In its final scenes, Furious 7 summons from its oil-slick guts something which many didn’t think a franchise such as this was capable of: Solemnity. How ironic that a series so obsessed with the sheer, visceral thrill of speed is at its most powerful when it hits the brakes.
These movies don’t treat death with any permanence. It’s a choice, almost, as though if you press your foot to the floor hard enough, you can outrun it. Characters have died in them, obviously, but rarely for very long. I’ve said before how strange it is to see an actor we know is no longer with us still performing on the screen. It’s different here, though. That flimsy relationship with mortality works as tribute better than drama. We know if there are more of these movies, Paul Walker won’t be in them. Yet it still feels as though he might come back, whenever his friends – or, as Vin Diesel keeps insisting, his “family” – need him most; as though he’s only gone temporarily.
Fast & Furious might have been a career renaissance for Diesel (in every sense), but Walker has always been the epicentre of these films. Amid all the forward motion, he remained constant. In the first one, The Fast and the Furious, he was the LAPD officer from whose perspective we infiltrated Dominic Toretto’s (Diesel) racing, thieving, multi-racial Los Angeles car club. Through his eyes, we saw the curtain drawn back on a sub-culture which swallowed popular media whole. By the end, he had cracked the case, fallen for Dom’s sister, Mia (Jordana Brewster), and defiantly helped the gang elude capture. He was here to stay. The sequel, 2 Fast 2 Furious, shackled him to Tyrese Gibson. He and Walker did white-guy-black-guy action-comedy, because Gibson doesn’t have Diesel’s baritone masculinity. Neither were great movies, nor was Walker a great actor, but he was great in them because they didn’t require that of him. There’s nothing here for an actor to act. Brian O’Connor is the kind of part which requires an action star, one who shines behind the wheel of a car or the barrel of a gun. That’s where Walker glimmered.
Tokyo Drift, which didn’t feature Walker (and was only modestly lucrative), had very little to do with Parts 1 and 2 – at least not until subsequent sequels retroactively gave its story and characters a broader significance. At the time, that lack of association was keenly felt. The series was floundering. A final-scene cameo by Diesel was like defibrillation; once again situating him opposite Walker in the sequel was what nursed it back to health. Fast & Furious, the fourth film, was inherently silly (there’s a scene where Dom develops superhuman vehicular detective powers), but it was an important evolutionary step in the series’ transition from hunched, primitive car **** to proud, postured action melodrama. Dom’s girlfriend, Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), ostensibly died in that one. That she did so off-screen lent a soapiness to it which would end up being carried forwards. This was the movie which began flouting the finality of death in much the same way its sequels would the rigidity of physics.
The fifth instalment was simultaneously the point when the die-hard series fans who had been taking this stuff seriously the whole time felt vindicated for sticking around, and the snarky critical community realized how enjoyable a dumb franchise could be when it embraced that stupidity and became self-aware. One-note minor characters from previous movies were brought in and promoted to members of the principle cast, and almost all of them developed heretofore unseen kung fu powers. The hippie subtext of surrogate family became the series’ secret weapon, with Fast Five boasting the most racially and ethnically-panoramic cast in all of action cinema. It became a heist movie. Cars stopped being the point, and instead became just one component of many in the kind of physics-defying action sequences which existed only to push the boundaries of what is and could be an action sequence. It was good. And Fast Six was even better.
Furious 7 is as good as the sixth, at least, and about as much fun where it counts, even though the looming tragedy of Walker’s mid-filming demise leaves a noticeably long shadow. The script was reworked following the accident, and missing scenes were completed with the help of his younger brothers, Caleb and Cody, and some subtle computerized trickery. I couldn’t tell the difference between the real Walker and his digital composite, which is astonishing considering how hard I was looking for it. But it’s still as if they know that you know he’s gone. Two early scenes take place in cemeteries, and while neither of the memorials are for Walker’s character, it’s difficult not to make those parallels in your mind. Whereas the previous two movies made him an equal player in a franchise which was once primarily about him, Furious 7 once again positions Brian O’Connor as the centrepiece of its drama.
That drama is in Brian’s internal struggle with whether or not to abandon the wheel of a sports car for the wheel of a minivan. Mia is pregnant with their second child, the group’s – sorry, “family’s” – collective criminal records have been wiped clean; the life is there to be lived. But former crew member, Han (Sung Kang), has been killed in Tokyo (three movies ago, no less), and a package mailed all the way from there to the Toretto doorstep narrowly misses taking out Dom, Brian and Mia, and their son, too. The sender is Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), the one-man-army brother of the previous film’s villain. He wants Dom and his crew; now Dom & Co. wants him. It’s an ouroboros of high-velocity vengeance. So the O’Connors are shipped to a secure compound in the Dominican Republic, while Dom goes looking for Shaw.
Of course nothing is ever so simple in this universe. The writer, Chris Morgan, is on his fifth of these movies, and his plotting tends to spin as many plates as it does wheels. So before Dom can get near Shaw, he and his team – Brian, Letty, Roman (Gibson) and the technologist, Tej (Ludacris) – are hired by CIA-type Mr Nobody (Kurt Russell) to retrieve a state-of-the-art surveillance system, God’s Eye, which is able to locate anyone on Earth through the usual kind of high-tech movie-magic. Before that, though, they need to rescue the device’s inventor, Ramsay (Nathalie Emmanuel), from an African warlord (Djimon Hounsou) in the Caucasus Mountains.
There’s a reason for this: If Dom and his mates can retrieve both the hacker and the toy, Mr Nobody will allow them to use it catch Shaw. There’s another reason: Doing so allows them to drive several armoured cars out of a cargo plane and parachute them onto a serpentine ribbon of road wriggling through the mountains. One is significantly more important than the other. Really, the hilarious frequency with which Shaw just teleports into action scenes renders the entire God’s Eye plot thread somewhat moot. Even in one of the earliest scenes, before they’ve actually met, Shaw knows exactly where to look for Dom: the office (and computer) of DSS agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson), who he hospitalizes in the kind of fight which, in most other, less bombastic movies, could potentially be a climax. Johnson is still, consciously or otherwise, playing The Rock. During that early fight he even uses one of his alter-ego’s signature manoeuvres to dump Statham through a glass coffee table. The audience at the screening I attended gave as much of a pop for that as a pro-wrestling crowd might.
Furious 7 isn’t actually about anything per se. A revenge plot is convenient self-assembly storytelling with the emotional stakes already attached. That’s enough to keep things moving in the right direction: into chaos. That scene in the Caucasus employs clever driving formations, a fistfight, and a bus teetering on the edge of a cliff. Another, when the plot shifts to the sun-bleached skyscrapers of Abu Dhabi, sees Diesel and Walker rocket a sports car through all three Jumeirah at Etihad Towers (you probably saw that in the trailers). By the time the team heads back to the streets of Los Angeles for a final wantonly destructive set-piece, this one involving a helicopter and a Predator drone, it’s no longer a surprise when two cars swerve into a parallel formation to transfer a human being from one window to the other. At that point you’re used to it. You don’t care that it’s impossible. You’re just glad they did it.
That’s the power of excellent craftsmanship. I’ve seen a lot of movies, but rarely have I seen anything which matches the ingenuity of Furious 7’s stunt work. The chaos is always there, and some of it is truly ovation-worthy, but it never clutters the action itself. You can see the orchestration. Each sequence thrives on clarity. There are four credited editors, but each evidently understood that it wasn’t their job to do all the work. These aren’t sequences which have been rescued in the editing bay; they’ve been thought out, considered, and captured with competency by James Wan, who took over from Justin Lin in the directorial seat, and has always been a guy who has prioritized visual coherence. He isn’t known as an action specialist (he made his name in the horror genre, with movies such as Saw, Insidious and The Conjuring), and he certainly wasn’t used to financing of this magnitude, but you can usually trust a low-budget director to lend economy to a big-budget production. All I want from an action scene is to be able to tell what’s going on, and Wan understands how to achieve that while still spending every penny on the carnage. It looks good, and, more importantly, you can see it, even when there are multiple chases, fights and explosions occurring simultaneously. Olivier Megaton can’t even film one old man climbing a fence without giving you a headache.
Furious 7 takes a lot of pleasure in straining plausibility. It puts pieces in play to do solely that. Ronda Rousey, the former UFC women’s bantamweight champion, is in Abu Dhabi because they needed someone for Michelle Rodriquez to fight. Tony Jaa crops up in a couple of places just to trade forearms and knees with Paul Walker. They’re classically impossible fights, but they’re part of the magic. Diesel and Statham drive head-on at each other at least three times. They barrel down mountains, too. Eventually they clamber out of the wreckage and beat each other with wrenches. Somehow, that’s fine. It’s what we came for. But what sticks with us is the stuff we didn’t expect: the strangely moving moment on the beach where the main cast watches Brian frolic in the water with his family; the montage of Walker’s years as part of the franchise; the final parting shot as the road splits and Brian trades one family for another. We’re watching the assembly of an afterlife. Nobody really dies in these movies.
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Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.