It’s more than a little strange to get suddenly swept up in the events of a series for the first time while watching the seventh installment, but that’s what happened with Furious 7, a gloriously bonkers and awesomely ambitious entry in a franchise that previously always seemed to come up a bit short. It’s clear that the difference maker here is filmmaker James Wan, who spent the first decade of his feature directorial career churning out mediocre, though money-making fright flicks like “Saw” and “The Conjuring.” He came on board this car franchise after Justin Lin, the director of the last four “Fast & Furious” pics, decided to finally move on. Wan seemed an odd choice for a replacement at the time, but now his hiring looks like a stroke of genius.
His command of the camera is far more creative in the midst of a rousing car chase than it ever was when bolted down in the horror genre, where Wan routinely opted for predictable jump scares and generally seemed a little too slick in his approach to generate eerie dread. But here he suddenly feels at home, ratcheting up the tension every time someone gets behind a car. Well, almost. An early scene in Furious 7 has Dom (Vin Diesel, “Riddick“) driving his amnesiac wife Letty (Michelle Rodriguez, “Machete Kills“) out to a desert race strip where lots of scantily clad woman bounce around and Wan temporarily falls into the trap of pretending his movie is a music video.
This whole sequence is clearly a throwback to the franchise’s early years, back when things were simpler for the series and its characters, but the nostalgia doesn’t hold much weight for any viewer who, like me, was happy to see the car racing angle dropped a few titles ago. There’s not much to the race, either, and it mainly exists so that we can be reminded of all Dom and Letty once had and have now lost, even though they’re standing right next to each other. It’s as close as these movies ever get to real romance and it’s as cheesy as ever, especially when followed by Letty visiting her empty grave site and Dom threatening to sledgehammer it down since, you know, Letty’s clearly alive.
All these angsty emotions are staples of the series and in its early minutes, Furious 7 feels as painfully violent with its heart-string tugging than its predecessors. But then we’re reintroduced to the late Paul Walker’s cop-turned-fugitive-turned-father Brian in what is easily the franchise’s funniest intentional gag to date. It’s a great comic moment and a sweet one, too, and suddenly the film has a hint of genuine emotion that feels more sweet than sour. Walker has appeared in other movies since his death, but the “Fast & Furious” movies have long since been the main port for his cinematic endeavors and seeing him here, in a series that has greatly stressed themes of family and brotherhood, makes the reality hit home harder than before.
The pic doesn’t linger too long on Brian’s storyline quite yet, though, instead going through the usual motions of reintroducing the various characters and coming up with a reason to link them all together again. The murder of a friend is certainly enough to reconnect the bunch and give them all a thirst for revenge that leads them to British brute Ian Shaw (a viciously intimidating Jason Statham, “The Expendables 3“), who is on his own path of vengeance. Shaw is the brother of Luke Evans’ baddie from the last flick and he’s a far more formidable foe.
Statham’s presence is another major reason that Furious 7 bests the other six pics in the series. Statham has rarely, if ever, been the kind of actor worthy of being singled out as a cast highlight, but he’s also rarely appeared in such a shiny, expensive blockbuster. Perhaps he’s best suited for this kind of thing, because his villain here is a nasty piece of business that fills a hole that this franchise has always had in the antagonist department. It’s tough to remember who Dom and the gang went up against in the past, but Statham’s Shaw is going to be tough to forget.
So it’s an interesting move by writer Chris Morgan, whose five “Fast & Furious” screenplay credits make up more than half of the feature film portion of his resume, to then introduce a second villain in Djimon Hounsou’s Mose Jakande. Having just kidnapped a beautiful hacker (Nathalie Emmanuel) in hopes of acquiring an all-powerful surveillance program she developed, Jakande is now the target of the FBI, who use a slick Kurt Russell to recruit Dom and his team to retrieve the hacker. This splits the team’s focus by having two villains to take down and for different reasons, but the decision works because it frees up Statham to become more force of nature than mere human.
He simply appears whenever he feels like it and seems hell-bent on making life tough for the good guys in ways that would be more regularly attributed to a natural disaster than a single guy with a deadly stare. Statham is scary and intense and wild, all of which raises the stakes and makes it easier to cheer when Dom finally gets his street fight showdown in the most appropriate manner for this franchise, with a clash of metal car parts and wrenches on top of a crumbling parking garage.
All of this silliness is glued together with a trio of titanic set pieces that make visual, visceral art of car carnage on a scale that’s never before been attempted. A chase through the mountains has the characters evading death’s grip in all sorts of brazen ways, including a cliff’s edge escape that is easily the coolest thing Walker has ever done on camera. It’s these moments of over-the-top adventure that make Furious 7 so much blazing fun, because Wan proves himself to be so astonishingly adept at making this ridiculous road trip an exciting, engaging, eclectic experience.
This feels like the most significant announcement of a fresh directorial eye’s arrival in action cinema since Paul Greengrass revolutionized shaky-cam kineticism over ten years ago in “The Bourne Supremacy.” Since that time, most action directors have either aped Greengrass’s style or opted for a more traditional Spielberg/Cameron style of epic action coverage. Few have been overly successful and the most impressive talents behind the cameras of current action pics still belong to veterans like Peter Jackson and the Wachowskis. Lin pulled off some thrilling set pieces in his “Fast & Furious” flicks, but Wan here captures the stunts and effects and imagination with a startling intensity that would knock us out of our seats if the booming IMAX sound system didn’t already threaten to do that on its own.
He swaps between tight shots of motor mayhem and wide shots that capture the madness in all its glossy glory with a precision that is breathtaking in its visual complexity. And he apparently loves slickly rotated camera angles as much as this franchise loves taking cars off the ground. When Dwayne Johnson (“Hercules“) lifts Jason Statham up in the air and proceeds to body-slam him through a glass-top table, Wan turns the camera at the perfect moment so that the shot becomes the action instead of merely capturing it.
The discovery of Wan’s action-oriented ability, the intimidating inclusion of a very angry Statham, and the strange way this franchise’s overly sentimental heart respectfully responds to Walker’s passing all combine to make Furious 7 something special. The very idea that a sixth sequel could be a series standout, especially in a series as wantonly wonky as this one, is a bit tough to comprehend. It doesn’t seem to make any sense, but this franchise has never worried too much about that. And while there’s still a little too much treacle in the gas tank here, at least as far as Letty’s arc is concerned, the way the series bids farewell to Walker is tender and tasteful, so it balances out well enough. Where this franchise has ended up is certainly a surprise. One moment it’s just cars racing on the streets of L.A., the next it’s cars falling from the sky, driving through skyscrapers, and then destroying the streets of L.A. That’s more than an upgrade; it’s a whole new vehicle.