The true story at this point of the Fast and Furious franchise is the story of an ever-ballooning budget. The 2001 debut installment cost $38 million to make, which it of course spent on fast cars & Ja Rule, depending on ultra-macho cheap thrills like rap rock & lipstick lesbianism to fill in the gaps. In 2015 a Fast and Furious movie costs $250 million to make, which gives it the freedom to tear down entire cities on the screen, no Ja Rule necessary. The first three or so Fast and Furious movies serve mostly as cultural relics, time capsules of bad taste in the early 00s. As the budget continued to expand (along with Vin Diesel’s delightfully long winded musings on the nature of “family”) so did the scope of the action sequences and the feeling that the franchise had actually started to pull its own weight as a unique intellectual property. The street racing & Ja Rules of the early films are mostly gone, but far from forgotten as the series has become completely wrapped up in its own mythology, pretending that the past was more significant than it was and pushing what they can do in the present to any & all ridiculous heights allowed by the strengths of an ever-sprawling cast & budget. Furious 7 may have taken my top spot in the franchise (although that may just be the post-theater buzz talking) simply because it’s so much movie.
Furious 7’s charms depend greatly on the six films that precede it (this marks the first time that the Tokyo Drift storyline is in the rearview), but it uses that well-established history to its advantage as a launching pad for its larger-than-ever set pieces and relentless fan service. It’s difficult to imagine just how much a newcomer would get out of early scenes where Vin Diesel’s Dominic struggles to keep his “family” together, including the significance of details like the house they worked so hard to hold onto, the struggle to keep Paul Walker’s Brian out of danger, and the faulty memory of Michelle Rodriguez’ Letty. There’s an excess of callbacks to seemingly insignificant details like a tuna sandwich from the first film, images & music lifted directly from Tokyo Drift (within which Lucas Black ages a decade in the blink of an eye), a return to the Race Wars (the ludicrous name of a street racing competition I still can’t believe no one in that world finds fucked up), outrageous stunt casting of flash-in-the-pan rappers (in this case the most-insignificant-yet, Iggy Azaelea), and increasingly obnoxious product placement for Corona. There was even a return to the excessive ogling of the early films, but with a modern update. If the gratuitous leering of the early 00s was Generation Lipstick Lesbian, Furious 7 poses the modern era as Generation Dat Ass, featuring a peculiarly intense focus on the female posterior. The only thing that was really missing was a backyard cookout. To a newcomer these callbacks could feel superfluous at best and grotesque at worst, but for a fan (even a recent convert such as myself), they’re pleasantly familiar.
That’s not to say that a pair of fresh eyes would have nothing to enjoy here. At a remarkably brisk 137 minutes, Furious 7 is packed to the gills with action movie surface pleasures: self-described “vehicular warfare”, flying cars, smashed buildings, absurdly intricate martial arts sequences, drones (or as Tyrese Gibson’s Roman calls them, “space ships”), hacker technobabble, rap music, and the aforementioned near-naked asses. On the gender-swapped side of that butt fetish is a gratuitous shot of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s mostly nude, entirely exceptional body lounging in a hospital bed that is sure to raise a couple heart rates. Although The Rock isn’t afforded much screen time, he makes the most of it. Besides appearing undressed, he also puts his pro-wrestling background to good use in some epic shit talking (“I’m gonna put a hurt on him so bad he’s gonna wish his mama had kept her legs closed”) and a fist fight in which he delivers his signiature “Rock Bottom” move to Jason Statham. However, even that fight pales in comparison to the stunts performed by legitimate hand-to-hand combat artists Ronda Rousey & Tony Jaa. The film could’ve used more of crowd favorite The Rock (and personal favorite Jordana Brewster), but the additions of newcomers like Rousey, Jaa, and total weirdo Kurt Russell more than filled the void.
There was also something missing in the absence of longtime Fast and Furious director Justin Lin, particularly in the scaled-back “family” talk that reached its fever pitch in Fast & Furious 6. Considering the real-life loss of Paul Walker, however, the “family” speeches that are included feel all the more significant. When Dominic says “I don’t have friends. I got family,” you could easily substitute the word “friends” for “fans”. Anyone who has made it this far into the Fast and Furious ride (or at least tuned in after the not-so-great fourth one) is likely to feel an affinity for the franchise that not only excuses, but emphatically embraces its trashy, trashy charms. Paul Walker’s transformation from a “sandwich crazy” undercover cop to an action movie legend was a gradual one that has now sadly come to a close. It’s always a bummer to watch a family member go and Furious 7 does a great job of giving him a proper send-off. The focus on fan-pleasing callbacks and the transition from the “family”-heavy Justin Lin run into a new era (in which Walker will not be joining us) distinguishes Furious 7 from the six previous installments, while still honors them with a lofty reverence. It’s sure to please the franchise’s established fans as well as gather some new ones along the way. There really is just so much movie here that anyone who enjoys loud, obnoxious action films in any capacity is likely find something to latch onto.