Furious 7

It's easy to forget these days, but The Fast and the Furious was once nothing more than a slick little street racing movie starring a handful of fresh-faced up-and-comers. Rob Cohen's 2001 flick was a solid entertainment, but hardly the sort of thing that seemed likely to launch a massive franchise. Fast (and furious) forward to the present, where the series has evolved into a sprawling, explosive soap opera (complete with amnesia subplots and resurrected characters) that has expanded far beyond its roots while somehow keeping the basic DNA of Cohen's movie - fast cars, foolish bravado, gratuitous booty shots, unabashed sentiment - at its core.

The real turning point for the series was the ridiculous (and ridiculously entertaining) Fast Five, which brought back nearly every major player from the previous four movies, added a terrific new one (Dwayne Johnson's Agent Hobbs) into the mix and amplified the scale of the action scenes tenfold. After a couple of failed attempts at a “soft reboot” of the series, the franchise finally decided that the best way forward was simply to embrace its whole messy history and give everyone of note a place at the table. The cast has grown almost unreasonably large as a result, but I wouldn't have it any other way: as far as these movies are concerned, bigger is always better.

I won't bother attempting to detail Furious 7's plot, as the story being told involves numerous threads that have been unfolding over the course of several movies (I doubt anyone involved in The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift was aware that they were launching key plot points for the seventh movie, but here we are). Suffice it to say that there's a really mean dude named Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham, Crank) coming after our beloved characters, and there will be a series of high-octane action scenes unfolding across the globe as a result. Oh, and Kurt Russell (Escape From New York) is in this one, too, playing a mysterious government operative with an interest in helping Vin Diesel (Pitch Black) and co. escape from their latest predicament.

Furious 7 seems intent on pushing the bombastic absurdity of its action scenes to the limit, delivering a generous supply of gloriously over-the-top set pieces that invite us to laugh at how ridiculous they are and marvel at how well-executed they are. One particularly entertaining sequence finds cars parachuting out of helicopters in an effort to reach a heavily-guarded road on the top of a mountain. “OH! MY! GOD!” the woman behind me shouted, which is the reaction the movie guns for again and again and again. The laws of physics are violated with gleeful abandon as cars leap across skyscapers and humans emerge from unsurvivable crashes with nothing more than a few scrapes. Director James Wan doesn't have quite the same knack for this stuff that his predecessor Justin Lin did (over the course of several movies, Lin transformed into one of Hollywood's most skillful action directors), but he still manages to bring clarity and ridiculous energy to the proceedings. The physical weight of these supercharged cars crashing into things contrasts sharply with the expensive but weirdly empty CGI spectacle that dominates most blockbusters. I'd say this one is the second-best of the bunch to date, trailing only the aforementioned Fast Five in the entertainment value department.

The action scenes occupy so much of the film's running time that it's amazing there's time for anything else, but the movie does its best to give all of its characters something to do. Considering the sheer number of characters here, the 140-minute running time almost seems absurdly short. Vin Diesel, Paul Walker (Running Scared), Michelle Rodriguez (Avatar), Ludacris (Crash), Tyrese Gibson (Transformers: Dark of the Moon), Dwayne Johnson (Hercules) and Jordanna Brewster (Annapolis) form the core team, but now you've also got Statham, Russell, Nathalie Emmanuel (Game of Thrones) and Djimon Hounsou (playing a white-haired terrorist who mostly shoots at people and shouts the word “What?!”) playing major roles, too. It doesn't stop there. Tony Jaa (Ong-Bak) is here to engage in a couple of kickpunching sessions with Walker and Ronda Rousey (The Expendables 3) shows up to share a smackdown with Rodriguez. Tokyo Drift star Lucas Black pops up. The villain from the previous movie (Luke Evans, Dracula Untold) makes a cameo. Small supporting players from early movies drift into scenes and get a few lines. The series is overloaded at this point, but that fact is easy to forgive when you see just how much fun everyone seems to be having. You get the sense that these folks really enjoy hanging out with each other, which is why the series' (over)emphasis on the notion of “family” doesn't ever feel like cynical heartstring-tugging.

Still, there are only two guys you'll be thinking about after the credits roll. The first is obviously Paul Walker, whose recent death looms heavily over the film. You keep wondering how the movie is going to deal with it, and whether the movie's creative workarounds (including both CG effects and the use of Walker's brothers as doubles) will be distracting. Fortunately, both the technical details and the storytelling decisions are handled beautifully. The film devotes its final ten minutes or so to paying tribute to the actor, and it's hard not to get a little misty-eyed at the sequence's heartfelt beauty. The second is Diesel, who handles the bulk of the Walker tribute with a gravelly voiceover. Diesel may not be Daniel Day-Lewis, but it's hard to imagine anyone else playing this character with as much gruff sincerity. When he looks at his friends and tells them how much he cares about them, we believe him – and that small, simple element gives these big, loud, dumb movies real humanity.

Furious 7

Rating: ★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 140 minutes
Release Year: 2015