"Furious 7" One Of Series' Biggest Misfires

Director James Wan (“Saw,” “The Conjuring”) was halfway through his big leap from low-budget horror to big-ticket action when “worst case scenario” became reality. “Fast & Furious” series star Paul Walker was killed in an off-set single-vehicle accident, leaving Wan’s half-finished “Furious 7” in the worst kind of flux. Given three bad choices – scrapping, restarting, or finishing the film – producers went with the lattermost, completing Walker’s performance with a combination of body doubles (including the actor’s two brothers), special effects, and footage from movies past.

That the film is at all identifiable as a finished product is a testament to the talent and fortitude of Wan and company, and a fitting tribute to their late friend.

That’s not to say it’s any good.

Chapter 7 in the saga of Brian O’Conner (Walker), Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel), and company dutifully parrots the ridiculousness of its sublimely silly predecessor, but without the light touch that made parts 5 and 6 so appetizing. Short on comic relief and even shorter on the lovably clumsy male-odrama the series is known for, the movie carelessly flings its characters at the flimsiest of narrative dart boards.

Picking up where part 6 left off, Brian, Dom, Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), Roman (Tyrese Gibson), and Tej (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) set off to avenge the death of one of their running mates at the hands of Deckard Shaw, the ruthless older brother of the last film’s villain.

On the surface, “Transporter” star Jason Statham’s turn as the elder Shaw is a welcome one, teasing sweat-soaked fistfights and one-liners aplenty. With Shaw likewise out for blood in his brother’s name, the two factions engage in a figurative – and, on two occasions, literal – game of chicken.

But Statham is underused – the character’s only notable attribute is his name – and the actor’s memorable first quarter throwdown with bounty hunter Hobbs (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) only serves as a recurring notice that both are shorted on screen time. Johnson’s performance is essentially an extended cameo.

It’s screen legend Kurt Russell’s series debut as covert ops director Mr. Nobody that’s nearly the picture’s saving grace. As the suit who leverages the aid of an all-seeing tracking device (a la “The Dark Knight”) to get Dom’s crew to work for him – to locate its creator (Nathalie Emmanuel) – Russell radiates fun, the kind sorely missing in the film’s would-be delirious action scenes.

Where “Fast Five” cleverly forged its path as a neo-heist film and “Furious 6” got viewers off with its cartoonish theatrics, 7 suffers from a major identity crisis. Its most memorable action beat – cars parachuting out of cargo plane – isn’t as dynamimc as it should be, nor is the pic’s dimly lit climax. These are spare action parts more in line with series low point “Fast & Furious,” full up with rote tough guy talk and fragmented pacing, a narrative brokenness that unfortunately points to the loss of its star.

The real Paul Walker isn’t in much of “Furious 7.” Some might not notice his absence at first glance, but it ends up defining the film. Between eerie CGI and long passages where the character is conspicuously relegated to background duty, the actor’s death is deeply felt in the plot’s piecemeal construction.

Dom and Brian don’t have one of their classic heart-to-hearts until nearly an hour in, and even then, it’s obvious that Walker never got to shoot the scene.

More uneasy yet is that – as reported in the trades – Walker’s accident predated production of two of the film’s main sequences – a second-act Abu Dhabi penthouse raid and a wild chase in which Djimon Honsou (“Gladiator”) wreaks havoc as a drone-flying terrorist. Since Brian O’Conner had been central to all previous “Fast & Furious” films but one – 2006’s “Toyko Drift” – seeing the character so often tucked away in his swan song is dismaying, even if his final send-off feels right.

Wan has done an admirable job salvaging the project, but it might have been more at home in the salvage yard, among other abandoned films lost to time and circumstance. Along with further movement away from practical effects to green screen work, “Furious 7” ranks among the series’ lesser entries, never fun enough to justify its own proud stupidity.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release Date: April 3, 2015
Studio: Universal Pictures
Director: James Wan
Screenwriter: Chris Morgan
Starring: Paul Walker, Vin Diesel, Jason Statham, Michelle Rodriguez, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Tyrese Gibson, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Kurt Russell, Jordana Brewster, Nathalie Emmanuel, Djimon Honsou
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for prolonged frenetic sequences of violence, action and mayhem, suggestive content and brief strong language)