The Fast & Furious franchise’s seventh lap contains few surprises for those familiar with the franchise. Fast & Furious 7 (originally titled just Furious 7) doesn’t deviate from the well-worn path established by its predecessors, delivering the same mix of cars, fights, absurd stunts and bro-y banter that’s sustained the series for the past fourteen years. By now, the franchise’s producers have the formula down to a tee: this is a well-oiled, carefully-engineered machine, humming down the highway at full speed.
One man’s formulaic is another man’s consistent, however, and after revisiting the series on Blu-Ray last year (having previously abandoned it after Tokyo Drift), that consistency is these films’ greatest attribute. Fast & Furious 7 is the conclusion of the ‘trilogy’ begun with Fast Five and continued with Fast & Furious 6, and if you’re still buckled in by this stage, it seems pointless to complain about the franchise’s perceived ‘failings’ – utterly implausible physics and plotting alike, along with a hint of noxious masculinity in its persistently lecherous male gaze – when there’s so much to celebrate. There’s fast cars and big explosions and muscle-bound men and bikini-clad women; in short, there’s a Fast & Furious movie.
James Wan takes over the reins from Justin Lin, who navigated the series since Tokyo Drift, and by and large delivers the same kind of flashy, visually ambitious yet consciously anonymous filmmaking. His chief accomplishment is ensuring that the film’s momentum is maintained throughout its 140 minute runtime, veering from action scene to banter to action scene again with engaging alacrity. Fast & Furious 7 is, first and foremost, entertainment, and Wan’s command of tone ensures that you’re never bored.
Wan’s chief innovation is the occasional use of a hyperkinetic piece of camerawork where the screen swivels with a character’s body. For example, when Jason Statham knocks Dwayne Johnson over a chair in a protracted showdown, the office setting spins around as Johnson remains stationary in the middle of the frame. It’s nothing revelatory, but it’s the kind of flashy, ‘whoa’ filmmaking that this sort of film relishes. The way the editing establishes a sense of space is also excellent; the audience has enough understanding of the setting to follow the action, but it’s just incoherent enough to allow for surprises to keep our interest: the kind of surprises that would make absolutely no sense if we had a full grasp of where our players are located.
The editing is also where the film suffers; Wan cuts wildly through action scenes, which occasionally works but just as often – say in the case of Michelle Rodriguez’s brutal bout of fisticuffs with MMA fighter Ronda Rousey – the manic montage betrays a lack of coverage. The robust sound design – where every punch sounds like a car crash, and every car crash sounds like a nuclear explosion – alleviates this somewhat. The biggest challenge facing Wan is working around the death of Paul Walker, who died halfway through production. Walker’s brothers acted as stand-ins with the aid of CGI, which explains some apparently clumsy editing or compositions used to disguise his absence.
These aren’t especially noticeable, but Walker’s loss is most keenly felt in the film’s bantering interludes, where the team comes together to exchange beers, jibes and exposition before the next extreme action sequence. While Walker was never a superlative actor, his self-deprecatory deadpan was a necessary bridge between Diesel and Rodriguez’s steely seriousness and Gibson and Ludacris’ broad jesting. (Granted, Johnson could easily have fulfilled the same role, but he’s largely sidelined due to his commitments to Hercules.) The vacuum left by Walker’s death hangs over the film, addressed explicitly in a surprisingly touching epilogue where Diesel wishes his friend farewell. I was sceptical of how a film this bombastic would handle such sensitive material, but their honest approach to the tragedy is legitimately moving.
I haven’t mentioned the plot yet, and that’s not accidental: while there is a narrative structure, its primary goal is to usher our characters from one setpiece to the next. The explanations given to justify why our heroes need to parachute their reinforced vehicles out of a plane, or launch a $3.5 million supercar between Abu Dhabi’s skyscrapers – not once but twice – don’t hold much water when you think about them for a moment (how does Statham’s villain – bent on revenge after the fate of his brother, Luke Evans, in the previous film know where they are every time? And if our heroes’ chief goal is to deal with Statham, why don’t they stop and do just that when he appears in the middle of an over-complicated quest for MacGuffin Number Three? I digress.). But they’re coherent enough in the moment to ensure that the film has a purpose beyond all the oversized action, even if we all know that’s what we’re in the cinema for.
While it’s hard to read too much depth into these films, I do want to briefly touch on the choices made in extending the story beyond the revenge story premise that puts things into gear. You can’t sustain 140 minutes of action with something as simple as “Jason Statham is mad that Vin Diesel put his brother in the hospital, Vin Diesel is mad because Jason Statham killed Han (Sung Kang)”, so we’re introduced to mysterious-probably-good-guy, secret-government-agent guy Mr Nobody (Kurt Russell) plus terrorist Jakande (Djimon Hounsou, proving that a pair of Academy Award nominations don’t take you very far if you’re a person of colour), whose talents include recruiting Ong Bak’s Tony Jaa as a henchman and saying “WHAT?!” a lot.
Without getting too deep into plot specifics, both Russell and Hounsou are after a piece of technology called ‘the God’s eye’ – which is basically the surveillance device Batman invents in The Dark Knight – invented by hacker Ramsey (Game of Thrones’ Nathalie Emmanuel, who’d be a welcome addition to the series if it continues). The war waged over this device ties into the anxieties of both sides of politics. We have terrorists who are able to slip a fully-armed helicopter into Los Angeles without a worry and we have CIA black sites to imprison our enemies … but we also have our surveillance technology turned against us, and one of the most fearsome enemies our heroes face is a remote-controlled drone. Again, this is all evocative rather than especially coherent, but it’s interesting how inextricably the iconography of the ‘War on Terror’ has pervaded even our most insubstantial pop culture.
Anyway, you probably won’t be thinking about this watching Fast & Furious 7. You probably won’t be thinking about anything – and, really, that’s the whole point. Sit back and enjoy the ride.