Flashback to the summer of 2001: “Drops of Jupiter” by Train and “Hanging by A Moment” by Lifehouse are infecting summer drives to beaches, television shows such as Malcom in the Middle are just getting their start, and the surface of the comic book movie genre is just starting to get scratched with Bryan Singer’s “X-Men” being released a year prior. Out of the gate comes Rob Cohen’s “The Fast and the Furious,” a part street racing, part action heist film starring two relatively unknown actors in Vin Diesel and Paul Walker. Although a commercial success due to its high-octane set pieces and widespread appeal, the lack of critical praise made many question the idea of any further films. As a young child I remember loving the first film; the 7-year old me was absolutely entranced by the awesomely fast cars and cool vibes of Los Angeles. The spawn of numerous sequels that culminate in one of the most successful action franchises in the current movie-going atmosphere? No way.
And yet, fourteen years later, that is exactly where we are. From the schlocky and guilty pleasure feel of the second entry “2 Fast 2 Furious” to the action-blockbuster nature of 2013’s “Fast & Furious 6,” fans of the series began to see an evolution and progression past just street racing in the series. “Fast Five” was the film that truly changed the game; trading in the heavy emphasis on racing for a heist action feel and including Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson in the cast as the hard-knocks agent turned from hunter to ally, the film skyrocketed out of the former shell of what seemed like an never-progressing franchise stylistically or tonally. Director Justin Lin took what was great about the franchise before and blended it with a different subgenre entirely, creating a film heavy in both heart and entertainment.
With the success of the sixth installment, production on the next film quickly began. The biggest and easily most exciting change for the series was the man in the director’s chair, as resident horror director James Wan, known primarily for “Saw,” “Insidious,” and “The Conjuring,” was tapped to helm the film. The seventh film, however, has had a bit of a bumpy ride due to the tragic passing of Paul Walker in late-November 2013. With only about half of his scenes filmed the production was put into limbo until decided that they would use his brothers and special effects to finish the film and present a proper send off to Walker’s iconic character and the film cruised back into production.
“Furious 7” picks up after the events of the previous film as Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel), Brian O’Connor (Paul Walker) and crew trying to go back to living normal lives after defeating Owen Shaw. However, when Shaw’s older brother Deckard (Jason Statham) learns of his death, he goes on the hunt, seeking revenge on Dom and the crew for his brother, targeting and ultimately killing friend of the series Han. Learning on his death, Dom and the crew set out to find Deckard as a deadly game of cat and mouse begins.
In a world of constant blockbusters attempting to break into the world of grit and realism, “Furious 7” does a remarkable job of riding in the complete opposite direction. Filled with unbelievable action sequences devoid of physics and cheesy one-liners delivered with a sense of self-awareness, the crew delivers an experience that tops previous installments in terms of mindless entertainment not complete without a large tub of popcorn at your side. Driving cars out of airplanes equipped with parachutes and flying them from building to building is just the tip of the iceberg of insanity, as the film culminates a third act so filled with destruction and mayhem it looks ripped out of a Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich film in the absolute best way possible. This is in know way a realistic film, everyone involved with the production knows it and they wouldn’t have it any other way.
This newfound increase in electricity is completely due to newcomer James Wan, whose stylistic horror sensibilities translate perfectly into the action genre. Wan’s impressive use of cinematography through strange camera moves and transitions is in full effect in this film; as actors are lifted and thrown to the ground or roll on the ground during fight sequences the camera mimics their movements, creating a more visceral involvement for the audience. Wan’s grittier take on the film might throw some fans more than accustomed to the sleek style of previous director Justin Lin, but for me this new approach allowed Wan to balance the spirit of the previous films (there are still montaged shots of scantily clad women and close ups on awesome cars that bring out the inner man’s man in all of us) with his bold new sense of direction.
With practically the entire crew returning for this installment in the franchise, any newcomers certainly had a major uphill battle in trying to fit into a film that essentially felt like a giant family reunion. Fortunately, Kurt Russell and Jason Statham did exactly that playing the head of some secret organization and the main antagonist of the film, respectively. Russell is a fantastic addition to the team and in his brief moments on screen he absolutely commands the attention, bringing the exact characterization of what a seasoned badass would look like in this universe. Between his spitting out of comedic one-liners and actually getting into the mess with the crew (his major action scene in the film is bonkers), Russell looks to be having an absolute blast with the character, and so are we. From the opening scene, Statham presents himself as an absolute force with a clear mission and a set of skills that seem to be almost impossible to rival. Although not utilized as well as he could have been, there is no argument that anytime he came on screen the sense of danger for our heroes instantly doubled, and for good reason.
However, the film shines in it’s final few minutes; as the crew walk away from Brian O’Connor and his family playing at the beach, the touching tribute to the character’s actor Paul Walker begins. Being a major fan of the series, hearing about Walker’s tragic passing was heartbreaking; he had poured his heart and soul into this series and became a household name for many. When announced they were planning on continuing to finish the film although only about half of his scenes were filmed, many individuals, including myself, were skeptical at the effectiveness this plan would have. Luckily, with technology from Peter Jackson’s visual effects company WETA and his brothers, the filmmakers were able to recreate the presence of Walker throughout. The tribute at the end was touching, giving audiences a glimpse into the hardships the crew must have felt finishing this film up while praising the actor for his infectious charm and commitment to his character.
“Furious 7” is not the film to convert any individuals who hate the franchise into fans, but that seems to be the point. Filled with death and logic defying stunts and a real sense of heart, the film quickens towards its destination with all the flash and fun you’d expect from the series. James Wan’s direction breathes a breath of fresh air stylistically and newcomers Kurt Russell and Jason Statham shine in their roles as well. Whether or not this is the last film in the series remains to be seen (Vin Diesel has talked about possible future installments), but with a wonderful tribute to Walker at the end the franchise would be concluding on its finest chapter yet.
“Furious 7” is now playing in theaters nationwide. Catch it in IMAX as well.
Review by Nicholas Franco