The death of Paul Walker hangs over all of Furious Seven, and the question of how the film will deal with losing him becomes, in the absence of a truly coherent, stakes-driven plot, the central tension builder of the whole thing. Will Brian die? How did they deal with scenes the late actor had yet to shoot? What had to be rejiggered? All of this makes Furious Seven a strange film both, one assumes to make and certainly to watch. It’s a fun, fluffy movie distorted by the dreadful realities of life, and it’s a film that - no matter what the filmmakers did - could never be the movie they initially envisioned at the outset.
I can tell you that Paul Walker’s finale is handled with absolute perfection, and is done in a way that comes as close to breaking the fourth wall as possible while maintaining in-world consistency. It’s touching, and it’s honest and it’s done with just enough schlock to feel a part of the whole Fast and Furious aesthetic. It’s one trap music remix of Tears In Heaven away from cheese perfection.
As for his other scenes - the film definitely suffers from Walker’s absence. The movie is Dom-heavy, and it’s hard to tell whether that’s because Walker was gone or because Vin Diesel has turned this franchise into his personal pedestal, but if we’re kind we can assume all the solo scenes of Dom doing really uninteresting things come as a result of losing Walker. There are weird scenes where Dom and Mia (Jordana Brewster) have long conversations about Brian that feel like one part exposition dump and one part Poochie (‘Whenever Poochie's not on screen, all the other characters should be asking "Where's Poochie"’). Walker’s absence adds to a strange feeling of disconnect between the members of the family; Dom has always only really interacted with Brian and Mia, and Brian was the bridge to the rest of the team. With Walker gone Brian is often relegated to standing to the side in group shots, replaced by a double shot from behind or with a CG face. This isn’t that different from the last film, where Brian was sidelined with a whole prison story, but here it’s his silent presence that feels weird.
Honestly, I’m wondering how the series moves forward after losing Brian, Han and Gisele over the course of two films - they felt very much like part of the beating heart of the series, and they’re all gone now. Furious Seven brings in some new blood - a hacker named Ramsey, played by Game of Thrones’ Nathalie Emmanuel - but I’m not sure it’s enough. The addition of Kurt Russell, playing a kind of M or Nick Fury to the team’s increasingly superheroic and James Bondian adventures, helps a bit as well. But even the characters at the end understand and articulate that things cannot be the same moving forward - a real challenge for whoever picks up the ball for Fast 8.
Which won’t be James Wan, it seems, and that’s too bad. Wan handled an impossible situation very well with this film, and in the process he gave the series its absolute, 100% best set piece yet. It’s the sequence where the team skydive in their cars and then have a chase on a windy, dangerous mountain road; the action is clear and geographically precise, the beats have escalations and reversals that tell a coherent and gripping story, and the action itself grows from character as well as the need to have thrilling stunts. It’s a truly Spielbergian set piece, one that reminds me a lot of the truck chase in Raiders of the Lost Ark. It’s pretty much perfect, and it’s a high water mark for the series. Unfortunately for the film it’s an early action scene; other scenes, while fun, can never hope to match up with the tight brilliance of that sequence.
Wan brings in some personal touches - he loves locking his camera on a body as it falls or is thrown - but he mostly conforms to the aesthetics of the series. That means gyrating butts and shots of feet on clutches and gliding pans into cityscapes. I think he finds the right balance - he’s not reinventing the series here, even though he is completely escalating it to a bigger, broader level than even the big and broad sixth film. If you thought the last movie’s endless runway climax was big wait until you see the parallel action mayhem as a drone demolishes much of downtown Los Angeles and Vin Diesel and Jason Statham battle with wrenches and metal rods.
The plots of these films have always been secondary, but Furious Seven must take the award for having the most absolutely nonsensical plot of the entire series (the script was written by franchise stalwart Chris Morgan). The team gets back together when the brother of the last film’s baddie comes seeking revenge - killing Han, blowing up Dom and Brian and Mia’s house, hospitalizing Hobbs (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson). Jason Statham is the new baddie, less an action movie villain and more a classic slasher monster - he just walks into scenes out of nowhere and, calm and collected, starts fucking shit up. The attempt to stop this guy, Deckard Shaw, brings the team to the attention of Kurt Russell’s black ops spook; the plan is that Dom and company will help Russell retrieve a souped up version of Batman’s surveillance system from The Dark Knight and in return, they can use the surveillance system to find Shaw and catch him unaware.
This is a bad plot because, as I noted above, Shaw just keeps showing up wherever our heroes are. Even Dom comments on this fact - basically why would you need to track a guy who is never further than the next room over? But it’s the plot, and it’s the MacGuffin that keeps the movie moving from the Caucasus Mountains to Abu Dhabi to the streets of LA, where the bad guys use the surveillance system and a drone to wreak havoc on our heroes. But don’t worry, this is a Fast film, not a Captain America film - nobody’s making any commentary about the state of the world with this stuff. It’s just there.
All of this dumbness is fine, as it serves as a way to get us from setpiece to setpiece, and even while none are as perfect as the mountain chase, they’re all quite good. There’s a heist/fight in an impossibly tall skyscraper, a close-quarters gunfight in a dark warehouse where Kurt Russell gets to wear nightvision sunglasses (which is so badass), there’s a lot of warfare in Los Angeles, and each of these scenes are well done and enjoyable on their own. And the dumb plot allows our characters to hang out which, as we all know, is the real point of these movies - the Fast and Furious films will simply not work for you if you’re not invested in these characters and their relationships. I love watching Roman (Tyrese Gibson) and Tej (Chris “Ludicris” Parker) bicker, I like seeing Brian give Roman shit, I love Dom trying to be the father figure to the group, and I really enjoy Hobbs’ brodowns with Dom. Furious Seven hits those beats exactly how you want it to.
Look, none of these movies will ever best Fast Five. It’s the high water mark of the series, and it stands unique because it was this unexpected collision of so many pieces that had been accidentally set up. Furious Seven continues the trick of upping the ante, getting to a place so big that it seems like future films need to either go into space or pare down and get back to basics (please get back to basics. Do a race movie, not Octopussy); that ante is upped successfully, and the film is a whole load of fun. But it also foreshadows the problems that face the series: there’s way too much Dom here, too much Dom going solo and too much of the brutally unconvincing Dom/Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) love story. As the cast gets smaller will Vin Diesel insist on remaining a lead over the ensemble? He is clearly under the delusion that people actually care about all this Dom business, and that Dom is interesting on his own when the truth is that Dom is only interesting when used as a goofily earnest counterpoint to all of the excess and silliness of the rest of the film.
The Rock is used sparingly in this film (and used perfectly - the Fast and Furious films are the only movies that allow The Rock to use his special brand of charisma and confidence to the fullest, making these the examples of The Rock we must show to future generations), but hopefully he makes a bigger impact in the future. Ramsey, the hacker, is a fine addition to the team even if her skillset overlaps with Tej’s almost completely. They needed to bring a new Han to the team, a master criminal, not another tech person. Still, I like the character and the actress and hope she has more to do in the next go-round.
Furious Seven is the perfect start-of-summer movie; it’s a big dopey blast of fun and action that takes the character work seriously. That’s the key to the modern blockbuster, something that the Fast films and the Marvel films really get - we’re here for the characters as much as we’re here for the action. It’s a movie that is staggered by real life tragedy but one that refuses to be felled, a movie that blurs the line between the world of the characters and the real world in a way that is so effective and affecting that the finale packs a humongous emotional punch. It’s a film that is riddled with problems, but they’re problems that only become obvious when you’re far from the theater - as an experience Furious Seven is an extraordinary achievement.
I really want to reiterate how good that mountain chase is. I know that Wan is returning to horror with The Conjuring 2, but I sincerely hope he returns to big budget action at some point, because that sequence shows a real mastery of action storytelling. See this movie just for that sequence, because we’ll be talking about its perfect construction for years to come.