Thursday, April 2, 2015

Cars Do Fly: "Furious 7" tosses reality to the wind for a gloriously stupid-fun time

Furious 7 (2015) 
137 min., rated PG-13.

"Furious 7" is arguably the most thrill-quenching in Universal Pictures' "The Fast and the Furious" cash-cow franchise (can you believe this is the seventh picture?). Typically, over time, sequels tend to drop in quality, but this critic-proof series took a hint and improved, becoming what it always should have been: a cheeky, larger-than-life Saturday morning cartoon with high-octane thrills from superheroes-without-masks-or-capes doing death-defying stunts in their souped-up cars. Taking over the reigns for Justin Lin, who stuck out the last four movies, director James Wan (more known by horror junkies for "Saw," "Insidious," and "The Conjuring") gives number seven a much-needed buzz of electricity and panache. Make no mistake, "Furious 7" still has no business having such an exorbitant running time of two hours and seventeen minutes, but it places itself at a higher level for such a cheerfully stupid, stupendously fun popcorn movie that knows exactly what it is and betters itself by embracing its big, dumb self. Audiences who never even considered themselves part of the fan base before will be as happy as a gearhead with what Wan comes up with, and you get your money's worth this time.

At the end of "Fast & Furious 6" (or "The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift" if one makes sense of the timeline), Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), the ex-special-ops-turned-"ghost" big brother of coma-induced Owen Shaw (Luke Evans), started his vengeful rampage by taking out Han (Sung Kang) in Tokyo. Now, he's gunning for Dominic Torreto (Vin Diesel) and the rest of his crew, starting with Agent Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson), who gets placed in the hospital. Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) is still adjusting to her lost memory of her relationship with Dom, while Brian O'Conner (Paul Walker) is hoping to settle down with Dom's pregnant-again sister, Mia (Jordana Brewster), and their little boy for good. When Shaw sends a message to Dom's home in the form of a bomb, Dom is approached by a government agent (Kurt Russell) who calls himself Mr. Nobody and has already put the team together, including Brian, Letty, Roman (Tyrese Gibson), and Tej (Chris 'Ludacris' Bridges). But first, they need a tracking device to find Shaw by going on another mission to rescue the device's designer, pretty hacker Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel), from terrorist warlord Jakande (Djimon Hounsou). This means war.

From the bang-up beginning to a respectful, touching tribute to the late Paul Walker, "Furious 7" pushes all the right buttons for sensation and maybe even a few tears. Director James Wan encapsulates everything in the franchise during an early scene set in the desert at Race Wars and seems to be pretty knowing, almost self-parodic, about how ridiculous it all is. The camera ogles hot-chick booties and practically shoots up their skirts, and later on, it even tumbles when characters rumble. The fast-cutting seems to be out of a music video and even helps speed up usually perfunctory narrative beats into montages. More to the point, plausibility and the laws of physics officially do not apply here. One probably wouldn't even bat an eye if Dom and his entire crew turned out to have been indestructible robots this entire time. Since the thrills and spills have always been the incentive of "The Fast and the Furious" movies, there is no question that "Furious 7" ups the ante to spectacularly preposterous heights. There are at least three set-pieces here that might be the most crazily over-the-top and gloriously inventive the entire series has ever seen from the sheer insanity in which they are staged. The crew, each one in a car, skydive out of a plane and then parachute to the ground, ready to start their mission; Roman, in particular, has a very funny sight gag when everyone else lands safely onto a winding mountainous road. Brian holds his own opposite one of Jakande's henchmen (Thai martial arts star Tony Jaa) twice, first in a palm-sweating show-stopper as a bus slides to the edge of a cliff in Azerbaijan's Caucasus Mountains, a 'la "The Lost World: Jurassic Park," and then another "The Raid"-like scuffle in a warehouse down several flights of stairs on a door like a sled. In yet another go-for-broke stunt that's a doozy, a car without brakes goes airborne across three skyscrapers in Abu Dhabi, proving false Brian's fantasy-crushing words to his son that cars can't fly. Here, they can. Also including a Hobbs-Shaw "dance" in Los Angeles' Diplomatic Security Service office building and a big showdown with Dom versus Shaw atop a parking garage roof, every single action-packed set-piece is giddily exciting, outlandishly bananas and sublimely, well, awesome. 

Loyal screenwriter Chris Morgan keeps going, hoping fans and non-fans are invested in the human relationships, and even if one doesn't care one way or another, it's a testament to the cast that they carry such a natural ease with one another. Sad but true, the late 40-year-old Paul Walker was never commended enough as an actor before his death. He was likable and handsome in a photogenic, sandy-haired sort of way, but beyond a couple of roles outside of the hot-rod series that gave him more depth to explore (like "Joy Ride," "Running Scared" and "Flags of Our Fathers"), Walker was usually too bland to register. Here, in his swan song as former undercover cop Brian O'Conner, he has a magnetic presence and is the grounded center that doesn't go unnoticed. Everyone else has their moments to shine, too, with Vin Diesel doing what he does best with alpha machismo as Dom, and Michelle Rodriguez bringing a little more heft than before to her role of Letty. As she found an equal fighting partner in MMA superstar Gina Carano in the last film, she does the same with the scowl-ready Ronda Rousey (2014's "The Expendables 3"), who luckily has few lines to ruin but gets to show off her bread-and-butter. Jordana Brewster was always used as window dressing as Dom's sister/Brian's girl Mia, and while most of her on-the-nose dialogue outlines the plot, her quiet scenes with Walker unexpectedly hit a nerve toward poignancy. Tyrese Gibson and Chris 'Ludacris' Bridges excel more than ever as likable comic relief, and newbie Nathalie Emmanuel (TV's "Game of Thrones") makes a charismatic impression as the most beautiful hacker you'll ever see. Kurt Russell has a ball as Mr. Nobody and gets an amusing running joke with Dom about Belgian Ale and Corona. This time, Dwayne Johnson is mostly out of commission for the middle of the film, but his grand entrances in the first and third acts really count; it should be mentioned that this one-man cavalry can break out of an arm cast merely by doing an arm curl. Finally, Jason Statham stays within his limited skill set, snarling and beating down characters as Deckard Shaw, while Djimon Hounsou doesn't really add much to the proceedings as the film's needless second villain.

As convoluted as it is, the entire plot is a McGuffin and the characters are a means to an end at this point. In the past, Dom would remind members of his "extended family" (and the viewer) over and over with trite, self-serious bromides about the importance of family, but here, there aren't too many for an ill-advised drinking game. As much as these films have always kidded themselves that they were thematically about family (read: criminals who endanger everybody), there is a certain affecting quality to the finale since Paul Walker's death during a break from shooting in 2013. Since we know of the real-life loss of the actor, the viewer keeps wondering how the filmmakers will get around that loss without it coming off exploitative or hitting too close to home. With a tastefully sentimental send-off for the actor, the film's footnote actually feels organic in how Dom says goodbye to Brian, whom he sees more as a brother than just his best friend, settling happily into parenthood. Yes, there are a couple of jarring shots where Walker's face was obviously superimposed (and Walker's own brothers stood in as body doubles), but that's unavoidable, given the tragic circumstances.

While the other halfway-good entries in the series (2001's "The Fast and the Furious," 2011's "Fast Five" and 2013's "Fast & Furious 6") had their dull, talky stretches, "Furious 7" rarely goes idle in its hurried, amped-up pacing to catch one's breath or have a resting heart rate. Sometimes, a stand-alone genre film with the sole intention to entertain can't always get that right, so consider it a miracle that the seventh entry in a series finally does gangbusters at what it sets out to do. It won't be a contender for next year's Best Picture, but it's a lot of movie and, for most of it, slaps an ear-to-ear grin on the viewer's face or sends one into a state of giddiness. If Universal knows what's good for them, this will be a fitting place for the series to say goodbye because the best was most definitely saved for last.

Grade: B +

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