Thursday, April 2, 2015

'Furious 7' Movie Review: Over The Top And Entertaining As Hell

Watching Furious 7, the latest installment of the adrenaline-fueled Fast & Furious franchise, you get the distinct impression that, when faced with a creative choice, the filmmakers paused to ask themselves, “What’s the most insane, over the top thing we can do here?” And then they went ahead and did that. For a series of films that, especially over the last few chapters, has been a continual escalation in physics-defying stunts, Furious 7 takes it to an entirely new level, and the result is a damn lot of fun.

Furious 7 is part revenge thriller, part daring heist, and more than a little of a loving goodbye to a dear friend. Franchise star Paul Walker died in a car crash before filming was complete, and both his life and death loom large over the movie. As his character, Brian O’Conner, goes through one daring, harrowing escapade after another, you wait for the moment where he meets his end—it feels inevitable—and you see it waiting around every corner. And there are more than a few instances where his face is digitally pasted on another body—his brothers stood in for him as they finished the film—it’s done well, but if you look for it, it’s there.

But as much as Walker’s death plays into the movie, it’s also a celebration of his life. There’s a lot of talk about family in the Furious movies, and they’ve been picking up strays and bringing them into the fold since day one. The chemistry between the cast is undeniable, and it’s easy to see how much everyone involved enjoys themselves, and what could have been bland platitudes carry more weight in this instance. History is important to this movie, both inside and out—possibly a bit too important at times, and if you walk into Furious 7 cold, without prior knowledge, you might be a bit lost, especially during the exposition early on.

There’s history between all of the key characters. Brian and Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) have been through hell and back together and come out brothers. Dom and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) have a past, even as she struggles to remember, thanks to her bout of amnesia that carries over from the previous film, recalling things in fits and starts. And it’s their past that catches up with them and forms the basis of the plot for Furious 7.

In the last film, they tussled with Owen Shaw (Luke Evans), but in the most cleverly subversive opening scene of the year so far, you learn that he has a big bad older brother, Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), who is out for a spot of vengeance. At the end of F&F 6, you saw him show up and kill one of their crew, finally catching the timeline up with Tokyo Drift, nine years later. There’s more going on, including a convoluted side plot about a shady government agent named Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell), who enlists the gang’s help, and a terrorist (Djimon Hounsou) who mostly just scowls, but the main narrative thrust is hunting and being hunted by Shaw.

Realistically, all of the plot, all of playing on the inherent emotion of Walker’s death—some of which, like a legitimately moving tribute at the end, works, while other moments feel cheap and overly melodramatic—everything, is in service of the action. That has always been what this franchise is all about, and it certainly doesn’t change here, getting ratcheted up to ludicrous, delirious, gleeful highs. Oh, Brian is going to run up a bus as it slides over a cliff? Sure. You want to jump a million-dollar car from one skyscraper to another? Go for it. The bad guys are shooting machine guns but that’s not enough? Obviously it’s time for the rocket launcher. It’s like each sequence tries to on-up the next. And that’s not even bringing up the car parachuting out of an airplane.

Frenetic car chases pepper the film. It’s their bread and butter, but it’s also a real strength. With the addition of Statham and the likes of martial arts star Tony Jaa (Ong-Bak) and UFC champ Ronda Rousey, the hand-to-hand combat side of things includes two of the better fights in the franchise. There’s a brutal early throw down between Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and Shaw, if you’re familiar with Jaa, you know what he can do onscreen, and the Rousey/Michelle Rodrigues brawl is up there with the GinaCarano one from the last film. At times during these scenes director James Wan (Saw) gets too cute with the camerawork, spinning the frame along with bodies as they fly through the air. It’s distracting and unnecessary and, in a few instances, ruins otherwise strong choreography. Thankfully he avoids this impulse when the action is more vehicle-centered.

You probably already know whether or not you want to see Furious 7. If you enjoyed the last two, you’ll dig this, but you know what you’re going to get, for good or ill. There are some truly mind-boggling action sequences, slick cars, and hit-and-miss comic banter between Roman (Tyrese Gibson) and Tej (Ludacris). The Rock flexes out of a cast in slow motion, there are way more close up shots of butts than you ever need, and things can get fully melodramatic on occasion. You also get a ton of cheesy lines, which will turn some viewers off, but they’re delivered with both total earnestness and a sly touch of tongue-in-cheek that makes it hard not to love them just a little. Furious 7 traffics so heavily in history that it will carry the most weight with already extant fans, especially in an emotional sense, but there is enough eye candy and WTF action moments that this isn’t only for diehards. [Grade: B+]

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