Cal puts the pedal to the metal for the last Fast outing with Paul Walker, but does director James Wan keep the formula fresh?
Franchise fatigue is beginning to set in with 2015’s Furious 7 (or, as its known in the UK, The Fast and the Furious 7), the latest entry in this long-running series of car-based blockbusters. After the franchise received a fresh boost of life with the unbelievably great fifth instalment in 2011, the cookie-cutter formula is becoming stale once again, even though there’s fresh blood in the form of Australian horror luminary James Wan replacing series mainstay Justin Lin. It’s impossible to review Furious 7 without discussing its troubled production – originally set for release in 2014, less than a year after Furious 6 hit multiplexes, the production lost star Paul Walker to a fatal car crash before filming wrapped, leaving Wan and returning screenwriter Chris Morgan to figure out how to complete the picture without its long-time lead. Furious 7 is fundamentally review-proof since it fulfils all that’s required of it, but at this point in the series, a little more effort would be appreciated.
After his brother was paralysed and left in hospital following the last adventure, master black ops assassin Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) is determined to exact revenge on Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and his crew. Shaw makes his presence known with a bang, putting Agent Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) in critical condition and sending Han (Sung Kang) to the morgue, before setting off a bomb in L.A. that almost kills Dominic, his sister Mia (Jordana Brewster), and his old pal Brian (Walker). Into the fray soon steps Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell), an enigmatic government agent who enlists the help of Dominic and co. to retrieve the powerful God’s Eye program designed by a hacker named Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel). If they help out Mr. Nobody, they can use the God’s Eye to find Shaw. Thus, Dominic and the usual suspects – including Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), and Tej (Ludacris) – head overseas, but they are unable to escape the shadow of Shaw, who enlists the help of terrorist Jakande (Djimon Hounsou) and his team of gunmen.
Statham is a tremendous villain who represents a major threat to the cast, and his abilities are showcased in a vicious early brawl against the behemoth Hobbs. But Morgan’s screenplay doesn’t trust in the standard revenge formula, concocting an overly convoluted storyline involving a high-tech hacking device and a team of terrorists led by the vaguely-defined Jakande, who’s naturally out to kill Dominic’s crew. Such secondary content was evidently included to allow for high-speed heist sequences and other sorts of car mayhem that we have come to expect from the series, but it feels too forced and leaden as a result, in need of snappier pacing and a stronger sense of urgency. (And seriously, the car stuff may be this franchise’s bread and butter, but it is starting to get old.) Plus, the crew are only out to retrieve a powerful computer chip that will make it easier to track down Shaw, which seems superfluous since he’s perpetually showing up wherever they go.
Furious 7 is the longest entry in the franchise so far, clocking in at a colossal 140 minutes, and it certainly feels its length. Morgan, who has written all instalments since Tokyo Drift, sticks by all the proverbial franchise chestnuts, giving the cast ample time to grunt atrocious dialogue at each other (every second word is still “family”) in between all the big action sequences. Diesel takes the lead here and does most of the heavy lifting, which may have been out of necessity after Walker’s death, paving the way for the actor to take over the franchise.
The major selling point of this saga has always been its reliance on practical effects and real car stunts. If anyone was to continue this tradition, it would be Wan, a man from the school of low-budget filmmaking whose previous action outing, Death Sentence, was vehemently old-fashioned. Unfortunately, Furious 7 is more reliant on CGI, which detracts from the sense of excitement. Sure, there are still impressive car stunts here, and people are still risking their lives for various shots, but there are also digital effects and they are obvious.
Thankfully, there are nevertheless some entertaining action sequences to behold, most notably when Wan leaves the cars and allows for the characters to engage in fisticuffs and shootouts. Statham is a gifted fighter, and he’s well-matched with both Johnson and Diesel. To Wan’s credit, the fights are not one-sided – Statham is not some untalented pansy, but a genuine threat who matches his opponents every step of the way. To spice up the action, Thai martial artist Tony Jaa shows up as an enforcer for Jakande who mostly brawls with Walker. It’s a bit of a throwaway role, and Wan doesn’t take full advantage of Jaa’s immense talents as a fighter, often burying the action in edits and frenetic camerawork. It defeats the purpose of casting Jaa, really. MMA star Rousey shares a similar fate, and to make matters worse, she is a truly terrible actress, showing once again after The Expendables 3 that she cannot cut it as a thespian.
The big question on everyone’s lips is how Walker is treated, with scenes filmed following his death featuring body doubles (most notably Walker’s brothers) sporting a digital face. To the credit of the filmmakers, it is seamless and it’s never entirely clear when we’re seeing a CGI Paul, but his presence is definitely dialled down; he’s mostly in the background, or shrouded by low lighting or restrictive camera angles. Luckily, Wan and Morgan have devised a fitting, respectful exit for Walker’s Brian, with a loving tribute to the actor which closes the feature that may leave some with damp eyes.
Furious 7’s cast is genuinely tremendous, with a lot of big names to stir up interest. Beyond the usual crew, there’s Statham, Russell, Hounsou, and the aforementioned Jaa and Rousey. Say what you will about Statham’s acting abilities, but he excels as an action star and has a strong screen presence. As the villain here, Statham is perfect, with a steely, cold demeanour making him spot-on as a ruthless military-trained killer. The Stath is so perfect, in fact, that you could be forgiven for rooting for him. Russell, meanwhile, is ideal here, showing that he still has what it takes to be a badass despite his advanced age. As for the returning cast, the likes of Walker, Rodriguez and Brewster are just fine. Tyrese Gibson, however, once again shows up as the try-hard comic relief and he’s awful. Surely, there’s sufficient funds in the budget for an actual comedian? Meanwhile, despite being such a major presence in the past couple instalments, Dwayne Johnson is side-lined for most of the proceedings here, leaving us to suffer through scene after scene of Diesel, who is not an overly interesting or competent actor. Since the movie’s events are tied into Tokyo Drift, Lucas Black returns as Sean Boswell, but his presence is mercifully short, amounting to a mere cameo. Black was intolerable in Tokyo Drift with his exaggerated American drawl, so it’s a relief that he doesn’t join the team or become a lead here.
Cars go real fast, explosions are big, and action is, well, furious, but Furious 7 is never hugely involving at any point due to its complicated, leaden storytelling. It’s a typical Hollywood big-budget blockbuster, though at least it’s not as abominable as Michael Bay’s regular output. It would seem that Fast Five, in the long run, is more of a lucky fluke than genuine franchise revivification.