If the “Fast & Furious” franchise carried a lot on its shoulders in recent years, it was more the filmmakers’ own choice than because audiences demanded it. Sure, fans itched for even bigger, wilder stunts and effects, but presumably so did the cast and crew, particularly director Justin Lin, who steered the mayhem for the last four installments. (He’s since moved on to “Star Trek.”) And while you had to love Vin Diesel and the “F&F” handlers for being so creatively invested in the series’ increasingly labyrinthine, multi-multi-character story line, was anyone really turning out for the continuity?
All of that changed with the untimely death of Diesel’s costar, Paul Walker, partway through production on “Furious 7.” Instantly, the onus was on new director James Wan (“Saw”) and company to deliver far more than usual: a fitting tribute to Walker. A film that would honor the actor and his character, rather than playing simply as a morbid (if understandably pragmatic) bid to ensure that the studio would recoup the mega-millions it had sunk into the project. And, finally, a movie with at least some coherence despite its sadly challenging circumstances.
They manage to pull it off — reportedly with the help of Walker’s brothers, Caleb and Cody, as digitally tweaked stand-ins whose seamless contributions avoid any spot-the-fix distractions. The movie doesn’t hold together as well as the previous chapter, but that’s really a function of expanding the cast still further. Among those piling on: Jason Statham, Kurt Russell, Djimon Hounsou, and even bit player Iggy Azalea. Oh, it’s furious, all right – especially the cross-cutting.
The story finds Dom (Diesel), Brian (Walker), and their fugitive crew (Michelle Rodriguez, Jordana Brewster, Tyrese Gibson, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) finally back home in LA after earning criminal pardons from government agent Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson). But as seen in a part-6 end teaser, new baddie Deckard Shaw (Statham) is already targeting them, peeved about the government-assigned hurt they put on his critically wounded brother (Luke Evans). Statham gets an even meaner intro here, swinging by intensive care with a sociopathic nonchalance that would do Heath Ledger’s Joker proud. It makes you wish he played the heavy more often.
The filmmakers apparently feel the same. Even after Russell’s wisecracking “Men in Black” knockoff recruits the team to retrieve some stolen surveillance tech in mountainous hinterlands and the Middle East, Statham’s Shaw keeps popping up. It’s supposed to be Hounsou’s show: He’s the generic terrorist who has abducted the tech’s sexpot designer (Nathalie Emmanuel, “Game of Thrones”). Still, Shaw’s nonsensical presence just adds to the nutty high of a sequence that opens with the gang skydiving their cars off of a plane and finally wraps — 20 minutes later, maybe? — with Brian and Dom sending their respective rides straight off a cliff. It’s sharper, more thrilling action than the movie’s chaotic, copters-and-drones finale, as is an Abu Dhabi skyscraper sequence that plays like the last “Mission: Impossible” with a $3 million sports car handling those Tom Cruise tower jumps.
Amid it all, the story does make time to spotlight Walker with a modicum of calm. There’s an underdeveloped thread about Brian wrestling with domesticity that’s credible and even funny, and a diverging-roads scene with Walker and Diesel is heartfelt. It’s a somewhat ironic elegy, perhaps, for a star who perished in a crash. But as a remembrance of the way Walker lived and was celebrated, it feels true.
Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.