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'Furious 7' Triumphantly Reaches Franchise Speed Limit

Dir. James Wan (Universal Pictures)—3.5 Stars

Near the beginning of “Furious 7,” Dominic Toretto, played by Vin Diesel, gives a little drag racing advice. Do not push the engine into the red, Toretto warns, or it will blow, losing the race. “Furious 7,” the latest installment in Universal’s “The Fast and the Furious” film series, takes its own advice—but only barely, escalating the action just short of absurdity. As it is, the film is a thrilling piece of work, but a few more punches, crashes, and engine revs, and “Furious 7” would have blown out its engine and come to a sputtering, undignified halt.

The film opens on a close-up of Deckard Shaw, played by Jason Statham, with his face turned away from the camera. In a calm, measured voice, Shaw reminisces about his brother’s childhood habit of starting fights before vowing to finish his now-deceased brother’s vendetta against Toretto and his associates. Then, just before Shaw’s surprisingly poignant monologue might have prompted the viewer to think about the obligations of brotherhood or the nature of vendetta, the camera pans out to show that this and the surrounding rooms are completely carpeted with bodies—Shaw has apparently just defeated a small army. This is the film’s way of warning its audience that realism and meaning will be taking a backseat.

From this start, “Furious 7” goes as fast as it possibly can, with little regard for details like plot or characterization. How does Deckard Shaw so reliably cause so much trouble? Who cares? To evaluate the plot is to miss the point. The car chases and fight scenes are not a part of the plot; the plot is a vehicle for delivering those chases and fights. The same goes for characterization. Though there are convincing character arcs—the send-off for Paul Walker’s character Brian was very well handled, especially in view of the actor’s death during production—and bad ones—amnesia has not been an interesting cinematic device since Hitchcock—the purpose of character development in this film is primarily to give the audience a chance to catch its breath before “Furious 7” floors the accelerator again. The movie delivers on its promise to excite. This is a film in which cars battle helicopters and Predator drones, drop out of midair planes, and jump from skyscraper to skyscraper. No one with eyes and adrenaline glands could watch “Furious 7” and walk away unimpressed.

Yet director James Wan stops just short of the point at which unbelievability might keep the audience from caring. He handles hand-to-hand combat particularly well. Though the characters throw and take a few too many punches for any human, the sickening crunches when hits land, the brief pauses for breath mid-fight, and the disorienting rotation of the camera that accompanies a character being picked up and slammed into the ground all work together to maintain engagement and conviction that viewers are watching people and not cartoon characters.

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In all but medium, however, “Furious 7” is essentially a cartoon. Walker’s Brian struggles with the decision to retire from his fast-paced life; in the context of the movie that decision makes a lot of sense. The world of “The Fast and the Furious” is a fantasy of the highest order, filled with fast cars, underdressed beautiful women, and life-threatening excitement that is not actually threatening—so why leave? Only when the film has come to an end can the audience return to reality.

“Furious 7” will probably be very financially successful, and the film deserves it. It set out to deliver a thrilling spectacle, and it undoubtedly succeeded. “Furious 7” delivers as much excitement as the franchise can reach without becoming ridiculous. Thanks to the allure of a valuable brand, Universal Pictures may be planning an eighth movie—in interviews, Vin Diesel and producer Neal Moritz have already hinted at the possibility.The rules of escalation will demand still more excitement from the sequel: If cars fell from the sky in “7,” they will fly in “8.” At that point, the paper-thin illusion of realism might tear. Regrettably, “Furious 7” will probably not be the franchise’s final movie. It may, however, be its best.

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