Action Film Review 2015: "Furious 7" (Written by Chris Morgan, Directed by James Wan)
Alas, here we come to the seventh installment in the seemingly ageless muscle cars and physics-defying action series 'Fast and the Furious". This series, more than any other car-centric movie has seen quite a transformation since the first film polarized audiences way back in 2001. Over the years, multiple directors have taken over the helm and with each new recruit came an altered take on this universe. Justin Lin, the most recent director prior to "Saw" and "The Conjuring" director James Wan picking up this installment gave the series a much needed refocus and adrenaline shot with Fast 4, 5 and 6 that brought a renewed energy and swaggering purpose to all of this. It wasn't just about racing expensive cars or snarky in-jokes anymore. Oh no... this was something much better - an actual, multi-dimensional story with meaningful arcs and plenty of heartbreak. Characters that felt lived and breathed in, as if you'd been journaling them yourself all along or you might have known some of them growing up in your neighborhood. In fact, it forced me to watch these films entirely out of order and after finishing Fast 5 I went back and viewed the original entries knowing the impeccable evolution that would later unravel. I was not disappointed but I had much to compare to.
Furious 7 finds our quintessential heroes and heroines in a decidedly intriguing state of affairs. After a surprise attack/ambush and near-fatal blow to Dwayne Johnson's Hobbs which leaves him benched for the majority of the movie (unfortunately), we immediately realize the mastermind behind this sneaky, well-organized and very tactical assault is none other than Jason Statham's Deckard Shaw (brother of the new Gaston in "Beauty & the Beast's" Luke Evans who remains in critical condition from his last showdown with Toretto in Fast 6). Statham, imbuing his character with more than a hint of his Transporter role and his films with Guy Ritchie, is one of the most lethal assassins in the world and is at the top of the World's Most Wanted list. His mission --- retrieve Intel from Hobbs's headquarters about the hit on his brother and cultivate a counter-strike against Vin Diesel's Dominic Torretto to guarantee a body bag for each. His motivation is singular --- you take out one of mine and I'll take out all of yours -- in the most uncompromising and tormenting way possible. Shaw and Torretto have opposing views when it comes to family but they do share plenty in common which makes them perfect foils for each other.
Elsewhere, Michelle Rodriguez's Letty is experiencing a life crisis like no other - considered "dead" after her memory was wiped and her lasting and genuinely happy relationship with Torretto was all but eviscerated, she finds herself in a rut as to continue with him or to seek out her inner-self and find a way to regain the life she loved. She is lost, destitute even, and feels insincere when attempting to acknowledge all the memories they've built up when she's basically an empty vessel/blank slate. This arc update, in and of itself, creates a great dynamic and running through line in this latest film and lends itself to plenty of touching moments and insightful character developments. Rodriguez is well-known by now for portraying the brash, ass-kicking chick like no other with roles in Robert Rodriguez's "Machete" and James Cameron's wonderfully rendered sci-fi epic "Avatar" where she pilots a mech and exudes charisma in every scene she's in. She isn't just a sexbot but a woman with many a mission and the smarts and insights to get what she wants despite her male detractors. Torretto and Paul Walker's Brian O'Connor are seemingly the only two men who seem to believe in her with the latter acting as her stepbrother of sorts. The three-way scenes between them are potent and effective and also help to underscore the mass-scale action with many more layers of depth.
Amid all this seriousness and captivating drama, this film still keeps much of what the earliest entries did so well - humor. Two actors in particular standout - Ludacris's Tej and Tyrese Gibson's Roman. Ludacris, the resident techy of the crew, takes more than a few pointers from Simon Pegg's Bengi character in the new Mission Impossible films with his snarky one-liners, rambling technobabble, and uppity, if neurotic, personality. Ludacris is the latest in a line of rappers turned actors and he doesn't disappoint at all. The script never fails him and he neither takes away nor gives in too much for the proceedings to handle. Roman goes for more broad-comedy and the two play off one another like Penn & Teller or Laurel & Hardy only they substitute slapstick for run and gun machismo undercut by some winking misogyny. One standout scene involves Roman trying to back out of one of the more elaborate set pieces in the film - skydiving out of a plane with a car as a means of a stealth attack on Deckard's base of operations only to be roped into it when Tej ignites Roman's cars parachutes. It is frenetically paced and really captures the two and their frequently uneasy relationship.
Character wise - the one letdown here overall is Djimon Hounsou's Jakande who literally yells all his dialogue like an overcooked comic book villain. This is not the first time Hounsou has been underutilized/misused as his screen time in Michael Bay's fairly decent "The Island" is a difficult watch and instantly forgettable. Even last year's smash-hit "Guardians Of the Galaxy" couldn't make proper use of him. His intonations are largely the same throughout most of his films and he constantly hams it up even when the scene doesn't call for it. His best yet though remains the brutal "Blood Diamond" as he shares the scene with Mr. DiCaprio and that film alone on his filmography offers the best of his crop of performances. Conversely, Kurt Russell shows up in this film as a newly invented franchise character in the form of (literally) Mr. Nobody, a secret agent who aids Torretto and his crew in exchange for a high-value piece of tech that would be a real game changer for worldwide manhunts. As usual, he is charming and witty, but also deceptive. If Furious 8 is made, Diesel (now an exec producer) promises he will reprise his role and further add his gravitas to this already pumped up ensemble. Could you believe Russell started out as a very successful child actor? He sure as hell made a seamless transition and does some choice work here.
Before I end this review, it must be noted how tactfully the production crew handled Paul Walker's unfortunate demise. Instead of whacking off his character (like a lesser filmmaker might've done because it’s a lot easier in the post-production process), Wan exhausted a lot of FX resources to reproduce Walker's unfilmed scenes using his brothers' as body doubles. He used none other than Peter Jackson's WETA Workshop who supplied the digital ability for them to be able to render a lifelike, digitized version of Walker's head on his brothers body. Walker himself, before his death, shot more than 50% of the film and the end sequence in particular of Torretto and O'Connor riding off into the sunset is particularly noticeable for Walker. Interestingly, the same groundbreaking performance capture technology used by Andy Serkis to bring Lord of the Rings’ Gollum to life was used on Walker and the results are extraordinary. This technique could usher in yet another new age for film where an actor's likeness could be downloaded and preserved to be used over and over long after they've passed on. Sure, there are many ethical reasons why this would be terrible, but the possibilities are definitely there. Hell, a movie was even made about this exact subject: The Congress with Robin Wright and Harvey Keitel. Check that out!
All in all, F7 delivers on all fronts and whether you are a deep fan of the series or just want to immerse yourself in the showmanship and deft spectacle of it all, this is the film for you and it'll certainly get you jazzed for the upcoming slate of Summer offerings.