AUSTIN – One of the things that impresses me most about the team that throws the SXSW Film Festival in Austin every year is how adaptable they are. I've seen them roll with all sorts of things, and they seem to me to be open to all sorts of ideas in terms of programming. There was nothing originally scheduled for the Sunday night midnight slot at the Paramount, but when I woke up on Sunday morning, the festival had announced a very special treat for anyone who had a badge for the festival, and anticipation was running high because of which title it was.
This coming weekend, I'll be attending the junket for “Furious 7,” so I was already scheduled to see the film. But seeing it tonight at the Paramount Theater, completely packed with lunatic movie fans who were all crazy excited to be there was better than any junket screening possibly could be. It was emotional, it was exciting, and it was genuinely moving at times. Before the screening began, producer Neal Moritz asked the assembled audience to protect one piece of information from the film, the ultimate fate of Paul Walker's character. When Walker died last year, it was devastating to this entire cast and crew, and they had to take a step back to figure out if they could finish it and how. What I find most impressive about how they finished it is that the seams don't show, at least not at first glance. This feels like the film they set out to make, and it is as satisfying as any entry in the series.
In many ways, this is the franchise that Hollywood should pay attention to above any other. These films have evolved so much from where they began, and they've managed to serve as a model of how to embrace diversity and make it a strength, not just something you're forced to do. As they've grown their ensemble from film to film, it's been amazing to see how gracefully they've been able to turn this from a sort of low-rent but charming riff on “Point Break” into a globe-trotting series of giant action movies that feature men, women, and a pretty broad spectrum of racial backgrounds. Things like chronology, physics, and logic be damned, because none of that matters when there are cars to be driven too fast and things to be blown up. These films simply exist to entertain, and there's such a giddy sense of invention with each of these at this point that it's hard to imagine how anyone can deny their pleasures.
Like the James Bond series, which these feel like they're emulating in many ways now, these films are built around a series of familiar scenes, with variations on those familiar things serving as part of the pleasure. There are things fans want each time out from Bond films, things like the briefing by Q or the pre-title stunt sequence or the smutty joke just before things fade out. In this series, you want Vin Diesel to lecture everyone on family. You want Ludacris to mercilessly tease Tyrese. You want Dwayne Johnson to beat the shit out of people while sweating small rivers. And you want cars, lots of them, going fast and making indecent amounts of noise. “Furious 7” checks all of the boxes, but does it without ever seeming like this is just some mechanical thing designed to hustle a few more bucks out of fans. Every single one of these films, it feels like they throw everything they have at it, and it's that unbridled effort that makes these feel like something special.
I can't even begin to untangle the continuity of this series, but thankfully, “Furious 7” makes sure you know anything you need to know so you can jump in even if you've never seen one of these before. The film opens with an introduction for Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) that immediately indicates that our heroes are going to be pushed harder than ever before, because this is a guy who can single-handedly kill a hospital full of soldiers and civilians and then walk away without leaving a trace. Why is he after everyone? Because his brother was the bad guy in the last film, and the team left him in pretty ragged shape.
It's really that simple. There are a lot of complicated mechanics that screenwriter Chris Morgan throws at everyone, but the film is driven by the most basic of underlying motivations. That's a good thing. It keeps everything else clean. You can make the business of it as busy as you want, but unless the actual goals are clear, it doesn't matter. The audience can't invest if they don't know what the stakes are or what the characters onscreen want. In this, Deckard Shaw wants to kill the entire team, and they want to stop him from doing that. When that thought is concluded in one way or another, then the film is over. Everything else is just moving parts to get to that ending.
But what magnificent and preposterous moving parts they are this time. I count at least six or seven giant set pieces, any one of which might be enough for one film. All of them together is positively dizzying, and I salute James Wan for making a confident jump to big budget action filmmaking. He's come a long way visually since “Saw,” and I like that his visual approach here is not just cookie cutter or off the assembly line. He pushes everything to make sure that each scene, whether it's just dialogue or it's one of the monster action scenes, has a sense of momentum. And when the film does finally reach its conclusion, the final moments have a great sense of peace and joy, and I think it will change the way people think about Wan and what projects he is offered.
Another signature of this series is the way they seem to add about four or five new big cast members each time, dropping other people out to make room for them, keeping some, shuffling some. Not everyone gets the same amount of screentime. Gal Godot probably lost out the most here. She shows up in a headshot at one point, but her storyline was left on the cutting room floor doing the retooling they had to do after Walker's death. I wouldn't have noticed except that her name is in the opening credits. Prominently. I assume she has a great agent. The biggest addition this time around, besides Statham as the British Secret Service version of Jason Voorhees, is Kurt Russell as a very shady government agent referred to only as “Mr. Nobody.” Russell's looking older these days that I am prepared to see, because I would prefer he stop aging entirely and never die. We do not have enough Kurt Russell movies yet, and he is enjoyable here in every second of his screen time. Tony Jaa is also a new addition this time as a bad guy who seems to have a particular knack for beating the holy hell out of Paul Walker, and he gets two great scenes in which to shine. Elsa Ptaky is back-burnered to a pretty severe degree, as is Jordanna Brewster. Both Michelle Rodriguez and Nathalie Emmanuel are well served in their scenes. In the last film, Rodriguez had a truly bad-ass fight with Gina Carano. This time, it's Ronda Rousey she faces, and it's a spectacular hand-to-hand battle.
By the time they are destroying and punishing the streets of Los Angeles towards the end of the movie, “Furious 7” is just exhausting. I felt like I watched three or four different action films in the space of that two hours, each one good, flipping back and forth between them. I really like Paul Walker here, and for his fans, this is going to be a hugely bittersweet occasion. One of the reasons I love Vin Diesel (and I really do, offscreen as well as on) is because he is a self-aware exaggeration. He knows how he looks and how he sounds. Dwayne Johnson is the exact same way. He is so camera-aware, it's scary. You put three guys like Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, and Jason Statham in the movie, testosterone's bound to fly, and the reason it works so well here is because all of them are completely in on the joke, self-aware, and focused on making something that not only entertains fans, but that also actively cultivates new ones.
It's all very handsomely shot by Marc Spicer and Stephen Windon, and the score by Brian Tyler makes it feel like the audience is being chased. I can't imagine the task that Leigh Folsom Boyd, Dylan Highsmith, Kirk Morri, and Christian Wagner had when editing the two different shoots into one that looked visually consistent. “Furious 7” chases a magic tech doodad all over the world, and it has a great big corny heart, but whattaya know? Corny works well with this cast, and the tech doodad (a surveillance super-system designed by a hacker) is just an opportunity to soup up the train chases or the racing cars. It really doesn't matter. “Jason Statham is mad. He tries to kill Vin Diesel and all of his friends. The government says 'Hey, we saw that shit! Don't do that!” And that's fine. As I said, it makes it easier to focus on the absolutely absurd big set pieces.
Plot is unimportant. Family is everything, and “Furious 7” is a blast.
“Furious 7″ will be in theaters on April 3rd.