Allow me to make one thing clear: I have seen only The Fast & the Furious: Tokyo Drift. Furious 7, thus, is only my sophomore dip into the Fast & Furious pool. Enough unironic praise by respected film critics is enough to push one over the edge. I'm glad that I finally decided to catch up, though, because this is the kind of movie that one relishes the chance to see in a theater. This movie is big, loud and dumb, the kind that doesn't often make the transition to the small screen at home. It's also over two hours long, something that action movies are doing more often these days, but you don't necessarily feel the length sitting in a dark, air-conditioned room. I was virtually alone in the theater when I saw it and yet I still laughed out loud in delight when a ridiculous stunt happened or when Tyrese Gibson said anything at all.
We're plopped into the story in medias mayhem: Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) is at his younger brother's bedside, vowing revenge against Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and his crew for hospitalizing him in the last film. Director James Wan, who is a newcomer to the franchise, follows Shaw back out through the hospital, revealing that he has caused the violent deaths of dozens of law enforcement personnel, whose corpses are slumped off in the corner. It's a funny visual indication of how much of a whirling tornado of destruction that Shaw is, as well as the tongue-in-cheek, gallows humor that will run throughout the film.
Shaw is akin to Nemesis from the video game, Resident Evil 3. He shows up out of nowhere, kills a lot of people in brutally effective fashion, and is mindlessly driven to end Toretto's "family" at all costs. Luckily, that very group of people happen to be the most capable at avoiding what would be certain death for everyone else who crosses Shaw's path, and that is what forms the backbone of Furious 7's plot. They globetrot as has become expected in this cinematic universe (no longer tied to a single, heat-swathed major city like in the first few installments), and encounter new faces like Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell), a government spook whose worshipful entrance flashes back to John Wayne's in Stagecoach. They also hook up with Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel from Game of Thrones), an improbably beautiful hacker who is key to Shaw's defeat. Tony Jaa and Djimon Hounsou make respectively silent and eardrum-shattering appearances as heavies who have about as much personality as you'd expect them to.
The lengthy cast list exists just to beef up the marquis value of this film, which is fundamentally unchanged since its seismic shift in tone in Fast Five. There will be racing. It will be ridiculous, but cool. The dialogue will be laughable, yet somehow completely straight-faced and sincere. You get a big ol' bowl of 'Murican comfort food that has dashes of international spice to spruce up the fun (Dubai, for example, is becoming my new favorite action movie location since this and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol). They even drive out of airplanes and parachute on the top of a mountain because that's the best idea they could come up with.
Casting a shadow over everything - and potentially distracting savvy viewers - is the death of Paul Walker, who died in a non-Furious car accident before completing his scenes. I, fortunately, was none the wiser as to which scenes his face was CGI'd onto his brothers' bodies, Social Network-style. This may be a function of Walker's wooden-board acting style, but I was able to set aside his passing to focus on the extravaganza at hand. You may be wondering to yourself when he is finally going to die in the movie (thus ret-conning his real-life death into continuity), but I won't spoil that for you. Just know that there is an air of melancholy that affects the film, one of finality that doesn't feel exploitive, but strays into well-earned schmaltz by the end of the movie.
I'm not sure whether it's appropriate to call into question the fate of the Furious franchise in the wake of Walker's death. Furious 7 stands to beat out Avengers: Age of Ultron for most profitable film of 2015 (so far), so it would be a complete shock if we don't see another one of these in the multiplex sometime in the next couple of years. But I wouldn't be unhappy if it were buried once and for all. I enjoy these films quite a bit, however; maybe we could just transplant the cast and crew into a different story? Who says I can't have my cake and eat it, too?