Saturday, April 4, 2015

FURIOUS 7 - The Flawed and the Miraculous

By all rights, we shouldn't be here at all. It would have been easy to either rest on laurels (or end things completely) after the phenomenally enjoyable Furious 6, but a post-credits tease (casting a long-promised dangling thread in a whole new light) had this series barreling toward all new levels of insanity. However, with the tragic mid-production passing of Paul Walker, who's blond racer Brian O'Connor had been a pillar of the series to this point, this movie could have been unsalvageable.

But the folks behind and in front of the camera pulled off a miracle. Because Furious 7 is flawed and uneven, but damn is it a beautiful - and genuinely emotional - joy.

How many film franchises ever make it to seventh entry? Legendary film series that span decades sometimes make it to 4 or 5, but by then the law of diminishing returns (both in terms of quality and box office performance) have become so apparent that they almost become jokes more than movies. James Bond had traded out leads at least twice by his seventh film, the Star Trek series had welcomed a next generation to crew their flagship, and the X-men had to literally reset their timeline to keep their plates spinning.

But the Fast and Furious movies have somehow only grown over time, their odd production history giving the impression of having tripped over something and landed on brilliance. From Fast Five onward, they reverse-engineered the franchise's meathead car fixation into a full blown heist/spy extravaganza, complete with a sprawling muscle milk melodrama sensibility, that brought characters from more than a decade's worth of movies together.

And all that culminates in Furious 7, a movie that honestly shouldn't exist. The first movie in this series was a blockbuster by accident (a fact made abundantly clear in how no one really knew how to follow it up until after several sequels had already been made), but this series has leaned into its own ludicrous nature so earnestly that if you're willing to meet it halfway, you'll find one of the best running action franchises in modern Hollywood. These films are broad, hammy, and, yes, dumb. They're movies so ridiculous that one of the running plots has been about a character having amnesia - of the "no really, they hit their head and now can't remember their ****" variety. But the genius of this franchise is that it epitomize the mantra of "I may be dumb, but I ain't stupid."

It starts with stakes. All the explosions in the world don't mean a damn thing if you don't care who or what is blowing up (just ask Man of Steel), and through more than a half-dozen films the cast of these films have so grown to inhabit their characters and these decade-spanning relationships with such believable camaraderie that the moment they walk into a room and share a knowing smile or a grudging nod of respect, you're immediately on their side. Having just lost "family" members Han and Giselle, the hook that the most recent film hangs everything on is a dual revenge yarn, where Jason Statham's Deckard Shaw seeks retribution for the car-driving team that wrecked his younger brother (6's main heavy), while Vin Diesel's Dominic Toretto wants payback for the death of Han and the threats against the rest of his family (biological and surrogate alike).

The rest of the "plot" is incidental (and comically convoluted), involving government agencies, super spy surveillance weapons, mercenary warlords, Arab princes, and sky-diving cars. Mostly it's an excuse to move the team from one gorgeous location to another for another ridiculous action set piece (the one in Azerbaijan is the best of the series), but as over-the-top as it gets, each sequence also slips in something important - whether it's a new character for the existing cast to bond with or a revelation about an existing relationship, there's always a subtext to the scenes beyond just the vroom-vrooms and the boom-booms.

Speaking of which, series freshman James Wan (The Conjuring) proves remarkably adept at handling large-scale action. He seems to over-egg the pudding when it comes to some of the visual trappings (lots of speed ramps and shots show-casing gyrating bottoms, so the audience knows that yes, this is a Fast and Furious movie) and not all of his kinetic touches really land during hand-to-hand scenes (though the final fight is phenomenal). But when it comes to the vehicular stuff? World-class talent. There's a lot of CGI on display (simply because the scale has been kicked up so much), but there's still swathes of practical effects and stunts that are brilliantly shot. The Azerbaijan convoy scene is the best action beat of the movie (and franchise) purely in how it's structured and escalated, but Wan manages to top it in terms of stakes and scale for the finale. As a horror director, he obviously knows that repeating "gags" doesn't work very well (you can't get an audience with the same kind of scare twice), and so he always brings something new to each action scene to keep things feeling fresh and energetic.

Unfortunately, the seams have started to show in other areas by this entry. The film does the impossible of wrapping up Brian O'Connor's story in a respectable way even though Walker's passing necessitates a lot of this work being done via characters talking about Brian rather than to him. And that leaves a lot of heavy lifting to Dom (who works best as a counterpoint, not a focal point) without giving much extra for the rest of the team (even newcomer Ramsey) to do, at the same time that Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson's glorious Agent Hobbs is sidelined for a huge chunk of the film.

Luckily for Furious 7, Kurt Russell saunters into the film and damn near saunters away with it. His enigmatic "Mr. Nobody" could have been a single-scene cameo or a mild bit part, relegated to exposition and nothing else, but instead he ends up being a significant supporting player in the middle act of the film. Not only does Russell nail the tone of the franchise, he provides a perfect no-fuss excuse for the film to indulge in its globe-trotting without the need for tedious explanations of how all these characters got all this gear half-way around the world. He also serves as some subtle world-building, his Nick Fury-esque resources and swagger further cementing this series as one that, while everyone's "super power" is relegated to some variation of "being good at CARS," this is absolutely a comic book world.

And for all the awkward moments (whether born from the need to figure out what to do after the fifth and sixth films had already turned nearly everything up to eleven, or from the unfortunate reality of working around the loss of a major cast member), it all comes down to how the movie sticks the landing. And even with the rough patches, it nails it. The finale is a sprawling multi-front action buffet with chases, bullets, missiles, kung-fu, and a hero/villain throwdown that I can only describe as "Errol Flynn by way of Bob the Builder." The series totem of Lettie's cross gains even more thematic and emotional meaning. The Rock gets one of the best "big damn hero" moments of the series, only to top it - TWICE - almost immediately afterward.

And Brian? The final shot of the film (the first in a long while to deliberately not feature some sort of post-credits sequel tease) is a brilliantly bittersweet ending to a relationship both in and out of the films that's been as important to these actors as it has to audiences. At the end, Furious 7 functions as the close to an "in-franchise" trilogy (similar to how Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home finished the threads started in Wrath of Khan), wrapping up major arcs that go back at least to Fast Five. And for fans who've been literally growing up with these movies and characters? Yeah, tears are definitely in the forecast.

I fell into this fandom by accident, being at first dismissing of this lunkheaded goofery. But under the surface are hidden depths - insane levels of practical action and stunt craft, meaningful stakes and real consequences, a cast of multi-racial heroes (there's only 1 traditional white male lead over the last three movies) and multiple strong female characters (with different kinds of strength, even!) that feels more forward-thinking in terms of idealism and representation than the most recent Star Trek films.

But if you just want to watch stuff go real fast and blow up real good? Yeah, this movie has you covered there too.

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