REVIEW: “Furious 7”

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The evolution of the “Fast and Furious” franchise has been an intriguing thing to watch. It went from being a goofy street racing franchise that I easily dismissed to a huge scaled, amped up action series that I have enjoyed. It’s a franchise that banks on its silliness and absurdity but succeeds because it never takes itself too serious and it knows what it now wants to be. I can appreciate that. Part of the charm of what it has become revolves around how cinematically insane they can make things.

2011’s “Fast Five” was the turning point for me. The drastic change in formula was welcomed and that film still has some of the best action sequences of the last ten or so years. It was followed by the less satisfying but still entertaining “Fast and Furious 6”. Now we reach the seventh film because naturally there has to be another film, right? Unfortunately the path to bringing “Furious 7” to the big screen has been a tragic and complicated one. On November 30, 2013, halfway through filming “Furious 7”, Paul Walker was killed in a car accident while on Thanksgiving break. Understandably this threw the film’s likelihood in doubt. After the film was confirmed to be still on, script rewrites and cast changes caused a number of delays.

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But now it has hit theaters and the question becomes can it sustain the crazy, fuel-injected fun that has won me over to the franchise? In a nutshell, yes. “Furious 7” hits every note that you would expect from this reinvented series. The characters are formulaic and cliche. The dialogue is sometimes silly and hokey. The action blows believability to smithereens. But (and this may sound nuts to some readers) those things are part of the weird charm that these films have. James Wan takes the directing reins from longtime helmer Justin Lin and he doesn’t make the mistake of tinkering too much with the formula. This is definitely ‘more of the same’ but for fans that’s a good thing.

The film begins by reintroducing us to the crew and giving us a quick rundown of where they are and what they have been up to. Dom (Vin Diesel) is working hard to help Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) with her amnesia. Brian (Walker) is struggling to put aside his love for ‘the ride’ for the white-picket fence, mini-van family life. It also addresses the killer mid-credits scene from the last film. As it turns out Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), the older brother of the last film’s antagonist, is hot under the collar and seeking revenge on Dom, Brian, and their crew. After Shaw’s attacks get personal and deadly, Dom and company set out to get him.

The hunt for Shaw also pulls in Agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) who quickly feels the full force of Shaw’s resolve. Other familiar faces like Roman (Tyrese Gibson) and Tej (Chris Bridges) show up and fill their established roles. Their automotive adventure takes them all over the world – The United States, London, Tokyo, Abu Dhabi, and a host of other places. Say what you want about the series, but their recent use of locales is one of its real treats. It’s not simply that it has a global feel. The locations are beautifully shot and injected into the storyline.

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The story itself is pretty simple and the structure is basically set around moving things from point A to point B. It’s nothing innovative or new when it comes to the storytelling. When it is focused on its main revenge-versus-revenge thread it hits on all cylinders. But there are some moving parts that don’t quite work as well. Kurt Russell shows up has a US shadow agent apparently with limitless government resources. He’s after the ultimate hacking tool called God’s Eye. A well-funded terrorist (Djimon Hounsou) is also after it for obvious nefarious purposes. The entire side plot isn’t particularly well presented or compelling. They do serve to fill-in necessary potential plot holes and to set the table for some of the better action sequences, but that’s about all they have to offer. There are also couple of weird, almost obligatory, diversions meant to reflect back to street racing roots of the franchise. Personally I wish they would get past that.

The performances are about what you would expect. They range from steady and serviceable to pretty shaky. This installment does try to inject more emotional weight than the previous films and that’s when the performances struggled the most. But ultimately they get the job done and with the exception of Ronda Rousey (who to be fair is just there for a glorified cameo) none are distractingly bad. And I have to say that despite the flimsiness of his character, it was a load of fun to watch Kurt Russell having a blast with what he was asked to do.

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But let’s be honest and true, nobody goes to a “Fast and Furious” movie for the performances. It’s all about the cars and the action we can get a lot of both. You almost get the feeling that each movie wants to top the other one in terms of the craziness of the action sequences.  This one definitely takes things to a higher level and most of the sequences are pure adrenaline-fueled excitement. Even when they pull something totally absurd out of their hat, it works within these reality-defying scenarios. That being said, the big action finale was the weakest. It certainly has its moments but it’s too long and overthought. Ultimately I was ready for it to end.

The movie ends with the fitting tribute to Paul Walker and his character, something I was expecting. It’s done really well and that could be said for most of the movie. It’s not perfect and there are stumbles that keep it from being an action movie classic. But these movies have embraced this new direction and this installment stays loyal to that. If you didn’t like the last two films I would be shocked to hear that you like this one. It definitely does the same things. But if you are a fan of their new model, and you enjoy just sitting back and going with its wildness, I have no doubts that you will find some of that same entertainment in “Furious 7”.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

“THE EXPENDABLES 2” – 4 STARS

Ok, let’s get one thing out of the way first. Anyone who is going into “The Expendables 2” expecting a deep, penetrating narrative and Oscar caliber performances are clearly going for all the wrong reasons. This sequel to Sylvester Stallone’s 2010 film is bigger, louder, and for my money better than the first picture and it’s an unashamed 80’s action movie homage that had me hooked from the first moment. Is this an exercise in challenging and complex filmmaking? Far from it. But it is an honest and unapologetic movie that knows exactly what target it’s aiming for and hits it dead center. Does that mean it’s a perfect movie? Most certainly not. But it’s a ton of fun for those knowing what to expect and I defy fans of these “Who’s Who” of action movie heroes to walk out without a smile on your face.

Sly Stallone co-wrote and stars in “The Expendables 2” but this time he passes the directing duties to Simon West. This contributes to what I think is one of the biggest differences between this and the first film. The first movie had its share of salutes to the classic action pictures but overall its tone was much more serious. The sequel is much lighter with lots of playful camaraderie, intentional cheesy one-liners, and a self-deprecating humor that’s woven from start to finish. What’s really great is that all of this works so well. The movie and it’s actors constantly poke fun at themselves and at many of the things that were commonplace during the 80’s action craze. The old guys constantly makes fun of their age. They spoof each other’s famous one-liners. Even Chuck Norris tells a Chuck Norris joke. And their names are a hoot. Aside from Stallone’s rather tame Barney Ross, you have Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), Booker (Norris), Trench (Arnold Schwarzenegger), Mr. Church (Bruce Willis), Gunner Jensen (Dolph Lundgren), Hale Caesar (Terry Crews), Toll Road (Randy Couture), and Yin Yang (Jet Li). While it sounds like a G.I. Joe roster, it classic 80’s cheese. But could any of the names be better than that of the movie’s antagonist, Jean Vilain (Jean-Claude Van Damme)?

But while there is a lot of humor throughout the film, this is a straight-forward, in your face, action movie filled with bullets, blades, and blood. The movie starts out with a bang – a really, really loud bang. Director Simon West lets the audience know right away what they’re in store for. The team is reintroduced via a thundering rescue mission soaked with gunfire, huge explosions, and machismo. Afterwards, Barney is approached by the shady Mr. Church to carry out a simple retrieval mission. But things go terribly wrong when Barney and company cross paths with Jean Vilain. After Vilain gets away, the team sets out on a revenge-fueled, save the world mission that doesn’t pull a single punch. They shoot, punch, and knife their way through hordes of baddies on their way to the big final showdown that we know from the start is coming.

The movie takes you on a ride from one extravagant action set piece to another so there’s plenty of opportunities for the huge cast to get their moment in the sun. They all kick a lot of butt each with their own unique style of buttkicking. And while the body count is huge and there is plenty of blood, West keeps the extremely graphic violence seen in the first film mostly in check. But action movie junkies get more than their money’s worth. The action sequences are furious and intense and while they do dabble in the absurd, it never goes off the rails enough to lose the audience. In fact, it’s those few moments of absurdity that were for me the most nostalgic. The action scenes are cleverly constructed and edited and they’re clearly the film’s bread and butter.

I’ve mentioned a couple of times already that the cast is having a lot of fun. Everyone fits in nicely and the back and forth banter and old school “I got your back” virility never grows old. The characters each have their own personalities that we get to enjoy despite the almost nonexistent character development. Stallone and Statham are best buddies. Lundgren straddles the line between heroic and insane. Crews and Couture are the muscles of the bunch. Then you have Schwarzenegger, Willis, and Norris who are basically…well…Schwarzenegger, Willis, and Norris. But I don’t think I enjoyed anyone more than Van Damme as the cold-blooded villain. He’s clearly having a blast and he nails his character. I loved every scene he had and yes, he can still do the flying spin kick.

It’s been a lot of fun reading critics guiltily try to explain why they enjoyed “The Expendables 2”. Me, on the other hand, I’m not ashamed to give a movie praise that entertained and excited me. And look, I could easily spend time harping on the plot points that didn’t work, it’s extreme predictability, and some of the sub par performances. But instead, I recognize exactly what “The Expendables 2” intends to be. It clearly won’t be a movie for everyone. Those with no connection to or interest in the 80’s action genre or the actors probably won’t connect or be interested in this picture. But I get back to one key thing – I had a lot of FUN. I grew up on these guys and this movie took me back. I laughed, I was wow’d, but most of all I left the theater knowing I had gotten what I came for. Maybe that’s why the flaws are so easy for me to overlook.

“SAFE” – 3 1/2 STARS

While not all of Jason Statham’s action pictures have been good, you can’t deny that he has an almost infectious tough guy charisma. He’s a believable action movie star even in the middle of some pretty far-fetched action sequences. In “Safe”, Statham shoots, kicks, and punches through some pretty familiar territory. But it’s also a sharply directed action picture that builds on a really strong performance from Statham all the way to its bullet-ridden finale.

Statham plays Luke Wright, an ex-NYPD special agent who has hit rock bottom. We learn that Luke has resorted to cage fighting, something he hasn’t done well at. After winning a fight he was supposed to lose and costing the Russian Mafia a load of money, his life is utterly shattered by the orders of the mob’s leader. Homeless and at the end of his rope, he sees a young Chinese girl being chased by the same Russians. He intervenes to save the girl who he quickly finds is also being hunted by the Chinese Triads and some corrupt NYPD cops. Luke finds himself in the middle of an all out war in the New York City streets as he tries to protect the girl and the long list of numbers she holds in her memory.

Several things make “Safe” stand out from some of Statham’s other movies.  For one thing, the Luke Wright character shows more humanity than we see in some of his other roles. Statham absolutely has the athletic, tough-as-nails, butt-kicker persona down perfectly. But I was really surprised to see how well he brought genuine emotion to several scenes that called for it. The movie also benefits from a pretty tight and well structured story. It’s fast-paced and adrenaline filled but it’s also cleverly layed out. But that doesn’t mean the story is flawless. There’s nothing that happens that you won’t see coming from a mile away. The only exception is the very end which really didn’t work for me. I’m not going any further because I don’t want to spoil anything, but let’s just say the big finale was a head-scratcher.

But “Safe” is an action movie first and foremost and it delivers plenty of it. There’s plenty of gunfire and bone breaking and the frantic herky-jerky camera work actually works better here than in many other films that employ the technique. Director Boaz Yakin knows Statham’s strengths and he rides them. Statham’s martial arts background fuels some really slick fight sequences and he’s not bad with a pistol either. And while there is plenty violence, Yakin portrays it without buckets of blood. It’s gritty and edgy but it maintains the feel without the unneccessary gore. The action is the movie’s bread and butter and I was sold on it.

This certainly isn’t a movie for everyone and it isn’t a film that will garner a lot of critical praise. But it’s a fun, no-nonsense action picture that I enjoyed. Statham really brings it both physically and with a performance that shows he has some acting chops. The movie is fairly predictable and it’s supposed twist at the end isn’t all that impressive. But will anyone be going to see “Safe” other than to see Statham kick, punch, and shoot his way through waves of bad guys? That’s one of the reasons I went to see it and I definitely got what I paid for.

THIS WEEK IN MOVIES (APRIL 27th)

Perhaps my favorite bit of movie news this week came with the release of the first trailer for John Hillcoat’s “Lawless”. “Lawless” Official Trailer #1 looks like a tough and gritty Prohibition period action flick. Anyone who has read my Most Anticipated Movies of 2012 post already knows that this film, (previously named “The Wettest County”), is one I can’t wait for. The movie features a cast of some of my favorite performers including Tom Hardy, the underappreciated Guy Pearce, Jessica Chastain, Gary Oldman, and Mia Wasikowska. And then there’s Shia LaBeouf, an actor I simply don’t care for. I’m hoping he doesn’t drag the movie down and by the looks of the “Lawless” Official Trailer #1 there’s a lot more that overshadows him. Everything about the trailer looks GREAT particularly Hardy and Pearce and I am really amped up for this picture. Just click the links to watch the “Lawless” Official Trailer #1. The movie is set to be released on August 31st.

The ad campaign for “The Dark Knight Rises” is really starting to take off. Each week brings new news and information to what is hands-down my most anticipated movie of 2012. Everyone may recall that director Christopher Nolan shot several scenes of “The Dark Knight” for IMAX. Well it was released that over one hour of “The Dark Knight Rises” was filmed for IMAX. That may not sound like a big deal, but as someone who watched “The Dark Knight” on both IMAX and the regular screen, the difference is well worth the extra ticket cost.

But in even bigger Dark Knight news, it was announced that a brand new full trailer will debut in front of next weekend’s “The Avengers” movie. As if I needed any more incentive to see “The Avengers”, now I have a new “The Dark Knight Rises” trailer to look forward to. The trailer is said to show a new and clearer audio for Bane as well as several scenes of brand new footage. I’m getting giddy just thinking about it!

NEW IN THEATERS (APRIL 27th)

  • “SAFE” (R) – Action/Shoot ’em up
  • “THE RAVEN” (R) – Horror/Thriller
  • “THE PIRATES” (PG) – Animated