Friday, April 3, 2015

Madcap FURIOUS 7 Continues Its Franchise's Improbable Acceleration

FURIOUS 7 (directed by James Wan, 2015)

Because what self-respecting "Furious 7" review doesn't open with an Ingmar Bergman quote, lets bust out this old chestnut, "I demand that a film express either the joy of making cinema or the agony of making cinema. I am not at all interested in anything in between."

"Furious 7," with nary two brain cells to rub together and spark an internal combustion engine, expresses the joy of cinema. Look, this movie is very, very stupid. Cars parachute from planes. A drone terrorizes downtown Los Angeles as the non-present federal government is seemingly caught up in an "NCIS" rerun or whatever. Stupid isn't necessarily a negative. Stupid is a description. It's how a movie uses its stupidity that counts. Contrasting with, for example, the cynical, calculated coldness of a "Transformers" movie, "Furious 7" is just as dim-witted, but ten times more fun - proudly stupid, you might say.

There's an infectious jubilation to this movie, the thrill of a lot of people coming together with a ton of money and making their silly ideas actually happen. Watching it, you get the simple notion that everyone involved had a blast making it, and they want you to have a blast watching it.

Representing what may be the pinnacle of this how-is-it-still-getting-better! franchise, "Furious 7," with its predecessors, could teach Hollywood a few things about proper franchise growth. Blow up your strengths while minimizing your weaknesses (note: mindless mayhem counts as a strength). Embrace diversity without making a big show about it. Respect your core fanbase that got you here while reaching out to new audiences.

On that last bit, "Furious 7" is particularly successful, continuing the series' mutation from exploitative auto racing flicks to some kind of brawny "Mission: Impossible" meets "Ocean's 11" hybrid that happens to require souped up cars. Let us just Tokyo drift over the plot, a screenplay I imagine relies on mostly exclamation points to indicate emotion and ellipses to indicate thought. A computer program called God's Eye that can hack any device into any network in the world falls into the hands of international bad guy Jakande (Djimon Hounsou, an Oscar nominee mostly reduced to screaming, "What!"), forcing FBI or CIA or Black Ops or Whatever agent Frank Petty (Kurt Russell) to recruit international family spokesman Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and his team (including Paul Walker) as the official God's Eye recapturers. 

Meanwhile, Dominic and Co. are routinely hounded and attacked by Deckard Shaw (why-is-he-only-now-in-this-franchise Jason Statham), the brother of the villain they dispatched in the previous movie, who has the mysterious ability to pretty much show up anywhere without warning because, I dunno, government training or whatever. 

As with any heist movie, the central target doesn't matter. God's Eye is just a thing there to drive the other things. And my oh my, are there ever other things. Above all else, "Furious 7" is a stupendously entertaining escalation of stuff, piling one damn event after another until you can only chuckle at its goofy opposition to logic, reality, and Sir Isaac Newton. Just think about what a hairpin turn all of this could be into oppressive overkill. All the destruction. All the crashes. All the guns shot and rockets launched. "Furious 7" builds and builds and builds, always threatening to spin completely out of control, but as with the past two installments, what saves it is that exact willingness to spin completely out of control.

If a movie is what it is, that's one thing, but far worse is a movie afraid to be what it is. "Furious 7," written by longtime series scribe Chris Morgan and directed by newcomer James Wan of "The Conjuring," knows no such fear, gleefully diving in with eyes open and nitrous firing. Most movies might be content with cars parachuting from the sky, but "Furious 7" immediately sends them on an electric chase sequence that you initially wonder how long it will go until you never want it to stop. A lesser film might careen Diesel and Walker from the top of one skyscraper to a second in a sports car, but "Furious 7" crashes them to a third because, hey, they had another skyscraper.

You get the feeling that Wan and Morgan created this movie based on dares they set themselves.

That it all comes together as crisply as it does represents itself a minor miracle, given the elephant in the room of Walker's tragic death mid-shooting, and it must be said that "Furious 7" overcomes this handicap about as elegantly and artfully as one could hope. There's at least one key conversation where his character, Brian, oddly lingers in the background, and he's practically a non-entity for the climatic action sequence, shot mostly from behind or in jittery, shadowy motion from distances as Wan utilizes obvious body doubles. Still, as the closing ten minutes rolls around, "Furious 7" takes an almost jolting right angle turn, granting Brian a complete arc that carries genuine emotional resonance, not just for a "F & F" movie, but in general. 

Awful circumstances might have forced them in that position, but the tears are earned, and the gruff street poetry narrated by Diesel over the final images feels honest and heartfelt. Well done.

Longtime fans of the series will no doubt feel that gut punch particularly hard. Even for newcomers, though, "Furious 7" represents superb Hollywood craftsmanship, a gleeful concoction of glistening chrome and glistening buttocks that leaps forward with reckless abandon. Don't feel ashamed to love it. Don't feel guilty to love it.

There's a place for every movie, and "Furious 7" embraces its own, heedless enthusiasm overflowing.