Vin Diesel Russell Walker Furious 7

Everything about the success of the Fast and Furious series is counterintuitive and unconventional. That’s what makes it low-down delightful. In do-or-die fights, the moviemakers let you see their heroes sweat: these movies celebrate exertion. In hyperbolic chase and demolition scenes, inspired stunt people and digital craftsmen bring audiences to the edge of reality—and then, in the best analog tradition, compel them to suspend disbelief. At the high point of Furious 7, the auto-maniac heroes, intent on rescuing a computer genius in distress, back a string of supercars straight off the rear of a cargo plane, then glide on parachutes into the Caucasus Mountains. The concept is so imaginative and the sight of skydiving in vehicles so glorious that viewers are primed to accept that the cars have been pinpoint-targeted. Your inner child might even fantasize that the drivers can steer in mid-air to safe, if not pinpoint, landings.

The gas-splattered esprit de corps the characters preserve even in extremis is hard to resist. Gang founder and Earth Father, Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel), likes to say: “I don’t have friends, I got family.” The idea of friends as the family you choose has rarely gotten a more muscular workout than in the Fast and Furious films. Dom’s multicultural street racers and high-tech turbo-chargers combine the quirkiness and talent of workplace comedy ensembles with the all-for-one, one-for-all spirit of D’Artagnan’s Musketeers and Robin Hood’s merry men. Unlike most recent Robin Hood and Musketeer movies, though, these films really do depict the glories of teamwork. One of the comical suspense tricks that first-time F and F director James Wan masters with the help of longtime series screenwriter Chris Morgan is whisking idiosyncratic gang members like wise-ass strategist Roman (Tyrese Gibson) and kick-ass beauty Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) out of the action, only to re-insert them when most needed and least expected.

The moviemakers have wisely angled Dom’s group of renegades into an easy alliance with nonconformist American lawmen like elite DSS agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson). They’ve become unsentimental patriots without losing their outlaw edge. Their competence, guts, vision, and loyalty provide an injection of group passion for audiences vast and curious—for the base these movies have won over 15 years and for the younger movie-lovers who, with every fresh edition, become new fans. Toretto's brother-in-arms and actual brother-in-law, former LAPD officer and ex-FBI man Brian O'Conner (Paul Walker), has become a doting father, though he says he “misses the bullets” of his previous lives. In the film’s funniest self-reflexive gag, Brian comes off clumsy and sheepish in a line of cars filled with other parents dropping off kids at his boy’s school.

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Going in, fans know that Walker died at 40 in November 2013, in a single-car high-speed accident, while riding in a Porsche owned and driven by a friend. Furious 7 was still filming at the time, but Wan managed to complete the action and also to underline a subplot about Brian’s need to lead a quieter life for the sake of his young family. To make it all click, he blended shot footage with odds and ends from previous movies as well as scenes performed with Walker’s real-life brothers, Caleb and Cody, as his stand-ins. (Jordana Brewster once again plays Brian’s wife and Dom’s sister, Mia Toretto.) As befits a Fast and Furious film, the wizardry is both roughhouse-elegant and touching.

What’s most seamless about the movie is the way Brian’s physical grace and emotional commitment grow out of Walker’s earnest embrace of his character. This performer updates the strong, silent type the way the young Redford did, by playing a figure who is aware, and self-aware, as well as hip. He isn’t afraid to show anxiety and vulnerability when Brian faces off with a scarily efficient martial artist like Thai star Tony Jaa. And he offers an ideal counterpoint to Diesel’s warm, brawny bluster. An epilogue centered on Brian simultaneously cements Dom’s acceptance of his comrade’s retreat from daredevil risks and expresses Diesel’s love and respect for his late friend and costar. In its use of images recorded over a decade and a half, it’s at least as resonant as anything in Boyhood. Unlike many memorials, it really is a celebration. By the time the words “For Paul” appear on screen, applause, not tears, is the appropriate response.

Furious 7 stems from Hobbs and Dom’s defeat (in Fast & Furious 6) of a cutthroat London-based gang with next-generation weapons technology, headed by former Brit Special Forces officer Owen Shaw (Luke Evans). Little did our heroes know that Owen had an even more dangerous older brother, with an even more sinister black ops background, named Deckard (Jason Statham). In Furious 7, Deckard Shaw is bent on avenging his kid brother. He seethes with the relentlessness that only Statham is capable of mustering: the actor must be venting all the dry-ice rage he accumulated while being referred to (inexplicably) as an aging action hero in The Expendables movies. After blowing up Han (Sung Kang) in Tokyo and putting the redoubtable Hobbs into the hospital, Deckard goes straight for Dom. Unable to help Dom himself (at least immediately), Hobbs arranges for the gang leader to engage with a formidable new partner—a dapper covert-ops chief who goes by the nickname “Mr. Nobody,” played by Kurt Russell as the opposite of a nonentity. Mr. Nobody promises to back up Dom as long as his crew rescues a computer wizard named Ramsey from a terrorist, Jakande (Djimon Hounsou), who craves Ramsey’s breakthrough spy technology. The gadget, “God’s Eye,” allows operators to locate targets by scouring all the surveillance and tracking devices in the world, simultaneously, with a simple search request. The quest for Ramsey and God’s Eye takes the team to Azerbaijan and then to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. Dom chooses to face off with Deckard and Jakande on the streets of his beloved Los Angeles.

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The filmmakers don’t miss a trick when it comes to freshening up the makeup of their International Brotherhood of Street Racers. Ramsey, for example, proves to be anything but a wan, bespectacled Person of Interest-type hacktivist. Instead, we get Nathalie Emmanuel of Game of Thrones in the role—and she’s a curly-haired dazzler of mixed English, Dominican, and St. Lucian ancestry. Understandably disoriented when saved from a speeding armored bus and thrown onto the hood of a car on a mountain road, this self-possessed character survives to weather Roman’s desperate flirtation and synchs up naturally with the group’s tech virtuoso, the super-alert, sneaky-droll Tej (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges), who happens to be Roman’s best friend. Generally smart about people, Ramsey calls Dom “Alpha Male” and Letty “Mrs. Alpha Male,” though Letty herself, still suffering from amnesia, can’t recall what it was like when she and Dom knew each other Biblically.

In a season that’s full of filmmakers expressing mental confusion via blurred vision and intrusive cutting, Wan does an expert job of bringing home Letty’s pain with bouts of free-association editing that meld into dynamic scenes like Race Wars, a convocation of speedsters held in the desert outside Lancaster, California. How refreshing it is to see a movie so unselfconsciously inclusive that Race Wars can only mean a car-racing event.

Best known for his horror movies (including the smash 2013 release The Conjuring), Wan stretches his talent in his most inventive, supple work yet, whether by executing tiny tilts of the camera to capture the details of close combat, or by giving his often grubby characters some moments of dress-up fun when they crash a Jordanian billionaire’s penthouse party in an Abu Dhabi skyscraper complex. His pacing lacks variety, and I wish he’d handed Statham more to do than scare the bejesus out of everyone with his laser-like glower. But Wan knows how to draw out and hone many different types of action-film performances. He encourages Dwayne Johnson to exercise his specialty—bringing out the outrageous humor of he-man prowess without undercutting it. He uses Russell wisely, as a genre icon, without letting the actor rest on his perfect casting as a cool covert-ops dude. Wan employs Russell’s vivid yet matter-of-fact delivery to gain laughs with gags as simple as Mr. Nobody’s preference for Belgian ale over Dom’s Corona beer. Wan and Russell build the performance to peak just right: Mr. Nobody, caught in a gunfight, whips out a set of snappy shades with night vision and commences firing like a Western gunslinger, an automatic sidearm in each hand.

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What’s great and poetic about films like Steven Spielberg’s Duel and The Sugarland Express, Sam Peckinpah’s Convoy, and even Howard Zieff’s Slither is the way vehicles can assume personalities. What’s deliriously entertaining about these pulpy Fast and Furious movies is the way the actors’ personalities dominate even the oversize set pieces. Part of the fun of Furious 7 is seeing men and women in cars try to top classic action stunts that are done without them. One leg of the Caucasus sequence recalls the mountain chariot race from The Fall of the Roman Empire, while another resembles the heroic American soldiers in Lone Survivor bumping down a cliff, except in this case it’s Dom and Ramsey in a car that’s like (as Dom puts it) “the demon love child” of a vintage Dodge Charger and an armored military vehicle. At the climax of the Abu Dhabi sequence, Dom and Brian (and Walker and Diesel) appear intent on besting Tom Cruise’s skyscraper antics from Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, and they do it from the front seats of a $3.4 million W Motors Lykan Hypersport.

Fast & Furious 6 crossbred its native genes with those of James Bond movies. This entry draws on the entire gene pool of action filmmaking, right up to a climax that intercuts Dom and Shaw’s final battle of the dinosaurs, a Predator drone zooming through downtown Los Angeles, and a tracking duel between Ramsey and Jakande that ups the ante on Zero Dark Thirty. There’s so much destruction at the climax that it’s like an apocalypse with a happy ending. Furious 7 is the demon love child of Fast & Furious 6 and a Mad Max movie.