'Furious 7': When Cars Fly

Cars parachute into the Caucasus, cars plunge off cliffs, and perhaps most dauntingly, soar from one of the Jumeirah at Etihad Towers in Abu Dhabi.

Furious 7

Director: James Wan
Cast: Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Michelle Rodriguez, Jason Statham, Tyrese Gibson, Kurt Russell
Rated: R
Studio: Universal Pictures
Year: 2015
US date: 2015-04-03 (General release)
UK date: 2015-02-20 (General release)

"Cars can't fly." But of course they can. Even as Brian (Paul Walker) cautions his young son that throwing his toy car as if it's a plane is improper play, you know, at the beginning of Furious 7 that it won't be long before cars are flying everywhere.

This is in keeping with the frighteningly popular franchise presumption that each succeeding film exponentially ups the stunt ante. As Roman (Tyrese Gibson) reminds you more than once in the new movie, recent tricks moved on from mere street or even mountain road racing, to take up shooting at tanks and planes, not to mention driving off bridges, setting up all sorts of high tech business having to do with traffic, penal system or weapons-related subterfuges, engaging in lengthy bouts of fisticuffs and more elaborate martial-artsy battles, and contemplating the meaning of family, again and again and again.

In fact, all of these bits are repetitive, even with mighty efforts to outdo those that have come before. James Wan's installment does, however, take on a new problem -- for the Furious movies anyway -- which is to say, the offs-screen death of a central player. It's one thing to replace Richard Harris as Dumbledore. It's quite another to grapple with the loss of Paul Walker, who died suddenly, in a still un-sorted out car crash. Furious 7 opts for sentimental, sincere mourning, as Walker's co-stars do that grappling for viewers. But yet it has to manage that display of sadness amid cars -- cars that crash and flip, screech and speed, and yes, fly.

The flying is gorgeous and impossible and repeated in various ways: cars parachute into the Caucasus mountains, cars plunge off cliffs, and perhaps most dauntingly, cars soar from one of the Jumeirah at Etihad Towers in Abu Dhabi to another, crashing through lots of glass to do so. The images are breathtaking, as are the ideas that any vehicle could actually handle such abuse, specifically abuse for which they are absolutely and utterly not made to handle.

All of this is cool and fun and noisy, no matter the goofy plot contriving to get from one flight location to another. Like all the other entries in the series, this one works like an old-fashioned musical: Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers might be at odds, they might be getting married, they might be the Barkleys of Broadway, all nonsense in order to get them dancing. Just so, Dom (Vin Diesel) and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) just need to be driving, however they do it.

That their driving is a sort of dancing is not news, of course. Here, though, the couple dilemma -- as a plot device -- is more than a little convoluted. (This excessiveness is also in keeping with musicals.) While Letty is still recovering from the memory loss resulting from pretty much dying but then not dying, Han (Sung Kang) doesn't have much time to grieve for Cara (Gal Gasol), who died at the end of the last film, and Brian and Mia (Jordana Brewster) are working on their family, as in kids (namely, Jack, the little boy who introduce the movie's primary metaphor). These couples are ever damaged and perpetually working on it: Dom's ex Elena (Elsa Pataky) returns to consecrate Letty and Dom's painfully earnest not-quite-togetherness, while another girl, Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) sets up for not-quite-competition between Roman and Tej (Ludacris).

To be precise, the franchise has never quite figured out how to feature girls who aren't attached to someone else; the closest it came was Riley (Gina Carano), who started as Hobbs' (Dwayne Johnson) partner, but was rather awesome and damaged on her own. This at least until you found out she was creepily and overly associated with Owen Shaw (Luke Evans). Still, Riley was a great, brief possibility, even if her primary function became providing a fight opponent for Letty. (This role is served in Furious 7 by Ronda Rousey, who so very much should be something more substantive.)

Riley's under-use continues in the new movie, as no one comes to avenge her loss, but Owen's brother Deckard (Jason Statham) comes a-blazing. But again, that plot point -- however it sounds motivational -- is irrelevant. Jason Statham is on hand to drive and kick, which he does frequently. He's terminally cool, of course, but his eventual datedness is hinted at here by the brief appearance of Tony Jaa as a bad guy who goes after Brian. Like Fred Astaire, Jaa is a dancer in all senses of the term: he flips off walls, he catapults and cavorts over stairs and he flies -- more athletically, if less loudly, than do the cars.

Jaa's appearance, along with the Rock's, reinforces the series' double focus, on cars and bodies, and how they stand in for each other. Jaa has precious little thematic association with the first vehicle on which he's riding (an armored and weaponized bus carrying a hostage), but it does what it needs to do, giving him room to launch himself at Brian, to run and scale walls as the thing is rolling and pitching. The teammates, however, are viscerally attached to their vehicles, typed by make and model and color.

That these associations are visible but not binding is something like the family business. This does two things: it makes the idea of such connection crucial and also, not. As the franchise will roll on, without Brian and without Walker, it yet insures that you know that he is and was crucial to the premise, but also, that he's not. Loss has always been part of this series, whether in terms of crew members, cast members or characters. This time, as with the Letty storyline, the loss is a primary plot and theme, but it's written as abiding, as continuing, rather than abjection. That's not a complexity the montage at film's end can't exactly explain, but it does leave hanging.

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