Saturday, April 04, 2015

Furious 7 Review: A Dazzling Display of a Popular Franchise Spinning its Wheels


Four Star Rating: **

Starring: Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Jason Statham, Michelle Rodriguez, Dwayne Johnson, Ludacris, Tyrese Gibson, Kurt Russell, Jordana Brewster, Nathalie Emmanuel, Djimon Hounsou
Director: James Wan
Screenplay: Chris Morgan, based on characters created by Gary Scott Thompson
Genre: Action
Rated: PG-13 - violence, profanity
Release Date: April 3, 2015
Run Time: 2 hours and 12 minutes

I've seen Furious 7 before, it was created 24 years ago after a late evening of binging on video games, sneaking peeks at the Victoria Secret's catalogue I absconded from the mail pile, bopping to blaring music from ear-muff like headphones, and soaking in a big WWF Championship fight on Coliseum Video. It was glorious and then I woke up to my dad pulling the comforter off me and alerting me it was time for church.

Furious 7 is indeed a teenage boy's fantasy with copious cleavage shots, bulging muscles, speeding cars and video game-like action sequences. In the current atmosphere where studios are finally waking up and realizing women actually love to go out to see big event movies and thus creating a slate of "female blockbusters" or at least mid-list hits with strong female leads, Furious 7 fully embraces "manliness" and testosterone fueled desires. This isn't to say a lovely lady can't enjoy the two hour plus montage of car wrecks, swinging fists, and soaring bullets. She'll just need to endure the army of scantily clad sex objects and dialogue that is often a sanitized version of a high school locker room or a string of clich├ęd action movie catchphrases.

It can be a dangerous minefield daring to compose a derogatory review of the latest installment of an immensely popular franchise for mass consumption on the internet where die-hard fans lurk in preparation to tear limbs. I confess director James Wan has crafted a sleek yet ridiculous over-the-top spectacle that showcases things like parachuting cars. Wan serves up the special effects and real stunt combination that is expected and its fans will gleefully lap it up. Many of those fans are esteemed critics based off the 82% Rotten Tomatoes score, so clearly I'm an out of touch fogey. 

The picture definitely boasts a collage of big event "wow" moments like Dominic Toretti (Vin Diesel) and Brian O'Connor (Paul Walker) in an expensive sports car fly in succession through the windows of three luxury towers or O'Connor leaping from a vehicle plummeting down a cliff to catch the back of a sports car. Wan creates the action fan's dream moments with Michelle Rodriguez's Letty tumbling through the air with UFC champion Ronda Rousey or the Rock's Hobbs blasting things from the air with an obscenely huge machine gun.  All the rocking action amounts to a bubble gum adventure that has popping flavour that is easy to chew up but after two hours plus it gets tasteless and repetitive.

Elaborate action scenes aren't enough to make a picture stand-out when special effects spectacles, breath-taking stunts, and dazzling wreckage will be served up almost every weekend for the next several months as has been the modern cinematic summertime tradition.  As the picture progresses the chaotic mayhem starts to bleed into each other making action sequences become indistinguishable. The insane fast cuts during a fight or stunt bring a wild pacing but also overwhelms any chance of attachment or comprehension. You could threaten me with a den of man-eating lions, and I still wouldn't be able to tell you what was actually happening in the climatic final showdown other than lots of fast cars, big crashes, and crumbling concrete.

The Fast and Furious series has never been known for the intricate storytelling but this goes the classic revenge route. Deckard Shaw, played grizzly and nasty by Jason Statham, blows up Dom's crew member Han and for good measure his house as he vows to hunt down everyone responsible for taking down his little brother -- the big bad, played by Luke Evans, from the previous movie. Dom isn't a real fan of this declaration and vows to put Shaw in a body bag. As those pesky villains tend to be, Shaw is hard to track down and we're introduced to Snake Plissken himself, an always endearing and charismatic Kurt Russell as government agent Mr. Nobody. This brings us to the movie's McGuffin in the all-seeing surveillance device the God's Eye. Though the whole gallivanting to Abu Dhabi and back to America to recover the device would have an added dose of excitement if Shaw didn't pop up throughout the escapades and make me wonder why find the tracking device if the man just keeps showing up for a fight.

Absurdity is something that Wan and screenwriter Chris Morgan happily plunge right into. Hobbs gets blown out of a several story high-rise to get his fall broken by a car (the first of many to be smashed) and while a mere mortal would die, the Hobbs character has nothing more than an arm cast, which turns out to only exist so he can flex and cause it to break open when he is ready to kick ass. Rock is a natural action star and plays up the camp well, and at least in his case the scenes are often fun.

Dramatic elements are thrown in to attempt to layer the story but they're just as absurd like Dom trying to reconnect with Letty who is still suffering from her soap opera amnesia from the last movie that can only be cured by a plot point from a classic Disney feature. The frustrating thing is despite all the silliness and over-the-top reality defying stunts, it just isn't all that fun most of the time.

The issues like the action scenes with cars often feeling more like waiting my turn to play a video game, the ridiculously straight out of 1980s dialogue, or the numerous nonsensical plot points would all be easily forgiven and enjoyed if there were characters to care about. Hobbs is entertaining as a transplant from a classic shoot-em up, but everyone else are just flat one note characters. Unfortunately, since the Rock was obviously contractually obligated to battle earthquakes in California, he is only here to bookend the picture.

There just aren't enough of the genuine personalities shining through with the lead Vin Diesel playing a talking statue whose defining trait is he can lift up cars. Tyrese Gibson will pop in a few jokes about being afraid to jump out of an airplane, but other than being the "funny one" there isn't much to him. Ludacris' character is the computer genius more because we're told rather than getting to really see it. It is a collection of stock characters thrown in some well-constructed stunts and effect.

Even if I'm the grumpy party pooper here, the cast seems to be having fun and it is clear they've grown to have a tight comradery. Dom says he doesn't have friends but family, and the chemistry between the leads show a true love for each other. This is why it is really easy to forgive the final ten minutes that feels like a tacked on overly sentimental good-bye to Paul Walker. You can tell that even if it has little to do with the story that it was an important bit of emotional catharsis for Vin Diesel. It has some real emotion and you believe the actors were truly best friends. It is just too bad that same heart and sincerity is hidden for the majority of the movie.

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