In a glittery, cavernous and conveniently desolate downtown L.A., Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges must hot-potato human cargo between cars without stopping, all under pursuit by a helicopter, a drone and Djimon Hounsou’s unintelligible shouting. Paul Walker plays along, too, before engaging martial artist Tony Jaa for a second round of muay thai mano-a-mano.
Dwayne Johnson is just one man, but his 640 fully displayed muscles certainly count as military-sized cavalry, and his use of an ambulance as a weapon of mass destruction counts for a fine sight gag. Ah, but what of Vin Diesel and incoming big bad Jason Statham? They embark on their own rematch of vehicular vengeance, followed by a pipes-and-car-parts brawl. They whale. Choirs wail. Call it a Duel of the Pates.
None of this comes close to touching Furious 6’s cars-versus-plane extravaganza or the safe-stealing spectacle of Fast Five (the dual pinnacles of this 14-year-old franchise). However, after the amuse-bouche of Statham shredding a hospital down to the studs on his own, this last gasp of Furious Seven caps a multi-course meal of mayhem in a flurry of cheeseburgers and NOS Energy Drink.
Upside? It sorta saves the movie. Downside? That Furious 7 needs saving. After mounting three of the last decade’s more profitable horror franchises (Saw, The Conjuring and Insidious), director James Wan subs in for Justin Lin, who spent most of his last decade devising the deliverance of the Furiverse for a new generation. But Furious 7 confirms a fear some franchise aficionados had from trailer one: Wan proves an ill fit for the material, offering fanboy service over filmmaking savvy.
Once you stop laughing (foolishly) about what place artistry could possibly have in these, consider the meticulousness and momentum Lin maintained throughout the last two installments — neither of which has a bad sequence nor a wasted moment, and both of which are among the decade’s best action films. Part seven is frenetically cut to a point of no confidence, and Wan’s overly repetitive visual flair seems to be following the hurly-burly trajectory of the many bald, beefy bodies flung in violent motion.
Plus, almost every big-ticket action sequence before the finale counts on audiences forgetting they’ve seen these things done better in The A-Team (vehicles falling from planes) or Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol (fancy-clothed run-and-guns in towering desert skyscrapers). And for a cost that surely rivals a small nation’s defense budget, the action CGI boasts smudged signs of hurried deadlines.
Saddest of all, it feels more like joyless, obligatory due diligence than a fist-pumping thrill ride. In other words, Walker’s vehicular death in late 2013 haunts the film in the worst possible ways. That’s not to say the film is tasteless about retiring his character; in fact, Furious 7 represents the best use of Walker in any of these films, capitalizing on his exuberant esprit de corps in scenes both intimate and bombastic. Finished using a combination of the actor’s brothers as physical doubles and seamless digital magic, the film doesn’t betray the tragedy if you didn’t already know about it. Walker’s action scenes are exciting without feeling exploitative, and they build to both a celebratory eulogy and a natural, perfect visual metaphor for his exit that happens to be one of the best shots in the entire series.
It’s just that you can tell no one else enjoyed making this movie much after Walker’s death interrupted the early filming (and necessitated massive rewrites). Gibson and Ludacris’s usually vibrant antagonistic comic repartee is flat. Johnson is barely there, having shuffled off to last summer’s Hercules and this summer’s San Andreas. And Diesel seems too bummed out to do much more than speak in brusque slogans (although he unexpectedly pulls off a tersely moving declaration to Rodriguez, as his amnesiac lover, near the end; this subplot is like the world’s wildest Nicholas Sparks movie). While it’s hard to fault any of them for falling prey to that pall, the movie’s all-wrong pace feels as heavy as their hearts. This funereal stiffness particularly stifles the first act, in which Deckard Shaw (Statham) seeks revenge against Dom (Diesel), Brian (Walker) and their crew for killing his baby brother, Owen, in the last movie.
Because no film series ret-cons quite as gloriously as this, Deckard’s murder of team member Han (Sung Kang) ties to 2006’s Tokyo Drift; the callback is nice, but watching Lucas Black — who looks old enough to have served several tours and honorably discharged — play a teenager nine years later is the movie’s greatest absurdity. Mind you, this is a movie with a car that rockets from one skyscraper to another.
Outdone only by Olive Garden as a family-invoking franchise, it’s unclear why Dom is the only one who’s actively pursuing a pound of flesh from Deckard, and divvying the team up too long lets lethargy sink in. As the new guy, Statham starts off as a one-man wrecking machine bogeyman who establishes his brawler/killer bona fides early in a brisk throwdown with Johnson. But the movie unwisely moves him to the margins for a MacGuffin. (Save her astute psychological assessment of the team, fellow newbie Nathalie Emmanuel — as a hottie hacker enlisted to their cause — is almost exclusively there for ogling.)
Furious 7 rousts to life when Kurt Russell as Mr. Nobody, a Belgian beer-sipping black-ops badass, bankrolls a covert mission to find the God’s Eye — a program that accesses any digital device in the world to track anyone. If Dom, Brian and company can retrieve it from terrorist Mose Jakande (Hounsou), Mr. Nobody will let them use it to find and eliminate Shaw before turning it back over to the U.S. of A. (No privacy debate here; God’s Eye is just a path to computer visuals that reconstruct Statham’s face using a cell signal … or something.) The team’s initial brouhaha with Jakande — during a Caucasus Mountains road chase — briefly escalates into the sort of thrilling, acrobatic jolt you expect.
But then a jaunt to Abu Dhabi — yet another tourism-boosting international tax credit for a pricy production — perilously redlines Furious 7 toward parody and even boredom. In a brief fight-scene cameo, MMA fighter Ronda Rousey makes “Stone Cold” Steve Austin look like Daniel Day-Lewis, and there’s a lot of wash, rinse, repeat until the aforementioned urban-apocalypse reckoning.
Furious 7 still has enough microbursts of momentum to keep you interested in one more ride, especially if Lin comes back. (Hey, if Helen Mirren is in, I’m in.) And again, it’s as respectful a sendoff for Walker as you could ask for. Let’s just hope whatever’s next feels much less infuri8ing.