Friday, April 3, 2015

Furious 7: Impressively audacious

Furious 7 (2015) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for intense action violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.3.15

Somewhere along the way, a modest, inner-city street-racing flick morphed into a turbo-charged, gleefully preposterous Mission: Impossible wannabe.

But with results this entertaining, it’s hard to complain. Even when things get silly.

A shadowy U.S. government agent (Kurt Russell, right) makes Brian (Paul Walker, left) and
Dominic (Vin Diesel) an offer they can't refuse: Retrieve a kidnapped computer hacker, and
in return gain access to information that will allow them to target the vengeful maniac who
keeps trying to kill them.
And rest assured: Things get very, very silly. This is a movie for folks who found the action sequences in 2010’s big-screen version of The A-Team too restrained. (Steering and “flying” a parachuting tank by shooting the big gun, anyone?)

Rarely have I seen so many laws of physics ignored, circumvented and utterly ruptured.

Rarely have so many human bodies demonstrated Superman-level invulnerability.

Rarely has a bad guy taken such a lickin’, only to keep on tickin’.

Rarely have I been less bothered.

But let’s establish our parameters. Furious 7 — newest, biggest and baddest in the surprise franchise built from 2001’s The Fast and the Furious — is by no means classic filmmaking. It’s a live-action Warner Bros. cartoon, with heroes and villains alike remaining as unscathed as the Road Runner’s Coyote, after one of his plunges to a canyon floor, miles below.

We’re talking Guilty Pleasure here, with heavy emphasis on the guilty. But it’s also a pleasure, because there’s no denying director James Wan’s ability to deliver one helluva great ride.

Wan’s predecessor, Justin Lin, reinvigorated the franchise with 2009’s fourth entry, then blasted things into action-flick immortality with his next two chapters. But Wan deserves equal credit for maintaining the momentum and giving us exactly what is expected: audaciously giddy action sequences, ferocious mano a mano fight scenes, and plenty of time with the characters we’ve grown to know and love.

Because yes: This series’ cast is its primo selling point. The brotherly bond between Dominic “Dom” Toretto (Vin Diesel) and Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker) remains paramount, their mutual respect oddly poignant even during circumstances as absurd as these. Dom’s puppy-dog devotion to tough-as-nails Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) is equally touching, despite the soap-opera contrivance of the amnesia that has stricken her memory of their shared love.

Comparative newcomer Dwayne Johnson’s Hobbs — who entered the franchise with installment five — grants the team a thin veneer of respectability, with his DDS credentials. On top of which, the oh-so-perfect pairing of Diesel and Johnson is irresistible; they must spend all their time, between scenes, comparing pecs and biceps.

Nor should we overlook the comedy tag-team pairing of Tej (Ludacris) and Roman (Tyrese Gibson), both adept at the verbal comedy relief ... while also reminding us (as if that were necessary) that none of these events are to be taken too seriously.

I remain puzzled by the degree to which Brian’s main squeeze Mia (Jordana Brewster) has remained in the background, as also was the case with the previous entry. Granted, she’s less credible in terms of kick-boxing smackdowns, but the series has established Mia’s driving skills; why let them go to waste?

OK, yes; Mia’s sidelining is rationalized by motherhood, along with the fitful stab at “normality” that she’s attempting to establish with her adrenalin-junkie lover. That’s an equally important subplot in this newest film: one made even more heartbreaking by the realization that this is Walker’s final film, after his untimely death in late 2013.

Rest assured, though: Rumors of this film’s “compromised” state, as a result of Walker dying during production, are wholly unfounded. Brian is front and center throughout this entire adventure, and the occasional “doubling” of Walker is handled brilliantly. So don’t waste time worrying about it.

Anyway, let’s be real: The entire cast gets “covered” by stunt doubles throughout, right?

Fans may recall that our crew spent the previous film dealing with a paramilitary-trained criminal mastermind — Owen Shaw — who was committing high-profile heists throughout Europe. That escapade concluded with Shaw, broken and battered, deposited in a hospital.

Uh-oh. Big mistake. Li’l Owen has a much nastier big brother, Deckard, who vows revenge. And since Deckard is played by kick-boxing force-of-nature Jason Statham, things get nasty very quickly. After killing Han (Sung Kang) in Tokyo — neatly incorporating details from the series’ clumsy, out-of-sequence third entry — Deckard blows into Los Angeles and blows up the Toretto home, only just missing Dom, Brian, Mia and their young son.

I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but that act draws an even fiercer scowl from Diesel.

Before our heroes get too far along in their self-defensive plans, however, they’re intercepted by a shadowy, black-ops agent who calls himself “Mr. Nobody” (Kurt Russell, all charm and well-timed one-liners). He offers an unusual trade: The U.S. government wants to rescue an underground hacker, dubbed Ramsey, who has been kidnapped by a vicious foreign mercenary (Djimon Hounsou, as Jakande) and his “free-running” henchman, Kiet (simply amazing martial-arts superstar Tony Jaa).

Ramsey has developed an omniscient device/program called God’s Eye, which can simultaneously hack into anything on a digital network — mobile phone, audio, video, ATM, wireless or computer device — in order to track down anybody, anywhere. In the wrong hands, it would be a horrible weapon.

(Obviously, scripter Chris Morgan has spent too much time watching TV’s Person of Interest.)

Rescue Ramsey, Mr. Nobody tells Dom, retrieve the God’s Eye, and you can keep it long enough to find and deal with Deckard Shaw.

Of course, saving Ramsey involves a (dare I say it?) clearly impossible mission: the roadside raid of a heavily armored convey traveling through the Bass Göynük mountains of Azerbaijan.

Frankly, I’m surprised soundtrack composer Brian Tyler didn’t kick in a few bars from Lalo Schifrin’s iconic 5/4 theme. (Maybe Tom Cruise said no.)

That Azerbaijan sequence, by far the most exciting effort from stunt coordinator Spiro Razatos and second unit cinematographer Igor Meglic, must be seen to be believed. It’s utterly crazy and laughably ridiculous, but no less exciting for its absurdity. And it’s merely the first stop in a globe-trotting adventure that also includes a rather memorable visit to Abu Dhabi, where a billionaire keeps a prized car in a vault within his 80th-floor penthouse.

You see, the God’s Eye program is tucked into a thumb drive that has been plugged into said billionaire’s W Motors Lykan Hypersport: one of only seven such high-performance cars manufactured. (As for why the God’s Eye thumb drive would be so used, let’s not waste time worrying about pesky details.)

Cue an action extravaganza that does its best to out-jaw-drop Cruise’s ascent of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa ... and if the Furious team doesn’t quite succeed with that goal, it ain’t for lack of effort.

Things get even more dog-nuts, once events return to the familiar streets of Los Angeles — “Our territory,” Dominic intones — and we’re left to wonder why he and his crew never seem to get billed for all the damage they leave in their wake. (More pesky details.)

The spy-thriller heroics notwithstanding, Wan never forgets his primary mission: to showcase as many muscle cars and scantily clad babes as possible. The butt cheek-baring latter are particularly eyebrow-raising in Islamic Abu Dhabi, but I guess that’s another detail that All Concerned have chosen not to worry about. (One wonders what the locals will think, if this film is allowed to screen at theaters in the United Arab Emirates.)

As for the car-porn, rest assured: We spend plenty of time with Dodge Chargers, Challengers and Vipers, Chevy Camaros, a McLaren P1, a Ferrari 458, a Bugatti Veyron, Letty’s 1970 Plymouth Barracuda and Dom’s 1969 Ford Grand Torino and beloved 1968 Dodge Maximus Ultra-Charger. And yes, sound designer Peter Brown still inserts a smile-inducing thunk every time one of our drivers shifts up or down: a noise as crucial as the whoosh made when the starship Enterprise crosses the screen.

Giving credit where absolutely due, though, this film gets its oomph from the team of four (!) editors who mastermind the fast-paced cutting: Leigh Folsom Boyd, Dylan Highsmith, Kirk M. Morri and Christian Wagner. Give them a big, big hand.

Wan generously concludes his film with a poignant, throat-catching tribute to Walker: a montage of shots from previous installments, intercut against a final drive down an isolated desert road by Brian and Dom, in separate cars. The symbolism is sad and sweet, as Brian’s white car peels off at an intersection and vanishes in the distance, against a melancholy pop/rap lament.

Is Furious 7 to be the final ride? Hard to imagine, since this film will make a fortune. And if Dom, Letty, Hobbs and the rest do return, I’ll be waiting eagerly in line.

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