Director: James Wan
Stars: Vin Diesel, Paul Walker
4 (out of 5) Globes
Maybe Vin Diesel’s onto something: perhaps “Furious 7” does deserve a Best Picture Oscar. It certainly aims to be no less than the ultimate action movie, which, for some filmgoers, translates into the ultimate movie, period — the culmination of all that the Lumiere Brothers and Eadweard Muybridge dreamed of when they helped put pictures in motion. It doesn’t quite get there, and it’s not even the best movie of 2015 (it’s not even “Jauja”), but it is sufficiently next level ridiculous/glorious. What started out as a modest series that simply reignited the Roger Corman speed junkie programmer has — pretty slowly, it must be said — intelligently designed itself into a live-action Looney Tunes.
And yet the effects at least give the illusion of the real. The cars (when their drivers aren’t car-skydiving, that is) look like they’re truly speeding or being rammed into buildings/each other, much like the George Miller “Mad Max” movies of old (or, hopefully, the forthcoming “Mad Max: Fury Road”). The characters driving them, however, are anything but real. They can now not only come back from the dead in future installments but fall off a building or off a treacherous, rocky cliff or be rammed with a car into another car, and emerge only needing to crack their necks before cracking a quip.
What’s lacking is what lacks in all sensation-heavy, sense-handicapped modern blockbusters, which is story (and sense). It starts off with one: The baddie from “Fast & Furious 6” (Luke Evans) has an even scarier, mightier brother: Deckard Shaw, who is played by Jason Statham (mostly called on to scowl, smirk or hit). Deckard wants vengeance, but Evans’ character isn’t even dead; he’s merely been pounded into a coma. “Furious 7” opens in media res and, cockily, at the end of an apparently outsized action scene, where Deckard has bested dozens upon dozens, all dead so he can talk to his sleeping bro. When you’re this far over-the-top you can afford to not even film your insane action scenes.
But “Furious 7” quickly tires of this revenge plot, and even Statham too. After catching back up with 2007’s spin-off-y “Tokyo Drift” — which technically means that entry's good ol’ boy star Lucas Black, in his cameo here, is still playing a high schooler, despite looking like he has high school kids of his own — it winds up a completely different movie. Deckard still skulks about, but he does it while our remaining team — Vin Diesel’s Dominic, Paul Walker’s Brian, et al. — gets involved in some other business with another, entirely separate baddie, played by the terminally, tragically ill-used Djimon Hounsou. In a subplot shoehorned in for no real narrative reason, Hounsou's vaguely defined supervillain has a surveillance gizmo that would make the NSA fall into a fetal position. (It might seem the “Furious”ers are getting political, but it later gets all hot and bothered about the awesomeness of Bush II-style black sites.)
Characters fall in and out of the narrative, depending, surely, on scheduling snafus. Michelle Rodriguez’s exhumed Letty ditches the movie for an impossibly fuzzy personal journey (after visiting her own tombstone), then abruptly returns before the plot has actually kicked in in earnest. We’re supposed to believe the comparatively tiny Statham could hospitalize The Rock, but at least the latter returns for the climax, and not before doing something that is the movie’s biggest “wow” moment — and this is a film where our heroes drive through three separate Abu Dhabi skyscrapers.
But all’s good because it truly — and arguably even moreso than the last, still ridiculous two entries — never lets up, never lets the laws of the universe dictate events and, most importantly, never performs its shall we say unlikely acts with the lame timing and staging of, say, “The Boondock Saints”’ face-palmy toilet building jump. “Saw” and “The Conjuring” maven James Wan has no idea how to shoot actual martial arts combat; he cuts the hell out of Thai god Tony Jaa, mysteriously paired with Paul Walker. But his love of dollies and cranes and zooms and camera flips paired with body flips gives off the right kineticism, while his editing selflessly provides his aging cast with the illusion of badassery.
Indeed, Wan’s set pieces work up such a lather it doesn’t matter that one rips “Death Proof” — with “Death Proof” star Kurt Russell watching from a monitor, no less — or that when he splits these sequences into parts, “Return of the Jedi”-style, he sometimes forgets to keep returning to individual threads. (After Dominic and Deckard’s big street fight starts, at least 10 minutes elapse before we return even once.) “Furious 7” is all about masterly distraction, and succeeds so well you might not even notice it’s all-action, lacking even the minimal sex drive of “Fast Five.” (Gal Gadot is missed.) Even Dominic’s overtures about family seem tired — but then so does Diesel, whose growl now makes him sound like Lee Marvin in “Paint Your Wagon.”
And yet the craziest part may be how a film with no roof deals with deceased star Paul Walker, whose Abercrombie line delivery now seems fairly iconic. There are scores of accidentally queasy one-liners (Tyrese Gibson to Walker: “Just promise me, breh, no more funerals”), but it doesn’t fake-kill him a la Oliver Reed in “Gladiator” (or Poochie). Incredibly, a film that flaunts its lack of restraint closes with something approaching taste and arguably even elegance.