It may have taken prior directorial mainstay Justin Lin a few goes to truly nail down the formula, but let’s approach Fast & Furious 7 as what it is; the latest entry in a franchise that bears as much resemblance to real life as Guardians Of The Galaxy. Except in Fast & Furious everyone’s either Drax or Gamora. Mostly Drax. But now with Lin busy worrying everyone with what he’s going to do to True Detective, the reigns have been handed over to mainstream horror’s darling boy James Wan (Saw, Insidious). Wan seems like a strange fit, but consider it further. Wan has a proven track record at franchise building and also with filling cinemas. He’s one of the true populists working in Hollywood today, so really it’s no surprise that he takes to this with total ease. This seventh movie feels of a piece with the series, especially the most recent entries. Wan molds himself to the franchise, not the other way around.
But what is this formula that’s proven increasingly popular and death-defying? Almost any other series would be showing fatigue by this point, but if anything Fast & Furious seems to be accelerating. The answer comes when you look at the true moment of rebirth for the franchise; Fast Five. Surprisingly well-received, on viewing it turned out to be the best entry by far. Because it essentially hijacked a different genre altogether. The blistering safe heist that ends the movie remains the series’ standout moment. Evidently the best way to revive an ailing idea is to turn it into a different one.
Fast & Furious 7 continues this trend by further morphing the series toward the action-orientated spy genre. Think of this entry as a 007 movie whose target market are those still mourning the passing of Nuts magazine. As such we’ve got shady government organisations, a rogue computer hacker to rescue, a techno McGuffin to track down and plenty of globe-trotting to do. There’s even an expensive soiree to crash. And lots of crashing. Everything and everyone that could or would crash into something or someone else does. Because Fast & Furious wouldn’t be Fast & Furious without near-constant collision of some kind. And, like clockwork, the film finds time to pause for some lecherous shots of booty-shaking party girls. As mentioned, Wan makes sure the long-term fans get what they’re expecting.
It also has to shoe-horn its way into a convoluted timeline which made that last three entries prequels to the third movie Tokyo Drift. This is dealt with surprisingly swiftly as Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and his gang find themselves under attack by super-hard tough-nut Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), out for revenge after his brother was hospitalised by our heroes in the last outing. The movie opens with Shaw, the credits swirling all around him, suggesting that the rest of the film will orbit him when really that’s not the case. For the first half hour he menaces Toretto’s crew as the narrative does some long and weary place-setting, but the most he achieves is benching Dwayne Johnson’s Hobbs for much of the remainder. Shaw’s pressure on the story is replaced by the far more charming appearance of Kurt Russell as a shady suit looking for help from Toretto. The avengers assemble (this might as well be that) and set off to Azerbaijan to essentially play Rescue The Princess in admittedly one of the series’ (and recent cinema’s) finest action set pieces. If you’ve seen the trailer you’ll have seen much of this already. That doesn’t stop it being, frankly, awesome.
And on it goes. The usual crowd’s all here. Toretto’s amnesiac girlfriend Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), sidelined tech guy Tej (Ludacris), welcome comic relief Roman (Tyrese Gibson) and of course Brian O’Connor (the late Paul Walker). The shadow of Walker’s untimely death hangs over Fast & Furious 7, a film which by coincidence, it seems, gives him some of his best work of the whole run. Brian’s antics in the aforementioned Azerbaijan section are the most thrilling, while later on he and Toretto play a hugely enjoyable game of skyscraper-hopping in a billionaire’s bullet-proof supercar. Obviously tweaked to acknowledge his necessary departure from a franchise that shows no signs of slowing down, the film’s final moments are incredibly well-judged. A heartfelt tribute to the man that hits just the right tone. This is arguably Fast & Furious 7‘s finest achievement.
Because, bombastic set pieces aside, there’s a lot wrong with this film (as usual). There’s terrible acting and dialogue (as usual) and the whole thing’s a good 40 minutes too long (as usual). The plot defies basic logic a number of times and, as everyone good-or-bad proves themselves increasingly indestructible, any sense of real danger is quite simply removed. Every single one of these characters is shatterproof. By the end it is exactly like watching a bunch of Marvel superheroes bashing each other around a city ad nauseam; albeit probably with a bit more gusto than the forthcoming and dreary-looking Age Of Ultron. Some of this busy action does prove gripping, some of it unnecessarily drawn out. If you’re going to have more than one long, big punch-up in your movie, make at least one of them interesting. A level of exhaustion sets in before Fast & Furious 7 crosses the finish line.
And yet, this is close to the best installment in this frankly-shit franchise so far. It doesn’t quite top Fast Five, but that was a film with absolutely positively zero expectation for anything good at all. In the plus column is the Azerbaijan sequence, then, along with Walker’s action contributions and fine send off, and also the palette-cleansing additions of Nathalie Emmanuel and Kurt Russell to the team. In the minus column is most of the rest. Nevertheless Fast & Furious is a durable franchise. Depend on more guns, cars, biceps, shameless upskirt shots and dusty roads another two years from now. And probably two after that. And so on. There’s something comforting about that. Maybe.