Just as there are spoon throwers and then those who wonder why cutlery shows up at screenings of “The Room”, the “Fast and the Furious” series has grown a fandom that’s intent on properly marking the film’s place as pop art in film history. Seen as transcendent through its continued narrative and willfully ridiculous action, the primary focus of the franchise is on “family,” each member of the crew spouting love for one another. Due to tragic circumstances in the death of Paul Walker, “Furious 7” ramps up that sentiment, while also seeking to deliver the powerfully stupid spectacle and winding melodrama which its grown over six films.
Shown as a last-minute world premiere at SXSW, the film certainly feels like an ending. “Insidious” director James Wan, his first time with the franchise, plants Dom (Vin Diesel) and his globe-trotting gang in Abu Dhabi, LA, Tokyo, and London, features at least two spaghetti western showdowns with cars, and hints at a domestic endgame for everyone — provided they pull off one last job. **SPOILER** The murderer of Han in “Fast and Furious 6," revealed as Deckard Shaw (a perfectly game Jason Statham), attempts to assassinate Dom, Brian (Walker), and Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) to avenge the death of his brother (Luke Evans), and that means they’ll need to pursue him first to close the loop.
Along the way, Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) struggles with her carried-over bout of amnesia and tries to remember her love for Dom through recurrent flashbacks. Meanwhile, Kurt Russell shows up as a covert operative, and Iggy Azalea provides a cringeworthy cameo as what appears to be a racing fan early on, too. I lump those together simply because they each carry the same weight in the end. Really, the narrative is just connective tissue lifting the action sequences up, and Wan both delivers and completely ODs in that regard.
The continued influence of “The Raid” returns here, as Wan realizes he can rotate the camera with the characters in a fight, and accentuate hits with juiced-up sound effects to track the growing insanity of the setpieces. Each location is just a venue in which to drop cars from, into, outward, or across at high speeds, and these scenes are thrillingly done, and expertly executed. An Abu Dhabi jump between the Etihad Towers carries a sense of humor with every new stunt, and a rolling chase down a mountainside actually conveys a sense of vertigo, most of the CG landscapes and effects work blending well into the action.
Another high point is Johnson, and simply his every action in the film. His cop character, Hobbs, introduced in “Fast Five," serves essentially as a pumped-up cartoon. He is Hercules without the lion headdress, armed with fists and quips, and this might be the film where he truly perfects the character. Just witness a moment where he flexes in slow motion and shatters an arm cast for principal evidence.
The memorable quips end there, however. Audience familiarity is a powerful tool, but writer Chris Morgan saddles the ensemble with cringeworthy kidding around, masked by enigmatic smiles and camera moves to patch the wound. Comic relief from Tyrese Gibson similarly falls flat, while the romance between Dom and Letty traffics in platitudes, before a stretch of silence takes over and they gaze at one another. They’ve got history, but it seems an eternity when their scenes take hold.
Their relationship adds to the somber mood cloaking the film, which dangles the question of Walker’s character’s fate and pays tribute to his memory at the same time. Overall it mostly succeeds, but the self-aware absurdity of the franchise clashes poorly with the straightforward emotion on either side of it. Cacophonous, gratuitous, and peppered with absolutely outstanding action sequences, “Furious 7” finds the franchise at an unwanted crossroads, but it makes such a play for the diehard fans that it leaves everyone else at somewhat of a loss. [C+]