I’m waiting for the scene in this series when Vin Diesel straps himself to a Wile E. Coyote rocket and lights the fuse. I know it’s coming. You know it’s coming. Vin sure as fuck knows it’s coming. And the dirty little secret to the Fast and the Furious franchise is that it could probably get away with it. It’s made its reputation with the most outlandish and ludicrous vehicular mayhem its PG-13 rating can stand, and while I think the new Max Max film will demolish it in that department, you can’t accuse Furious 7 of giving up without a fight.
As you may expect, it sticks closely to formula, with another impossible task assigned to Diesel’s Dominic Toretto and his ever-increasing gang of car thieves. The specifics are irrelevant (though Jason Statham plays a key role as a villain out to kill the team for whatever the hell went down last movie). All that matters is watching them engage in ridiculous stunt after ridiculous stunt: each one pushing the limits of audience goodwill and each one reaping irresistibly goofy entertainment value in the bargain. The worst parts try to sell us on the humanity, and its campiness slides into kitsch. Everyone keeps emphasizing how important family and children are, for example… which is really important when you and your muscle car air drop into former Soviet Republics to take on hostile mercenaries in the kind of demolition derby that Q Division was created for. Because kids.
Pushing past all of that is key to getting any enjoyment out of the movie, and as someone who continues to struggle with the lethal amounts of macho bullshit onscreen, I can relate. Diesel plays the alpha dog as always, but the rest of the gang – including Dwayne Johnson, Tyrese Gibson, Ludacris and Paul Walker in his last onscreen role – get plenty of opportunities for chest-thumping manliness as well. Sure, Michelle Rodriguez is there to represent the gals, but only in tastefully smaller amounts. (The other female cast members fare much worse: Jordana Brewster is reduced to fretting wife duties and newcomer Nathalie Emmanuel struggles to keep up.) The Furious franchise hinges on providing adolescent wish-fulfillment to the terminally insecure, and the more Furious 7 wallows in it, the less fun it becomes.
At the same time, anyone who views it as more than a colossal joke – whether deliberate or inadvertent – are denying themselves a lot of good dumb fun. The minute you stop treating the characters as relatable and just enjoy the mayhem, it can do no wrong. New director James Wan carries the right sense of stylistic excess, and knows how to push the envelope in just the right ways. Considering his resume of mediocre horror films, the deftness with which he unleashes this particular brand of anarchy is quite impressive. He probes the limits of the PG-13 rating every way he can, aided by the fact that no amount of violence will prevent the characters from dusting themselves off and moving on to the next piece. (He also sadistically adheres to Roger Ebert’s rule about destroying gorgeous vehicles onscreen. I’m not an automobile aficionado by any stretch of the imagination, but there were times when I found myself thinking, “Not the car! FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, NOT THE CAR!!!”)
True to form, Furious 7 finds ways to squeeze new characters into the mix without losing cohesion. Statham gets the best of it, as a single villain who makes the whole phalanx of heroes look like punks. (He gets a little help from Djimon Hounsou, cashing a check as his criminal associate). But the real screen-stealer is Kurt Russell, as Toretto’s mysterious benefactor Mr. Nobody who sends the gang on their latest escapades. In one few swoop, he grabs every ounce of our attention: showing these whippersnappers how it’s done and reminding the audience to have a little fun.
On top of all that, they find a genuinely touching and respectful way to say good-bye to Walker, who was killed in an (unrelated) car crash during filming. Wan & Company refuse to simply shunt him aside, and with the help of a little movie magic, they acknowledge his indispensible contributions to the franchise. It’s a little bonus from a flick that knows what it is and never tries to be anything else.
Universal Pictures pioneered the art of summer creep: launching blockbusters progressively earlier in the year to get the jump on the competition. (Exhibit A: The Mummy.) At this point, “summer” officially begins in April and once again The Fast and the Furious comes out of the starting block first. I won’t say I like the pattern, but it’s hard to argue with something that works so well. The pleasures don’t come any guiltier, but I’d be lying if they said they didn’t start the season off in the right spirit. Gentlemen, start your engines.