I’m going to be honest with you, folks: When reviewing Furious 7, the latest in the increasingly ridiculous action/car-porn Fast/Furious series, I was mightily tempted to just cut whole cloth from my review of 2013’s Fast & Furious 6. There’s so much similarity in theme and tone that at times it’s like you’re watching a subplot that got cut from the last couple of films. For those of you who are familiar with video games, Furious 7 feels almost like DLC (downloadable content) — a bonus story that gets added to a game after its release.
But that’s this franchise in a nutshell anyway. It has, for the most part, maintained the same character base for the past four years — the gravelly, stoic Dom (Vin Diesel), boyishly enthusiastic Brian (Paul Walker, may he rest in peace), wise-cracking Roman (Tyreese Gibson), Brian’s now-wife and Dom’s sister Mia (Jordana Brewster), the clever tech guy Tej (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges), and Dom’s recently amnesiac girlfriend Letty (Michelle Rodriguez). The most recent addition, as of two films ago, is Special Agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) as their on-again, off-again ally Luke Hobbs. But that core of actors has remained steadfast throughout the majority of the series (and props shall always be given to this franchise for its impressive commitment to diversity). The catch is, of course, that they’ve also remained static throughout the pictures. Sure, Brian and Mia have had a baby, and Dom and Letty have come to grips with her amnesia (god, how stupid and silly a plot thread that is). But otherwise? The characters are as they have been for since this franchise began (gulp) 14 years ago. And it’s not as if the actors have evolved much either. So what you’re left with is a plug-and-play of sorts, taking these almost stock characters and simply dumping them into new scenarios without creating any sense of evolution. Things happen to them, but all they ever do is react. They never grow or develop or change, they simply wait in suspended animation for the next set of bizarre and unlikely circumstances to occur in their vicinity.
Now, when that unlikely circumstance occurs, things take off, and the franchise has hinged its popularity on that. And when things take off, there is undeniable, breathless entertainment to be found. The catch is that Furious 7 is two hours and fifteen minutes long, and any time spent doing anything other than action sequences is excruciating to endure because it’s so weakly written. In fact, out of all of the films, Furious 7 has easily the poorest character writing, and that’s really saying something. If it weren’t for the Gibson’s buffoonery or the dry wit of Bridges (who really is quite good), it would just be a series of relentlessly boring, cloying conversations about family and loyalty, conversations which have been repeated ad nauseum for the past 14 years.
So with all of that said, I suppose we can talk about the story, which has reached all-new heights of ridiculousness. This time around, Dom and company are being hunted by a former British special forces lunatic named Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), out for revenge after his brother was almost killed in the prior film. Tangled into this story is a hacker named Ramsey (Game of Thrones star Nathalie Emmanuel) and an absolutely nutbar storyline involving a terrorist (Djimon Hounsou, making more poor career choices) trying to get his hands on a device called — wait for it — the God’s Eye, which is one of those improbable devices available only in movies, allowing its user to somehow use every piece of machinery on the planet to spy on anyone at anytime using anything from facial recognition to, well, you get the point. Basically, they stole half the plot from Enemy Of The State, stuffed it in a bag, beat it with hammers, and dumped it into a new franchise. Dom gets some additional support in the form of a government bureaucrat/spook named Petty, played with gloriously wry glee by Kurt Russell. As far as characters go, Russell is the highlight of the film, and I’d gladly watch an entire film based on his character.
That’s all you really need to know. Once the basic framework is set, it becomes a relatively simple formula — Dom rumbles blandly about family, Brian grins and nods (this is more impressive than it sounds - Walker passed away during filming and his scenes were finished through a combination of CGI and his brothers as stand-ins), Tyreese and Tej crack wise at each other. Then something happens to them. This causes an insane car chase/heist. Then there’s at least one fistfight (somewhere along the line, all of them became unbelievably skilled hand-to-hand combatants, so Dom can suddenly hold his own against a specially trained assassin). Then something explodes, and that resets the clock.
Now, make no mistake — those chases and heists and fistfights? They are hellaciously fun. There are a couple of unbelievable highlights — the “cars dropped from a plane into the mountains” piece is utterly bonkers, as is the ensuing chase-and-rescue scene. It’s so completely improbable yet so impeccably shot that it’s hard not to just clap your hands in appreciation at its conclusion. There’s a chase between Dom, in a blaring beast of a muscle car, and Shaw in a Maserati, that is impressive and breathtaking. Say what you will about the acting and writing, but when it comes to action choreography, this franchise commits. After the departure of Justin Lin, new director James Wan doesn’t miss a beat, throwing kitchen sinks around left and right so that you’re gasping for air after each sequence, maybe hoping that you won’t notice how silly everything is. The apex of this is a car chase that takes place in between skyscrapers, something so jaw-droppingly unbelievable that you have to just shake your head and sit back.
Then there’s the fighting, which is absolutely terrific. There are four main physical conflicts, and most are profoundly satisfying. An opening brawl between Statham and The Rock, an ongoing one between Statham and Diesel (this is the weakest, and stupidest, of the bunch), and then the two highlights — Michelle Rodriguez going toe to toe with Ronda Rousey in a lavish Abu Dabi hotel room, in a scene that is just mercilessly paced and really just makes me want to see Rousey in more things; and two separate fights between Walker and, believe it or not, Tony freakin’ Jaa. Jaa and Rousey are absolutely spectacular fighters and physical presences, and once you accept the impossibility of either of those actors actually having a prayer against them, it’s great fun to watch.
The film collapses under its own weight in the final act, unfortunately, when it decides to become a deafeningly loud disaster film. It’s marred by too much gunplay and not enough lightheartedness, and there’s simply no joy to be found in it. In fact, that’s one of Furious 7’s greatest sins — while it has all that eye-popping action, it just doesn’t feel as fun as some of its predecessors, and as a result, it makes its flaws that much more glaring. Once it rampages through its final act, replete with missiles and collapsing buildings, it simply becomes a chore to sit through.
There’s fun to be had with Furious 7, and if you’ve been a fan of the franchise (which I have been, somewhat), chances are you’re going to enjoy this one. Yet there’s a hollowness to it this time around, a sense of listlessness in every break between action sets, that makes it ultimately one of the weakest of the back half of the catalog (which are really the “modern” iterations of the franchise). When it’s fun, it’s goofily gonzo and silly and gripping. But when it’s not? It’s overdone, overblown, and unsatisfying. But the fans are going to glaze over the in-between bits, and there’s something to be said for the bread and circus that the louder parts provide, I suppose. You’ll walk about with a half-smile, feeling vaguely like you got hit in the back of the head, but in a way that’s strangely satisfying. If that’s your thing, well, who am I to stop you.