FURIOUS 7  * * 1 / 2

Starring Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Dwayne Johnson, Kurt Russell and Jason Statham. Screenplay by Chris Morgan. Directed by James Wan.

I’m not exactly sure when my little vroom-vroom, guilty-pleasure, late-summer car racing B-movies blew up into such a massive, critically-adored tentpole, but I’m assuming it was sometime during that scene in Fast Five when The Rock showed up and said, “put your thunderpants on.”

I dig these movies. (Though I think we can all still agree the second one is terrible, no?) I dig the way screenwriter Chris Morgan and director Justin Lin took over during the third installment, rebuilding Universal’s silly little franchise cast-off into a sprawling, multicultural crime saga fashioned after 1980’s Hong Kong pictures, keying up the maudlin melodrama to match the outsized action while retconning an increasingly insane mythology as the movies grew more successful and budgets blossomed accordingly. They’re corny, adorable and spectacular.

Fast Five was the high water mark, remaining to this day the best John Woo movie John Woo never made. Fast & Furious 6 was an exercise in escalation, stretching the gargantuan set-pieces (motherfucking tank chase!) and the soap opera flourishes (Letty isn’t dead, she just had amnesia!) to one slight millimeter shy of the breaking point. It was as earnest as it was absurd, and a good time was had by all.

Furious 7 is where it breaks. I hate to sound like a spoil-sport because the film was finished under conditions most would probably find impossible. For starters, Lin split the series and went off to go make Star Trek 3, replaced here by The Conjuring director James Wan, who has a handle on the nuts and bolts of craft but lacks his predecessor’s goony exuberance.

More importantly – as I’m sure you’ve already heard – co-star Paul Walker was killed in a horrible, off-set car crash roughly halfway through filming. Furious 7 shut down for months to find a way to write around a major player’s sudden absence, eventually cobbling together shots with Walker’s brothers plus an extremely unnerving CGI head digitally scanned in from other films. It’s no way to make a movie.

This seventh Furious film begins at the end of the sixth, which is also the ending of the third film, Tokyo Drift — for reasons I have no time to explain here right now lest we be up all night.  Suffice it to say that the baddie our pals squelched two summers ago turns out to have a big brother played by Jason Statham, and he’s none too pleased with this crew. Statham cold-bloodedly murders Sung Kang’s Han Seoul-Oh (I still laugh every time I remember that’s actually his name) and then sets out for America to kill the rest of our gang.

Statham’s first step is sidelining everybody’s favorite character, Hobbs – the muscularly gifted and perhaps a bit ethically challenged federal agent played by The Rock. (I know we’re supposed to call him Dwayne Johnson now. I don’t feel like doing that, deal.) So with Hobbs out of the picture our heroes are sitting ducks until they fall in with Kurt Russell’s deliciously slippery CIA spook – who for all his connections apparently still needs to hire a gang of Los Angeles car thieves for a mission in the Caucasus Mountains to rescue a hot young hacker (Nathalie Emmanuel) who apparently invented a program that turns every cell-phone into a tracking device. (Yeah, I thought our cell-phones already did that anyway.)

Russell is really having a lot of fun here, handling the brunt of the movie’s relentless exposition with a smarmy twinkle in his eye. I still don’t get why our crew needs Kurt’s help to hunt down Statham – because it seems wherever they go he just turns up anyways, but this pointless subplot (or main plot) at least means they can all drive cars out of planes and parachute down onto the highway.

I also don’t get why there’s an entire other villain played by Djimon Hounsou, when Statham on his own seems capable of doing just fine. And maybe the filmmakers forgot Chekhov’s rule that if The Rock says “I’m gonna put a hurt on him so bad he’ll wish his mama kept her legs closed” in the first act, you need to pay that off in the third.

The Rock’s leave of absence bequeaths the bulk of the movie to Vin Diesel, who can sound a single note to beat the band but just please god don’t ask for more (c.f. “I am Groot.”) It also leaves us distracted by just how many scenes are played by Paul Walker’s shoulders and the back of his head.

A mega mid-movie set-piece finds Diesel and Walker speeding a sportscar through the upper floors of Dubai’s tallest skyscrapers, but Walker clearly died before they had a chance to film his reaction shots. So Diesel’s wisecracking close-ups (which are legion) bounce off against nothing, leaving a strange, sad vacuum.

A lot of Furious 7 works that way. You spot the patch-jobs and admire the filmmakers for doing the best that they could under the circumstances. The movie feels stitched together and soldiered-on, with a heart-like-a-wheel coda that’s not particularly well-executed, and is weirdly moving all the same.

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