This may literally be the first time that this specific combination of words has ever been uttered in the history of human culture: the seventh film in the franchise is the best. That franchise? The Fast and the Furious, that little series of racing and heist films that could. That film? James Wan’s Furious 7. Operating with the same adolescent, bacchanalian glee of a comic book or 80s animated action show, Furious 7 thrusts the series to new heights of intensity, emotion, and head-shaking absurdity. Ever since Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and his crew charioted a bank vault through the crowded streets of Rio de Janeiro in Justin Lin’s Fast Five (2011), the Fast and Furious franchise has dispensed with all pretense towards realism; a wise choice considering how its serious, stoic approach towards the themes of loyalty and honor curdled around the time of the fourth entry, Lin’s Fast & Furious (2009). Channeling the tongue-in-cheek nature of vintage Schwarzenegger and Stallone shoot-’em-ups without succumbing to any of the latter’s campiness, Furious 7 is not only a superb action film, but a fine demonstration that big-budget, studio-mandated blockbusters can work if talented, creative people are given the resources and freedom to do what they want.
To the film’s credit, knowledge of the previous entries is not required to understand the plot, though some of its more dramatic, emotional moments may ring a bit hollow for the uninitiated. Here are three sentences to prepare newcomers: Toretto leads an elite group of stunt drivers-cum-thieves who have a long history of working on both sides of the law. Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), a psychotic ex-British agent, swears to kill them all because they hospitalized his brother, Owen Shaw (Luke Evans), A.K.A. the international crime lord that Toretto & Co. took down in Lin’s Fast & Furious 6 (2013). In exchange for helping them rescue the creator of God’s Eye, a virtually omniscient piece of technology that can hack into practically anything with a microchip, the U.S. Government will help Toretto find and “neutralize” Shaw.
The true strength of the Fast and Furious franchise was two-fold: its action scenes and its characters. The former continues the valorous tradition of throwing its performers into situations which would ordinarily turn the bones and innards of a regular human into gelatinous goop: people leap from moving vehicles through explosions; from explosions into moving vehicles; and from moving vehicles to moving vehicles. Here are my top three favorite preposterous moments.
3) U.S. Diplomatic Security Service agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) escaping an explosion by jumping out of a 5th story window and landing on a car. The result? A broken arm and some other miscellaneous minor damage.
2) Hobbs taking down an automated drone by jumping an ambulance off a bridge with such perfect accuracy that it smashes down on top of it. Once again, he’s fine.
1) Toretto & Co. parachuting a convoy of classic cars onto a remote highway.
The editing and cinematography in these scenes is a bit too frenetic and jumpy for my tastes, but Wan manages to maintain a sense of spatial awareness that allows us to naturally follow the flow of the action without becoming distracted, confused, or nauseous. It’s a comfortable middle ground between the measured kineticism of early Hollywood blockbusters and modern kaleidoscopic shaky-cam thrillers.
But the reason that we keep coming back to the Fast and Furious franchise is the characters. Blessedly, the returning cast are all at their best. But none more so than the late, great Paul Walker as Brian O’Conner. Having recently re-watched the previous films, I was amazed at the growth and development of Walker’s talents. Let’s be honest for a moment: Walker was never exactly Robert De Niro or Laurence Olivier. His acting in the early films was stilted, wooden, and unnatural. But like John Wayne, Walker managed to carry himself purely by the force of his natural charisma. And also like John Wayne, he came into himself as an actor who was capable of deep emotional ranges and nuance. The difference between Walker in Rob Cohen’s The Fast and the Furious (2001) and Furious 7 is like the difference between John Wayne in his 30s Poverty Row horse operas and John Ford’s The Quiet Man (1952). His sendoff in this film was heart-breaking and triumphant, beautiful and life-affirming. God bless you, Paul, wherever you are.