aka Fast and Furious 7
The most pleasantly absurd of contemporary film franchises should have swung seamlessly into this seventh instalment, after a coda to 2013’s episode six that whet the appetite of every fan. But the death of star Paul Walker during production proved a tragic counterpoint to the swashbuckling forays of the often fast and sometimes furious “family”. Walker’s participation in the series saw him evolve from a likeable but frankly bland ingénue to an intelligently laidback performer whose blue eyes seemed to gain a little more intensity, a little more depth, with each instalment. His character, Brian O’Conner, similarly developed from conflicted hipster cop to settled husband and father still itching for a taste of action, becoming in many ways the emotional axis of the films and balancing all the bigger, blustery machismo about him. After a lengthy delay to finish the film, a process that demanded careful use of digital magic and the participation of Walker’s brothers, Furious 7 finally saw the light and has landed a colossal hit with moviegoers. The series spun off from Rob Cohen’s cheerful action-crime thriller The Fast and the Furious (2001), a film that broadly mashed together the argot of contemporary street culture with classic Western tropes, has grown in scale to the point where the last few entries have been as ambitiously scaled and goofily over-the-top as Roger Moore-era James Bond. But they’ve remained tethered to the vital sense of its heroes, no matter which side of the law they’re currently on, as a gang of pals who rely on each-other implicitly. The resolutely working-class, colour-blind, fiercely clannish sensibility upheld by Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) connected beautifully with a vast audience otherwise poorly serviced by Hollywood’s thrill fests: every singlet-clad mechanic in the sticks, every wannabe playa and playboy, every pouty tomboy, found an avatar in Dom’s increasingly large crew. The fetishism of colourful cars, pert bikini bottoms, and muscled torsos was purveyed with equanimity, whilst the series embraced a cheery, unselfconscious brand of high camp that both highlighted and mocked the sweat-gilded swagger. The series has often felt like a giant bird-flip aimed at the precincts of bourgeois protocol, but never felt strained or obnoxious: its inclusivity has, rather, seduced just about everybody.
It could have proved sublimely depressing watching an action film where one of the stars died in circumstances perversely close to the business on screen, but Furious 7 instead sustains the gallant streak of the series, so that it remains hot-blooded paean to defiance of death, perhaps all the more so. How the film honours Walker’s place at the heart of the series, giving him a far more agreeable onscreen exit than life gave him, offers a salutary grace, and the last image of the film, depicting him branching off from one of his drag races with Dom and driving off into pristine climes, is pretty darn perfect. But Furious 7 otherwise is all business – perhaps a bit too much so. The series retains its essential assumption that just about any problem can be circumvented by cars going fast, but has progressed far beyond its original, linear roadhog sensibility, with its heroes now working as muscle-for-hire for spy agencies and doing battle with international kingpins and radicals in three-dimensional battles of muscle versus tech. Fast and Furious (2009), my pick for the weakest entry in the series that nonetheless saved it by reassembling essential elements, kicked off an odd experiment in franchise construction, which finally reaches full circle here, as the narrative coincides momentarily with Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006), seeing that film’s hero Sean Boswell (Lucas Black – where’s he been lately?) briefly return. Furious 7 is so crammed with action that its traditional basis in the byplay of the crew – “I don’t have friends, I have family,” as Dom codifies it neatly here – is negated more than a little. There’s still time for Roman (Tyrese Gibson) to make an entertaining fool of himself with his motor-mouthed assertiveness, and to ogle a lovely form in a swimsuit, but the emotional integrity of the storyline is thin. It’s clear that the relationship of Brian and Mia Toretto (Jordana Brewster) had just become a drag. The process of Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) trying to get back her memory and reawaken her love for Dom is corny and throwaway, and without Han (Sun Kang) and Gisele (Gal Gadot) the team feels a little denuded. Brewster, so likably hard-edged in The Faculty (1998) was never particularly well-served by the series, and here she’s reduced to occasional phone calls to Brian. Similarly, Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) is written out of much of the film when he’s left badly injured, and although his return to the fray towards the end is one of the film’s coups of campy delight, the film misses him.
New blood eventually enters the film in the form of Natalie Emmanuel as hacker queen Ramsey, whose genius has produced a device, the “God’s Eye”, which can track anyone via the thousands of electronic eyes now populating any urban street: terrorist overlord Jakande (Djimon Hounsou) has taken her prisoner, and a CIA honcho who calls himself “Mr Nobody” (Kurt Russell) hires the crew to go rescue her. Their reward will be the chance to use the God’s Eye to track down Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), the brother of Furious 6’s villain Owen Shaw (Luke Evans), who’s hunting them down one-by-one in a vendetta that’s cost the life of Han and put Hobbs in the hospital. Deckard is a former covert op heavy gone rogue, and he joins forces with Jakande as their interests collide. Emmanuel catches the eye – she’s high on the crowded list of beauties currently employed on TV’s Game of Thrones – and her role as an urbane tech wiz with a dollybird accent, product of a different but no less potent cultural melting pot, is potentially fruitful. But the film can’t really make any room for her, nor for one of the series’ essential traits, the openness to different cultures communing on the level of their most basic enthusiasms. Director James Wan, taking over from Justin Lin, comes to the series from horror films, having overseen the Saw (2003) series for which I’ve never had any time: Lin’s visual style grew steadily more intelligent and fluent and less reliant on afunctional editing, and has helped return an ethic of action spectacle to Hollywood filmmaking that calls back to the glory days of the ‘80s without seeming retro. This gives way to Wan’s considerably less sleek approach: he edits like crazy and has much less feel for the force and poise of moving vehicles.
The film’s first two action set-pieces are grand stuff nonetheless. The rescue of Ramsey from Jakande’s clutches demands a suitably ridiculous plan to parachute the team in their cars from a cargo plane onto a remote and narrow mountain road, and concluding with a terrifically staged tribute-cum-reclamation of The Italian Job’s (1969) bus cliffhanger joke. The retrieval of the God’s Eye device, which, for some illogical reason, has accidentally been sold to a sheikh’s son to be used as a guidance system in his supercar, demands the team infiltrate a party in the penthouse of an Abu Dhabi skyscraper. Each time Deckard crashes in on their follies and renders already fraught enterprises into chaotic melees, and each time Dom saves the day with his willingness to do the most insanely inspired thing he can with a car. These sequences are so high-powered and deliriously silly that the actual finale, in which the crew lead Jakande and Deckard on a merry dance through the streets of LA, lengthy and noisy as it is, proves lumpen and conceptually limited by comparison. The more this series annexes the territory of another brand of action film, the more trouble it has distinguishing itself, and the care Lin took to make sure every hero had a climactic act of derring-do to define their role in the drama, eludes Wan. The fact Wan and screenwriter Chris Morgan couldn’t think of a decent plot to spin off from Deckard’s vengeance means they lose sight of it, trucking in lots of other stuff to fill the gap. Statham, usually such a galvanising presence on screen, is almost as marginalised as Emmanuel. And Hounsou ought to be damned well fed up with roles like this.
Furious 7 insists on moving so quickly that the actual storyline and the motivations behind it become more than a little incoherent, and interestingly, what was once this series’ distinctive, spiky distrust of authority has been neutered: it feels rather odd that Ramsey, who seems to have gone to great effort to make sure the God’s Eye doesn’t end up in the hands of anyone who might exploit it, proves readily acquiescent to the idea of it finishing up in the hands of the US intelligence community, which doesn’t sound like the sort of thing Dom would’ve been too happy with once either. Russell’s presence cast my mind back to the finale of Escape From LA (1997), where Snake Plissken remained utterly honourable to his creed when faced with a similar new frontier of intimidation: so when exactly did Dom become bitch to The Man? Still, one is so used to the big government spook who hires the hero proving corrupt and double-crossing that it is actually surprising that Mr Nobody proves to be a stand-up guy, and Russell gets a chance to remind us just what a charisma machine he is. Moreover, the film always seems to have some fillip of beggaring oddness up its sleeve, from Ronda Rousey turning up as the leader of a band of Amazon female security guards employed by the sheikh, to the spectacle of Diesel and Statham fencing with huge spanners, and Johnson stalking into battle cradling a Gatling gun like handbag. Furious 7, for all the emotion it inevitably stirs in reaching the end of one road, does represent a decline in the series from recent highpoints. But it’s still a sweet ride.