Having enjoyed the Fast & Furious movies — especially the fifth and sixth, directed by Justin Lin — as much as anyone, I nonetheless settled into my seat for Furious 7 with only one thing on my mind, and I suspect it will be on your mind too: Will Brian O’Connor, played by Paul Walker, who died in a car accident off the set in the middle of shooting, also die onscreen? Or will the character be allowed to go off into the sunset with his wife and kids, a finish that Walker was cruelly denied in life? Adding to the poignancy is that, whatever O’Connor’s fate, it will have to involve computer trickery and editing sleight-of-hand to compensate for the actor’s absence. Not the happiest state of mind in which to watch a crash-and-burn picture!
Fortunately, the Fast & Furious films have always come with a full tank of sentimentality, lately evolving into rousing odes to family — multiracial, hard-driving, ass-kicking family. That evolution was, in its corporate-tooled way, organic. The first movie was a good, rough-hewn drag-racing thriller in which FBI agent O’Connor infiltrated a gang of daredevil thieves led by Dominic or “Dom” Toretto, played by Vin Diesel; fell for Dom’s sister, played by Jordana Brewster; and ended up throwing in his lot with the more ethical outlaws. After two unrelated sequels, the gang returned with more crowd-pleasing stars and more talk of family. The big business of international blockbusting went agreeably hand-in-hand with racial harmony, the family including Michelle Rodriguez, Ludacris, Tyrese Gibson, Sung Kang, and Israeli beauty queen Gal Gadot, soon to be Wonder Woman. Then came Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson as a lawman, meaning that big musclebound baldy Diesel got to square off against even bigger musclebound baldy Johnson — who ends up joining the family, too, dontcha know. Director Justin Lin filmed the last several F & F films with surprising elegance. The driving became a thing of beauty. There was emotion in motion. By the time of Fast & Furious 6, the proportion of crashes to hugs was roughly one to one.
Furious 7 kicks the biggest and hardest, but it’s far from the best. Lin has handed the keys to James Wan, the cunning horror director of Saw and The Conjuring, and though the thrill isn’t gone, the finesse is. Wan has a heavy, workmanlike hand and a Michael Bay–like way of jump-cutting to female extras’ derrieres and long, bare thighs — you can almost hear the editor going, “Yow-eee!” The movie has one of my least favorite lazy premises. The baddie the team routed in Fast & Furious 6 has a brother who’s mad as hell and coming to kill the good guys, starting with Sung Kang’s Han. That guy — Deckard Shaw — is played by the charismatic Jason Statham, inexplicably minus his charisma. But he can certainly fight, both fairly and dirtily (with grenades). In a good early scene, he convincingly puts Johnson in traction.
Furious 7 has a second plot centering on Kurt Russell (in a paycheck performance) as a government agent who engages the team to recapture a world-dominating tracking device known as “God’s Eye.” To get it, they have to rescue a genius hacker named Ramsey from the second villain, played by Djimon Hounsou, who’s foiled more times than the coyote in the Road Runner cartoons. Ramsey turns out to be a babe played by Nathalie Emmanuel, who gets a bikini scene with the camera jump-cutting to her ample bosom and long thighs while Ludacris and Gibson go, “Yow-eee!” The camera in this series has always savored hardbodies, but with a little more class.
The narrative setup is so threadbare it’s pathetic, but the budget for Furious 7 is sky high — and so, literally, are the stunts. There are more explosions and building collapses than the average disaster movie, and an especially outlandish set piece in which a $250,000 car sails from one Abu Dhabi skyscraper to another to another about a mile off the ground. Atop one of those mammoth towers, Rodriguez’s Letty — an amnesiac who nonetheless remembers how to fight — faces off against a big bruiser of a female bodyguard, and though the battle is nowhere near as boffo as her airport brawl with Gina Carano in F&F 6, few things are better in action pictures than watching Michelle get mad.
This is the sort of movie in which Johnson — bedridden for most of the running time — shows up at an opportune moment in the climax; Rodriguez says, “Did you bring the cavalry?”; Johnson says, “I am the cavalry”; and the audience goes, "YAAAWWWWWW!!!!" Twice, good guy Dom and bad guy Deckard stare hard through their respective windshields, revving their engines before driving straight into each other. We think: Which of these macho freaks has the thicker skull? It’s mad fun.
But that fun ends, of course, whenever Walker’s Brian is onscreen, gazing at his son and once-more-pregnant wife, wondering if he should quit the perilous extended-family-vigilante business for the sake of his biological family. Over and over Furious 7 foreshadows Brian’s death while we try to resolve all the art-versus-life contradictions in our minds. Which would be worse, seeing Brian die or seeing him live happily ever after with the knowledge that it’s fake? We also have to try to pretend we don’t notice that the character’s face is in shadow and that there are no close-ups during his final hand-to-hand fight with an especially agile henchman.
I cried at the end along with many in the preview audience, especially at the clip montage of Walker, glowing with youth, in the other F&F movies. The actor was apparently a good guy, tireless on behalf of several charities, among them one he helped to start, Reach Out Worldwide. It’s hard not to watch him here and think, Fuck race cars.
Which raises another question: Should I get all moralistic about the fact that the characters walk away from high-speed collisions and plunges down cliffs when one of its stars perished in a single-car crash in the passenger seat of a business partner’s Porsche going 90 miles an hour? Probably not. We hardly need another “Kids, don’t try this at home” message or more finger-wagging. But the difference between life and art — wish-fulfilling, blockbuster art for an audience desperate to escape — is worth noting. It has to be noted. Furious 7 leaves you, well, wrecked.