“I never feared death or dying. I only fear never trying.”
The above quote is from the song Wiz Khalifa and 2 Chainz recorded for Fast & Furious 6, We Own It. It comes off a bit haunting now what with the death of star Paul Walker on that fateful November day in 2013. The song was recorded long before his death, but the subtext, unintentional as it is, exists nonetheless.
The success of the Fast and Furious franchise is the stuff of legend. It had a rough go of it some 16 years ago when the original film, directed by Rob Cohen (xXx, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor), debuted to immediate interest from the youth market and general disdain from movie critics. Being released in 2001, this was a time when high school kids were chatting it with each other about spoilers, NOS tanks, tricked out exhaust, and suicide doors. The LA car culture phenomenon had grown from a local one to a national one, and The Fast and the Furious capitalized on it, weaving images of flashy cars, flashier girls, and white-knuckle racing sequences into what was essentially a low-rent Point Break rip-off. It was by no means a critical darling, but it made heaps of cash. And sequels there were.
2006’s Tokyo Drift was both Vin Diesel-less and Paul Walker-less, having nothing to do with the previous two films other than racing fast cars in exotic locales. It performed reasonably well at the box office, but the franchise was running on empty by this time. Cue the fourth film in the franchise, Fast & Furious, which reunited Walker and Diesel. Then, magic happened. Fast Five was a runaway success from the word go. Gone was the racing. Gone was the glitz. Fast Five ditched the cars for a heist, substituted street races for shootouts, and took a slew of past cast members and slapped them all together in one movie to a form a “family,” a concept that would be revisited in every film after. Fast Five brought about the rebirth of the franchise. It was a big action epic, the most expensive of the films to date, and successfully transitioned the series into a completely new genre. Fans loved it, critics loved it, and it too made oodles of cash. More sequels ensued.
Unfortunately, Paul Walker’s passing cast a huge cloud over the production of Furious 7. His death was and will always be the elephant in the room when discussions about this particular entry arises. So much of the script purportedly had to be torn out and rewritten to accommodate the horrible circumstances, cutting down on screen time for Walker’s character, Brian O’Connor, and trying to find a way to write him out of any future installments respectfully and in a way that the fans would accept. It might not have been so bad if there wasn’t still a good amount of filming left before Walker’s scenes were completed. You’ve heard the story by now: Paul's real-life brothers Cody and Caleb stepped in to assist with filming while CGI was utilized to superimpose Walker’s face onto their bodies.
Furious 7 suffered another loss, this one before shooting had even begun. Longtime series director Justin Lin decided to pursue other interests when it came time to sign new contracts, and in to replace him was James Wan. What an interesting choice. James Wan isn’t a name you’re probably very familiar with. His biggest claim to fame is as the director of the 2004 smash-hit horror film Saw, about as far away from a $200 million action blockbuster as you can get. God knows what Universal saw in him, but he’s the guy the studio ultimately went with to direct the movie, logic be damned. Replacing the guy who more or less patched up the sinking ship that was Fast & Furious was bound to cause a stir. Fitting yourself in with a group of people that have worked together for two movies now, in the process of a third, and having one of your key cast members die with only 30% or so of his scenes filmed isn’t a job I envy. Wan had to deal with directing his first big budget movie while dealing with an obviously grieving Vin Diesel. Troubled productions have a storied history of turning out lackluster results.
James Wan’s directing style is visually different from Lin’s in a number of vital areas. Wan’s horror roots aren’t as apparent as you’d think, but they are noticeable. The lens filters are a bit dirtier this time out. The blues are darker, the greens are harsher. His camerawork also suffers a bit. Lin actually had a pretty steady hand for a contemporary action filmmaker whereas Wan is shakier, favoring quick cuts over steady shots. Lin’s action was never hard to follow. It felt very old-school in that sense, like something out of the ‘80s or ‘90s where you always had a good grasp on what was happening on-screen and where characters were in conjunction with one another. That flashy rapid edit style from the Saw movies is here in much smaller doses. Barring some harder to follow editing, some of Wan’s shots, however, are really inventive. During a fistfight at the very start of the film between Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and villain Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), there’s a bit in which Statham kicks Johnson over a sofa and the camera follows him from a side angle down to the floor, turning with his tumbling body.
Wan favors a lot of these unconventional shots and utilizes them to good effect throughout. They’re remarkably different than Lin’s, but they do fit this one’s tone. Furious 7 is, at its core, a revenge picture. The plot in a nutshell is that Diesel is after Shaw for killing one of his crew (no spoilers here). This sets up a series of events where Diesel’s character, Dominic Toretto, needs to find Shaw before he finds him. Cue Kurt Russell’s Mr. Nobody, a shadowy government agent who sees Dom’s team as an asset to his cause. If Toretto and company can get him something called God’s Eye - a device that would allow the government who owns it to find anyone at any time in any part of the world in mere seconds - he’ll give Toretto full access to it to track down Shaw. Shakespeare this isn’t, but it serves the purpose of giving Toretto and his guys another reason to pull themselves out of retirement and wreak the kind of havoc that only they can.
The plot of Furious 7 is ridiculous. It’s preposterous in every way. The other movies were beyond ridiculous, but taking a group of career criminals/street racers and turning them into government assets is ludicrous. This is the point in which I can’t take any of this seriously anymore. Furious 7 wants to tug at the heart strings by having those expected Fast & Furious moments where the characters engage in solemn conversation with each other about the value of family. These are human beings that we’re supposed to care about, and then two scenes later we’re asked to believe that they are capable of pulling off superhuman feats of strength and resiliency. This franchise jumped the shark in the sixth installment by having Toretto literally fly across a freeway to catch Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) in midair after she’d been tossed off a tank. Yeah, that happened. To its detriment and also its advantage, Furious 7 is a whole movie chockfull of this.
No one’s going to argue that Furious 7 is anything but pure absurdist antics. Everything it throws at you requires so much suspension of disbelief that you might as well pretend you’re taking in the latest Marvel vehicle. What makes this sort of thing work for Furious 7, though, is that it’s having fun with it. It smiles and winks at the audience, never taking itself too seriously. If nothing else can be said for James Wan’s involvement, his kinetic visual style pushes the action sequences into the next stratosphere. He understands how stupid this all is and he’s having a great time with it. You’ve got cars being dropped out of planes, cars being driven between buildings, cars evading attack drones in the middle of LA, cars being thrown down cliff sides, cars leaping each other, dodging each other, being tossed through the air, crushed, mangled, and exploded. If fiery automobile explosions were gore, this thing would be a bloodfest.
One of the film’s biggest action beats comes in the form of a mountainside chase that sees Dom and his crew attempting a high-speed rescue of a computer hacker named Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) who knows the location of the God’s Eye. They’re attacking a convoy of terrorists headed up by Jakande (Djimon Honsou), and in their possession is Ramsey. Do you get where this is going? Roman Pearce (Tyrese Gibson) comes up with a plan to drop their cars out of the back of a plane as he reasons it’s the last thing they would expect. What follows is one of the most bonkers car chases I’ve ever seen in a movie. The stunts are masterful and Wan films it exquisitely. The use of room-rattling LFE punctuates every boom, bang, and crash. My 12" Klipsch subwoofer got its clock cleaned. The cherry on top of this petrol-filled sundae is O'Connor running along the top of a bus as it slides down the side of a mountain.
Unfortunately, Walker’s death affects the story greatly. I couldn’t tell you what the initial script did or didn’t contain, but it’s obvious that writer Chris Morgan struggled to find a logical reason to write the O’Connor character out of the film. What we end up getting is implemented as organically as possible. If you haven’t seen the film and don’t want it spoiled, I can tell you that I’d guess this is how Walker’s character would’ve been written out of the movies eventually anyway. It feels like the last two movies were leading up to this. And it’s all done so tastefully to boot. Although Fast Five and Fast & Furious 6 had really big action set pieces, those movies never felt like they were wall-to-wall nonstop action. There were good amounts of downtime in between the set pieces where you spent some time with the characters. Because of the rewriting of the script, Furious 7 feels like the inverse of that. There’s more action here than anything else.
The action is jaw-dropping, at least, but the story suffers. At a moment’s notice we’re whisked away to the Caucasus Mountains, Abu Dhabi, and Los Angeles with phoned-in explanations as to why Dom and his team need to do so. A Saudi prince has a car with a chip they need, blah blah blah. It doesn’t really matter. Don’t give it too much thought and you’ll have a blast. Give the film more than two seconds to rattle around in your head and marinate and you’re going to end up at the same conclusion I did: none of this makes any sense. Walker definitely wasn’t the backbone of this franchise, but his death weighed heavily on the production. The biggest area it affected was the story. And because they had to strip away so much, you’re left with action scene after action scene with nary a second to breathe.
Securing Statham was also a really big deal and I was hoping he’d finally give this series the villain it’s so desperately needed. I’m a huge fan of him and his commanding screen presence is a huge asset, but Wan doesn’t do a lot with him. He feels like a video game boss, showing up at random intervals to attack the player until the end of the game where you get to finally defeat him. The team are going about their usual lunacy and Shaw will show up in an opposing vehicle or magically appearing in an elevator just to throw a wrench into their plan and disappear until he’s needed again. Hounsou’s Jakande gets more screen time than Statham does, sorry to say. Diesel and Statham do get a really bad-ass fistfight at the end of the film, though. Chemistry between characters is still as strong as ever with Ludacris and Tyrese’s banter respectively being a highlight. Wan continues with Lin’s tradition of letting the actors play to their individual strengths and partnering up key cast members with one another and just letting them take the helm.
Furious 7 has all the makings of a disaster. One of the principal cast members dies in the middle of production, the set is a crappy place to be with a very moody Vin Diesel skulking around, CGI has to be used to film unfilmed sequences, and an untested horror director is at the helm of a massive tent pole picture, working with a $200 million budget. It sounds like a nightmare scenario, something that could spell the death of a franchise. Amazingly, Furious 7 isn’t a disaster. It’s obvious when watching it that it was a troubled shoot and concessions had to be made to finish it provided all of the things that went wrong. It’s a gigantically entertaining film with the action being the biggest it’s ever going to be, and it’s a fitting tribute to star Paul Walker. It sends him off into the night admirably, and of the scenes of his that were able to be completed, it’s obvious that he was going to be much more front and center than he was in the previous film. Furious 7 is all so wonderfully absurd that you’re either going to love it or hate it. If you need any semblance of realism in your movies, skip this. Nothing about it makes any sense or should be anywhere near as enjoyable as it is, but the cast and crew have been beating the odds for three movies now.