The Fast and The Furious -- probably about 13 years ago -- I remember liking it but not loving it. I can safely say I never thought that six movies later the franchise would be stronger than ever, and that I also would be disgustingly excited for each new entry. I've been counting down the months, weeks and days until the latest franchise entry. Maybe you've heard of it, a little movie released in theaters this past weekend, Furious 7.
Having put their mission in England and Spain behind them in putting away Owen Shaw, Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and his crew of street racers and drivers have moved on. Well, that's the plan at least. Having moved back to his old stomping grounds in Los Angeles, Dom, friend and partner and crime, Brian O'Connor (Paul Walker), and his sister, Mia (Jordana Brewster) barely survive an explosion from a bomb sent their way by Shaw's older, more dangerous brother, Deckard (Jason Statham). Worse than that? Their friend, Han (Sung Kang), has already been killed by Deckard who has vowed to dispatch anyone involved in the attack on his brother. As if the younger Shaw hadn't been good enough, now Dom, Brian and the crew are going up against the very best. Their best hope of getting Shaw before Shaw gets them? Teaming up with a government agent who knows the perfect way to bring that confrontation into reality.
Let's start with the uncomfortable. Star Paul Walker tragically passed away in November 2013 as filming was in high gear for this action-packed sequel. His death left the production in a troubled state. Should they continue on or abandon the project? How would the Brian character be treated in terms of a send-off? In stepped Walker's brothers Caleb and Cody who helped stand in for their brother in scenes that hadn't been filmed yet. Some brotherly look-a-likes, some quick CGI work, yeah, it stands out at times the scenes Walker wasn't there, but it's never distracting. Is it a difficult movie to watch at times knowing it will be Walker's last? Hell yes, but it is a fitting send-off for an incredibly likable actor and movie star.
The movie itself, well, it continues on without missing a beat. In steps director James Wan, replacing Justin Lin who had directed the last 'Fast' entries starting with 'Tokyo Drift.' I was a little wary, but Wan follows the formula that's made these movies so successful and amps it up quite a bit. The biggest compliment I can give here is that this is the type of fun, ridiculously over the top entertainment that movies SHOULD be. These movies are F-U-N from beginning to end. 'Furious' is the longest such entry at 137 minutes, but it never even remotely feels long. The pacing and story actually fly by. It's far from the most pointed story and drifts along with crazy action sequences filling in the blanks, but you go along for the ride. Pun intended by the way. This is a popcorn movie at its absolute freaking best.
Yes, the action is ridiculous and will be discussed later. I have thought and continue to think that the heart of these movies is the characters. Seven movies in, you're familiar with them. You like them and you're rooting for them. That starts with Vin Diesel as Dominic Toretto, the team's leader, a philosophizing, growling street racer who holds family and loyalty above all else. Mess with his family and brace to incur his wrath. The most important relationship is between Dom and Walker's Brian, a brotherly relationship that has gotten better and deeper with each passing movie. These aren't the youngsters of 2001's original film. They're a little older, a little wiser, but they're still two of the best, most skilled drivers around. Their dynamic throughout is the real heart of the movie, two friends off-screen who allow that friendship to carry over onto the screen.
But wait, there's more! Basically the whole team is back. Unfortunately Dwayne Johnson isn't around much for his part as muscle-bound, one-liner spewing Agent Hobbs. He's there at the beginning and end but not the middle. When he's there, it's prime stuff. He just brings an energy to the character no matter how long he's around. Along with Brewster's Mia, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, and Ludacris are all back. Rodriguez's Letty is slowly getting her memory back and gets some surprisingly effective scenes with Dom about their past. Tyrese as fast-talking jokester Roman Pearce and Ludacris as tech and hacker extraordinaire Tej provide some comic relief, a one-two punch who consistently get laughs from their bickering back and forths. Kang and Gal Gadot make quick appearances in footage from the previous movies and in a cool touch uniting the seemingly disjointed timeline of the franchise, Lucas Black reprises his role from Tokyo Drift as young driver Sean Boswell. Just a fun cast who are familiar with their characters and continue to bring them to life.
What would a successful franchise be without some fresh blood? Expanding on his surprise appearance at the end of 'F+F 6,' Statham has some fun as Deckard Shaw, a brooding, menacing villain who isn't given much to do other than pop up and wreak havoc at the least opportune time. I wish he was given more to do, but it's Statham in villain mode. That's rarely a bad thing. Other new faces include Nathalie Emmanuel as Ramsey, a world-class hacker, Djimon Hounsou as an international terrorist and Tony Jaa as his brutal enforcer, and UFC fighter Ronda Rousey as a bodyguard who tangles with Rodriguez's Letty. My favorite new part? Kurt Russell having a blast as Mr. Nobody, an incredibly capable, dangerous government agent who teams up with Dom and Co. to bring Shaw to justice. Russell is smiling almost every scene he's in, and it looks like he's genuinely having some chaotic fun.
Most movies would be hard-pressed to improve on the action of its two predecessors, Fast Five and Fast and Furious 6. '7' manages to do just that. The action is flat out, over the top, ludicrously nuts, never possibly exist in this reality type of action. Car chases in abundance, Statham taking on Hobbs early and then Diesel in the finale, Rodriguez and Rousey tearing each other up (in some classy gowns at that), it is all NUTS. It works though because the story and characters commit. It never plays out like a spoof. So yes, there's cars dropping out of a plane and parachuting to take down an armored convoy. Yes, the attack is nuts. Yes, Dom and Brian crash from one skyscraper to another....and another in Abu Dabi. The finale itself is probably about 30 minutes long and just a smorgasbord of excessive action on the streets of Los Angeles. Car chases, fist fights (with wrenches), helicopters and missile-loaded drones....and very few cops in sight. Go along with it and have some fun.
I read heading into this sequel that Wan and Co. filmed a poignant tribute to Paul Walker for the finale. Yeah, about that...it's a perfect, moving ending. And no, those aren't tears in my eyes. I'm allergic to something, anything, whatever. Don't Judge Me!!! The final scene and a quick montage of Walker's involvement in the series is beyond a perfect send-off to the very popular movie star and actor. If this is the end of the series, so be it. This was a more than worthy finale. If it isn't -- supposedly there's at least 2 more sequels coming -- I'll welcome them with open arms. This is that rare series that has gotten better in the second half of its run. Judging by the box office money on opening weekend, I'm not the only one to feel that way. It made $400 million this weekend internationally. 400 MILLION!!!! That perfect popcorn movie and a fitting finale for Paul Walker's Brian O'Connor character.
Furious 7 (2014): ****/****