Saturday, April 4, 2015

Vroom Vroom Kaboom: FURIOUS SEVEN

The Fast & Furious series continues to drift into hyperbole, finding in Furious Seven its most ridiculous entry yet. It is 137 minutes of improbable vehicular chaos, pausing only to reiterate its core cast’s affection for one another. The series began as modest, loosely connected heist/street-racing pictures before arriving in its fifth and sixth installments at a perfect blend of heightened automotive action – dragging a two-ton safe through Rio; racing a tank down an elevated highway – and sincere lunkhead melodrama playing off the reassembled ensemble’s family dynamic. Sure, cars went flying and the plots became tangled webs of backstory. But the brotherly bond that built up between Paul Walker and Vin Diesel, and the chummy affection amongst the whole diverse gang (Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Ludacris, Jordana Brewster) anchored the fast, often clever, action in good feelings.

Now here we are, seven films deep, and the series’ usual screenwriter Chris Morgan continues the typical pattern of sequel escalation, adding new characters and heightening the stakes. This time, a resourceful evil British assassin (Jason Statham) is hunting our team of drivers. See, they burned his villainous brother (Luke Evans) in Furious 6, so he wants to make sure they blow up real good. It’s a revenge plot, and the blood runs quickly. One teammate is killed, as teased in the previous installment’s credits. Their best frenemy (Dwayne Johnson) is hospitalized. And then Dom (Diesel) barely escapes with his life when his house is bombed. This means war, and a different kind of action movie than this series has been.

Instead of spending their time drag racing or heisting, though they do each for a scene, the gang decides to work with a mysterious military man (Kurt Russell). He offers them help defeating their new enemy in exchange for finding a MacGuffin held by a hacker (Nathalie Emmanuel) who has been kidnapped by a terrorist (Djimon Hounsou) and his henchman (Tony Jaa). What follows is a blitz of violence and movement, in sequences that feature such sights as: cars parachuting out of a plane, two people surviving a rollover accident down a mountain, a sports car careening safely between skyscrapers, and a climax involving a helicopter, a drone, a supercomputer, crumbling buildings, and a bajillion bullets that wouldn’t look out of place in the third act of any superhero movie.

Fast & Furious movies are no stranger to the absurd, the dubious, the gleefully stupid, and the charmingly outsized. But Furious Seven is the most mostness of all of them. It’s chockablock with exotic locales, roaring engines, bruising hand-to-hand combat, convenient technological assists, last-second escapes, huge explosions, and lasciviously objectified women in bikinis. It’s amped up, and trying hard to be. Perhaps it’s the influence of the director, James Wan, taking over from Justin Lin, who had directed the last four entries. Wan, he of Saw and The Conjuring in his first non-horror effort, seems extra sure to hit the required elements of a F&F film hard, leaving the audience happy to have received not just what they’d hoped to see, but so much of it at once.

Instead of building with each scene, Seven is all exhausting crescendo. A few times, the movie tipped over into exasperated monotony, often leaving me worn out, eyes rolling. The action sequences aren’t as infectiously exciting. The movie basically admits it, with the “don’t try this at home” disclaimer buried deep in the credits instead of prominently displayed. (At least the characters are at one point worried about a concussion.) The loud, silly action is the series’ biggest and craziest, sometimes entertaining, but hardly the most satisfying. I idly wondered if the filmmakers hoped to stun an audience with an overdose of exaggerated mayhem into forgetting the action’s just not as clever or memorably staged this time. In fact, the fistfights are better than the car chases. And who goes to one of these excited to see the punching?

Yet, when I managed to shake off my doubts, I found myself enjoying the ride more than not. This is a perpetual motion machine manipulating the audience with jolts of adrenaline and sensation. It’s scattered, characters appearing and disappearing when required for an action beat (Brewster gets less screen time than the product placement for Corona and Abu Dhabi), and emotional threads loosely strung (flashbacks flashing by to get teary-eyed about the past). But all this overstuffed muchness is in service of a thunderous series finale feeling rolling over the film. This finality is partially due to star Paul Walker’s untimely death mid-shoot, his unfilmed scenes finished with effects, doubles, and old footage, the ending doubling as a sweetly mawkish tribute. But it is also partially for the way the film gathers up familiar faces, events, and vehicles from throughout the franchise for what these characters (and Universal’s marketing) call “one last ride.” I doubt it will be, but I don’t know how much further over the top they can go.

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