Spinning Its Wheels: Furious 7 (C+)

As big a game as we, as a culture, talk when it comes to the ubiquity of sequels, franchises, and the attendant fatigue that comes with them, we’ve rarely had occasion to tackle something like the Fast and Furious franchise. Something this massive, lumbering, unwieldy, convoluted, and – on the flip side – brilliant, awe-inspiring, and utterly cinematic is almost entirely unique. Perhaps only the James Bond films, the Harry Potter franchise, and the current Marvel Cinematic Universe have built to a place quite like this one, a place where their seventh film (or beyond) wasn’t some tired retread or affront to the memory of fans, but instead established the series as a continuing and well-regarded institution of the cinematic arts. Of those, only the Fast & Furious series couldn’t get the principles of its cast to return for its second and/or third installments, seemingly relegating the franchise to forgotten speed-freak curio status.

These films are 21st Century Cinema’s Strange Symphony. Where most contemporary tentpoles are at least adapted from other works, it is entirely original, based on no existing property (unless you count car makes and models). It is unabashedly goofy (in an adorably tone-deaf way initially, though now, endearingly and artfully). Its melodies combine elements – revving cars, roaring explosions – that everyone finds cacophonous in just about every other composition (especially when the composer is Michael Bay). It is also burdened with the unique distinction of nearly forcing everyone in its audience outside of true diehards to nod off or duck out of the concert hall during its third movement.

Everyone has some snippet of the symphony they don’t love; for most it’s that sojourn to Tokyo. (For me it’s Letty’s amnesia.) Many would argue that more than half the movements in the symphony are nothing more than mediocre. And yet – and YET – if film historians aren’t using this series 100 years hence as a case study for the ways it typifies the blockbuster culture of the early 2000s… and for the ways it defies and confounds just about everything we’d expect from said culture, then film historians 100 years in the future probably aren’t doing their jobs very well.

Fast Five is, for many, the peak of not just this still-in-progress symphony but of action cinema of a recent vintage, period. A heist movie set in Rio, it may as well have been a standalone movie for as little as it had to do with the street-racing drama that had come before it. It also could not have existed, or assembled the group of actors and themes it did, without the first four films (whatever their merits) having already done most of the heavy lifting. It felt simultaneously weighty – in the way it assembled the previously segregated gangs of racers, and an already insane amount of continuity, under one Robin Hood-steal-from-the-rich umbrella, giving us a franchise that felt as diverse and representational as its audience, which is still novel four years later – and light as air. None of this continuity seemed to weigh Fast Five down at all. If you hated Tokyo Drift, that was okay; Fast Five was going to make sure you loved Fast Five.

Furious 7 feels heavier. Part of this is out of necessity: Paul Walker’s death came abruptly, halfway through what should have been a long life and long career, and halfway through production on this film. This necessitated rewrites and ensured a sense of finality would color this movie even if there are countless more Fast films yet to come.

If we were grading on a curve, then Furious 7 would get a massive boost for managing to pull together a full, fleshed out, and fitting farewell storyline for a character who had been the lynchpin of the franchise from the word “go” (or in the parlance of the films’, from the moment a scantily clad woman dropped both her hands and ducked between two oncoming cars) in spite of the fact that the actor who played him could no longer perform (a fact which, as is well-known publicly, left the rest of the case in legitimate and ongoing mourning).

Paul Walker’s Brian is a major part of Furious 7. He is always present, in on the action, playing off the other characters. There’s never any plot device that sidelines him in an overly obvious way; by that metric, an uninformed viewer might accidentally assume that it was the actor who plays Hobbes, rehabbing in the hospital for most of the film’s runtime, who had met an untimely end and not the guy who is in nearly every scene. At a certain point, I stopped trying to gauge which scenes had been played out by real Walker and which had been fudged using body doubles, CGI, and archival audio. Taking stock at the end of the film, I had simply assumed that only some action work and an obvious climactic car scene had been manipulated. Let it be a testament to movie magic, then, that in truth it was actually much (MUCH) more all-encompassing than that and I was blissfully none the wiser.

Still, even if nothing about Brian seems that off, something about the film does.

Reversing Out of the Driveway

Furious 7 begins in media res – we don’t find out until after an imposing speech from Declan Shaw (Jason-mutha-f’in-Statham) to his comatose brother that an entire throwdown has already occurred. We have to play catch up as we follow Declan out of the hospital and see the aftermath of what he has already done. This subterfuge right out the gate is a brilliant move on the part of new director James Wan. It shows confidence. Confidence that we’ll play along, that we’ll follow him wherever he’ll take us. Confidence that he can live up to the promise previous director Justin Lin made when he brought Statham into the picture for a continuity-solidifying seconds-long cameo.

It’s also just about the last time for almost an hour that Furious 7 stays out ahead of the curve and actually leads its audience somewhere it doesn’t expect to go. Because now the film proceeds to pretend that the previous film’s post-credit tag doesn’t exist. Maybe, for some, it doesn’t (there are still actually people who, at a film like Fast Five or Iron Man 3, get up as soon as the credits role as if they have some important appointment they might miss; with how bad post-credit teases of recent vintage have been, they may be the lucky ones), but for someone who saw Declan blow up Han and finally close the circle on Tokyo Drift’s time displacement, for someone hoping for forward moment, this is downright painful.

We now spend an almost unfathomable amount of time learning three things we already know – Declan Shaw kills Han, Dom Toretto goes to Tokyo after Han’s death, and Letty has amnesia. Until Kurt Russell shows up and blessedly gets the plot moving after Han’s funeral, this is really all Furious 7 is; an in-depth flashback examining events that were pretty nicely summed up in much shorter, much better scenes in previous films. The swerving and speeding will still come, but first Furious 7 has to reverse slowly out of the driveway. In the course of doing so it even brings back Lucas Black as Shane, pretending to talk to Dom mere seconds after they last interacted on film nine years ago. We can now do wonders with movie magic. We can make it seem like Paul Walker was present for scenes in which he could not have been present. But we cannot ensure that Lucas Black (who was already an unconvincing high schooler in 2003) does not wear every one of those nine intervening years on his face.

The only new material in the film’s opening act deals with Letty’s amnesia. Now maybe this is a personal bias, but amnesia is a pretty silly plot device by any metric. I understand that, scientifically, it is an all-too-real affliction, but it still seems like something a bad screenwriter came up with to make sure something that needed to be conveniently forgotten was. Such is the case with Letty in the previous Fast and Furious film. Her amnesia dragged down that sixth installment even when it was a necessary evil (how else to explain Letty’s extended absence?) but, once that plot necessity was fulfilled, I fully expected it to be swept under the rug. Instead, it is used in Furious 7 not for any discernable plot reason, but as an “important emotional struggle.” Translation: a crutch.

Letty is having trouble adjusting to what she is being told is her “real” life. This is a life she doesn’t remember. It seems like a nice life, and the lumbering fellow who gazes at her with googoo eyes seems decent, but all she knows of her life to this point is a terrorist cell and a grave with her name on it. To some extent, this is just filler to pad a runtime – something for non-Brian characters to deal with that has absolutely no consequence on the story. Still, it could be a pretty okay hook. But it necessitates an unfortunate nostalgic detour even further back into franchise mythology (further even than Lucas Black drifting in Tokyo), all the way back to film number one and its NOS-fueled street races. It’s a neat idea: Dom and Letty have built a street race utopia where no innocent bystanders can get hurt and no one has to listen to police scanners or block roads. There is racial harmony, none of the segregated posturing of that first Fast film. Still, it feels extremely retrograde in one aspect – the way it ogles women. It helps little that a woman wins the race when every other woman in the scene (hi there Iggy Azalea?) is fetishized. As the camera crawls up and down the body of the “starter girl,” making sure to catch her from behind as her skirt flaps up revealing her thong, it feels less like an acknowledgment of where this series started (pretty much every film has featured a street race scene like this) or celebration of a cultural milieu, and more like a palate cleanser for the male gaze. “Hey male gaze, there’ll probably be tears coming from your gazing eyes later because of the whole Paul Walker thing, but before we get there, how about… this!”

Bro-oap Opera

It’s important to remember – and easy to forget – that as sensitive and progressive as these films have become in most respects, they are still catering to the “bro” element – that element of energy-drink-hoarding, GTA players to whom it is easiest to attribute the franchise’s success. (Which is utter nonsense at this point; Furious 7, the fastest film to reach 1 billion dollars worldwide, is being watched by everyone, everywhere. Especially women, including women who hoard energy drinks and play GTA!)

Take our only new gang member as an example: Ramsey is a brilliant computer-programmer, but, to Roman’s surprise, she is also a beautiful black woman. She defies stereotypes on all counts, which is a really, really nice thought. She is also comically beautiful, ogled in a slow motion bikini shot, a la Ursula Andress/Halle Berry (let us never forget that Daniel Craig got equal treatment). It straddles a line this franchise has never been great at straddling, between including competent women in the action at critical junctures and condescending to them because they are, above all, pleasant to look at. Gal Gadot was a particular victim of this before she joined the Justice League as Wonder Woman. But it’s also hit Mia Toretto hard too. She is the mother of Brian’s child and, if she’s put in danger, a really good way to get the gang riled up. Because of Walker’s limited availability, she is kept far from the action this time.

Perhaps because of the way women were written into corners, the Fast films prioritized male relationships, sometimes to an almost comical level. Sure, Brian and Mia are in love, and so are Dom and Letty, but anyone who got more out of their relationships then they got from the extremely close bond between Brian and Dom was reading against the grain of what the film’s explicitly spelled out.

Michelle Rodriguez does an incredible job of carrying the climactic scene where she coaxes Dom back to life by telling him that the real Letty is back, but something feels off, because, in our hearts, this is where Paul Walker’s absence is truly felt. If Walker were really there, he would be the one propping Dom up, asking him to come back. Because Dom and Brian aren’t just friends or associates. They are family. They are brothers. Bros in the noblest sense of that term. And the Fast and the Furious series is the greatest example we are ever likely to see of the Bro-oap Opera.

No saga this endearingly silly has ever been more serious about eliciting real feelings out of close male relationships. The bromance has been taken next level under the stewardship of the men behind the Fast franchise. It was right there at the beginning, with the way Brian and Dom fell for eachother even though theirs was forbidden love, one a cop, the other a robber. Lin refined that into a magnificent cocktail of bro-nificence, his true masterstroke being the addition of Dwayne Johnson to the fold. When the series needed an infusion of conflict, Johnson was brought in to reenact Brian’s arc, from pursuer to ally to family member, all over again. But next to Walker, Johnson looked like a caricature of masculinity, and spoke and acted like one too. By acting first in defiance of this muscled-up Uncle Sam, and then acting under his orders, the once criminal gang was given a sheen of lawfulness and innate goodness, especially as they’ve stood in opposition of foreign threats.

There are a lot of absurd and wonderful things that happen in Furious 7. Cars reverse out of a plane and parachute to the earth. Brian runs up a vehicle as it falls from a cliff. An expensive supercar jumps from one skyscraper to another, and then does it again. Dom jumps a car towards a helicopter and neatly places a bag of grenades on it… just… so. But nothing trumps what Johnson is asked to do. He is thrown from a building after a scuffle with Statham, and comes out of it alive. He then drives an ambulence off an overpass into a drone, which explodes. At this point I assumed we had to have seen the last of his Hobbes, but no, Johnson kicks out the front window of the ambulence and quips. He is indestrucible. He, like Diesel, is a God.

Brian, amongst these effortlessly cool, multicultural badasses, was our way in. Not because he was white (okay initially that was definitely part of the impetus behind Walker’s casting, let’s not lie) but because, as a cop, he came at situations with what we consider a traditional dichotomy of right and wrong and, as a normally proportioned human being, he looked like he could actually be hurt. Had Brian been in that ambulance, his heroism would have been a deadly sacrifice; for Hobbes it is another trump card in an ever-escalating game of chicken. As incredible as it is to see Johnson engage in fisticuffs with Statham, and then to see Diesel do likewise with Statham (and as fun as it is to remember when Diesel and Johnson duked it out in Rio); and as much these dream battles of today render the creaky dream battles of yesteryear in the Expendables series irrelevant and sad… this series needs the human element that Brian brought out in Dom. The sense that everytime he brought his team out in the field, Dom might be endangering the lives of someone important. Certainly not himself, because Dom is a freak of nature. But someone in his family. Someone like Brian.

This is why, in strict story terms, the film’s coda makes absolutely no sense, but it still, without any doubt, works. By the logic of this world, Dom’s departure from the happy beach hangout is a jerk move – what, is he never going to see his sister again? Will he not be at his new niece/nephew’s birth? Is that supposed to be the takeaway?

But as soon as Roman tells Tej to shut up and take a look at the beautiful moment before them – of Brian’s family happy, at peace – Furious 7, with its story about the team putting the Shaw saga behind them, is officially over, and a short film about finality and moving on takes its place. In this short film, the lines between characters and actors is blurred. For Tyrese, Ludacris, and Michelle Rodriguez, this was a fourth outing with Walker. For Diesel, this was film number five. That’s no small potatoes. The filmmakers were faced with a fork in the road, similar to the one we see in the film’s last scene. They could have serviced the continuing story, as they’ve tended to do since Lin took over. Or they could say goodbye. They chose to say goodbye. It was the right choice.

While the filmmakers truly worked magic keeping Brian in the film, Walker’s death and the rewrites hobbled the narrative momentum of Furious 7. It’s not a black mark upon the series or any of those involved – here’s to hoping that no other film will ever have to go though what those involved in this film did. I fully expect the next few films to be great, especially if Tyrese and Ludacris (especially Ludacris, who is really quite phenomenal) continue to do good work as the team’s new default everymen.

With all that said, with all those missed opportunities in the flabby middle, Furious 7 closes as well as it opens. Actually, it closes better. Statham’s hospital escape is a great opening statement to this movement of the Fast & Furious Symphony, but it could have come from any composition, really. Only the Fast and Furious symphony has earned the earnest emotion that’s on display as Charlie Puth and Wiz Khalifa send Vin Diesel one way and send Paul Walker – surrounded by the sort of uncanny halo you might expect to see around someone who’s been poorly greenscreened onto a background, which would normally seem to indicate poor craftsmanship, but seems downright intentional here, seems legitimately poetic – the other.