With Furious 7, sincerity is ubiquitous. It is ubiquitous in the discussion surrounding the film, and I’m afraid I will not be the one to butt heads with this claim, for sincerity is as ubiquitous in the film itself. Furious 7 is an idiot stew, sure, but for the entirety of its run time, there is never one second where it is less than fully committed to being itself, or less than entirely on board with its own idiocy. There’s a miniscule sliver of self-awareness thrown in for flavor, but by and large Furious 7 believes in itself. All of the nonsense about family crumbles in the abstract, but on camera it sizzles with zest. The film is nothing more than a soap opera where cars, guns, and and explosions sometimes (but not always) take the place of emotional breakdowns and cancer, but like any soap opera that works, it does so because it believes in itself and never tries to be anything it isn’t. Furious 7 is not a perfect movie, and in many respects it isn’t a very good one, but it is too busy having fun with itself to care.
For this go around, the familiar team is rattled by the sudden death of one member and the hospitalization of another. Soon enough they realize Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), brother of a similar baddie they took down in a previous film, is out to interrupt their daily lives with a fresh dose of high-class British murder. Trouble is, Shaw is a master at the age old act of disappearing in a flash of light, and he is almost impossible to find. That is, until mysterious government agent Frank Petty (a nicely smirking, self-aware Kurt Russell finally bringing some life to movies after a long absence from the screen) approaches the titular crew with a deal: a terrorist (Djiomon Honsou) has kidnapped a hacker (Nathalie Emmanuel) who has a device which can link into security cameras and other such location devices the world over. Petty wants it, and he knows the furious likes of Vin Diesel and Paul Walker can get it for him. If they do, he’ll allow them use of the device for just long enough to capture their dear hunter Shaw. This knowledge in tow, Dominic Toretto (Diesel), Bran O’ Connor (Paul Walker), Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson), Letty Ortiz (Michelle Rodrigeuz), Roman Pearce (Tyrese Gibson), and Tej Parker (Chris Bridges, better known as Ludacris) are at it again.
Really, the best thing the plot can do in a film of this level of pec-flairing sun-light escapism is have the good grace to avoid itself as often as it can, and director James Wan (changing tones dramatically from his haunted house horrors The Conjuring and Insidious) does a good job clipping along and editing the film so that scenes don’t drag on longer than they need to. Far more substantial than the story, and shockingly so at times, are the films cavorting moments of flipping, flying, and general mayhem. This franchise has evolved over time from the original niche-based subculture of LA street racing to a more timeless variant of gallant world-trotting and heist-making, essentially crafting a modern day caper franchise out of smoke and mirrors and one of the most bizarre franchise transitions in film history, and it’s all based in teamwork and camaraderie. Imagine if you will that the Smokey and the Bandit franchise – a close parallel to this series in that it began as a means of exploring a specific sub-cultural footnote in US history related to cars and travelling in them – featured three increasingly worse, hackneyed films stomping on the grave of a generally middling initial installment.
Of course, you don’t have to imagine that, because the Smokey and the Bandit franchise did feature three increasingly bad films, as did the Fast and the Furious franchise. But imagine if, after those three bad Smokey films circling around either side of 1980, suddenly someone decided to revamp the franchise into a team-bonding exercise of ’70s “kings and queens of cool” figures like Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, and Pam Grier in addition to Burt Reynolds and his ‘tache. Then the franchise suddenly, on its fifth or sixth entry, became a genuine breakthrough cultural touchstone and a critical success to boot. Sit back and imagine how absurd that would be, and then realize that the Fast and the Furious franchise has essentially achieved exactly this transition.
The nifty thing about the new spirit of the franchise rendered from the ashes of the old is that it totally sells its sense of camaraderie by virtue of spending its time doing what its characters do: bonding through action and cinematic fury. The series has done wonders over the most recent three films to establish its cartoon physics as a means by which these characters speak to one another, get to know one another, play around in each other’s spaces, and generally identify with each other. Take this film’s stand-out sequence, a tumbling takedown across a mountainside that begins with a delicious bit of absurdism where cars are literally flung out of a plane (and indeed, those were real cars being flung out of that plane, marking the film’s genuine spirit and gift for physical honesty and tactile weight). The thing about it is that when this crew is on a mission, they aren’t simply destroying; there’s purpose and focus, and no matter how much nonsense they leave in their wake (and there is plenty of grade-A nonsense in this film), they wield their cars like barbed quips and scalpels rather than broad-swords. There is a sense of bonding in the very havoc unfolding around them, molding the action less out of prismatic pointlessness than pinpoint purpose; it plays like a particularly explosive Rude-Goldberg machine with character relationships defined by the physical spaces of the cars on the road used like interlocking pistons.
Even if you take that action-as-character-building dynamic away from the film, there’s still plenty to like about the destruction wrought in the film’s wake. The calculated nature of the heists and routines manages to bring clarity and precision without ever becoming mired in pre-ordained determinism; there’s always a sense of freewheeling looseness to the action that gives it spunk and limber. We never feel like we know what will happen next or how things will unfold; the loopy mid-60s caper film spirit typified by “gee, I wonder what will happen next” always pervades, and it adds an air of vicious excitement and twitchy abandon to the anarchic spirit of the film. The way villains show up and leave like vanishing flourishes of smoke in the sunlight is especially exciting, with Stath treated less like a portentous grotesque than a conniving, disappearing menace.
As a thrill ride, it certainly isn’t absent any bumps. The length, a should-be-monotonous 137 minutes, is the biggest one, and it nearly threatens to derail the film’s trucking, propulsive energy. A good thirty minutes could have been shaved off here and there, and some of the character moments really don’t stand up even in light of the film’s internal passion overflowing onto the screen. The much-vaunted ending montage of Paul Walker’s history with the franchise is the sort of delirious bit where goodness and badness are fundamentally intertwined at an inextricable level; it is almost surreal, but far less comfortably “good”. Still, you wouldn’t necessarily go to a movie like Furious 7 hoping for it to lack flaws. At some level, even if they make the whole affair a tad less fast than it ought to be, the bumps only increase the furious nature of the ride. They create a dizzying whiplash when the movie just nearly goes off the rails only to snap back with a frighteningly good high-spirits action scene. Furious 7 does what a good, if not transformative, summer blockbuster can do: elevate the “highs” to new heights and minimize the time the screen is devoted to the inevitable lows. And, be it when The Rock and The Stath are pummeling one another and Wan turns the camera on its head to flow with the fight as it unfolds, or be it the aforementioned inescapably good mid-film mountainside chase, the highs in Furious 7 are lengthy, varied, and stratosphere-breaking.