06 April 2015

First Impressions: Furious 7

It's needless to say because it's been repeated ad nauseum, especially now in the fourth film of its most recent resurgence, but the Fast and Furious franchise has risen to become what is likely to be the most improbably movie series success story of all time. In this, the impossible seventh installment, the franchise finds itself shifting genres once again, to morph into a spy thriller. Seriously. This is nuts. Plenty of SPOILERS of like, every Fast movie ever to follow, so skip and catch up if you're clueless.
These are hackers, which is exactly
why these movies are so popular.

I was never a diehard fan of the first couple Fast entries. I had more gearhead friends who were into it, but it always just seemed so stupid to me. I mean, I was right - I still am right - but in recent years this has become an A-list attracting franchise. I didn't even jump in on Fast & Furious (2009) right away, but from about Fast Five (2011) on, I've played catch-up, thanks mostly to daytime USA Network broadcasting. And since then, the improbable has happened - each subsequent film has been more critically acclaimed and grossed more cheddar at the Box Office. Funny how that happens. Seriously, how has that happened?

Fast Five can best be described as a heist movie, that's for sure. It's a bit tougher to categorize Fast & Furious 6 (2013) as anything but an action movie. Maybe crime mystery thriller? Amnesiac revenge tale? But Furious 7 (2015) is totally a spy movie. Jetsetting destinations, secret black-ops missions, even going undercover at fancy parties in lavish clothing. It's wild stuff.

Adding Jason Statham to the mix only sweetens the deal. The franchise is actually leaning dangerously into Expendables territory, to be honest - with a nice recruitment of action stars young and old, UFC fighters, and dream match-ups like The Rock vs. Statham. The catch of course is that it's far better than any Expendables movie, perhaps because it's actually working things through organically instead of forcing ancient stars from the 80s together. And at least UFC is slightly better than MMA. With the addition of Djimon Hounsou this is basically a big, bald, ethnic version of the expendables. Where is Sam Jackson? LL Cool J? Bruce Willis? Bring 'em on.

The plot of Furious 7 is almost curious. Like Fast Five there's almost two plots interweaving at once. In Fast Five it was The Rock tracking them down and causing a tussle every once in a while - here it's Statham who keeps crashing the party, seemingly anywhere, to lay a bruising on our crew. The irony somewhat is that the Diesel Family is attempting to track down a device that will allow them to find Statham. What they should do is just arm themselves constantly because Statham is everywhere all the time. It actually makes no sense. But it's artfully constructed and the stakes are high enough, given Statham's demonstrable dangerousness that it's still a hell of a lot of fun.

I spent most of this week re-watching various Fast movies. Looking at it again, I'm particularly struck at comparing the planning scenes in Fast Five, mostly in a run-down warehouse with paper maps to the same group of people standing around a super-high tech digital hologram display in Kurt Russell's playhouse here. By the way, Kurt Russell. Mr. Nobody has an awesome presence in this film, even if his action contribution is understandably minimal. You think Stallone will call him for the Expendables soon? He's also the ultimate spy badass, playing a slightly lighter Sam Jackson from xXx (2003). This whole film reeked of xXx to be honest.

All this being said, this isn't an Academy Award-winning movie and it's full of the most ridiculous things imaginable, in good and bad ways. Let's begin with the characters, because throughout everything that's really why people keep tuning in. You don't really want to see giant muscly bros skydive with cars, you want to see Vin Diesel skydive with cars. I actually couldn't stop laughing at every single thing the Diesel said. Not because it was funny, but he just grumbles every single damn line. This was really awful in an otherwise somber theater during Han's funeral.
Roadblock to the rescue!

I was most disappointed by this film's lack of characters, to be weirdly honest. Why relegate Jordanna Brewster's Mia Toretto to childcare for the whole film again? She can drive! And I know that The Rock was most indisposed thanks to Hercules (2014), but damn he was in a lot of promotional material and made a lot of appearances from SNL to Lip Synch Battle hyping this thing up. He barely left a mark. Well, he did have a handful of the coolest scenes, including busting through a cast on his arm by flexing.

After Gina Carano had a fairly substantial role in Fast & Furious 6 I also figured Ronda Rousey would be in for more of the same, but she just got her one girlfight in and called it quits. C'mon, why still have that trope of all the girls fighting each other? Ronda Rousey could beat up the vast majority of that cast. Let's have a Rousey vs. Tyrese battle. Lucas Black, too - hasn't this guy waited patiently enough to be brought on full-time as part of the crew? And shit, they did him no favors when cutting directly from The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006) footage to nine years later in the same scene. Cat got old. Hate to say it, but they recruited this guy as a poor man's Paul Walker way back when - now's the time, right? Well, we'll get to that later.

Thanks to Gal Gadot's death in 6 and Han's death in Tokyo Drift, the crew is actually looking a bit slim. With the loss of Paul Walker, it's basically now down to Vin, Letty, and the black guys from 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003). And speaking of Han, no one seemed to care this much when Gisele died, or at least that was maybe under different narrative circumstances both in its timing and motivation.

I like how this series keeps pushing a variation on a simple theme - how can you keep innovating heists and raids in cars, making things fast and ridiculous? Drop them out of planes, of course .The best part of that plan was the crew counting on Roman Pearce being useless. What more can they do with cars? I say put them on boats next time. Speed boats. That's awesome - jumping across speed boats on a high-speed chase? Who's writing 8 Fast 8 Furious (2018)?

So much of this is actually meta - like some cameos at Race Wars like Hector, played by Noel Gugliami and Iggy Azalea, a classic homage to this series' long use of terrible rappers as cameos (see also: Rule, Ja). Diesel wielding dual wrenches in his final tussle with Statham is also a great call back his notable off-camera beatdown references in The Fast and the Furious (2001) and Fast Five along with his actual near beatdown of The Rock. He just loves his wrenches.

Those wrenches, while symbolic of Diesel's tortured past straddling lines between honor and brutish violence, it's also totally the weapon of choice of a gearhead like Toretto. From top to bottom that scene is full of incredible imagery. Diesel's car mounts Statham's in a bout of frustrated homoerotic sexuality. "The street wins" hitting the nail on the head in the most obvious way while also cementing Diesel's position of this street fighter winning against the trained British superspy. It's a strong assertion of this franchise's gritty origins triumphing over the more nuanced, established movies out there.

I wonder about a few more things - maybe considering this film's strong attempt at finding international appeal, like every other big movie out there these days. Why is the Dominican Republic the best fortress stronghold they can find for Mia and Jack? Why does Vin Diesel know the President of the Dominican or whatever? And when did Dom and Letty get married? That was actually a nice moment. Again, it's all about character. Which is insane in a film involving a terrorist Predator Drone attack on car-driving hackers in Los Angeles.

But listen, there are not that many scantily-clad women hanging out in Abu Dhabi. Sure there has been some secularization to better suit Western investors but you can't have your sexiest scene set in the Middle East, right? And why were they just lounging around by the beach? Statham WAS there in town trying to kill them. Thank goodness he struck while they were at the part with guns instead of when they were ogling Nathalie Emmanuel. All in all it was a fairly favorable view of Abu Dhabi, by the way, good on them leading up to the World Cup, who cares about their human rights violations. And Diesel lifted a car. When this film just goes into actual superhero territory, it really shines.

I liked how in some sense, these last four Fast films have done what a few other films do, just tracking stages in life, in their own way. It's like the American Pie films. The Fast and The Furious showed Paul Walker and Mia first meeting. Fast & Furious showed them hooking back up after some time separated. Then they were dating, then pregnant, then with a little kid, and now they're totally domesticated. Furious 7 was adapted a little bit to hammer home this notion of Paul Walker moving on from the "bullets" life and into a life of marital bliss. It helps that they have all that money from Fast Five still. Ballin'!
Still doesn't make up for Brick Mansions

I was somewhat surprised they favored retiring Brian O'Connor rather than killing him off, but in its own way, it was a much more fitting tribute. Those last couple minutes were actually some of the more emotional to be featured in a film in recent memory. I'm getting teary-eyed just hearing that track again - somehow over the past fifteen years that connection has become that deep. I know! It's such a stupid movie! It's fairly rare for an actor to get such a send-off in his or her last film. Paul Walker's deeply resonant tribute is due in no small part to his public persona being indelibly wrapped up in Brian O'Connor along with the fact that his good friend, Vin Diesel has an extreme amount of control over the production of Fast movies. Universal Studios was also apparently more than willing to honor the best franchise they've got these days.

For real, though, thinking that O'Connor died in this movie made it so much more nerve-wracking to watch. There was a constant feeling of "This is it!" and "Oh no!" Just seeing Paul Walker defy death at every turn while his conversations with Jordanna Brewster presented this real danger was bone-shuddering. It's an incredibly sad fate to watch Brian O'Connor drive off into retirement in the sunset with his family knowing that Paul Walker faced a much different fate. Furious 7 for all its loud, insane, incoherent action sequences, brash attitudes, and genre riffs, ends on this really elegant and poignant note, and as it claimed that "the street wins," it too wins against more cynical franchises that wouldn't be able to base its love so heavy on characters, family, and true bromance. Maybe we just cracked it. That's why this gang of morons and their cars have lasted so long. That friendship really does show up on screen and when Vin Diesel waves goodbye to Paul Walker, we've all been there and can feel that pain.

I don't think that Furious 7 is the best movie of the year or even the best Fast movie, but those last couple scenes, regardless of Box Office or critical response hit home more than much else I've seen in a long time.

Now go race Nelson Mandela.

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