With Fastmania sweeping the nation, it’s hard not to presume some of the hype is backhanded, the latest in a long line of things people on the Internet pretend to give a shit about to feel like a part of the conversation. As someone who spent most of 2012 telling people Fast Five was better than The Artist, I know I’m being sincere in my adoration for Dom Toretto and his merry band of Corona-sipping thieves, but the fear that everyone else is secretly LOLing when they hop on Twitter to type “family” followed by ten fire emojis has been very real. Seeing Furious 7 on a giant Regal LieMAX screen with a rampant, diverse crowd, all cheering and weeping at the appropriate moments, assuaged any fears that the movement was a lie. Fast is here. Fast is forever. Fast loves us and will never leave us. But all good things come to an end, right?
Furious 7, one of the few film franchises to even make it to that lucky number, manages to be better than Deathly Hallows, Diamonds Are Forever, and New Nightmare combined. It mixes cranial hemorrhage-inducing action set pieces with heart-soaring emotional catharsis on a level that is as surprising as it is impressive. ‘Splosions, fist-death, and autopornography aside, the film possesses a hefty amount of believable, unironic pathos. The only possible way I could have cried harder at the end of Furious 7 is if Han and Gisele came back as Jedi ghosts while Roman sang Boyz II Men’s “End of The Road.”
So much of Furious 7‘s triumph is snatched from the jaws of defeat. Between franchise savior Justin Lin leaving and star Paul Walker’s passing, the odds were stacked in the direction of this film failing on as grand a stage possible, but this series’ greatest asset has always been its flexibility. James Bond may switch actors and nakedly adapt to the cinematic landscape around him, but no franchise has ever exhibited the Fast films’ ability to introduce off-kilter elements as incendiary forerunners for useful, dramatic evolution. 2 Fast 2 Furious brought in an eighties television aesthetic and heretofore unplumbed comedic depth, while Tokyo Drift spring boarded from a weeaboo/gearhead fusion dance into the shining heist film trilogy that converted most of the general public. Furious 7, in turn, promised a gritty revenge thriller with The Transporter‘s Jason Statham as its villain.
We don’t quite get the film Furious 6‘s post-credits scene teased. Yes, Statham’s Deckard Shaw (big, bad brother of Luke Evans’ Owen Shaw) comes after Dom’s family looking for retribution in blood, but that’s merely the fuse that lights us off to the fireworks factory of espionage, MacGuffin chases, and a curiously mature measure of closure. The war between Shaw and Toretto takes a long detour through the shadowy world of espionage, as friendly spook Mr. Nobody (played with delight by Kurt Russell) enlists the crew for a globetrotting jaunt in search of a next-level surveillance program called “God’s Eye.” The myriad turns and multiple character arcs weaved through the onslaught of action sequences are maximalist as fuck, but an adherence to emotional honesty ground each showdown, each race, and each rumble.
Every film in the series has its own distinct feel, and while much of Furious 7‘s run time feels like a hard won victory lap, there’s a dark undercurrent that offsets that celebratory tone, and Statham personfies it. Evans played Owen Shaw pretty straight to contrast with Toretto’s colorful, over the top family, but there was enough twirl to his ‘stache to keep it cute. Statham goes the other direction, draining his screen presence of any charisma. He is unrelenting, gruff and decidedly without wit or comforting wink. From the moment his character puts Hobbs in the hospital, the perturbing lack of fucks he continues not to give piles higher and higher. He’s as cold-hearted and single-minded a villain the series has ever produced, stalking the crew with a relentless drive that falls somewhere between “Tower of Babel” Batman and the STD wraith from It Follows, calmly respawning wherever our heroes travel like The Angel of Fucking Death.
His first real skirmish with Toretto, a fascinating post-funeral car chase whose dedication to a loud-quiet-loud structure mirrors the music of The Pixies and PARTYNEXTDOOR as much as it homages Bullitt, is the exact moment that any concern for James Wan’s direction flies out the window. You’re immediately reminded that this isn’t just the guy who made a killing off of Saw, but the man who gave us Kevin Bacon With A Baseball Bat in Death Sentence. He manages to build on the work Lin’s done in the last four films without slavishly mimicking it, as masterfully presented in the Skydiving Car set piece. His sequences are cuttier than Lin’s, but this feels less like a stylistic choice and more a concerted attempt to mask a lack of Paul Walker close-up coverage in certain sequences. As impressive a coming out party this is for him, you can’t help but feel for how much of an uphill battle this must have been.
Wan ends up with a lot to juggle, but most of the balls he leaves whirling in the air offer more to love, from Kurt Russell’s hilarious and enjoyable presence as the Fast universe’s new Nick Fury, to introducing a black hat hacker named
Hathaway Megan Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) to the fold. There’s also the lingering plot thread of Letty’s amnesia, not to mention the seemingly insurmountable task of crafting a believable arc for Paul Walker that doesn’t involve letting his fictional counterpart join him in the afterlife. Furious 7 isn’t exactly a perfect film, but the care with which Wan, screenwriter Chris Morgan, and the entire cast and crew manage to send Brian O’Conner off is deserving of so much more than the typically hyperbolic praise being heaped upon the film.
As much as I like Paul Walker as an actor, and O’Conner as a character, I never thought I’d actually feel that much for his exit. Discounting the considerable movie magic required to make his last performance work, there’s something uniquely stirring about the way his death is handled. It feels a little like finding out an old friend has passed away on Facebook. Maybe you hadn’t seen that person in years and maybe you didn’t know them as well as you’d have liked to, but they were a part of your life and now they’re not. In real life, when humans die, they rarely get touching monologues delivered with Vin Diesel’s reassuring timbre. Even the most rousing funeral service is unlikely to cogently build on someone’s history to craft such poignant closure. The Fast franchise has always been a lot of different things to a lot of different people, but it’s also the first franchise of its kind to properly take advantage of its deep, convoluted mythology to deliver such pathos.
Once the credits roll, you’re left with an octane high that’s hard to come down from. Having spent the weekend thinking of little else, the film does present its fair share of problems. As usual, the women of Fast are given less to do than you would hope, despite some surprisingly stellar acting from Michelle Rodriguez and Jordana Brewster. Both King Ronda (Rousey) and Prince (Tony) Jaa feel wasted in their appearances, despite elevating the sequences they’re in with their tough (wo)man chops. There’s also a number of weird Nolan Batmanisms, particularly from The Dark Knight (Statham’s introduction at the hospital calls The Joker to mind, and the movie’s big MacGuffin will seem instantly familiar.) I imagine on subsequent viewings, some of these nagging issues will grow in size and shape, lowering the film in my eyes, but it’s hard not to fall for the extremely satisfying final product each of these jarring elements ultimately gel into.
In our hearts, the Fast films can go on forever, even without Paul Walker. Every conversation I’ve had in the last few weeks has surrounded fantasy sequels we would kill to have. (My personal favorite is the gang going up against John Wick, but I’m also partial to the Universal Monsters crossover.) Furious 6‘s post-credits scene set up the expectation that every new film would leave us with a tease for future game changers, but Furious 7, for all its bluster, isn’t that kind of film. I’ve seen multiple people suggest Michael Bay should direct Fast 8, but one look at his work on Transformers shows the dividing line between his rock ’em, sock ’em aesthetic and the blue eyed soul meets vulgar autuerism of the Fast films. They blow things up and people get Rock Bottom’d through inexplicable glass tables, but they’re supported by utter sincerity, genuine emotion and a startling fluidity of concept.
We want these films to go on forever, and perhaps they will; but, for now, this is a fine film to ride off into the sunset to.
Furious 7 is out now in theaters.