do with Walker's Brian O'Conner we relish the joyous meat of the film where it delivers exactly what we've come to expect from these films. Without giving anything away, just know that the film handles O'Conner's send-off with grace while strangely, but effectively acknowledging the real-world events that no doubt altered the original ending, but shaped what is certainly the most emotional moment in any Fast film so far. We can feel Diesel's Toretto breaking down yet trying to reassure us and while I hate to harp on Walker's death and its impact on the film it is unavoidable and Wan, Diesel and company have all handled it in as best a way as anyone can imagine.
Oddly enough, it is this sentimentality that piques here that has somewhat become a staple of why those who love the ‘Fast’ franchise do in fact feel that way. One of the bigger issues with this overall chapter though, despite the fate of Walker's character looming in a way that we know will likely hit us hard, is the realization these emotions feel somewhat deflated by the reality the large ensemble has begun to dwindle. As most have likely guessed, Lucas Black is back from Tokyo Drift, but only for a brief cameo that feels like it could have become so much more. With O'Conner making his inevitable exit and the "family" virtually narrowed down to Dom, Letty, Tej (Ludacris) and Roman (Tyrese Gibson) it would seemingly only make sense to add Black to the mix in a larger way. One has to hand it to both Tyrese and Ludacris though as you can feel more weight being shifted to their characters shoulders. Tyrese is especially endearing as the comic relief stealing no less than two major scenes where he isn't the biggest player in the room. Ludacris is given the female version of himself in Ramsey, but the two really have little more to do than stare at screens, type furiously and bark orders at others. What almost makes this problem worse is the amount of talent this film has at its disposal that it doesn't fully utilize. Both Ronda Rousey and Tony Jaa, two more than superior athletes, show up for what are essentially glorified cameos to serve as excuses for Walker and Rodriguez to get in fist fights within the midst of bigger action set pieces. Honsou's name may as well have been McGuffin as his character is little more than a trigger for the plot and worse it excludes Statham from being the main baddie. These few reservations aside, Wan and writer Chris Morgan (who has penned every script since ‘Tokyo’) have put together some unprecedented action sequences that are as grand in scale as they are expertly captured. What I was looking for with a new director taking over was something of a different aesthetic and visual approach. While it is more than commendable that Wan successfully transitioned from his niche to this kind of large scale filmmaking as well as he did he is also able to put his own spin on things giving the sleekness of Abu Dhabi and the brusque mentality of the mountainside chase the right textures to where we feel we've actually been dropped into the middle of the scenario.
I'd like to think of “Furious 7” as something of a transitional piece in that the ensemble in whatever the inevitable eighth film will be called might grow back to what we came to embrace in the fifth and sixth installments of the most unlikely franchise ever. While “Furious 7” is certainly the end to a very special phase of the ‘Fast’ universe it is hardly over and with that we can only look ahead to what direction these films might go without the oil and water chemistry of Diesel and Walker. We can only hope that they continue to deliver not only action sequences that up the ante from the previous film, but ground these characters in the strange reality where these films exist that make us continuously care about their plights and the well-being of the family. Near the end of the film Tyrese's Roman Pearce states that, "Things will be different now." They certainly will, but with the kind of loving tribute to Walker this film ultimately feels like I can only imagine it will also drive Diesel and his crew to continue to make solid, gleefully fun action movies that keep the desires of its audience front and center and continue to deliver more of what we want until Diesel can no longer hit the gas.