Fast & Furious 7 (2015)

aka Furious Seven

2016 #52
James Wan | 132 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA, Japan & China / English | 12 / PG-13

Fast & Furious 7The franchise that can never make up its mind about what each instalment’s called continues with its most outrageously ludicrous entry yet.

Picking up from the events of the last one, this time our ‘family’ of car-racing heisters are targeted by their previous enemy’s brother, Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham). After Shaw’s first attempt to kill our heroes fails, they’re recruited by covert ops agent Mr Nobody (Kurt Russell) to obtain a computer surveillance program, on the promise that, if they’re successful, Nobody will help them deal with Shaw. Because when you’re in charge of a covert ops team, you don’t have your own guys for that kind of thing. Anyway, this leads us on a globe-trotting mission that involves things like parachuting cars into Azerbaijan and using cars to leap between skyscrapers in Abu Dhabi.

So yes, the action is ridiculous and implausible. Even the stuff that doesn’t seem physically impossible is overblown. But it’s so ludicrous that the film can’t possibly be trying to claim it’s real anymore, and therefore it kind of works — they’ve committed to it. Though anyone who started out enjoying this series for its broadly-realistic car-racing thrills must be pretty disappointed in it by this point.

Despite that, the series is beginning to feel increasingly “fans only”. That’s the way of all things these days, I suppose. Long gone are the days when movie series aimed at accessibility, each entry fundamentally a standalone adventure for a popular hero. Serialisation is the new discreteness, and it pays dividends for Marvel and, indeed, for Fast & Furious: in the same year as the return of Star Wars, the return of Jurassic Park, the return of the Avengers, the return of James Bond, and the return to form of Pixar, Furious 7 was still the third highest-grossing film worldwide, and sixth of all time.

But I still find it remarkable how well it did at the box office, because while most of those other films are actually very accessible to newcomers, this is resolutely a film for those well-versed in the franchise. Its story joins the dots between several previous films — as far back as Tokyo Drift, four films and nine years ago — but seems to assume you’ll know what those dots contain, because it only shows the joins. Even as someone who knows what events are being linked (that Tokyo Drift connection has been long-awaited!), it feels a bit disconnected and piecemeal. And it doesn’t help anyone that Tokyo Drift’s Lucas Black looks like he’s aged every single day of the nine years since his last appearance…

Of course, you can’t ignore that part of the reason for the film’s financial success is the death of Paul Walker, particularly as it occurred halfway through production and the filmmakers understandably felt the need to give one of the series’ primary stars a fitting send-off. With seemingly little of his part shot, his performance is mostly faked. It was created with a mixture of techniques, many of them pioneering — while we’ve seen computers being used to generate a performance for a deceased actor for over 15 years now (I believe Gladiator was the first), those tend to be for very short scenes and/or filtered through some other medium (like Laurence Olivier appearing on a videoscreen in Sky Captain), whereas here they’ve attempted to create a co-lead-sized role. Truthfully, the effect is variable. If you’re looking, it’s always obvious (well, I say that — if it was so good that you couldn’t see it, you wouldn’t know you were seeing it). However, if you’re not looking too hard then a lot of it is very well done… though some remains pretty glaring. At the end of the day, you know why they did it, but it still rather draws attention to itself. However, a post-climax finale is a nice send-off for Walker (again, you can’t deny that it’s more about paying tribute to the actor than writing out the character), and represents a moment of catharsis that clearly worked for the cast, crew, and the series’ die-hard fans.

The quality of other elements is rockier. Kurt Russell’s spy is a cool new character, but can’t escape the feeling he’s been introduced to play a bigger role in the inevitable sequels. Jason Statham has clearly been cast for his ability to fight, which he does well enough, but a bit more dialogue-based antagonism might’ve added some flavour. He gets a very cool opening scene, though. And while a coherent story is not likely to be at the forefront of many people’s minds when it comes to these movies, the plot is nonetheless scattered with holes. Like, the gang’s entire motivation to undertake the mission is so they can borrow the software to track down Deckard… but he keeps showing up anyway.

But hey, what does it matter? The point is the big dumb fun of the action sequences, be they well-choreographed and -shot fisticuffs, excellent stunt driving, or computer-generated ridiculousness. Is it okay to just give a movie’s plot a free pass like that? Sometimes, I think it is. Furious 7 is an action movie, in a fairly pure sense of the term, and action it delivers.

4 out of 5

Furious 6 (2013)

aka Fast & Furious 6

2014 #106
Justin Lin | 125 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Furious 6Fast Five’s kinda-villain, supercop Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson), tracks down our band of car-driving criminal-heroes to inform Dom (Vin Diesel) that former girlfriend Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), who apparently died in the fourth film, is actually alive and working with a gang of super-criminals in London — which is Hobbs’ leverage to get Dom, Brian (Paul Walker) and the rest of the gang to come out of retirement to help catch said crims.

Cue two hours in which cars drive fast, people punch each other, and things blow up. Furious 6 (as it’s called on screen, to forcefully indicate a barely-existent “Part Two”-ness with the previous film) doesn’t ask much of you as a viewer, and doesn’t give you much back either — which is fair enough, in its own way. In other ways, it’s a disappointment.

The last film broke the diminishing-returns curve the franchise was on, but Furious 6 slots right back into it. It’s kinda tricky to pinpoint why Fast Five was so entertaining and this one isn’t. I think it just takes things too far. Firstly, the team-up novelty of the fifth film is now the series’ modus operandi, which makes it less special. Worse, there’s a muddled plot (Brian goes back to LA to meet someone in prison for no particularly good reason) and OTT action sequences. Five had the latter too — dragging a safe round the streets of Rio! — but 6 goes too far beyond. In transitioning from “street racing franchise” to “heist franchise (with cars)”, Fast & Furious has lost sight of its roots and become just another overblown action series.

Special delivery... of muscles!For all the intent of this being “Part 2 of 2”, there’s a post-credits tease which sets up the next film’s villain: the brother of this film’s villain! So, what, this is “Part 2 of 3” now? Or, more likely, they’ve adopted the modern movie franchise format of a never-ending series of closely-connected narratives; essentially, a TV series, only with bigger budgets and just one instalment every other year. I suppose it doesn’t matter, but go too far down this route and you end up with films so engrossed in their own years-long mythology that your viewers forget why everything’s happening. Just look at the Saw movies, which had to start building “previously on”-style flashbacks into their editing. Let’s hope Fast & Furious doesn’t start requiring the same — to this point, at least, the primary story of each film has thankfully been established and resolved between the Universal logo and the credits scroll.

Also on the bright side, the action sequences aren’t over-CGI’d. There’s definitely some of that in play, most obviously during the climax (with its never-ending runway), but a lot of the car stunts throughout the film look to have been done for real. Always preferable. As for the Old Blighty setting, although the film does indulge in some tourists-will-recognise-this views of London, it’s not as bad as most Hollywood versions of the city — or British versions, if you look at the work of Richard Curtis & co. Call that a car?There’s plenty of backstreet, underground, grim-and-gritty bits on display here — entirely appropriate given the characters’ street-racing roots and criminal know-how. Still, these are little more than cosmetic bonuses.

Not the worst of the franchise, though certainly not the best, Furious 6 is an overcooked extravaganza that goes on at least one action sequence too long.

3 out of 5

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.