"Furious 7" is the fuel-injected fusion of all that is and ever has been good in "The Fast and the Furious" saga that began in 2001 with souped-up cars and a stripped-down story about a tightknit East L.A. street racing crew.
Though 2006's "Tokyo Drift," the third in the series, will always remain for me the one in which the films find their footing, in "Furious 7" they learn how to fly.
In every sense.
The always-fabulous autos spend much of the time airborne in stunning, heart-dropping effects. But it is in the handling of heartfelt sentiment that "Furious" truly soars, as the on-screen and off-screen family gives one of their own — Paul Walker, who died in a car crash in 2013 as "7" was filming — a near-perfect final ride.
The all-important foursome of mostly unknowns that kick-started things in 2001 is back and once again keeping the focus on family: Vin Diesel's Dom Toretto, the head of the crew; Michelle Rodriguez's Letty as his street-racing main squeeze; Walker as former undercover cop Brian O'Conner, who has become a brother in arms, now brother-in-law as well, marrying Dom's sweet baby sister, Mia (Jordana Brewster), and starting a family in "6."
While it will never win that best picture Oscar, as Diesel has suggested, the film does hit on all the franchise cylinders — high-stakes action, unbreakable friendships, absolute loyalty, self-deprecating humor (a "Hulk"-esque scene featuring Dwayne Johnson as DSS agent Hobbs is priceless), a high-energy hip-hop and rock score and an endless string of high-speed chases between muscle-bound cars just made for crashing.
Screenwriter Chris Morgan, who first came on board for "Tokyo Drift" and has been keeping all the various outlandish grudges that drive the action straight, ties up more than a few loose ends in "Furious."
It goes without saying, the most significant is linked to Walker's tragic death. Morgan and James Wan, in the "Fast" director's chair for the first time, handle it creatively and deftly, steering clear of letting things turn maudlin or exploitive, keeping the overall tone in sync with the past while shaping the franchise for the future. Between scenes of Walker shot before his death, footage from previous films, CGI wizardry and stand-in help from Walker's brothers Caleb and Cody, Brian O'Conner is very much in the movie as he always has been.
The action sequences — from hand-to-hand combat to the crash and burn of cars — are, as we've come to expect, not grounded in reality. The parkour-influenced high-rise stunts that everyone will be talking about are particularly affecting because a) they feature the multimillion-dollar eye-candy of a jewel-encrusted limited-edition Lykan Hypersport and b) they are amazing. All of the driving and skydiving fall into the never-try-this-at-home zone.
Though I'm not sure it is possible to top the Letty-Riley (Gina Carano) catfight in "6," the designer gown face-off between Letty in a red stunner by costume designer Sanja Milkovic Hays and the ultimate party bouncer played by UFC champ Ronda Rousey in a skintight, floor-length golden Herve Leger gets close.
But the money shots come in the knockdowns between Dom and Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), exploiting the fighting skills of mixed martial arts expert Statham. An extended battle of flying fists, kicks and tire irons on top of an L.A. parking lot is the centerpiece, but throughout stunt veteran Joel Kramer and fight choreographer Jeff Imada go fierce. And a shout out to the entire production team, including directors of photography Stephen F. Windon and Marc Spicer, visual effects supervisors Michael J. Wassel and Kelvin McIlwain and production designer Bill Brzeski.
All the favored players are there, including computer whiz Tej (Chris Ludacris Bridges) and Brian's fast-talking juvie buddy Roman (Tyrese Gibson). Agent Hobbs hasn't exactly throw in with Dom's crew, but their interest in outlaws increasingly coincides. In "Furious," it is Statham's rogue black-ops killer whose now-comatose brother (Luke Evans) was one of the main targets in "Fast & Furious 6." Shaw starts a revenge streak that puts Dom's Tokyo brother-in-arms Han (Sung Kang) six feet under, Hobbs in the hospital and blows Dom's house to smithereens. Anyone who rides with Dom is on Shaw's hit list.
There is another villain as well, a bunch of international mercenaries led by Djimon Hounsou's Jakande, which means Azerbaijan ends up on Dom's flight-fight plan. With Hobbs temporarily side-lined — half his body is in a cast — a new shadowy government figure code-named Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) turns up to join forces with Dom.
Besides getting even, everyone in "Furious 7" wants to locate an illusive hacker named Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) and the "God's Eye," an all-powerful Internet location tool Ramsey designed that puts GPS and Google mapping to shame. Between the various villains and multiple agendas, "Furious' " two-plus hours of metal-twisting and bone-crunching occasionally feels a little long. But every time you're about to say "Enough already," it shifts gears.
Much of the credit for the mostly smooth ride must go to the director, Wan, who is known for bringing some 21st century stylistic oomph to horror in "The Conjuring" and "Saw." He has not been shy about leaving his imprint on the franchise. The emotional connections between the actors can really be felt far more in "Furious 7," from the lip-lock between Dom and Letty — finally — to the glances passing between Dom and Brian that become exactly what you'd imagine between real-life close friends Diesel and Walker.
Wan taps into a softer side of his ripped cast and especially his two leads — one living, one gone — without ever letting things get mushy. So much so that when the film's ending comes, even hard-core "Furious" tough-guy fans might be tempted to shed a tear.
MPAA rating: PG-13, for prolonged frenetic sequences of violence, action and mayhem, suggestive content and brief strong language
Running time: 2 hour, 20 minutes