In another sensational episode of the motor-movie series, Vin Diesel and his gang bring improbable buoyancy to the serious work of elegizing a lost friend
The rainbow coalition of hard drivers, grease monkeys and ultimate fighting women that make up the Fast and the Furious universe are charged with capturing a device from multinational miscreants bent on conquering the world. First, though, Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) has to arrange a rendezvous with his current nemesis Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham). They meet under an L.A. highway — Dom’s beloved ’69 Dodge R/T Charger growling at Deckard’s Aston Martin DB9 — and steer their vehicles into a high-speed head-on collision. Boom! It looks like mutually assured destruction, but nobody’s seriously hurt. It’s really just a workout for a couple of testosteronic gearheads, doing what manly men do best — crashing the cars they love.
The Fast and Furious movies — those odes to torn asphalt, crunching car-nage, auto-eroticism and, as the characters kept insisting, family values — have often shown a cavalier attitude toward death. Moviegoers in the theater must pretend that they are cocooned by film fantasy: that this universe is one that courts fatal impact without ever making good on the threat that may await audience members from some highway maniac on the drive home.
That blithe belief endured a toxic hit on Nov. 30, 2013. Paul Walker, who had played undercover cop Brian O’Conner since the original 2001 The Fast and the Furious, died when the Porsche Carrera GT driven by Walker’s friend Roger Rodas, a financial planner and amateur racer, crashed into a Valencia, Calif., light pole at a reported 80 to 90 m.p.h., igniting the car and killing both men. The star’s sudden death at 40 put a halt to the Furious 7 shoot and left series screenwriter Chris Morgan with two dreadful dilemmas: how to work Walker’s footage into a revamped movie and how to keep romanticizing the series’ theme — speed thrills — when it was also painfully evident that speed kills.
Furious 7, opening nine months after the initial July 2014 release date, proves how splendidly, if preposterously, movie fiction can trump human tragedy. Without stinting on the greatest hits of the earlier films, it underlines the first law of cinema: that movies — and the people, stories and machines in them — have to move, collide, combust. Secure in this knowledge, 7 meets the demanding standards of the two previous entries, the crazy-great Fast Five (2011) and its amped-up, purified sequel Furious 6 (2013), while providing a tender onscreen farewell for the fallen Walker. It’s an enormous, steroidal blast, and as much ingenious fun as a blockbuster can be.
James Wan, the Saw and Conjuring magician who succeeded Justin Lin, director of the previous four entries, says he chose the Furious 7 title as a reference to Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 martial epic The Seven Samurai. Here, as there, rugged souls do humanity’s dirty work for the satisfaction and the fun. But in the Furious cosmos, these seven include two women. Brian has gone domestic with the foxy Mia (Jordana Brewster), and Dom is reunited with his lost love Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), still stricken with a telenovela case of amnesia. Tej (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges), the computer whiz, and Roman Pearce (Tyrese Gibson), the resident motormouth, are joined by federal agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson), who enlisted back in Fast Five and infused the skein with his cartoon gravitas.
As if to challenge the audience’s stomach for stark violence in a PG-13 film, Furious 7 begins with the fiery, almost Walker-like death of one of the series’ regulars (Sung Kang’s Han) and the totaling of Brian’s and Mia’s home. The villainous Deckard is supposed to be avenging the incapacitation of his brother Owen (Luke Evans), the prime bad guy from Furious 6, yet as he leaves Owen’s hospital he blows up his bro and the building that houses him. But this is just a crash test for sensitive viewers. The series long ago expanded from a drag-strip Götterdämmerung to a globe-circling showcase for spectacular stunts in exotic locales.
The plot: a CIA shadow who calls himself Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) wants the gang to corral some computer MacGuffin guarded by an IT genius named Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel, Game of Thrones’ Missandei) who’s been kidnapped by Deckard and pan-African warlord Jakande (Djimon Hounsou). Honestly, though, who cares? Ramsey is just the excuse for the group to infiltrate an Azerbaijan forest redoubt and recover the van that holds her. This sensational second-act chase, ramping up to Walker’s Brian in a literal cliffhanger, would be the climax of any other action picture, but it’s just a why-not escapade to keep you from going for popcorn during the movie’s two-hour-plus nonstop assault.
On we fly, to Abu Dhabi, where Dom and Brian hijack a sheik’s W Motors LykN Hypersport, vroom it out of the 50th floor of an Etihad Tower skyscraper and into the adjacent high-rise — and then again into a third building, before our heroes land somehow intact. “Cars can’t fly!” Brian keeps saying, but Furious 7 refutes all aeronautic logic with its next stunt, which one-ups the skydiving Elvises from the old movie (and the Broadway musical) Honeymoon in Vegas by dropping five members of the team and their cars 10,000 feet from a C-130 military transport. (Auto coordinator Dennis McCarthy, who deployed about 250 vehicles for the movie, insists that this was no illusion: the cars truly did float to earth, most of them safely.) By the end of the movie, back in L.A., you’re not surprised when a car can serve as surface-to-bad-guy-in-helicopter missile. In such a buoyant enterprise as this, gravity is for wimps.
Retaining one sweetly anachronistic element of the series, the cast goes not just fender-to-fender but fist on fist, bulk on bulk, hulk on hulk. Tough-guy franchise mavens Statham and Johnson mix it up in a fracas that leaves Hooks incapacitated for half of the movie — until he rises from his sick bed, cracks open his arm cast and mutters, “Time to go to work.” Rodriguez tangles with MMA Medusa Ronda Rousey, and Walker (or his stunt-double team) staves off a wondrously savage attack from Tony Jaa, the Muy Thai Warrior. As much as Furious 7 flirts with scenarios from The Avengers, in its heart, it still wants to be Fight Club.
No series with the worldwide box-office horsepower of this one — $2.4 billion so far, with a bonanza awaiting the release of Furious 7 — wants to imagine its own demise. So in its closing credits, each of the recent episodes has introduced a new villain for the next installment. Diesel, a Furious producer and guiding light, has said he sees 7 as the first in a third trilogy. (In strict chronology, the series is a kind of terrestrial Star Wars, in that the fourth through sixth films were one long flashback beginning at the end of the 2006 Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift; Han’s death at Deckard’s hands brings the story back to the present.) Russell’s presence as Mr. Nobody may point toward future chapters, but 7 has no end-of-film tease. It must send its dead co-star on a verklempt trip to Valhalla.
In the series’ multiracial retinue of toughs, Walker’s Brian was the one WASP solid citizen. If the dark, glowering Diesel was the franchise’s engine, the blond Walker provided the ethical brakes — yin to Vin’s yang. Though the early films emphasized the near romantic charisma of this complementary couple, in Fast Five and Furious 6, Walker was really a supporting character, ornamental but not essential to the series’ grand grit. Yet Brian’s mulishness and recklessness sometimes hinted at a desperation in completing his mission. In the first film, when Dom doesn’t yet know that Brian is an undercover cop, Walker tells an FBI agent, “I just need some more time.” The agent snaps, “If you want Time, buy the magazine.”
Finally Walker ran out of it. But not Brian. Making judicious use of outtakes, CGI work and model-doubling from his younger brothers Caleb and Cody, the 7 filmmakers fully integrated the actor into the film. Their improvisatory skill and their feeling for their friend give his final moment a sleek, poignant, unforced grace. In a series that consistently elevates B-movie car crashes and smashes to state-of-the-art epiphanies, it’s only appropriate that a departed star should be able to cruise off to placid immortality.