Furious 7' is a fitting farewell

Real-life tragedy adds weight to film's gravity-defying action

Thursday April 2, 2015 04:00 am EDT

Death rides shotgun in Furious 7, the latest installment in the action franchise of fast cars and fiery explosions. The passing of The Fast and the Furious series co-star Paul Walker before the completion of filming casts a layer of melancholy over the otherwise outlandish, carefree stunt work.

Director James Wan completed the film, partly through the use of Walker’s brothers as body doubles, and fortunately the finished performance is virtually seamless — there’s very little of the awkwardness you’d expect from such a difficult situation. But the action-movie stakes change drastically. When Walker’s character, Brian O’Connor, finds himself in deadly peril, you think, “Oh, there’s no way Brian’s going to check out here.” Then you remember what happened to Walker. Gulp.

To a lesser extent, death has haunted the series since the third film, Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift, when Sung Kang’s cool-as-ice character of Han died behind the wheel. Kang returned for the subsequent films, with the implication that they took place chronologically earlier. With the end of the sixth film and the beginning of Furious 7, the franchise finally catches up, and a little retconning establishes that Han was killed by Deckard Shaw (action icon Jason Statham), the vengeful brother of the sixth film’s English villain (Luke Evans).

Brian tries to adjust to fatherhood and domesticity, switching street racing for the carpool line, and his partner Dom Torreto (Vin Diesel) tries to help his girlfriend Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) recover from amnesia. Soon enough Deckard begins stalking the L.A. carjackers turned globetrotting super-thieves (including Tyrese Gibson and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges as essentially the comic relief duo). Deckard even holds his own in a King Kong vs. Godzilla brawl with Dom’s pal Agent Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson), which involves shattering every glass wall and tabletop in an office.

To complicate matters, Kurt Russell swans into the scene as a gleefully enigmatic U.S. spymaster calling himself “Mr. Nobody,” who enlists Dom and company to rescue a hacker who invented an all-seeing personal tracking software called God’s Eye. Mr. Nobody offers to help Dom find Shaw if Dom will save the hacker, but Dom asks why shouldn’t he just wait for Shaw to find him? It’s a really good question. The film makes kind of a running joke about how, no matter where in the world Dom is, or what kind of impossible mission he’s trying to pull off, Shaw will barge in with guns blazing and grenades a-popping. He’s like a cross between the Terminator and Wile E. Coyote.

Few movie franchises have more successfully reinvented themselves than the Fast and Furious films, which around Fast Five shifted from slick, street level crime thrillers to over-the-top caper movies. With Furious 7, horror filmmaker James Wan takes the wheel from Justin Lin, who helmed the previous four installments, but the new film’s nonsensical narrative and eye-popping set-pieces feel quite consistent.

The pleasures of the series is its boyish eagerness to top itself, and Furious 7 concocts wild automotive stunts involving parachutes, hairpin turns on mountain highways and even driving from one skyscraper through another in midair. You can find more realistic automotive engineering in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. As villainous sidekicks, martial artist Tony Jaa and MMA fighter Ronda Rousey bring fisticuffs to break up the car chases.

High on gas fumes and drunk on testosterone, Furious 7 retains the innate silliness of the series, which nevertheless succeeds better at delivering a flashy, mindless entertainment than, say, the films of Michael Bay. Both specialize in macho posturing, but where Bay’s smashathons come across as mean-spirited, occasionally racist, and sexually gratuitous, the Fast and Furious films seem more light-hearted, culturally inclusive, and maybe the teeniest bit less sexist. (There’s no shortage of cheesecake on display, but the female heroes and villains alike have more active roles than their counterparts in the Transformers films.)

Returning screenwriter Chris Morgan churns out dialogue that’s clichéd and rudimentary even by action movie standards. Every other line of Dom’s seems to be about “family” this and “family” that, in a recurring trait for Diesel’s character. With Furious 7, Dom’s stance of honor and protectiveness feels like more than just the film’s justification for wanton destruction. Clearly Walker’s loss was keenly felt, and via Brian, Furious 7 gives the actor a touching send-off. Amid the twisted metal and roaring engines, Furious 7 finds room to mourn a death in the family. (3 out of 5 stars)

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