Perhaps the only thing larger than the leap from 2001’s The Fast and the Furious to 2015’s Furious 7 is the leap that cars make from building to building in the latter film, soaring through the air almost casually, as if this is what cars were always meant to do. While re-watching the first movie, it’s hard to trace the path that led to a blockbuster action franchise boasting The Rock, Jason Statham, Kurt Russell, and Tony Jaa. But after powering through all six films (as you should do before seeing the seventh, and also maybe once a year), it makes a little more sense.
The only way to keep up a franchise like this, one that started with undercover cop Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker) infiltrating a street-racing crew led by Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) in order to find electronics thieves, is to avoid rehashing the same film (as 2 Fast 2 Furious did) by going bigger — improbably bigger — with each subsequent installment. Furious 7 does just that: raises the stakes, remains intense (in both the action and emotional beats), and retains the crazy fun of the franchise with ease.
Here’s the beauty of Furious 7: The big stunt that accompanies the marketing materials, in which the crew drive cars out of planes and fall through the sky before deploying parachutes, isn’t even the biggest stunt in the film. That’s the tame stunt. It’s only the jumping-off point and the first in a series of action sequences, each of which could serve as the film’s conclusion but instead just leads to another action sequence. It never gets tiring. In fact, Furious 7 is the perfect midnight movie for sleepyheads like me, who have a habit of passing out in the theater. It’s impossible to doze off: The film is so loud that your chest vibrates whenever a driver switches gears, the stunts are so massive that you can’t look away. You can only stare, hand over mouth, holding your breath as a vehicle precariously dangles off a cliff or a drone whistles through the Los Angeles streets. This is not The Fast and the Furious that we were introduced to; it’s much better.
Still, what struck me the most during Furious 7 — besides Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s demigod build, which allows him to flex off an arm cast — was how much this film harked back to the original, and how it relied on similar themes and sensibilities. Everything about Furious 7 is bigger: the stunts, the cars, the fight scenes, the cast, and the muscles. But the characters themselves are the same, still governed by street rules. The best entries in the Fast and the Furious series are anchored by relationships: Brian and Dom’s friendship is what drives the last few movies and gives them a surprising level of sentimentality, which even overpowers those men’s respective relationships with their girlfriends (especially because Jordana Brewster’s Mia has always been the weakest part of the franchise). The stunts are great, but the core of the films are the family ties that bond together this makeshift group.
It’s why Furious 7 temporarily returns to the drag-race wars of the first movie. Throughout the series, we see a reluctance, almost a fear, of leaving the middle-class world by the crew (who, it should be noted, are such a diverse group that it’s white surfer bro Paul Walker who seems like the token addition). This remains true even now that they are rich enough to buy private islands if they so desire. Their attachments to their old lives are strong — so strong that the destruction of Dom’s old home is devastating to watch — whether it’s their loyalty to the family they made on the streets or just a loyalty to a cheap, shitty beer like Corona. Despite macho posturing and literal flexing, they are still uncomfortable in this rich, tech-heavy, FBI-centric world: Roman (Tyrese) stutters out plans while pretending to be a leader; Tej’s (Ludacris) clever ideas come from the phone video game he can’t takes his eyes off; Brian never buys into the leather jackets and boots but instead spends most of the film in skater sneakers and a blue hoodie, looking more like an improv-comedy kid than anything else.
In Furious 7, which is actually set after the third installment, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, the crew isn’t racing to hijack cars or plan heists (though, sure, there’s a hacker plot). Instead, the film is built around revenge and familial loyalty. Deckard Shaw (an effortlessly cool Jason Statham; the cold open surrounding him is both funny and chilling), seeking revenge for his brother Owen’s death, kills Han, leading Dom and his crew to seek revenge against Shaw. But the film isn’t all action. There’s a subplot about Brian’s new roles as husband and father, where his driving skills are now used to drop off his son at school in a minivan. Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) hasn’t gotten her memory back and is struggling with existing in a world, and a relationship, where everyone knows about her but she knows nothing about them.
Then, of course, there is the big question surrounding the film: How will Furious 7 handle Paul Walker’s unfortunate death, and how will it write Brian out of the films? I can confidently say that it’s dealt with gracefully and is a fitting goodbye to Walker. (The film even provides a touching tribute of sorts; yes, I sobbed through the credits.) If this turns out to be the end of the Fast and the Furious franchise (it definitely isn’t and I can’t wait to see them race through New York City), it even works as a perfect and satisfying conclusion.
That all said: There is still plenty of shine in Furious 7. There are exotic locales, fancy cars that the crew drives in a cute little formation, distracting women, and evil villains (Tony Jaa and Djimon Hounsou) who don’t get much backstory but nonetheless delight with fury and fight scenes. An elite party is derailed by Letty and Kara (MMA fighter Ronda Rousey) brutally fist-fighting in expensive, fancy evening gowns. Hobbs (Johnson) growls out too-clever one-liners that wouldn’t work anywhere else. (Tyrese and Ludacris’ humorous exchanges are even better; I have never wanted two film characters to spin off into a sitcom so badly.) At one point, The Rock even performs his WWE finisher — the Rock Bottom — on Jason Statham, in one of the greatest and most ridiculous moments I’ve witnessed on screen. Dom eschews guns because his body — along with the streets — is a much more effective weapon than a bullet could ever be.
Furious 7 will not, as Vin Diesel believes, win Best Picture at the Oscars (though I would certainly vote for it if I could), and James Wan’s dizzying directing, full of 360 shots, grows a little grating. It may not be the smartest film out there (“This time it ain’t just about being fast,” Dom says at one point — and the only restraint the film shows in over two hours is not completing the phrase with the obvious) or the most important, but that certainly doesn’t mean it isn’t worth praise and consideration. It’s a bonafide blockbuster, and you’d have to try very hard to find a moviegoing experience that is as fun as this one.