Film review: Fast & Furious franchise gains new traction

Director Jason Wan’s Furious franchise debut fuels No. 7 with enough humor, action and speed to keep critics at bay. Photo: Universal Pictures Director Jason Wan’s Furious franchise debut fuels No. 7 with enough humor, action and speed to keep critics at bay. Photo: Universal Pictures

The redemption of The Fast and The Furious series, from critical punching bag to national treasure so late in the game, is something of a minor miracle with few equivalents in movie history. Think back to the mid-2000s when each new release was met with disbelief and jokes about its increasingly contrived titles that awkwardly avoided numbers, possibly to distract from how many had been made. Now, remember walking out of Fast & Furious 6 filled with nothing but delight and hope that the world would continue to see sequel after sequel.

The good news is that Furious 7 recognizes what made 6 such a smash and draws from it as much as it can at every opportunity. Full of impossibly large action sequences with silly heroics by a charismatic ensemble cast, goofy banter and entirely sincere Vin Diesel-isms about love and family. It’s a fine entry point for anyone who wants to work their way backwards through the series as well as a worthy continuation, while its respectful and touching treatment of Paul Walker’s death will make you feel the love and loss of those who knew him.

The not-exactly-bad news—more lukewarm—is that try as it does, Furious 7 is just not as good as 6 in almost every way. It’s difficult to make that point without sounding petty because both are great and ripe for multiple views. It’s just difficult to imagine that anyone would choose to watch 7 for a second time when 6 is an option.

After the events of 6, the “family” has gone their separate ways to a life of relative peace and quiet; everyone is happy, but no one is where they truly belong. The Rock (something about this movie makes you want to refer to characters by the actors’ names) is behind a desk rather than in the field, Paul Walker is feeling tense behind the wheel of a minivan rather than a hot car, and Vin Diesel is attempting to live a normal life with Michelle Rodriguez, who is still plagued with amnesia. Along comes Jason Statham, seeking revenge for the team that injured his brother Luke Evans (who was not killed, apparently) in 6, and the fam unites with Black Ops agent Kurt Russell against Statham’s allies Djimon Hounsou and Tony Jaa. It’s also worth noting that everyone is really good at driving and/or fighting.

The sense of fun that never spilled over into self-mockery or irony is still intact, as is the genuine humor, vehicular one-upmanship, tight direction, smooth action and imaginative set pieces. What makes 7 pretty good and not great is that those last three components are slightly, yet noticeably, weaker. Director Jason Wan (the horror auteur behind Saw, Insidious, and The Conjuring) helms his first action movie and is clearly having fun with the technical toys that come with an established franchise and a big budget, but is not yet on the level of his predecessor Jason Lin.

There are plenty of laughs and thrills as Walker runs up a bus that is in the middle of falling off a cliff or Diesel smashes through windows from skyscraper to skyscraper. But even at its best, there’s a noticeable increase in choppiness, and nothing matches or tops the cohesion of 6’s freeway tank chase or the legendary cars-versus-plane runway pursuit. There are even some awkward callbacks to the franchise’s bro-ish roots as the camera leers at bikini girls and—in a particularly Michael Bay-ish move—creepily fishes for up skirts and fixates on thongs.

It is worth noting that previous series director Justin Lin (who is currently working on the next Star Trek) had four films to perfect his tone and formula, while Wan is coming into action films after living his entire professional life in horror. All of these problems aren’t so much flaws as hiccups that speak to how impressive the series’ U-turn has been and should not be seen as reasons to skip it. If you loved 6 as much as I did, see it. If you haven’t seen 6, see it, love it, then watch 7 and be ready to love 6 even more for all the same reasons.

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