Experiencing Furious 7, three truths gradually dawn. First: That this is the very first film in the franchise. Not movie — there have been six movies in the series already. This is the first film. Second: From the theater parking lot to the film’s closing credits, something is very, very different this time. Something has changed, fundamentally. Third: What’s changed, most fundamentally, is us.

Make no mistake: Furious 7 is by no stretch some misty-eyed, maudlin wallow in days gone by. It is absolutely as fun, fast and full of over-the-top action as it ever was. But in every way, the series has matured. The cast, storyline, direction, cinematography and even the cars have taken on an element of almost gritty realism, a fantastically deliberate intensity far more akin to "Ronin" than any F&F before. Nevermind Ja Rule — a cameo from Liam Neeson wouldn’t have seemed out of place in Furious 7.

But in a much larger sense, there’s no way anyone who grew up with this series can walk out of it without thinking about the context. Both the context of the film itself, and themselves in context to it. In a very real way, with no hyperbole, this film may be a long-overdue look into the mirror for an entire generation. There’s a reason it’s only 10 points behind "Gone With the Wind" on Rotten Tomatoes.

However, as every longtime fan of this franchise knows, the real show always starts in the theater parking lot. So, that’s where this review begins.

Continue reading to learn more about the film.

I saw the very first F&F movie on opening night back in 2001. Just like I did the second one in 2003, and have for every F&F opening night since. It’s gotten to be kind of a tradition. Those of us who were there remember those nights well. They all went pretty much the same way, and to the same basic soundtrack: seven varieties of rap-rock thumping from subwoofers all around. Engines randomly screaming like burned cats, and tires squealing like goosed teenage girls.

On one side of the parking lot, you had your basic ricers: floating on clouds of neon pink and strobing headlights, fart-can mufflers held to rotting bumpers with bailing twine and "Type R" stickers. On the other side, in the darkest corner of the lot, were my people — the muscle-car guys. Those few cars that had hoods sat with them open. Partly so we could adjust our carburetors and tweak timing; but mostly as a pretext to lean on our big-blocks and laugh at the ricers as they hand-brake turned into concrete parking standards.

The air smelled of burnt rubber, unburned gasoline and burned-out herbal cigarettes.

Fast forward 14 years, to last night.

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The cars have changed, for sure. Few and far between are those hub-capped Hondas held together with hope and duct tape; they’ve been replaced with new Civic Si’s, and the odd Scion FR-S on forged deep-dish wheels. Nowhere did I see a single flat-black Buick Regal. Cars like mine had been replaced with late-model Mustangs, Charger SRT-8s and Camaros. More cars flowed in a slow but steady procession of smoothly throbbing engines; I listened for the sound of squealing tires, or the heavy thump-thump of obviously over-cammed small-blocks. But no...just the steady thunder of modified cars, patiently rolling in.

A Subaru STi parked next to a black Challenger. Down the row, three people milling around a Porsche helped a Camaro SS driver back into a tight space. On either side of that space: a jacked-up Nissan Titan and a silver, turbocharged Volkswagen Jetta. None wore neon lights. Or if they did, those lights were off for the night.

I stood behind a pretty girl at the box office. She looked a bit younger than me. Next to her stood another, somewhat smaller girl, who I took to be her little sister.

The smaller girl called her "Mommy."

I think everyone had a certain feeling going into Furious 7. A sensation of subtle haunting. That feeling did not last long.

But there were definitely ghosts in this theater.

Continue reading the review.

Plot

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The movie opens with Jason Statham, doing what Statham does best: looking quietly out of a window; angry, British, and seething to kick some weapons-grade ass. He turns around and sees his brother Owen Shaw, the villain from FF6, dying in a hospital bed. One intense promise of vengeance later, and the camera swings around, following Statham Tarantino-style as he resolutely stalks down the hospital hallway. Several tense jump cuts, the camera swings, and Statham’s in an elevator. It opens on a lobby in flames. Statham walks through as explosions detonate behind him, and calmly strolls out of the building moments before the entire thing explodes and collapses behind him.

That pretty much sets the theme for the movie.

Chronologically, FF7 picks up in about the middle of the third movie, Tokyo Drift. At that point in the series, Han was in Tokyo teaching Lucas Black how to drift, while the rest of the crew had "retired" to the United States, having earned their amnesty from the events of FF6. The first we see of Walker, he’s struggling to adapt to the realities of fatherhood with Mia. Series fans might experience a double hit of poignant deja vu here; Walker himself was a fairly recent father at the time of filming. And just as in the movie, Vin Diesel is his real-life daughter’s godfather.

Pay close attention to this scene, particularly to the toy car Walker’s "son" is playing with. Walker tells the boy "cars don’t fly." The toy in question is a red, convertible sports car. Walker filmed this scene just prior to his death...in a red, convertible Porsche.

Shivers.

We find "The Godfather" of the gang himself back in familiar surroundings; Dom takes Letty to Race Wars, hoping to help her get her memory back, while also giving series fans a fun trip back down their own quarter-mile memory lanes. The original Toretto house makes an appearance as well.

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Meanwhile, we go back to Jason Statham as he breaks into the Luke Hobbs’ (The Rock’s) DSS office. He’s looking for information on Dom and the crew that killed his brother. He reveals his identity as a rogue special-forces assassin to both the Rock and his partner Elena Neves, before engaging in a fight seemingly pulled straight from The Expendables. Statham gets the upper hand by blowing the Rock and his partner out of a window with a bomb.

Shortly afterward, Han meets his fate in Tokyo, as the first target on Statham’s list. Shortly afterward, a bomb addressed from Tokyo explodes and decimates the Toretto house. It’s hard not to look at the spot where Jesse was killed in the first film.

Afterward, Dom finds out from Hobbs Statham’s true identity and agenda, and travels to Tokyo to claim Han’s body. There, he meets Lucas Black — who it must be said is actually a lot better in this cameo than he was during the entire Tokyo Drift movie. Maybe its the couple of movies he’s done since Tokyo Drift, or spending a little time on NCIS, but Black has definitely improved as an actor. Like, with vocal inflection and facial expressions and everything. There’s been some talk of him "filling in" for Paul Walker in future roles, and he has signed on for two more installments. Before now, I’d have said that was the dumbest move in history, considering his failure to "substitute" for Walker four movies ago — now though, I’m not alone in wondering if the guy might not have what it takes.

Back in L.A., at Han’s funeral, we hear one of the most haunting lines in the film. Like a cold bath into the reality of the world — if this short exchange doesn’t send a second set of shivers down your soul, you don’t have one.

That’s followed within minutes by what is clearly the single best, most high-octane chase scene of the movie. In short, it involves a bus, a mountainside, and a much longer and better version of the incredible stunt sequence you’ve seen in FF7’s many teaser trailers. It also includes what is probably Walker’s last ever line of spoken dialog, a "thank you" delivered to Letty.

As to the rest of the plot, put it like this:

Have you ever played a role-playing game like Morrowind, Skyrim or World of Warcraft? You have? Good. You know those missions where you go to the All-Powerful Sorcerer to ask his help in defeating the Giant Red Dragon, but he wants a “favor” from you first? “Fetch me the Almighty Glazed McGuffin!” he says. Then you spend the next two hours on an interminable fetch-me quest, ultimately facing Horgoth the Flying Cave Troll, who drops the Almighty Glazed McGuffin as you defeat him. Then you return the McGuffin to the Sorcerer, who waves a wand and kills the Red Dragon.

That’s basically the plot here; it’s a giant Skyrim fetch-me quest.

Now substitute: “All-Powerful Sorcerer” with The Rock, “Red Dragon” with Jason Statham, “Horgoth the Cave Troll” for terrorist Jakande, and “Glazed McGuffin” for a computer program called God’s Eye that can track people anywhere. That’s basically the plot here; it’s a giant Skyrim fetch-me quest.

And that’s a shame. Partly because everyone in the world knows that fetch-me quests are awful, but mostly because it was a completely pointless over-complication. Didn’t Universal think that an international super-assassin Hell-bent on revenge was enough to move a plot forward? Couldn’t Red Dragon Statham have just used the McGuffin himself, and saved us the fetch-me quest? It’s not like anyone was dying to meet Horgoth the Cave Terrorist. If anything, all Horgoth did was take screen time away from Statham, who is by far the best villain in the series’ history.

I don’t know. I don’t get it. Seems like there’s plenty of character arc in this movie without the McGuffin Quest. But what do I know? I don’t even play Skyrim.

Stunts and Effects

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Let’s put all that aside, though. The pointlessly complex plot is really just a vehicle for the characters, and for the incredible action sequences that make up about 75 percent of the run-time. Indeed, the majority of the film is just pure, non-stop action, with car chases and stunt sequences absolutely comparable to some of the best ever put on celluloid. And all of them are almost certainly better than anything else in the series. A good portion of them do require some suspension of disbelief: The stunts are all over-the-top, and Statham and Diesel’s fight scene seems to resemble "Meet the Spartans" a little too closely at times.

But even while cars are dropping out of airplanes, drones are pursuing people down city streets and people are fighting with helicopters, it all somehow manages to avoid feeling like your standard Hollywood schlock-buster. It feels grittier and more real than it has a right to. Very cinema verite, but not in an annoying way.

It all somehow manages to avoid feeling like your standard Hollywood schlock-buster.

I can’t tell you why, but the car-drop sequence in particular reminded me of that iconic air-drop flare scene from the most recent Godzilla movie. The big scenes always seem to be happening at a human scale, from a ground-level perspective; pretty rarely do any of them lapse into center-horizon stillness or fall back to that middle distance that makes everything look like a gameplay screenshot from Halo 3. At their best, even the craziest stunt sequences have a sort of "found footage" or even "documentary" feel to them. Psychotic camera swings and jump cuts abound, but they generally manage to feel justified and logical for the scene, without seeming repetitive or formulaic.

Add all that up, and FF7 pulls off a rare trick in action cinema: an action movie that can keep the fast stuff going fast, the explosions exploding and the cars careening for a very long time, without devolving into a mind-numbing orgy of Michael Bay stupid.

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Criticisms of the effects are pretty limited, though I’ll admit it would probably take a photographic memory far better than mine to actually remember anything worth criticizing. For the most part, the action happens so fast and the scenes are so intense that any real flaws in them register about as consciously as the blind spots in your eyes. They’re just not on the screen long enough to spot, especially on first viewing in the theater. Yes, I caught a slight whiff of foul CGI once or twice during the drone and helicopter sequences; but then it was gone and something else happened. It’s like they found a way to make something useful of A.D.D. And I mean that as a compliment.

Any real flaws in the action scenes register about as consciously as the blind spots in your eyes.

A few CGI shots did linger, though, and those have by far been the source of closest scrutiny.

Most people know Walker was killed halfway through shooting, leaving a good number of scenes left un-shot. Universal’s work-around was to go straight to the fountainhead of human CGI animation, Peter Jackson. Specifically his company, Weta Digital, which did the CGI motion capture for Gollum in the "Lord of the Rings" series, and Caesar in the "Planet of the Apes." This isn’t the first time CGI capture has been used to digitally recreate an entire actor; effects studio The Mill did the same thing for Oliver Reed’s character Proximo in "Gladiator," after Reed died during filming.

CGI has gotten better and better at creating actors whole cloth in the digital realm. After "Tron:Legacy" came out, I recall Jeff Bridges commenting in the special features that the technology was getting to a point that soon we’d be resurrecting Cary Grant, and today’s actors would be still be acting 50 years after they died. So, how close did Peter Jackson come to that?

Very, very close indeed.

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CGI Paul Walker is all through this film, and trying to spot him does make for a morbid kind of game. But it’s one you’ll almost always lose. There’s only one brief moment, on the beach at the very end of the movie, when CGI Paul Walker makes his presence known. There’s something ever-so-slightly robotic, or maybe just off-pace, in the way he moves as he stands up. But again, like the rest of whatever effects flaws FF7 may have, the moment passes almost before it registers.

CGI Paul Walker is all through this film, and trying to spot him does make for a morbid kind of game.

Apart from that, there are a few points when character reactions with Walker seem a little stilted, and the conversation goes slightly non-sequiter. But it seemed like most in attendance were willing to forgive.

In total, great effects work, not just with CGI Paul Walker, but as a whole throughout the movie. A lot better, harder and grittier than you’d expect from this "getting better with every installment" franchise. The visuals are stunning, the action is fast and the scenery is typically deep and gorgeous. It’s all just eye candy. The action scenes are even better than you might think, and they definitely serve up the adrenaline that gets this film’s heart hammering at just the right times.

But the cast...my God, the cast.

They’re the heart itself, plain and simple.

Cast


Everyone knew going in that Walker’s ghost would cast a pretty long shadow in Furious 7. From those people by the Porsche to the pretty girl at the box office, I don’t think there was a person there who expected to forget for one moment about it. I even heard someone, some cynic, mention going in that FF7’s huge box office success was just a matter of cashing in on Walker’s death. In fact, Walker himself was the subject of seemingly every last conversation I heard on the way in. Nothing, it seemed, could cause us to forget about the Walker context for a moment. But a funny thing happened on the way to Tokyo...

We did forget.

Certainly, FF7 has it’s share of both chilling and poignant moments; but shockingly, far fewer of them had to do with Walker himself than with the surviving cast.


It’s not that the characters had changed; not at all. The Rock is still a hardass with a subtle sense of humor. Dominick’s still simmering with a hint of sorrow, and the weight of the world on his shoulders; Letty remains cynically hard, with a core of hidden sweetness; Mia is still the rock Brian leans on, Tyrese is still his hard but hilarious best friend, and O’Connor himself is still a young man who’s made mistakes, and comes to live with the welcome burden of repentance and responsibility. In most ways, FF7’s characters are the very same family many of us grew up learning to love.

But the difference now seems to be that those characters aren’t "characters" anymore. And the people on the screen aren’t acting. Not after 14 years of life, love and loss, they’re not.

The sadness and world-weariness in Vin Diesel’s eyes is real.
Michelle Rodriguez has a reason to feel cynical.
Jordana Brewster is a mother, and she is somebody’s rock.
Tyrese Gibson really did develop a deep friendship with Paul Walker.
And Paul Walker...he has a little girl named Meadow.

In every way then, the realism and the heart of Furious 7 has a lot less to do with the script and the characters, and a lot more to do with the real people behind them. They’re the real focus. Like those of us in the theater, they’ve lived a lot of life in these last 14 years. They’ve grown and matured; and many of us who showed up on opening night all those years ago have grown with them. There’s a deep, fundamental honesty in those tiny crows feet just beginning to show around Diesel’s eyes. I can’t help but wonder how recently they’ve appeared.

Like those of us in the theater, they characters have lived a lot of life in these last 14 years.

And if you think that thoughts like that don’t make a difference in a silly little movie about cars, then you haven’t seen this one.

If I’ve got one criticism of the characters, it’s primarily the way they were written: a few to many one-liners, a bit short on subtlety. Objectively, nobody should expect Scorsese character development or Tarantino banter in any action movie, let alone one in this franchise. But subjectively, that’s a dodge — because I don’t think we should have the same expectations of this series that we did a decade ago.

A lot has happened between there and here.

When FF7’s comedic and emotional timing is good, it’s by far the greatest in the series, and ranks up there with almost any other action movie you care to name. When it’s bad, it’s still not bad — especially for Tyrese and The Rock, who I’m starting to believe are incapable of delivering truly awful lines. Both Jordana Brewster and Michelle Rodriguez turn in surprisingly good performances, and even Ludacris comes off unexpectedly strong.

That said, more than a few lines do fall flat — though I truly think that might have more to do with Chris "47 Ronin" Morgan’s screenwriting than anything else. He’s been with the F&F series since "Tokyo Drift," and he’s got a great flair for over-the-top, comic-book-style characters and pithy one-liners. But it seems like Morgan doesn’t know quite know how to write for a grown-up audience; he’s good at giving bad or inexperienced actors a few memorable lines, but doesn’t seem to know what to do with an older or more talented cast.

But it seems like Morgan doesn't know quite know how to write for a grown-up audience.

All told, this film is the absolute best of the F&F cast — a now adult cast that means something to its audience. They’re so much more real, so much more human than any character in this series has traditionally had a right to be. And they deserve some respect as mature and experienced people. This crew deserves more than one-liner characterization. So, while FF7’s script is still without a doubt the best in the series, and has moved on quite a bit from some of the silliness of the past…I think it’s time for Universal to move on further still. Preferably, to a writer with a subtler and more mature approach.

This crew, this family, has earned it.

Summary

If you’re older than, say, 40, odds are pretty good you think I’ve invested a bit too much stock in this film. You’re probably thinking all of this comes off as a bit maudlin, even melodramatic. That’s understandable. To you, this is probably just the seventh in a series of goofy car movies. A really good movie in its own right — but still ultimately just the seventh movie in a goofy series. Fair enough.

If you're older than say, 40, odds are pretty good you think I've invested a bit too much stock in this film.

But then again, you weren’t driving your first hot rod when Brian built his. You weren’t still dreaming of traveling the world when he went to Miami. You didn’t meet the harsh realities of the world the same year Han was killed, or lose your first love when Letty disappeared. You weren’t making big plans for your life as the gang planned a casino heist, and you probably didn’t welcome your first child into the world as Mia did the same.

The fact that the Fast & Furious franchise has grown up, has matured into something wholly adult, isn’t all that surprising. Vin Diesel today could never play the Dominick Toretto of 2001. Paul Walker couldn’t pull off the naiveté he did 14 years ago. Too much has happened in life between here and there; for the F&F franchise, its cast and perhaps most importantly...its audience.


The end sequence of this film is a tribute to Paul Walker. In it, he lines up next to Vin Diesel’s dark Charger in a pure white car. That white car, as it happens, is the exact same (then orange) Supra Walker drove in the first film. The scene plays out like a ghostly memory of their very first drag race. As the two speed off into the distance, a montage of Walker plays to Wiz Khalifa’s "See You Again."

Diesel voices over the scene, delivering a eulogy to his friend. The words he speaks are to Walker; but in a way, he could have been saying them to any one of us. Those of us who learned from this silly little car series that your real family isn’t the one you’re born to...it’s the one you chose.

"I used to say I live life a quarter-mile at a time. And that’s why we were brothers. Because you did, too."

— -

It was a quiet walk to the parking lot. The doors of a hundred hot rods shut in near silence.

It was a long time before any of them started.

Years.

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