Zaki's Review: Furious 7

04/03/2015 12:15 pm ET | Updated Jun 03, 2015

With the tragic and unexpected death of star Paul Walker in late 2013, the Fast & Furious franchise was hit with a nearly insurmountable challenge heading into its seventh lap. Production on the latest installment was only partially completed at the time of his passing, and the filmmakers had to scrap preexisting plans, honor the actor, acknowledge his passing, and write out his character, all the while delivering the hard driving intensity the series has become synonymous with after 14 years. No mean feat, that, and the franchise's minders deserve all the props in the world for pulling it off with Furious 7.

As you may recall, Fast & Furious 6 from two years ago was actually my very first foray into the wide world of the Fast sequels. I'd watched the original way back in 2001, but I'd mostly let the entries that followed in its wake pass me by. However, it became impossible for me to ignore the palpable anticipation that greeted the impending release of each new installment of the saga, and so, with an open mind and a full gas tank, I decided to drive in with the last one. And I was glad I did, with the movie ending up as one of my faves of 2013.

Thus, like many, I was excited to see what they had had planned next. Big picture: When Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and his crew defeated international terrorist Owen Show (Luke Evans) last time, little did they know he had an older brother (Jason Statham) who'd want to settle the score. First up, a bone-crunching brawl with musclebound FBI agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) that leaves Hobbs hospitalized. Next, Shaw dispatches Sung Kang's Han (in the process finally tying the wayward third entry, Tokyo Drift, into the overall chronology). After that, Dom & Co. (Walker, Tyrese Gibson, Chris "Ludacris" Bridges, Michelle Rodriguez) set out to even things out for their fallen comrades.

It's a fascinating thing to look at where the Fast franchise started and what it's become. The globe-trotting, physics-defying antics of this latest entry, with our heroes traipsing to Abu Dhabi, driving one-of-a-kind sports cars from one skyscraper to another, seem like they belong to another series entirely when you compare them with the first flick's quaint little crime caper about underground street racers. It says something about how gradually and organically that transition has occurred that we don't really bat an eye at it. And to that point, this one is for the long-timers. No matter how you feel about these films, the seventh one isn't going to suddenly change your opinion.

With a plate full of plot and a runtime to match, Furious 7 does tend to bite off more than it can chew, lacking the polished precision of 2011's Fast Five (the brand's high point). Moving our characters across the globe through at least one too many set pieces, the story is overstuffed while the script is undercooked. (Sadly Statham's character suffers the worst here.) Also sorely missed is director Justin Lin, who brought a balletic elegance to the last four Fasts, and is replaced here by Saw helmer James Wan. Of course, underscoring all of this is the tragic circumstance they had to come back from just to get the thing finished, so it's understandable if we sort of grade on a curve.

As I said in my last review, a big chunk of the films' appeal is built on the relationship between Diesel's Dom and Walker's Brian O'Connor. As such, it's impossible not to feel the weight of Paul Walker's loss over each and every frame, not only because of the many times we see Brian walk away from exactly the kind of car crashes that claimed the actor's life, but also because of what his loss means for the Fast & Furious future. That's an open question that I don't doubt the key creatives are trying to puzzle out even as I type this, but Furious 7's closing moments offer a touching tribute to the late star that elegantly closes out his part of the ride while leaving us to wonder what the next stretch of road will offer. B-