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

“BATTLE: LOS ANGELES” – 2 1/2 STARS

When reviewing a film I always try to consider what kind of movie the filmmakers intend to make. It’s especially important to employ this philosophy when reviewing a movie like “Battle: Los Angeles”. I enjoy all kinds of movies including those that are intellectually challenging, emotionally stimulating, or even the proverbial mindless popcorn picture. “Battle: Los Angeles” is very honest about it’s intent and never pretends to be something it isn’t. It could best be described as “Black Hawk Down” meets “Independence Day”. It takes realistic, gritty military combat and mixes it with the alien invasion angle. It’s a loud, simple, explosion filled action film that does succeed to a degree.

In some ways it resembles a video game, not only by it’s title but also by it’s look and feel. What’s funny is that many modern video games have more plot than “Battle: LA”. It’s a very basic story. A staff sergeant (Aaron Eckhart) and his new platoon are sent into the alien infested Los Angeles battle zone to help escort out a small group of stranded civilians. That’s really it. It starts with a very brief introduction to the platoon but almost immediately the first attack occurs and the action takes off, only occasionally slowing down for small doses of character developing dialogue. While they try to add some degree of depth to the characters, other than Eckhart’s, none are all that interesting.

The movie also uses ever military cliché you can think of. Whether it’s the personalities in the platoon or the contrived dialogue, you name the cliché, it’s used here. We’re also offered very little in regards to explanation. We hardly know anything about the alien invasion even though we do gather tidbits of information through brief glimpses of CNN newscasts (which I actually liked). The movie vaguely informs us that the alien’s objective is to steal our water and we get a little information about how they function. But to be honest, in this type of film is it really that important? Obviously the filmmakers think not.

“Battle: LA’s” action is it’s bread and butter and it’s largely impressive. Director Jonathan Liebesman used handheld cameras to give his film the familiar documentary feel while recreating the chaos and intensity of war. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before but it works more often than not. While a few scenes are a little disorienting it’s very effective most of the time. The CGI is generally good and especially shines in the large-scaled shots of the city and in images showing the massive destruction from the battles. The look of the aliens is serviceable but I was never blown away by them or their technology. There are some fierce action sequences particularly a frantic battle on a freeway and the final battle which I won’t give away. For my money, these scenes worked pretty well.

Aaron Eckhart is well cast as the combat-seasoned staff sergeant and the only remotely interesting character. Michelle Rodriguez plays the exact same type of role she always plays. The other performances range from fairly good to pretty bad. But then again this isn’t a performance driven picture, right? The bigger problem is the actors aren’t given much to work with. They also aren’t asked to do much more than shout and shoot so judging acting performances in this type of picture is pretty pointless.

“Battle: Los Angeles” isn’t a perfect film but it’s an honest one. It’s aim was to be a pre-summer popcorn action movie and it hits it’s mark. The trouble is the plot is paper-thin, the aliens aren’t that menacing, and it’s loaded with pointless, forced, and clichéd dialogue and profanity. But the action is intense and it’s shot and edited in a way that pulls you into the combat. Even with it’s shortcomings, it manages to be a fairly entertaining getaway, but it’s not one that will stay with you very long.