With a third installment disappointing both critically and commercially, Sylvester Stallone’s The Expendables franchise appears to be dead in the water. I saw glimpses of the withering franchise’s true potential in its second installment, which made good on its promise of gleefully over-the-top violence from a huge cast of meat-head action stars. One movie later, most of the goodwill has drained out.
In Hollywood, though, a franchise is never over until it’s over. It’s hard to imagine now, but when the Fast and The Furious series hit its third installment, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, it too seemed like it was not long for this world. With diminishing box office returns and horrible reviews, there was no indication that nine years later, a new F&F installment could both break box office records and make people cry. Yet here we are at Furious 7, which represents another step in a truly remarkable film saga and provides hope that truly any film series has a chance at redemption. So fear not, Mr. Stallone.
Furious 7 is ridiculous. It one-ups everything the last entry did, with set pieces that are incredibly over-the-top. The filmmakers are clearly trying really, really hard to please, and there sure isn’t anything wrong with that (unless of course you’re talking about the film’s uncomfortable, rampant misogyny). Cars fly through the air, cars careen into buildings, drivers purposefully perform multiple head-on collisions as a legitimate strategy, etc. While cars are still the main attraction, the titles emphasis on ‘furious’ is altogether appropriate, as there are several hand-to-hand fight sequences that, thanks to Wan’s dynamic camera angles, are just as exhilarating and well-choreographed as the road-based sequences.
My major complaint regarding Fast & Furious 6 was that there was an overabundance of exposition and melodrama in between the action scenes, which are the real reasons anyone comes to see these films in the first place. James Wan easily rectifies this major flub by zipping us from one crazy set piece to the next with minimal filler. The actual plot details, which are even dumber and more inconsequential here, are luckily kept to the periphery in favor of almost nonstop action. Think too hard and you’ll see just how absolutely contrived the narrative is here, but it’s relatively easy to forgive since the story is clearly treated as an excuse, and nothing more.
However, the momentum the film creates and maintains for the majority of the runtime can’t sustain itself all the way to the end. The ‘grand’ finale, taking place on the surprisingly traffic-less streets of Los Angeles, actually winds up being the least exciting driving sequence of the entire film, and certainly not nearly as bombastic as Fast & Furious 6‘s crazy runway battle. It’s a fairly anticlimactic ending in a film where nearly everything else already feels like a climax. The film’s multiple antagonists (Jason Statham, Djimon Hounsou and Tony Jaa) also leave much to be desired, each more static and uninteresting than the next.
Luckily, the franchise has another trick up its sleeve: the ability to make audiences care about its characters without having to give any convincing reasons to do so. What’s Furious 7’s secret? It’s right there in the title; with seven movies over fourteen years, they’ve been on screens for long enough that there’s a conditioned attachment to this ragtag crew, even if the dialogue makes the film resemble a high-octane soap opera. Compare this to The Expendables 3: with only three films under its belt, that franchise has yet to earn our unconditional trust like F&F has. Franchise endurance is the key here.
It also helps that the main cast members (Vin Diesel, The Rock, Paul Walker, etc.) come off as genuinely good people offscreen, so that they come off as genuinely good people onscreen, thus making it even harder not to root for them. You can always tell that the actors are having a great time, giving off subliminal good-time vibes flowing throughout the film. I mean, The Rock busts out of an arm cast by flexing. You just can’t keep a straight face watching something like that, and you’re not supposed to.
it’s impossible not to note the built-in emotion that comes with this being Paul Walker’s last film following his tragic death, and there’s no denying that this is the most emotionally-impactful of the series as a result. While that’s not saying much, being able to use the term ’emotionally-impactful’ in a review of a Fast and Furious movie is a welcome surprise. Though knowing this is his character’s last film adds dramatic tension to all of his scenes (where he could potentially be killed off at any moment), Walker’s send-off is ultimately respectful and well-executed. Though arguably overly-sentimental, it’s a farewell befitting of such an overly-exaggerated franchise.
Furious 7 is an exceedingly good time, embracing its insanity and smartly realizing that, in this franchise’s case, plot can be sidelined without sacrificing the audience’s attachment to the characters. Like the toy car that a young child tosses through the air towards the beginning, the movie offers a mere approximation of our own world, one built simply to entertain. And entertain it does. This is a franchise where, despite increasingly exaggerated physics and increasingly ignored logic, I continue to buy further into its insane universe.
Score: 3.5 out of 5