Saturday, 25 April 2015

Fast & Furious 7 (2015) - Movie Review

I have to admit, as much as my last review may have given the impression that I’ve always loved this series and I’ve been there from the beginning, this is not so. After seeing Fast & Furious in cinemas, and not really being that into it, I didn’t give the series any more mind aside from the triple pack DVD of the first three films at home. However, two big things came through the grape vine about this film in the lead-up to its release that not only got me interested again but made me a bit compelled to revisit the series as I did. The first was the announcement that Jason friggin’ Statham was going to be playing the bad guy, and if you need me to clarify on why this is an awesome casting decision then you’ve probably never seen a good action film in your life. The second was that Justin Lin, who has been in the director’s chair with this franchise since Tokyo Drift, was stepping down and the direction was going to be handled by James Wan, an Australian director better known for horror films like Dead Silence, The Conjuring and most (in)famously Saw and a man who has become one of the new figureheads of the genre in my opinion. How does this all equal up?

The plot: After Dominic (Vin Diesel) and his crew took down the mercenary Owen Shaw, his brother Deckard (Jason Statham) killed Dom’s friend Han and is out for revenge against the rest of them. Bringing the gang together for one last ride, they are recruited by government spook Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) for a favour; in exchange, he will help them get Deckard and put an end to his path of vengeance before they lose someone else.

James Wan isn’t officially credited as a co-writer here, and the script is being handled by series regular Chris Morgan, but it is very apparent that something is different about the writing of this film. While I freely admit that the action scenes and car races have kept a pretty good average throughout the series so far, attempts at pathos haven’t been so lucky: Whether it’s through unintentional sexual tension (2 Fast 2 Furious), misguided attempts at accents (Tokyo Drift) or simply through weak dramatic writing (Pretty much all of them), the characters may be able to provide good chemistry with each other but have never really been able to translate that into effective drama. Within the first few minutes, we have a scene with Dom and Letty (Michele Rodriguez) that throw out whatever expectations I had for this film to start with and actually made for some damn good character drama, talking about Letty’s still-present amnesia and how it is affecting their relationship (Sounds kind of stupid when I put it like that, but bear with me on this one). This is just a taste of what the film is going to contain: I’m not 100% certain if the sombre tone to the film is a result of the untimely passing of series star Paul Walker during production, but even then that wouldn’t explain why that dramatic moment along with the many others to follow hit as hard as they do. Of course, said tribute to Paul Walker at the end is all kinds of heart-breaking without coming across as too sentimental; it hits that sweet spot of pathos without descending into complete saccharine. The post-production put at work here to compensate for Walker’s absence is exceptionally well-done too; trust Weta Digital to help create effects that I legitimately couldn’t spot no matter how hard I tried.

Of course, having a good director is only half of the puzzle so it’s a good thing that the cast here carries over most of the series regulars, all of whom have gotten very good at their respective roles: Paul Walker does well at portraying the choice between family life and criminal life, Vin Diesel is the bad-ass papa bear of the crew, Ludacris still gets laughs as part of the techie Tej, Tyrese may annoy at points as Roman but he is still put to good use within the story, Michele Rodriguez continues her stint as one of the few performances involving amnesia that I actually buy into without activating a gag reflex and Dwayne Johnson is still in full scene-stealing mode as before… that is, when he’s actually in a scene. Yeah, this turn some people off, but he gets sidelined for the majority of the film; to be fair though, he does end up coming back for the finale in a way filled with such action cheese that I don’t even want to hint at it; it’s glorious in every way possible.

A possible reason for his sidelining, though, might be so that his screen presence didn’t distract too much from those of the new cast members, whom all do more than enough to fill up the gap left by Johnson. Jason Statham, to put it simply, is the best casting choice for this franchise: An action hero with driving experience; honestly, I’m surprised he wasn’t tapped for this sooner. He makes for a great antagonist for the Toretto crew, presenting a far more immediate threat than the series is used to showing and easily making for the best one yet. Alongside him, we also have Kurt Russell, who manages to pull off a G-Man character that actually seems trustworthy through his performance, not to mention getting a damn cool action hero moment on-screen. Even Nathalie Emmanuel as the fairly generic hot hacker chick Ramsey is decent, especially at keeping up with the regulars. Probably the weakest point in the entire cast is Lucas Black returning for a cameo as Tokyo Drift lead Sean, and that’s only because in the nearly ten-year gap between Drift and this movie, his Southern accent is still as horrible as it was before.

But dramatic weight and competency with the acting, as much as I hate to admit it, always places second in this franchise to the action scenes in terms of importance. Now, in the last installment, I thought the series had reached a new height in over-the-top ludicrousness that couldn’t be topped. Anyone who has seen the trailer for this film, complete with parachuting cars, will know that they somehow managed it. There are three main action set pieces in this film: The parachuting cars, a heist that takes place around the midway point and the finale… and the amount of amazingly bonkers moments the filmmakers managed to include within those three is staggering. Seriously, my jaw hasn’t dropped this many times watching a single film in a long while, especially when it comes to the finale. Having Statham in the cast list also means that we get even more fist fights than usual, because thankfully Wan knows better than to waste talent when he gets it, and seeing him in action just makes me hate the thoroughly disappointing Expendables 3 even more; this is what a send-up of classic action movies should look like. Unfortunately, Wan’s inexperience with action movies does shine through in a certain aspect: The cinematography; specifically, the fact that there are numerous shots during the fist fights where the camera will just rotate to emphasise the action. To be fair, this works with the ebb and flow of the action on screen, but the constant spinning of the camera did make me a bit dizzy at points.

What makes the action work even better is that, despite how bombastic it is, it somehow manages to fit together with the more serious character moments without clashing in any ugly fashion. What does ultimately end up clashing with those exchanges is yet another issue with the cinematography, only this time it’s something that been prevalent in the series since the beginning. It’s been a running joke when talking about this series that both the cars and the scantily-clad women on screen are shot in the exact same way: As sexily as possible. In the other films, this hasn’t really bothered me but it seems like the pornographic lens on display has even less restraint than it did before: The constant ass-shots in certain scenes, particularly during the opening drag race and the heist scene, are really distracting. I’m sure that that’s the point of their inclusion in the first place, but it definitely detracts from not only the more serious moments but also from the overblown action beats a bit as well.

The soundtrack feels like it combines the best elements of every other soundtrack in the series together: Worldly hip-hop, more terrestrial trap music courtesy of cats like Wiz Khalifa and Sage The Gemini (and once again, this film provides tracks containing them that doesn’t make me want to vom my guts up like they usually do), hard rock through Brian Tyler’s stellar musical score, bass-heavy dance jams thanks to DJ Snake and David Guetta among others, and a very, very appreciated inclusion of the DJ Shadow joint Six Days which was previously used as the opening song for Tokyo Drift; I also consider it to be the single best piece of music this franchise has ever employed, so bonus points for that one.

All in all, it’s kind of astounding that the Fast & Furious franchise is capable of something like this. The action is gloriously over-the-top as always and manages to reach new peaks of insanity at times and the comedic banter is still in top form, but the dramatic beats hit harder than I ever could have anticipated and made for a very deservedly sombre piece, made even better by the fact that these elements fit nicely next to each other. It may be so overstuffed with awesome that it can feel bloated at certain points, but for the most part this is an excellent action flick. Much like the rest of the series, this is a very insular film so unless you’ve kept up with the rest of the series (or feel like going through some of the series’ uglier moments in their entirety), some of the more dramatic moments may not have the same impact. However, because of how great the action beats are, I’m still recommending this even if you haven’t seen the rest of the series. Hell, it’s just that good that you might want to check out the rest of the series afterwards anyway.

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