The "Fast and the Furious" franchise used to be largely about drag racing, but over the course of seven movies has expanded its wheelhouse to include any kind of action sequence involving a car. The films, though giants at the box office, generally do not strive for critical or creative success, unless of course they measure creative success in property damage. But a wrench has been thrown in the works in the form of a real-life tragedy. "Furious 7" finds itself in the unenviable position of having to convey sentiment and treat itself with an importance outside of its "dumb action movie" comfort zone.
The new film finds Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and his "family" of drivers (including Paul Walker, Tyrese Gibson, Ludacris and Michelle Rodriguez) targeted by Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), the brother of the badly-beaten bad guy from the last movie. Shaw killed one member of the team in that movie, and he starts out this one by massacring a hospital and getting into a fight with Agent Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) that leaves the Toretto ally injured. Toretto wants nothing more than to get revenge on Shaw, and is offered an opportunity to gain an advantage in the war. A shady maybe-government agent (Kurt Russell, a pleasantly surprising scene-stealer) wants Toretto and his team to rescue a kidnapped computer programmer (Nathalie Emmanuel) from a terrorist (Djimon Hounsou). If they succeed, they can use her locate-anyone-in-the-world program to find Shaw before he finds them. It's a dangerous mission, made all the more dangerous by the fact that Shaw keeps popping up to attack, often in mid-operation.
The action sequences are typical of these films, and by "typical" I mean completely off the wall.
Cars drop out of planes, fall off cliffs and jump between skyscrapers. I just wish the trailer hadn't given away the skyscraper scene or the awesome mountainside sequence. I felt like I was being deprived of a crowd roaring with surprise. By the way, the most implausible action scene in the movie doesn't even involve cars. It's that the Rodriguez character gets into a fight with a bodyguard played by UFC powerhouse Ronda Rousey and she doesn't get flattened in 12 seconds.
A major issue looming over the film is the 2013 death of Paul Walker, in a car crash no less. The film was nearly complete at the time of his death, though a few barely-noticeable edits have been made. Is it disrespectful to show him driving irresponsibly in this movie? My initial theory was yes, no way this film could be anything other than an insult to his memory. But in practice, and somewhat counterintuitively, the scenes where he drives recklessly are tolerable because he puts himself in so much extra danger. Remember, these are really over-the-top action scenes. At any given time, he's in danger of being shot, blown up, falling off cliffs, and of course several elaborate methods of crashing. It actually takes one's mind off the possibility of him crashing from speed and a sharp turn alone.
"Furious 7" is mostly a mess, but it's a fun mess, the kind of brainless action vehicle we've all come to expect. That is until the end when it really smartens up. The film tacks on a scene where we say goodbye to both Paul Walker and his character, and absolutely nails it. The scene is handled with a sensitivity and eloquence that this brash franchise is not known for, but is unquestionably welcome. The last few minutes of this movie take it to heartbreaking heights that it surely did not set out to achieve.
Two and a Half Stars out of Five
"Furious 7" is rated PG-13 for prolonged frenetic sequences of violence, action and mayhem, suggestive content and brief strong language. Its running time is 137 minutes.
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