The Fast & Furious franchise has taken its characters on quite a ride: the trademark combo of speed and sentiment still rules, but they have gone from street racers to international travellers involved in unashamedly absurd action sequences, senseless set-ups, even more outrageously impossible feats.
Early in this film, a car in flight is introduced as the fantasy of a child playing with a toy – but by the end, aerial automotive scenes have become part of the movie's landscape. Cars drive through buildings and between skyscrapers, they parachute off planes, tumble off cliffs, hurtle full tilt into each other. The sheer implausibility is entertaining, yet it feels as if nothing is really at stake: everyone has nine lives. In between, we are given bursts of plot, flurries of forced comic relief, brief gestures of contemplation and an Iggy Azalea cameo.
Australian filmmaker James Wan (Saw, Insidious, The Conjuring) got his big-budget action debut with Fast & Furious 7, a project that turned out to impose some distressing demands. One of the franchise's founding stars, Paul Walker, died several months into the shoot, in a car accident unconnected to the film.
The production shut down, then recommenced, with rewrites and shooting strategies that allowed Walker's character, Brian O'Conner, to continue to play a part to the end of the movie. Old footage was used, actors who included two of Walker's brothers stood in for him, and CGI did the rest.
It's been managed well, on the whole: the filmmakers have found an appropriate, well-judged way to farewell the actor and the character. Whether they have found the right momentum to take the series into an eighth instalment is another matter.
Fast & Furious 7 makes allowances for newcomers, bringing viewers up to date with characters and context, and confirming a new, formidable enemy who was introduced briefly in number 6. This is Deckard Shaw, played by Jason Statham, an action star who has more than enough heft and gravitas for this kind of role. The Fast & Furious team took down his brother in the previous movie: now Shaw wants revenge, and he's planning to take out the crew, one at a time.
And if that's not enough, they also have to contend with a terrorist (Djimon Hounsou) with unspecified aims and allegiances and they must put their trust in a laid-back government agent with a taste for Belgian beer (Kurt Russell). There's a hacker who needs rescuing and a computer program that can track everyone in the world all the time, yet conveniently fits onto a hard drive the size of a paperback: there are also emotional dramas to negotiate in between action sequences and bouts of one-on-one combat, intense yet weightless biffo with a video-game aesthetic.
Fast & Furious prizes the notion of family ties, both literal and metaphorical. Brian has stepped back from the action to start a family with Mia (Jordana Brewster), but he admits to her that something is missing: not the cars or the girls, he says, but the bullets. Mia's brother, elder statesman Dom (Vin Diesel) is working on his relationship with the still-amnesiac Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), who might or might not be able to reconstruct the story of their past through hazy flashbacks.
Their plotline is tedious, mostly because of Diesel's strange aura of lethargy: he's the slowest part of Fast & Furious. His voice gets deeper, his delivery more somnolent, his pauses before punchlines more agonisingly protracted. The presence of Dwayne Johnson, who joined the series for movie number 5, only serves to emphasise Diesel's stodgy-pudding quality. Johnson is huge and towering, but he also has a light touch; he plays a minor role in number 7, but his every appearance is welcome.