Furious 7 review: bigger, crazier, and kind of a mess

James Wan's first Fast movie gets off to a rough start

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My love for the Fast & Furious franchise cannot be contained. It knows no bounds. It is an unstoppable, almost supernatural force that has led me to marathon the entire six-movie set more times than I can count. For God’s sake, I co-host a dedicated Fast & Furious podcast.

And here’s the thing: I don’t think I’m alone. Granted, my obsession may run a little deeper than it does for most, but the progenitor of this series is now 14 years old; today, there are teenagers who have quite literally grown up with Dom, Brian, and the gang. Obviously, at its most basic level, each new Fast film is a high-budget ode to street racing and explosions — but this has also now become a telenovela for the movie-going set. Once every year or two, we check in on the Torettos, the O’Conners, and their perfect little slice of LA. We want to know how they’re doing. Mia’s baby must be getting big now!

The downside to this kind of mad devotion to Vin Diesel’s kingdom of steel and testosterone, of course, is that disappointment is a substantial and ever-present risk. And never has anticipation for a Fast & Furious film been greater — both for me personally and for the movie-going population at large — than it has ahead of the release of Furious 7. There’s certainly some morbid fascination around the tragic mid-filming death of Paul Walker and how his central character of Brian O’Conner would be handled, but there’s also the simple reality that this is a Fast & Furious joint. They always get bigger, crazier, more deliciously absurd. Considering the precedents set by Fast Five and Fast & Furious 6, it’s a tough benchmark to beat.

The bigger they are, the harder they fall.

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Furious 7 picks up after the events of Tokyo Drift, tracking the crew’s search for vengeance after the death of one of their own — Han — at the hands of Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham). Deckard, in turn, is the brother of Fast 6’s fallen bad guy Owen Shaw. Basically, everyone wants to kill everyone else.

No one would've pegged the making of Furious 7 as an easy task

But it’s a mess from the start. Clearly, no one would’ve pegged the making of Furious 7 as an easy task after Walker’s death, and there was also a delicate dance needed to untangle the series’ 1-2-4-5-6-3-7 chronology. Indeed, there are moments where director James Wan — a newcomer to the franchise whose prior credits are almost exclusively horror films — seems to have been palpably buried by the enormity of the task that lie before him. The entire first third of the movie almost continuously trips over itself, as Wan and the writers seemed hell-bent on setting up (and, in some cases, glossing over) a laundry list of relatively minor plot points and callbacks, perhaps in an overwrought attempt to tie off storylines haphazardly and with minimal effort — and to satisfy fanatics like me. We go on a whirlwind tour of moments in Fast lore past and present, visiting (the still unfortunately named) Race Wars for a fleeting instant and the streets of Tokyo Drift for another. It’s as if Wan’s mission was to treat every character and every scene from previous films as a touchstone to be collected in Furious 7’s vast satchel.

The grab bag of bit characters includes Hector, Elena, Twinkie, Sean, and even Owen Shaw, none of whom really contribute anything — they’re just there. (Hector’s only purpose, for instance, is to be punched by Michelle Rodriguez’s Letty.) And if none of those names mean anything to you, God help you: I think Furious 7 is the first film in the series that makes no effort to be atomically approachable. You have to know the backstory for it to make any sense, full stop. If you’re just there for the sweet action sequences, sure, I hear you — but any attempt to untangle the countless relationships that have developed over the course of six previous movies without having seen them recently enough to remember them will fail.

I sound ungrateful, but believe me: I appreciate the thought behind Wan’s effort to cover all of this nostalgic ground in a little over two hours. It just doesn’t work; it doesn’t cohere; I felt strangely disengaged with these characters that I had learned to love over a decade and a half. I just wanted something to sink my teeth into, but Wan rarely gives the viewer an opportunity.

And in what little time we have for actual character development, we get practically none. Ramsey, a conveniently attractive computer hacker and literal caged damsel-in-distress, serves little function but to enforce tropes and incite an array of cringeworthy lines and camera angles. Yet she was in the movie long enough that it feels odd to know so little about her.

The movie does eventually settle into a series of awesome action sequences

Kurt Russell’s "Mr. Nobody" comes and goes with even less fanfare; the character basically functions as a narrator to explain what’s going to go down in the next action sequence. (My colleague Ross Miller, seated next to me, described him as a "Call of Duty menu system.") And speaking of action sequences, Furious 7 does eventually settle into a series of them — protracted and higher-budget than ever — which is really what you paid your $20 or whatever to see. This is the bread and butter not just of this film, but of the entire series, especially since the heady post-Tokyo Drift days. Key moments of each of these sequences were spoiled by trailers, but there’s still enough additional meat in the movie to get you riled up, possibly throwing a fist in the air on occasion and screaming "hell yes" with a giant smile across your face. I’m not saying that’s what I did, just that you may feel compelled to do that, and you should feel okay about it.

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And maybe that’s what Furious 7 needed more of: as much as I liked seeing Hector for nostalgia’s sake, I didn’t need to see him for a few fleeting seconds in a Race Wars scene barely a few minutes long. Perhaps I was spoiled by the adrenaline-soaked perfection of 5 and 6, where the action never stopped, we got precisely the correct amount of touchy-feely team interaction, and we didn’t care that runways were 30 miles long because we were young and innocent and everything was perfect with the world.

It’s probably no coincidence that the last four films were all directed by Justin Lin, whose deft touch for the franchise was sorely missed here. Lin’s unapologetic love for over-the-top explosions was just as honed as Wan’s, but he did a far better job taking our hands and leading us through each film, building characters and relationships along the way. (And his hype-building post-credit scenes were legendary. Furious 7 has none.)

Justin, when you’re done with your 'True Detective' adventure, come back

Justin, when you’re done with your True Detective adventure, come back. James Wan, please return to the Saw series, because the first one was your magnum opus.

As for the handling of Walker’s death, without spoiling it, I’ll only say that it left me as unsatisfied as most of Furious 7’s mindless vignettes. The strategy seemed strangely rushed and poorly thought-out, considering the additional production time that was allotted to rewrite the script. In the inevitable Fast 8 — the screenwriters will still have a bit more work to do to fully explain O’Conner’s (and, in all likelihood, Mia’s) absence.

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It’s entirely possible, of course, that my fandom has simply blinded me to Furious 7’s greatness. The action sequences — particularly Abu Dhabi, with the supercar leaping between buildings — are legitimately phenomenal, and the scenes filmed after Walker’s passing, in which his brothers stepped in for him, were never distracting or even noticeable without looking closely. Maybe I’m missing something. The early reviews are extremely positive, and Rotten Tomatoes is closing in on 90 percent. Maybe my expectations were unrealistic; maybe nothing short of a four-hour marathon with 45 minutes of heart-pounding Race Wars would’ve fit my bill.

See it on opening weekend when the theater is thick with hype

And if Furious 7 deserves credit for one thing, it’s closing (or at least trying to close) some doors from the past that make way for new ones to be opened. Vin Diesel says that the next movie will be set in New York, a marked departure from the series’ deep LA roots. And Lucas Black (Tokyo Drift’s Sean Boswell) has been rumored to return in 8 and beyond; maybe he can step up and start to fill the huge hole left by Paul Walker.

Either way, I encourage action movie buffs and diehard Fast fanatics alike to see this one, preferably on opening weekend when the theater is thick with hype. (There’s no other franchise where clapping and screaming throughout the movie is as utterly appropriate.) I need people to talk about it with, after all.

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