For a franchise that has an uncanny ability to embrace change on the fly, Furious 7 is rather conflicted as to the path it should take. Similar to the cars weaving in and out of Los Angeles traffic, while trying to evade an army drone no less, the film attempts to travel down several different streets at the same time. Some of those avenues lead to the familiar outlandish action that has increased the popularity of the franchise faster than a NOS (Nitrous Oxide Systems) fuelled Dodge Charger down a quarter mile road. However, other streets lead to emotional cul de sacs that the film never seems to figure out how to navigate.
It is no secret that the series has had to deal with a lot of change since Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and crew took down a giant plane on the world’s longest runway. James Wan stepped in as director, marking a temporary end to Justin Lin’s brilliant run on the series, and then the production had to figure out how to deal with the untimely passing of Paul Walker. The Sundance Kid to Toretto’s Butch Cassidy, Walker’s Brian O’Conner was an integral part of the series. So it is somewhat understandable that Furious 7 feels rather disjointed from a narrative perspective.
To be fair, Wan does an admirable job tweaking the story just enough to ensure that the gravitas of Walker’s death does not overshadow the film itself. Plus the touching tribute to Paul Walker at the end, the only time where reality and fantasy have ever collided in this series, was a classy move.
Picking up where Furious 6 left off, the seventh film finds Toretto’s team being hunted down by Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), the mercenary brother of hospital-ridden Owen Shaw (Luke Evans). Perpetually one-step ahead of them, and seemingly able to get in anywhere unnoticed, Shaw will stop at nothing until he gets his vengeance. Unequipped to battle such a foe, Toretto agrees to partner up with a covert U.S. military organization run by Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell). In exchange for helping Mr. Nobody save a computer hacker, Ramsey (Game of Thrones’ Nathalie Emmanuel), from the grips of a warlord, Jakande (Djimon Hounsou), who is intent on acquiring a tracking program she created; Toretto will be allowed to use Ramsey’s technology to locate Shaw.
The conundrum that Wan, and the series as a whole, struggles with is the question of “where do we go from here?” Furious 7 plays like a greatest hits mixtape that, more often than not, is actually a collection of B-sides and rarities. There are many winks and nods to elements (e.g. Race Wars, driving underneath semi-trailer trucks, out racing crumbling buildings, etc) that fans of the franchise will appreciate. However, similar to O’Conner himself, Furious 7 never quite figures out how best to deal with change. Instead of embracing its predecessors gleeful abandonment of what came before it – the series has already established that it can fix discrepancies in subsequent editions – Wan’s film is unnecessarily shackled to the past. This is most evident whenever the film tries to incorporate emotional beats into the story.
Seeing O’Conner go from superhero to a mini-van driving suburbanite is an intriguing thread that was sadly truncated due to Walker’s passing. However, were audiences really clamouring for more of Letty’s amnesia storyline? Not only was it the silliest part of Furious 6, but its inclusion this time around does not bring the emotional depth that Wan is clearly aiming for. It serves no other purpose but to set up a big revelation – whose placement in the film is unintentionally comical – that does little to further either the narrative or the character arcs.
Furthermore it exposes the glaring lack of character depth in the film overall. For all its wonderfully ludicrous action sequences, the film is devoid of any real personality. There are no Han and Gisele types to add a unique sense of charm to the mix. All the returning characters simply go through the motions and charismatic individuals like Dwayne Johnson’s Hobbs spends a good chunk of the film watching from the sidelines. The newcomers to the franchise do not fair much better as they are woefully underdeveloped as well. Jason Statham’s Deckard Shaw is essentially Khan from Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan crossed with Terminator 2’s T-1000. He delivers on the action, but does not get to showcase his acting chops to the fullest. He fairs far better than Djimon Hounsou whose Jakande is yet another in a string of one-note secondary villains the actor has been playing of late. Jakande’s lack of relevance becomes extremely noticeable in the films overly bloated final act.
The inclusion of Nathalie Emmanuel’s brainy Ramsey is also somewhat problematic. While it is great to see intelligent women reflected on-screen – though Wan inadvertently cheapens her by incorporating a senseless bikini shot into a film that already has an overabundance of gratuitously scantily clad women – watching someone type feverishly on a laptop is rarely interesting. Of the new characters, it is Kurt Russell who seems to truly grasp the tone needed for the series. Stealing almost every scene he is in, it is no coincidence that Furious 7 takes a major dip when Russell’s Mr. Nobody is not on-screen in the latter sections.
Now it may seem like I am being overly hard on the film, but the truth is I did enjoy it from an action standpoint. The franchise has always managed to outdo itself in terms of outrageous action set pieces and this one is no different. Despite the muddled emotional beats, the adrenaline still pumps within the film’s engine. The additions of Tony Jaa and Ronda Rousey really elevated the hand-to-hand combat moments, an area that early instalments of the series struggled with. This is partly why the scene where Letty takes on Rousey’s Kara and three other women in Abu Dhabi is so thrilling. If Fast Five was the series Ocean’s Eleven and Furious 6 was Mission Impossible, then Furious 7 is clearly the James Bond of the bunch. Instead of Bond skiing down slopes evading gunfire, Wan offers up cars barrelling down mountainsides and sky diving from planes.
Furious 7 does not reach the heights of either Fast Five or Furious 6 but, despite its uneven construction and lack of character depth, there is enough action to keep fans of the series entertained. The film marks the sad end of the Paul Walker era and signifies that great change is on the horizon for the series. How it will tackle the change moving forward remains to be seen.