If you get a chance to see Furious 7 on a giant IMAX screen, and I sincerely hope you do, you too may be amused that the fun starts before the film even gets going. There’s a usual countdown at these screening, a “big picture, big sound” bit of bombast with giant, spinning numbers that countdown like you’re about to be launched onto a roller coaster ride. The countdown has now been Furious-ized, with the sound of revving big-block engines, screeching tires and explosions building along with the cascade of numbers. It’s as preposterous as it is unnecessary (we’re already seated for the ride, why need to convince us it’s going to be good?), but it’s also a fitting, almost poetic intro for what the audience is about to experience.
At its core, this is one of the most preposterous, unnecessary yet thoroughly enjoyable series in film history. It’s not simply that these are amped up action films dialed to 11, it’s equally the fact that they’ve managed, through a mix of skillful filmmaking and blind luck, to take what was at the outset an appalling idea and turn it into an epic on the order of the James Bond franchise.
Let’s not dance around the fact that the first of the Furii was as bad as you’d expect it to be. Rob Cohen’s slap-to-the-side-of-the-head film gave us street racing via seizure-inducing edits, with plenty of jiggly asses and breasts to titillate. Fast and the Furious an awful, tedious film, as bad as you’d think this whole enterprise would be.
What’s kind of amazing is that as they went along things got better. The second film isn’t great, but it’s got a bit more charm and heft to it. The third, Tokyo Drift, saw most of the cast dropped, but also the key addition of director Justin Lin. Under Lin, the series was treated with the perfect blend. Its car pornography was still intact, but there managed to be some real chemistry between the disparate characters, and (god forbid) some storyline between the action bits.
The fourth film improved again, and by the fifth, Lin was crafting something that’s unironically terrific. You’ve got an enormous canvas by this time, and the inclusion of Dwayne Johnson was inspired, ratcheting up both the stakes and the stunts to levels that simply embraced the havoc. Never has the casting of a man named Ludacris so apt, given that the action (and stakes) would grow to exponentially more ludicrous levels.
In Fast 6 the gang blasts their way through London, and that’s where Furious 7 makes its entrance. We meet Ian Shaw (Jason Statham) at the bedside of his brother Owen, the guy from the last film hospitalized after confronting the Furious crew. As Shaw makes a promise for vengeance, we see outside the focal range some cowering medical personnel. As the camera follows him out the hospital, we pan past carnage, the littered bodies of police personnel, the shattered glass of cabinets and hanging shards of ceiling lights. Rarely has in medias res been so effectively done in a cinematic context, all this in a film about cars, guns, punches and explosions.
Saw and Insidious director James Wan takes over from Lin, and like his predecessor there’s a real sense of play at work in the direction. The camera tumbles and dives through the sets, the action sequences feeling a beautiful mix of new and old-school. Car chases are visceral and never (well, very rarely) overstay their welcome.
Plotwise, if one was to care about such things, the film borrows liberally from a number of broad spy-thriller or comic book movie sources. The McGuffin’s taken right from the end of Nolan’s Dark Knight, and there are echoes to Mission Impossible and the like. One particularly bravado sequence reminded of Spielberg’s finest moment in Jurassic Park: The Lost World mixed with The Italian Job, as a bus hangs precariously off a ledge.
All this builds up to a madcap finale that’s feels as much an action sequence as it does a work of brash symphonic music – all the pieces are there, they’re blaring all at once, yet out of the cacophony comes a clear and poignant melody.
This film makes you feel like it’s worth enjoying, hitting those guilty pleasure centers in your cinema brain and rumbling deep in your chest cavity. Furious 7 has a giddiness that’s contagious and intoxicating, while never once feeling tired or hackneyed. The oomph is impactful, the stunts appropriately bone-crunching, and the one-liners blissfully groanworthy.
The main catharsis about the film is you feel you’re getting what you pay for. This is promises kept cinema, where the actors give their all to convince you that they’re taking this seriously, while avoiding coming across as plodding or dreary. Jason Statham excels in films like this, where it’s clear his “giving a shit” quotient is often higher than almost everyone around him. Furious 7 is elevated by the fact that the others surrounding him – Vin Diesel, The Rock, even Kurt Russell, all are amping up their game. This is circus performance, to be sure, but they’re all smiling through the acrobatics, and making sure that the person in the back row is being treated to a hell of a show.
Other fine additions to the ensemble include Tony Jaa whose tete-a-tete with Paul Walker is one of the film’s central motifs. Maybe only Djimon Hounsou doesn’t get to be quite as awesome as he should be, but that’s the price to pay when you’ve got Statham interrupting a kingpin’s big moment when Shaw arrives in a sweet 4×4 offroader.
Naturally, the loss of Walker weighs heavily over the franchise, and the film comes close to being maudlin with its overt sentimentalizing of the character and performer. Yes, the CGI face replacement is seamless, and storywise it almost makes sense how they have O’Conner ride off to the sunset.
There are luscious shots of cars, needles red-lining, and even more butts-a-bustin’ than the last few films combined. In fact, Walker’s loss aside, this feels like the most nostalgic film of the lot, one where the pieces are finally in place in the wonderfully haphazard chronology (I-II-IV-V-VI-III-VII) that this series has retroactively worked itself out to follow.
So, no, my dream of having this be the one series that followed an almost logarithmic trajectory didn’t pan out. Furious 7 may not the best of all those that had come before, just as all the others bettered their predecessors. Still, from its unabashed silliness through its accomplished execution, there’s loads to love about this film.
It’s perhaps fitting that the best part of Furious 7 is that it has drive. This is a film that knows what it wants to be, and it delivers it both with impact and precision. There’s an art to not messing up a good thing, and Wan manages to hold his own in this newest installment. It feels like we’ve now moved past what has been built up to now, and this is definitely the end of the core narrative that tied these seven films together. Who knows what the next installment of the Furious series will be, but whatever it is is, I’ll be there, buckled up and ready to ride.