The trend bucking Fast and the Furious franchise, seemingly more popular with each installment, unexpectedly hit a wall when Paul Walker did. His ironic death, in an exploding car, meant that horror director James Wan, who thought his days of working with the dead were over, either had to put his ghost on screen or can Universal’s most profitable car show. With the movie half shot, the filmmakers chose to repackage what they had, retooling the screenplay to facilitate Walker’s on screen exit and employing Weta Digital to stitch the late actor’s head onto his guillotined brothers’ bodies, completing scenes. Now, nearly a year later than planned, we have the result: a broadly coherent sequel, with the join only visible to those minded to look for it. If you’re high on petrol fumes it’s business as usual.
Fortunately for Wan and company, Walker was never the most vocal presence in the series, so maintaining his strong and silent persona required more animators than impressionists. In keeping with the franchise’s turgid obsession with family, the emotional underpinning thought to broaden its appeal beyond mere action junkies, the retuned story has Walker’s girlfriend expecting another baby and the lunk internally, implicitly, coming to realise that his brood is more important than dangerous driving. I say implicitly because with Walker unable to speak the words, it’s left to Vin Diesel and girlfriend Jordana Brewster to vocalize his internal monologue and tell us what he’s thinking.
Occasionally the limitations of what’s currently possible are manifest – Walker appearing demonstrably younger in one exchange, his head from an earlier movie transposed to his swansong, but as the movie continues it’s apparent that having Diesel, The Rock, Jason Statham and Ludacris as co-stars has its advantages: digi-Walker’s as articulate and animated as anyone in this crew. In fact, you’re left wondering if any of the cast are still alive. If there’s a Fast and Furious 8 expect the visual effects credits to go on for 20 minutes.
In keeping with the computer-enhanced characterization, the rest of the movie feels like it was programmed in B.A.N.G – the B-Movie Action Narrative Generator. Just the width of a tyre from parody, the dual and overlapping story, involving Statham’s vengeful brother and a mission to recover a “God’s eye” super-surveillance device, is pure action schlock. The dialogue is equal to the mechanical setpieces, almost every other line the set up for a pay off that could have been ripped from one of those old Simpsons’ McBain sketches. Sure, it’s a lot of fun, but Furious 7 is also largely shapeless, just a thick slab of blockbuster entertainment. Yes, this is a flick that had more production problems that most, but one would have thought that hiring James Wan might have meant importing some style to the carnage. Instead he adopts Justin Lin’s house style, stimulating the adrenal gland without ever pleasuring the eye.
Vin Diesel thought this posthumous sequel’s pathos load would put it in contention for a best picture Oscar nomination. In the real world, though a more sentimental instalment than usual, on account on Walker’s exit, there’s little more on offer here than previous entries. The spectacle’s ridiculous, the fetishizing of bodies and vehicles absurd. It remains a reliably entertaining series but if its to go on much longer those in creative control will have to sit down and think hard about how to give future sequels more life than pyrotechnic polish.