The Fast and the Furious series is, for all its combustible aero-motive stuntwork, essentially the world’s most expensive soap opera. Following the cruel coincidence of Paul Walker’s death in a car crash in November of 2013, James Wan’s Furious 7, in its pained attempts to work around the tragedy, lays bare that the franchise’s most radical asset is also its most conservative: an overriding emphasis on, above all else, the on-screen family. Instead of merely coasting on the audience’s familiarity with its very long list of supporting players, the Fast and Furious mythology replenishes itself off of it. As if in a series-finale montage, moments from the earlier titles are re-edited, with the weight of destiny, into each successive chapter: a lingering glance between Walker’s F.B.I. agent Brian O’Connor and his future wife, Mia (Jordana Brewster), from the 2001 original; an innocuous handshake between Tyrese and Ludacris in its sequel; or one of grease-monkey superhero Dominic Toretto’s (Vin Diesel) myriad gravelly axioms. (“They say an open road helps you think about where you been,” he says early in Furious 7, “and about where you’re going.” Any Fast fan will spot the epigram’s conclusion a mile away.) Drag racers living their lives “one quarter-mile at a time,” these characters live in a state of permanent retroflection. Each new film is an ante-upping remake of the one just before it, its plotline a beyond-flimsy excuse for getting the crew back together. Every ride is “one last ride.”
Picking up minutes, if not seconds, from the ending of Fast & Furious 6, the narrative concerns a British mercenary named Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) seeking revenge for his fallen brother. Popping up in Los Angeles, Shaw is soon enmeshed in fisticuffs with Diplomatic Special Services super-agent Hobbs (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), hurling the Samoan gargantua through his office window before evaporating into the night. (Wan brings a noteworthy new tic to the franchise’s syntax of action, mounting the camera apace from performers’ profiles as they plummet down onto floors and burst through walls—a bit of horror-movie palpation reupholstered into Furious 7’s martial-arts machinery.) After Shaw murders Han (Sung Kang) and blows up the Torettos’ family home, Dominic is commissioned by an unctuous government agent called “Mr. Nobody” (Kurt Russell) to track down an all-powerful surveillance McGuffin called the “God’s Eye,” which has somehow fallen into the hands of a terrorist cabal led by a mercenary named Jakande (Djimon Hounsou). In exchange for capturing the Eye, Mr. Nobody offers Dom the right to use it in tracking down Shaw—to which Dom assents, with the hospitalized Hobbs’s supra-legal blessing.
In an apparent matter of hours, the team is parachuting Mustangs into the mountains of Azerbaijan after Hounsou’s rogue paramilitary, and a hacker they’ve kidnapped named Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel, making do with less than a dozen lines of dialogue that aren’t moans of fear or yelps of surprise). These clanging, careening action sequences—including a centerpiece in Abu Dhabi, wherein Brian and Dom thrust a multimillion-dollar sports car through a magic-hour succession of skyscrapers—throb with the electric excitement of unadulterated one-upsmanship for meathead action junkies. The scene is paralleled with a battle royale between Dom’s amnesiac girlfriend, Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), and a random henchwoman (UFC superstar Ronda Rousey) back in an emir’s son’s chateau; it’s here, in the oxygen-deprived zen velocity of Furious 7’s many insane showstoppers, where you’ll remember why you bought your ticket in the first place. If obviously CGI-enhanced, the spectacle (by fist or by car) cascades into—and out of—view with such choreographed force that complaints barely have time to register themselves. For skeptics asking what can possibly be brought to the table anew after so many installments, the answer reveals itself in Furious 7’s ever-broadening scope of property destruction and consequence-less violence.
To those far-flying ends, Wan’s film more than delivers. But held strictly against its predecessors, it finds the patented recipe spread desperately thin. The new characters invented for Russell, Hounsou, and martial artist Tony Jaa are uniformly wasted opportunities, and the banter between tried-and-true crewmates is as forgettable as it’s ever been—and not even in a funny, ironic way. Metatextual reminders of Walker’s death appear intentionally and otherwise, made worse by uncomfortably blocked shots with his character’s back to the camera, edits designed to put his digitally reconstructed face on screen as little as possible. Furious 7 ends in a tasteful memorial for its star that manages to reaffirm the franchise’s (increasingly bland, politically toothless) family mantras instead of hollowing them out. But this is a series where death is apostasy, and people use motors to put their money where their mouths are. The house philosophy remains best distilled in the climax of Fast & Furious 6, as Gal Gadot’s Gisele intoned before bounding off the side of an aerial mobile command unit, spraying bullets in every possible direction before falling to her death: “This is who we are.”