A new director at the helm and the sudden death of leading man Paul Walker might have spelled doom for the “Fast and the Furious” franchise, but rather like one of its own seemingly indestructible muscle cars, “Furious 7” has emerged miraculously unscathed. In taking over for longtime director Justin Lin (parts three to six), horror auteur James Wan (“The Conjuring”) ably steps up to the big-action plate, orchestrating two-plus-hours of increasingly outlandish vehicular (and aerobatic) mayhem that revs pulses and engines in roughly equal measure. Completed under what were surely challenging circumstances, but (mostly) seamless to behold, “Furious 7” provides both a satisfying chapter in the movies’ pre-eminent gearhead soap opera and a tactful, touching memorial to Walker, whose final screen appearance will help ensure that this already $2.3 billion series is seven times lucky at the worldwide box office.
When Walker died in a high-speed car crash in November 2013, he was only halfway through filming “Furious 7” — a process that was eventually completed using a combination of unseen Walker footage from previous films and new scenes shot using stand-ins (including Walker’s two younger brothers, Caleb and Cody) who then had the late actor’s face digitally grafted onto their bodies. Reportedly, this sent the film’s already enormous $200 million budget spiraling toward $250 million, but to judge from the end product — and its enthusiastic reception here at SXSW — it was time and money very well spent. Although there are moments — especially during a climactic foot-and-car chase on the streets of downtown Los Angeles — where Walker (or his avatar) is conspicuously filmed from behind or with his face obscured, for most of the time Walker is onscreen (which is quite often), it’s nigh impossible to tell whether he is fully real or partly virtual. We are not so far here from the once-absurd suggestion that it might some day be possible to make a brand new-movie “starring” Humphrey Bogart or Marilyn Monroe.
But for now, there is Walker, and it is a constant pleasure to watch the excitingly physical actor he was once again hurl himself into the movie’s complicated stunt sequences like a human cannonball. Although Walker could never have known this would be his final performance, it may be the ultimate compliment to say that he plays each moment as though it were his last. And, when the time does come for his Brian O’Conner to bid adieu, the movie arranges it in a way that feels fully earned and well within the boundaries of good taste.
Up until then, it’s more or less business as usual in “Furious” land, with one badly banged-and-bruised bad guy from 2013’s “Furious 6” (Luke Evans’ Owen Shaw) still clinging to life by a thread; a badder baddie (Jason Statham as Shaw’s older brother, Deckard) waiting in the wings; and, for good measure, a terrorist mastermind (Djimon Hounsou) intent on — what else? — world domination. Owner of a scowl that could re-thaw the polar ice caps and one of the few actors who could plausibly take the Rock and/or Vin Diesel in a fight, Statham gets a great entrance, putting baby bro out of his misery (along with an entire, heavily guarded London hospital) without breaking a sweat. But it’s revenge that looms largest on Deckard’s mind. First up (as teased at the end of “Furious 6”): a trip to Tokyo, where Deckard helps the vacationing Han (Sung Kang) to meet his maker — events that finally close the chronological gap between the third “Fast” film, 2006’s “Tokyo Drift,” and parts four to six (which effectively functioned as one long flashback). Then it’s off to L.A., where Deckard makes it clear that it’s open season on Dominic Toretto (Diesel) and his entire crew. (The screenplay is once again by Chris Morgan, who’s written the last four films in the series.)
If Han’s death (in a burning car, no less) casts a somewhat eerie pall over “Furious 7,” it’s not the only thing that does. Walker/O’Conner is first seen revving the engine of a most atypical vehicle — a Chrysler minivan — with his infant son strapped into a car seat in the back, and one of the new film’s running themes is that, while marriage and fatherhood may have domesticated Brian, he still pines for his old rebel-outlaw days. “He says he misses the bullets,” notes wife Mia (Jordanna Brewster), as if it were a perfectly normal sentiment. But how much longer can — or should — Brian continue to put himself in harm’s way when he has a young family waiting for him at home?
The arrival of Deckard momentarily makes that a moot point, as everyone — even still-amnesiac Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) — readies for battle . Then comes another new cast member, a silver-tongued government shadow man (Kurt Russell) who refers to himself as “Mr. Nobody” and tells Dom he can help him eliminate Shaw, provided Dom does something for him first. G-man Russell needs help with the rescue of a kidnapped computer hacker, Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel), who’s being held by Hounsou’s Mose Jakande somewhere in the Caucasus. (Unspecified “political” concerns prevent the U.S. from staging an official rescue mission.) Ramsey has developed a software program, unsubtly named “God’s Eye,” that can track anyone’s movements at any point on the globe through any available camera or cell phone. In the wrong hands, it could be a disaster. Think Edward Snowden’s worst nightmare, times infinity.
Things manage to get even more complicated — perhaps a bit too much — from there, in a story that hopscotches to Azerbaijan and Abu Dhabi before finally ending up back in L.A. But then, the special appeal of the “Fast” movies has never lain in the what they do and when, but rather how they do it — as in, how do you manage to deposit a half-dozen high-test super cars on a remote stretch of winding Azerbaijani mountainside without raising too many eyebrows? Why, parachute them out of a cargo plane, of course … with the drivers already buckled in! Note that this is not the last time a car will glide balletically through the air in “Furious 7.” Nor is it even the second-to-last time.
Wan and veteran “Furious” stunt coordinator/second unit director Spiro Razatos also stage a jaw-dropping literal cliffhanger involving an overturned bus sliding toward certain doom, and later, a ridiculous but highly entertaining car chase that begins inside one of Abu Dhabi’s skyscraping Etihad towers and ends in a neighboring one, without ever touching the ground. Not all of the action quite lives up to those high standards, and none of it can quite surpass the sublime “Fast Five” finale, in which two Dodge Chargers towed a massive bank vault through the streets of Rio de Janeiro. Wan, a master of old-school analog frights in his horror movies, favors a more frenetic shooting and editing style here, and gooses his setpieces with too much CGI. (The movie is also, at 137 minutes, arguably too much of a good thing.)
Still, “Furious 7” has few equals in the category of sevens, and outside of the James Bond franchise (which was up to “Diamonds Are Forever” at a comparable point in its lifespan), it’s hard to think of another contemporary film series that has run this long while continuing to afford so much pleasure. Harder still to think of another mainstream Hollywood blockbuster, past or present, with this level of ethnic and socioeconomic diversity on display, just because that’s who the characters are, and not because the filmmakers are trying to earn PC brownie points. “It won’t be the same going forward,” one character says late in the film, and that’s certainly true. But to judge from the evidence here, even a Walker-less team “Furious” still has plenty of gas left in the tank.
Also joining the cast for this latest outing: Thai martial-arts superstar Tony Jaa, female UFC champ Ronda Rousey and, in a blink-and-you-miss-her cameo, Iggy Azalea. The film’s full onscreen title reads “Furious Seven,” although all posters and marketing materials bear the numeral “7.” The presence of two credited cinematographers and four credited editors offers further evidence that the interrupted production took many hands on deck to properly salvage.