Sunday, April 5, 2015

Review: "Furious 7" bids farewell to Paul Walker in miraculous, wonderful fashion

The final minutes of Furious 7 are nothing short of a cinematic miracle.

I find the majority of this movie to be pretty miraculous, in all honesty, for many of the same reasons I’ve found this series so thoroughly enjoyable over the years. I summarized most of my thoughts on why this series works so well in my Fast & Furious 6 review, but to reiterate, I am constantly blown away by how completely these movies embrace not only the spectacular and the absurd, but also the earnest and heartfelt. These films are as big and goofy as any action series ever made, thoroughly committed to imagining and realizing the craziest stunts and set-pieces possible, but they also wear their heart on their sleeves, and without that crucial component, no amount of on-screen mayhem would inspire audiences to such fervent anticipation and adoration. There is a genuine earnestness to everything that happens in these movies, an honesty embedded in every character interaction, every cheesy one-liner, every ridiculous car crash, and most importantly, every utterance of the word ‘family.’ These films truly believe in what they offer the audience – they believe in having fun for the sake of having fun, and they believe in the bonds between these characters, because those bonds are what makes the fun worth having. The films know what they are, they consistently execute at a consistently high level, and anyone who waves the series away with a casual, “it’s not great or anything, but…” is being insufferably pompous. It does take a certain level of greatness to achieve what these films achieve, and at what they do best – offering a pure, undiluted, guilt-free shot of adrenaline-fueled joy and awe to the audience – nothing out there right now quite tops the Fast and Furious movies. 

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And even without that final, miraculous epilogue, little in the Fast and Furious series itself quite tops the inspired, giddy lunacy of Furious 7. Justin Lin may not have been there at the very beginning of this unlikely franchise, but he’s the director who breathed new life into these movies, who recognized the strong core on display in the early going and massaged it not only into something sustainable, but something audiences could reliably depend on for all those qualities enumerated above. The work he did on films 5 and 6, in particular, is already the stuff of action-movie legend, and those are big shoes for any director to fulfill. Luckily, James Wan attacks this movie like a madman with something to prove. The set pieces he constructs here are absolutely awe-inspiring, thoroughly accomplished on a technical level – the extended, sprawling mountain chase in particular is a masterclass in the construction of spatial relations and precise ratcheting of pace – but also astounding in terms of sheer ingenuity and imagination. Like Lin before him, Wan always seems to take an action sequence right up to its expected climax, barrels through that, and then continually ups the ante to lunatic proportions. So much of the fun in this series come from the sense of giddy abandon on display, from the sense that everyone involved is throwing every possible idea and inch of craftsmanship into the mix, and where films 5 and 6 concentrated that kind of effort into one or two standout sequences, Furious 7 just does it over and over again. Vehicular mayhem, hand-to-hand combat, visceral shootouts – the film does it all, and goes above and beyond each and every time.

Yet what impresses me most about Wan’s work on this film is the sense of non-stop momentum with which he’s instilled this entry (praise which should no doubt be shared with series vet Chris Morgan, again on screenwriting duty). It feels like Wan has studied what worked in previous movies very closely and distilled that down to its elements here, taking everything that worked, abandoning what didn’t, and combining it all rather seamlessly. The underlying plot is simpler than ever – Jason Statham (in wonderful villainous form) wants revenge for the downfall of brother Owen Shaw at the hands of Dominic Toretto and crew – and the focus is laser-tight throughout. Wan still hits all the beats fans want and expect out of these movies – playful banter, gratuitous mayhem, speeches extolling the importance of family, and gloriously cheesy one-liners – but does so without ever taking his foot off the gas. A collection of small but meaningful character arcs, including Lettie (Michelle Rodriguez) grappling with amnesia and Bryan (the late Paul Walker) struggling to decide what kind of life he wants to lead, are sewn in effortlessly, and where previous movies tended to move in minor fits and starts to accommodate all these different elements, Wan weaves things together surprisingly elegantly.

The result is a big, ludicrous, wonderful action movie built to satisfy, frequently and powerfully. Every member of the cast is at the absolute top of their game here, and I was surprised at just how effective I found Rodriguez’s work in particular. Whether expressing inner angst, bantering with the rest of the team, or kicking some serious ass, she feels more natural on screen than she ever has before, going a long way to enrich the overall ensemble dynamics that are such a big component in the film’s general sense of joy. Statham, Dwayne Johnson, and Vin Diesel are all at their testosterone-fueled, self-aware best this time around, Diesel in particular continuing to embody the series’ earnest heart and lunatic mindset rather wonderfully. And even though Paul Walker didn’t get to finish this last performance, he continues to impress right until the very end, continuing to embody the franchise’s ‘everyman’ archetype with subtle personality and quiet charisma.

It’s a really gorgeous-looking movie, too, and I love how much Wan pushes for a sense of immediacy in the visuals, adopting a series of fluid, experiential shots during fight sequences, and keeping the camera right in the middle of the action during the biggest set-pieces. It’s a small adjustment to the series’ house aesthetic, but an impressive one, and combined with an extremely effective song selection and score (the latter from Brian Tyler, who missed out on the previous film), Furious 7 is probably the best-constructed entry in the franchise to date. It’s expertly executed with a palpable sense of passion from all involved, and I found myself smiling broadly, laughing frequently, and involuntary punching my fist into the air from start to finish, chemically high on the many pleasures the film has to offer. Not many movies are capable of that. Say whatever you will, but Furious 7 is a genuine, incredibly satisfying experience, and that is absolutely worthy of praise.

All of this would, of course, be more than enough for a great night at the movies; but with the specter of Paul Walker’s death hanging over the production, Furious 7 aims even higher, and in its final minutes, something truly miraculous occurs. (Spoilers Ahead). The final scene, in which the characters – and, by extension, the cast, crew, and audience – say goodbye to Walker’s Bryan O’Conner, now determined to leave this life behind for good, didn’t have me laughing, or applauding, or grinning broadly. It had me breathing deeply, putting my hand over my mouth, and ultimately, welling up with tears – because what occurs in these final minutes is nothing short of magical. James Wan and his team have brought Walker back from the dead on screen, and given him a farewell that grants not only his character, but the spirit Walker lent to this franchise, cinematic immortality.

I watched those final minutes unfold, seeing all the cast members stare melancholically at Walker playing with his family at the beach, listening to Dom (and Vin Diesel) say goodbye to his ‘brother,’ glimpsing one final, stolen smile from this lost actor’s face, and I thought to myself – ‘If this doesn’t prove the power of cinema, nothing does.’ Cinema is, after all, a medium of dreams, an imagined version of reality, and in the reality these filmmakers have created, the spirit of this actor, beloved by everyone he worked with, gets to go on living. Paul Walker wasn’t there to film that last scene; we know this, and the special effects used to bring his image back to life are nothing short of mind-boggling. More importantly, though, those effects, and the sequence built around them, proves that cinema has the power to give us the catharsis reality rarely affords. In our real world, Walker is gone, but in the ‘reality’ of Furious 7, he’s still there, living and breathing on screen, allowed to live out the happiness his character so clearly earned over 14 years of movies. We won’t be seeing him anymore, and the other characters will probably see him less, but the important part is that he’s still out there, still a part of this world he helped to create. And the beauty of that final sequence is that it allows us to mourn Paul Walker’s passing while celebrating Brian O’Conner’s future. For when an actor creates a character, and that character goes on to help establish a film or group of films that entertain, inspire, and enrich audiences as these films have done, a part of that actor can never die. There is a spirit to the performance, to the contributions made to a fictional world, that live on far beyond the confines of this mortal coil, and at the end, Furious 7 celebrates and embodies this strange, wonderful quality of cinema in truly mesmerizing fashion.

And if that final shot – of Dom and Brian, at home in their cars, reaching a fork in the road and going their separate ways – isn’t one of the most elegant, emotionally impactful images I’ve seen on screen in years, I don’t know what is. Say all you want about the perceived ‘limitations’ of art like the Fast and Furious movies, but you don’t just pull an image like that out of nowhere. It takes time, it takes investment, and it takes a real, palpable sense of heart. A heart that beats throughout this movie, and which shall always be indebted, at least in part, to the actor whose name the picture is dedicated. Furious 7 is an extraordinary movie, a fine potential capper(*) to an equally extraordinary franchise, and those final minutes are proof of what a miraculous thing this series has become.

Follow author Jonathan Lack on Twitter @JonathanLack.

(*) Furious 7 isn’t going to be the final movie, and was likely never going to be, with or without Walker’s passing, but this does feel like an appropriate end-point to me, assuming the franchise has to end one day. Even moreso than films 5 and 6, which concluded on satisfyingly cumulative notes, Furious 7 feels like it ties together everything that made this series special, with callbacks to the very beginning, and resolutions of all recent plots. Nevertheless, I understand why Universal would be crazy to call the franchise quits at this point, and I do think there’s something inherently renewable to the series’ foundations. There are plenty of characters to move on without Walker (even if Brian is a piece that will always feel missing), and personally, I think the right step, after the visceral and emotions highs of this film, would be to tone things down a notch. I would love an ‘8 Fast 8 Furious’ that goes back to the series’ roots, and maybe focuses on street-racing and small-scale crime again. It would feel natural to me after this installment, and I do think they will eventually hit a point of diminishing returns if they keep increasing the scale of action. But this is, after all, a franchise that has consistently defied all logic, and who am I to question its direction? Wherever it goes next, I’ll be there, as giddy, excited, and overjoyed to watch the film as all those involved clearly are making it.

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