Fifteen years ago, a magazine article about illegal street racing left a producer with dollar signs in his eyes, and the result was the trashily entertaining The Fast & The Furious – a high-speed reworking of Point Break with a title taken from an old Roger Corman movie (director Rob Cohen got the title from Corman in exchange for a few reels of stock footage).
That Universal now has such a huge franchise on its hands is no small thanks to director Justin Lin, who managed to take the series from its increasingly niche street racing roots and into new, colossally over-the-top action territory with Fast Five. But Fast & Furious 7 sees Lin replaced by a new director, James Wan – a filmmaker more closely associated with his Saw films than high-octane stunts.
Nevertheless, Wan manages to continue the series almost seamlessly, reintroducing its rogues’ gallery of characters one by one before sending them off on another crashing adventure. Fast & Furious 7‘s events follow on directly from the sixth film, as scowling ex-soldier Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) seeks revenge on the crew who took out his brother, Owen (Luke Evans). That crew includes growling papa bear Dom (Vin Diesel), azure-eyed sidekick Brian (Paul Walker), fist-fighting Lettie (Michelle Rodriguez), grinning jack o’lantern Roman (Tyrese Gibson) and too many others to list.
Statham, having made a grand entrance as a Terminator-like villain who’s deadly with his fists and a demon behind the wheel, is oddly relegated to the background as the story veers into different territory; Dom and his crew are hired by a G-man calling himself Mr Nobody (Kurt Russell), who wants them to recover a cutting-edge surveillance device called God’s Eye. Attempting to acquire that device gets Dom on the wrong side of another villain, Jakande (Djimon Hounsou), who we never really get to learn much about other than that he likes shouting and riding in helicopters.
Once again, Fast & Furious 7′s writers have been charged with finding ever more outlandish reasons for having its characters steal things from moving vehicles, and there are signs by now that they’ve already used up some of their best ideas. A set-piece involving trucks, a deserted road and our heroes’ cars could be a loving homage to the first film’s highway heists – or it could simply be déjà vu setting in.
Some of the other set-pieces pack a far more effective punch – there’s a great, bruising fight sequence between Statham and Dwayne Johnson’s improbably beefed-up agent Hobbs (his new desk job gives him more time to pump iron, he says), which is the mother of all action movie face-offs all by itself. Another one intercuts a battle between Michelle Rodriguez and an army of female soldiers with a scene which involves a stolen $3.5m sports car, Diesel and Walker, and a trio of skyscrapers.
These scenes are as guffaw-inducing and entertainingly improbable as they sound, but there’s a problem, by now, with this more-is-more approach. The story’s writers have such a huge cast to juggle that they have to either hurriedly find reasons for extraneous characters to politely bow out for a while, or at least give them something useful to do.
A few faces from the previous film are inevitably missing, but Fast & Furious 7 simply replaces them with new ones: British hacker Ramsay (Game Of Thrones’ Nathalie Emmanuel) spends much of the time staring at a laptop or being bundled into different cars, while martial arts grandmaster Tony Jaa only appears in a couple of (admittedly impressive) fight scenes. It’s also a bit disappointing to see Statham’s role being relatively slight, despite being heavily billed at the end of Fast & Furious 6; instead of driving the plot along, he simply pops up to throw a spanner in the works now and again.
None of this is to say that Fast & Furious 7 isn’t a big, fun, crowd-pleasing night out at the pictures. It’s also highly affecting, particularly in the way it handles Brian’s character following the tragic death of Paul Walker last year. For all its juvenile obsession with cavorting women in bikinis, shiny cars and big explosions, the Fast franchise has, unusually, readily acknowledged the passing of time and the ageing of its characters. Fast & Furious 7 does this particularly well, throwing in nods to the previous films in the franchise and giving Brian’s story a dignified, unexpectedly moving sense of closure.
There’s evidence in several places that Fast & Furious 7 was retooled in the wake of Walker’s passing, which accounts for some of the more ungainly moments in its plot and a few rushed effects scenes – approximately half of Walker’s scenes were completed with a mix of body doubles and CGI. But under what must have been tricky circumstances, James Wan has put together a sequel which satisfies as a popcorn-rustling action flick and a respectful send-off for one of its biggest stars.
It’s been said that the Fast series will continue, but with its characters taking stock of the past and the stunts at their dizzying zenith, Fast & Furious 7 seems like a fitting place to let the long-running franchise enjoy a well-earned rest.
Fast & Furious 7 is out in UK cinemas on the 3rd April.
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