The Beautiful and the Dumb
...aaaaand relax. You can breathe again; it is blockbuster season once more, and first to roar out of the traps this year is – entirely fittingly – James Wan's Fast and Furious 7, also known as Furious 7. Having a bewildering range of alternative semi-different titles is just one of the many proud traditions this franchise has built up in its rise from modest streetsy action drama to world-conquering action juggernaut. Who can begrudge these films a few little eccentricities, though, when they are such reliably good fun, such consistently well-made entertainment? I write myself as a relative latecomer to the phenomemon, turning up to Fast and Furious 5 fully intent on snidely mocking and finding myself utterly disarmed by its technical merit, grasp of storytelling virtues, and charismatic performances.
This is not to say, of course, that these movies are entirely innocuous, for the spectre of chauvinistic exploitation is never very far away, especially when the camera is swooping up and down the lineaments of the latest instalment's race girl. Set against this, though, you have to bear in mind how equal-opportunities the mayhem in these films generally is: the women of the Fast and Furious gang, not to mention those of the opposition, are just as competent behind the wheel of a car, or in a fist-fight, as the guys. And, small thing though it may be, these films don't engage in carefree out-and-out slaughter quite as casually as many others.
Of course, I had a special reason to anticipate the release of the new film, as it features one of my favourite actors, Jason Statham, in a proper meaty role as the villain of the piece. Proceedings get underway with Mr Statham (playing a character originally called Ian Shaw, which is a perfectly acceptable British name, but since rechristened Deckard Shaw, which just sounds ridiculous) visiting his little brother in the hospital where he has ended up following his class with Dom Toretto (the great Vin Diesel) and the rest of the gang in the last film.
Mr Statham delivers a few warm sentiments before glowering at the nursing staff and growling 'Take care of my brother.' One suspects they may have a few difficulties with this, as it transpires that Mr Statham has virtually demolished the hospital in the process of getting in to visit his sibling. Nevertheless, off he roars in pursuit of a roaring rampage of revenge.
Meanwhile the good guys are getting on with their lives, which to some extent have started to resemble the stuff of soap opera: Mia (Jordana Brewster) is pregnant again, but doesn't want to tell Brian (Paul Walker), who is chafing under the requirements of domesticity. Letty (the divine and radiant Michelle Rodriguez) is still suffering from Movie Amnesia after dying in Fast and Furious 4 and coming back to life two films later, which is causing problems in her own relationship with Dom. All this may prove a little confusing to newcomers, but soon enough there is a manly clash between Jason Statham and the Rock which should serve to keep attentions from wandering.
Sure enough, Mr Statham blasts the Rock through a sixth-floor window, thus putting him in hospital for most of the film, and for an encore blows up Han (Sung Kang), one of Toretto's Fast and Furious All-Stars. (Long-term franchise-watchers may recall that this in fact the third film in which Han's demise has featured, after both the last one and 2006's Fast and Furious 3: keeping track of the byzantine timeline of the various instalments is probably one of things which appeals to a certain type of fan.) He has a go at blowing up everyone else, too.
Soap opera concerns are put to one side as Diesel convenes the surviving All-Stars to hunt down Mr Statham and put an end to this vendetta. But how? Fortunately Kurt Russell turns up with an idea, thus launching everyone into a comfortingly preposterous plot which reads like a cross between Mission: Impossible and The A-Team. Why shouldn't cars parachute willy-nilly out of the back of planes into Azerbaijan? Why shouldn't terrorists own armour-plated coaches carrying more armament than the average helicopter gunship? Why shouldn't it be entirely reasonable for our heroes to crash a party in Dubai, intent on stealing a flashdrive hidden inside a bulletproof sportscar kept in a bank vault on the hundredth floor of a skyscraper? (And if you don't know how that one's going to turn out, you've clearly never seen one of these films before, or indeed the trailer.)
In short, utter, berserk absurdity holds the reigns throughout: at one point, a clash between terrorists and a gang of ex-car thieves results in large areas of Los Angeles being razed to the ground, but the authorities seem remarkably unwilling to involve themselves in the ongoing confrontation. A multi-story car park collapses on Vin Diesel at one point, from which he is dragged with only a tiny nick on that mighty pate. Reality has been entirely suspended for the duration, which is surely what you go to a Fast and Furious film for.
Those of us wont to visit Jason Statham movies get most of the stuff we like to see, too, as this film finds the great man more purely in action-movie mode than many he has made recently. Not one of his scenes goes by where he is not putting the beat-down on somebody, driving very fast indeed, or doing a lot of shooting. (I was particularly impressed by the moment where he assembles his sniper rifle while running flat-out through dense woodland. I'm sure I would have dropped all the bits at least twice.) That said, this is Jason Statham as almost a talismanic, iconic figure: he isn't required to do much more than just be Jason Statham and wreak havoc amongst the other characters. (What generally happens is that a full-scale action sequence is already in progress when Mr Statham magically appears out of nowhere and starts making things even more chaotic.) It's great to see the big man in such a mighty role and a big film, but it would have been even better had he had more of a chance to show some of his range as a performer.
Even so, he still gets better material than Tony Jaa (star of the insane Ong-Bak and Tom-Yum-Goong movie series from Thailand), who just gets a couple of secondary fight scenes with Paul Walker, or indeed Ronda Rousey, who only appears for a – no pun intended – rousing high-heeled, bare-knuckled fist-fight with Michelle Rodriguez. There are times when the film seems to have more well-known faces than it know what to do with: Kurt Russell makes an impression through sheer charisma, but Djimon Hounsou is rather underused, and Lucas Black's cameo as the hero of Fast and Furious 3 may not mean much to a lot of people (he is not invited to join the All-Stars on this occasion).
In the circumstances, one might therefore question just why Sung Kang and Gal Gadot are so prominently credited at the top of the film, given neither of them actually appear in it, but the world of Fast and Furious is nothing if not sentimental. I have scoffed about this element of the films in the past, but now I wonder if the sense of affection and camaraderie between the characters isn't a crucial part of mix. This film more than any of the others trades deeply on this, given that Paul Walker died while it was still in production, entailing a reputed $50 million visual effects bill to digitally recreate him for his outstanding scenes. (For what it's worth, the substitution is mostly invisible, but I think I spotted at least one moment where Walker's head looked suspiciously CGI, and he does spend a lot of the film fighting people in unusually dark rooms.) Fast and Furious movies are normally just an excuse for a barnstorming good time, but on this occasion things conclude with a clearly heartfelt and surprisingly moving coda paying tribute to Walker and his contribution to the series.
(Three more F&Fs have been announced, leading one to wonder who could possibly be tapped to fill Walker's shoes as second lead behind Diesel. It's obviously too much to hope that Jason Statham gets the nod – there are only so many big angry bald men one film can support, and with Diesel, Statham, and Dwayne Johnson together it would look like a collection of cross babies on steroids – so one is compelled to wonder, who could possibly do this job? Who knows a lot about cars, can handle themselves in a fight, and is looking for a job right now? We can only hope the Fast and Furious catering van serves steak.)
I think the way that Fast and Furious 7 manages to pay proper tribute to its lost star without making the whole proceeding mawkish and uncomfortable is a considerable achievement, and I am curious to see how they address Walker's absence in future instalments (it would also be sad if Jordana Brewster lost her role in the series, but it's hard to see how they can retain her without her screen husband's presence). But on the whole I am glad there will be future films in this series: it may be ridiculous, but it still clearly has energy, inventiveness, and the goodwill of the audience. These movies were always just about simple entertainment value, and they retain that in spades. Keep 'em coming, guys, keep 'em coming.