The Fast & Furious franchise really is a curious beast.
By all usual standards, it’s rubbish: the sort of straight-to-DVD fare that you wouldn’t glance twice at. The stilted dialogue, the hackneyed writing, the laughable performances and the frankly stupid action should lend it to little more than a late-night guilty pleasure at best.
And yet… somehow, Justin Lin and, taking over directorial duties for this seventh instalment, James Wan, have found a way to make the Fast franchise unmissable entertainment.
The plot, for what it’s worth, concerns the usual cocktail of bullets, biceps, bikinis and blowing things up – this time with added British for good measure. Jason Statham’s Deckard Shaw, brother to the previous instalment’s Owen Shaw, is out for revenge, and sets his sights firmly on Dominic Toretto, Brian O’Connor, et al.
Fast & Furious 7 is very much of a piece with its two predecessors, the series having eschewed any notion that it was still about racing cars with the fifth entry; this is a pure action film. Unlike its predecessors, however, F&F 7 is only fitfully brilliant. It opens well, with a superb punch-up between The Rock and the Stath, but then takes a long while to actually get going. When it does, however, it’s worth the wait, as the middle section is filled with the sort of ludicrous, exhilarating action that only this franchise in the current cinematic landscape really seems to be able to nail.
This is a series that has gone beyond parody and come right back again; it’s transcended itself; it’s become its own curious genre. At this point, it’s almost entirely fan-service. It’s a world where the more stupid the stunt, the more it’s applauded. When other franchises go ‘out-there’ with the action, they’re often rightly derided. But when Fast & Furious 7 has a fleet of sports cars parachuting out of a cargo plane, it just works.
It’s all to do with how knowingly ludicrous it is. That sense of fun that the producers clearly revel in translates wonderfully to the screen, and it’s irresistibly infectious. You’ve got to respect something that understands itself, and its audience, so completely. We could all learn a lesson from the F&F franchise in that. (If there’s a complaint to be made, it’s that the repeated slow-mo shots of women in bikinis are tiresome and unnecessary, and they ought to just cut it out already.)
While the vehicular parachute jump is incredible (Anyone remember physics? Nope, us neither.) it’s Paul Walker’s Brian who gets the best stunt of the film, fighting Tony Jaa on a runaway bus, before narrowly avoiding a plunge off a cliff.
It’s an incredibly put-together action sequence, and if the climactic jump (something this franchise excels at) doesn’t get you out of your seat, punching the air in triumph and exhilaration, then there’s no hope for you. (It’s a stunt that’s become an even bigger moment to celebrate in retrospect, for reasons we’ll discuss later.)
The climax, sadly, sags under the weight of having far too many pieces on the board, to the extent that you may even forget that the film’s two primary rivals are fighting to the death amid all the other chaos.
As a superfluous extra villain, Djimon Honsou is actively terrible, while Tony Jaa’s blistering martial arts are perhaps a tad under-utilised. And as for Statham, while he’s a great fit for this franchise, throughout the film’s middle-section he’s rendered little more than a pantomime villain, popping up implausibly like a Muppet with a gun in the background of seemingly every scene.
Kurt Russell, too, is a good fit, and has a blast as a covert government spook. Russell, like Dwayne Johnson – and most of the rest of the cast save Vin Diesel – knows exactly what sort of film he’s in, and just runs with it. And while it’s a shame that The Rock’s man-mountain Hobbs is side-lined for much of proceedings, it’s all worth it for the film’s biggest (intentional) laugh in the visual gag that reintroduces him for the film’s climax.
And all of that is before mentioning the biggest – and saddest – aspect of Fast & Furious 7. Sadly, during filming, actor Paul Walker passed away. For a franchise that’s more concerned with notions of family than even EastEnders could lay claim to, it was a huge loss, and had a massive effect on the cast and crew. The script was rewritten and Fast & Furious 7 now acts as make-shift memorial to Walker – and it’s a devastatingly effective one.
The dialogue is still stilted and poorly delivered, and the sentimentality is still very on-the-nose, but somehow this all comes to work in the film’s favour when it comes to sending Paul Walker off at the end. The closing moments are genuinely affecting, and you’ll do well not to get a little choked up.
This isn’t a franchise that people flock to for its emotional resonance; it’s one that people go to for crazy stunts, cheesy one-liners and a cast of charismatic performers revelling in the inherent silliness of the films they’re in. But damn if you’ll see a more effective and affecting climax than that of Fast & Furious 7. The cast are clearly going through something, and as much as the sense of fun is infectious earlier on, so too is the sense of loss.
RIP Paul Walker. Long live Brian O’Conner.
Released in UK cinemas and IMAX on Friday 3 April 2015.
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