As the summer movie promos were kicking into gear online a few weeks ago, I was struck by quite a thought; by the end of this year, I’m going to have seen new Terminator, Mission: Impossible and Jurassic Park films. What would my 13-year old self have made of this? Honestly though, I would probably have been more surprised than any of these to learn that 2015 would see the release of a seventh Fast & Furious film (the original of which came out when I was 13). Seventh! Even weirder, the seventh instalment in this preposterous series also marked a turning point for me; for the first time I was actually quite excited to see a new Fast & Furious movie. Well what the hell happened? Let’s just take a minute to consider how supremely unusual this series is.
I first heard of The Fast and the Furious (as it was then called) via a Limb Bizkit-soundtracked trailer that played before my screening of Rush Hour 2. I wasn’t old enough to see it when it came out but didn’t especially care and later caught up with it on DVD. It’s not a particularly good film, an unashamed Point Break re-tread that trades in surfboards for fast cars. Something of a surprise hit, it garnered enough success to warrant a sequel, but not the return of star Vin Diesel, who must have thought he was destined for bigger and better things. Diesel bailed along with director Rob Cohen to make the quickly forgotten xXx, and left Paul Walker to headline the idiotically named 2 Fast 2 Furious in 2003. I have no particular desire to revisit 2 Fast 2 Furious but I recall it being completely awful and the point where I felt I was done with these movies. The series looked like it might be about finished at that point too, with Universal hiring a new cast and crew to fashion a spin-off rather than another sequel that was The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift. Tokyo Drift is mostly unrelated to the previous movies bar a miniscule cameo from Diesel which he reportedly only did to secure rights to the Riddick character. It appeared that if the series was going to continue at all, it would be in the form of straight-to-DVD spin-offs. However, this was not to be as all of the original’s principal stars; Diesel, Walker, Michelle Rodriguez, and Jordana Brewster eventually agreed to return for a fourth film, now simply titled Fast & Furious. Let’s be honest, the reunion film probably happened mainly because none of the actors truly managed to carve successful careers in the 2000s (notably Diesel headlining the notorious Babylon A.D.). It could have been an embarrassment, but Fast & Furious proved to be a major hit, despite the fact that it is also quite a terrible film.
But then a funny thing happened, director Justin Lin and screenwriter Chris Morgan, (who’d been on board since Tokyo Drift) used Fast & Furious’s success to make not simply a follow-up but a reinvention. 2011’s Fast Five mostly did away with the racing elements and refocused the series on heist plots with the addition of massive, logic and physics-defying action sequences and best of all; the presence of the mighty Dwayne Johnson. With a gross of over $500 million, Fast Five wasn’t just the biggest hit of the series, it also marked the first time that a Fast movie was embraced by critics. A sequel involving all Fast Five’s major players was quickly produced and suddenly, this once-laughable franchise that looked to be almost dead a decade prior had transformed into a box office behemoth. I wasn’t that keen of Fast Five myself but it’s undoubtedly a big improvement on its predecessors. Furious 6 was first film in the series I actually saw in the cinema, and I found myself generally enjoying it for all its stupidity. As I mentioned at the start, by the time the latest instalment Furious 7 was due for release, I was reasonably excited to see it. Has any other movie franchise followed such a curious path?
Another factor into Furious 7’s appeal is the addition of none-other than Jason Statham to the expansive cast. Statham plays the brother of Furious 6’s villain, and he’s given one hell of an entertaining introduction in the film’s opening title sequence. He’s out for revenge on the gang for their actions in the previous film, and immediately proves himself to be a credible threat via a sure-to-be fan-favourite fight sequence with Dwayne Johnson, which new director James Wan enjoys implementing unusual camera manoeuvres to enhance.
The revenge thread isn’t even necessarily the primary story going on in what passes for a plot in this ridiculous universe either. A mercenary called Mose Jakande (Djimon Hounsou) has kidnapped a hacker called Ramsey who’s created a super-surveillance programme called “God’s Eye” – essentially a global version of the one Batman makes to find the Joker in The Dark Knight. A secret agent (a great Kurt Russell) recruits the team to rescue Ramsey in exchange for helping them take down Statham.
This is of course, just an excuse to move from one globetrotting, gigantic action sequence to another, and Furious 7 really pulls the stops out (fun fact: the budget for this film is higher than the original’s entire gross). The film’s first major set piece involves breaking into an armoured vehicle in a convoy on the Caucus mountains. Naturally, the gang begin by skydiving in their cars. It’s absurd, but it’s glorious, demented fun. I’d been interested to see how horror director James Wan (Saw, The Conjuring) would handle big set-pieces but he absolutely hits it out of the park. I can happily call the mountain chase the best scene in this series so far.
Furious 7 never manages to top that, but it doesn’t rest on its laurels either. Soon we’re whisked to Abu Dhabi for another heist that culminates in the single most ridiculous stunt the series has pulled yet, quite something considering they abandoned any respect for real-world physics years prior. Anyone going to see this film to watch some action sequences won’t be disappointed. The fact that it results in this even allows you to forgive the insane stupidity of the characters that have led to it (seriously, how is Ramsey not mad at her incompetent contact (Ali Fazal) there?).
Even if Furious 7 more than delivers on the action front, there are a few issues that can’t be ignored. The series has lost one of its best characters in Sung Kang’s Han, whose popularity essentially created the loopy timeline rendering films 4-6 prequels to Tokyo Drift so he could appear in them. On top of this, Dwayne Johnson is hardly in the film at all, presumably due to his busy schedule. He has a couple of great moments that bookend the film but (literally) sits out most of the action (Jordana Brewster does similarly). The new additions to the cast fair reasonably well; Russell gets his moments, Tony Jaa turns up and has a couple of fun fight scenes with Walker, and Game of Thrones star Nathalie Emmanuel plays Ramsey, possibly set-up to be a new addition to the core team. On the other hand, Tyrese Gibson’s Roman is unfortunately rather irritating again. The film treats Statham as some sort of mysterious super-bad guy too, who has the ability to just show up to cause problems wherever in the world the team happen to be operating, no explanations are ever offered as to how he achieves any of this.
The weakest part of the film though is the dismal romance between Diesel and Michelle Rodriguez. If you recall, she was presumed dead after film 4, then turned out to be alive again in number 6. However she possesses this stupid, imaginary form of amnesia that erased all her memories of her friends but not of cars. The scenes in which Diesel tries to rekindle their romance are unconvincing, and non-spoiler alert – you just know something’s going to magically cure her.
There is of course, another much more sombre factor to Furious 7; that this is Paul Walker’s final film appearance due to his death in 2013. This is surely the biggest film that’s ever lost a star mid-shoot, and there are a number of ways a film can deal with such a tragic situation but most weren’t realistically available to Furious 7. They couldn’t re-cast, Walker’s presence is too essential, removing him entirely would seem tasteless, and there’s no way Universal would scrap an unfinished film of this scale. Instead they’ve gone The Crow route and finished his scenes using re-writes, doubles, and CGI re-creations. It’s definitely the best option but it is hard not to think about it during the film’s latter half. It undoubtedly become more Diesel-centric, and Walker is mostly absent from the final face-off, but I’m pleased to say that there aren’t any glaring moments when it’s obvious that a double is being used. In fact the only moment that I was certain was a recreation is the final exchange, and it’s not that the effects are bad, you just know from the context.
The closing moments of Furious 7 are also something rarely glimpsed in a big blockbuster movie, never mind one a ridiculous as this. We knew going in that the intention was to retire Walker’s character, but the film’s handling of this is almost an open acknowledgement of his passing. Diesel’s closing voice-over could well be a eulogy for his real-life friend, and combined with archive footage from the series, creates a surprisingly touching ending that while schmaltzy, hits you because it just feels genuine.
Furious 7 is a little too long, features a few too many plot holes and slow-mo shots of bikini-clad butts, and could have utilised some of its cast a little better. But overall I’d say James Wan has made this instalment quite possibly the best in this series, it has more than enough explosions, stunts, fights and chases to satisfy any action fan. It’s really hard to grasp just what these films have become. It won’t be the same without Walker, but when it inevitably continues, I’ll be in line for part 8. And I’d never have imagined that.