The best and worst thing that can be said of the sequel to Guardians of the Galaxy is that it’s more of the same. If you liked the last movie, you’ll be delighted to hear that Vol. 2 is just as abundant with crass, crude, cute and kicking 70s tunes. Not only are these elements present, but they’ve been doubled and smushed into 138 minutes. More subplots, more characters, more music, more slow-motion shots, more end-credit scenes and more than enough starship battles to make Star Wars blush. It’s rather surprising that, for as much fun as this movie transfers over from the previous film, it forgets to add the originality that made it stand out so well against the competition of other superhero movies.
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What can you do with cars in an action scene that hasn’t been done before? The Fast and the Furious film franchise seems to always have the right answer, letting the imagination run wild with automotive stunts and destruction that make any other movie about cars seem timid by comparison. Now on its eighth installment, The Fate of the Furious still has some of that giddy insanity that keeps the blood pumping as much as the nitro in the cars, even if there’s much less in the tank than there was before.
The plot plays as a cross between a soap opera and a James Bond picture. Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) is considering being a father with his love Letty (Michelle Rodriguez). Thoughts of settling down are put on hold as Dominic and his familiar team of drivers, hackers and government agents are tasked with stealing an EMP weapon. The mission proceeds smoothly until Toretto shocks everyone by going rogue and handing over the weapon to the blonde-haired terrorist Cipher (Charlize Theron). Her plans are rather simple as far as villain ambitions go: Steal some nukes and hold the world for ransom. Sure, other bad guys have tried and failed with this exact scheme, but she’s a little more confident having convinced the seemingly invisible Toretto to do her bidding for the hostages she is holding. While she will get the blood boiling for the desire to see Toretto exact revenge on her, she’s not exactly a memorable villain with her infrequent tones and noodle-like hair. Theron must not have got the memo about what movie she was starring in as she’s playing her role far too seriously for a woman that wants to nab some nukes.
It’s a little disappointing that the series’ central theme of family doesn’t feel as strong here as it should, especially with how lacking in chemistry the movie appears. Not only do the protagonists spend more time apart, but can do little more than crack a few jokes on their laser focus to stop a terrorist. The nuke plot is so standard and boring that the passing of character development for easy quips makes the film a disappointment of lost potential. The heated relationship of agent Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and rogue assassin Shaw (Jason Statham) could have been fun if they did more than just shout insults at each other. Chris Bridges and Nathalie Emmanuel have no time for an implied romance between hackers, Kurt Russell is mostly in the background with commentary and Tyrese Gibson can do little more than shout his way into the plot.
Where the film does try to make up for its average action script is another barrage of over-the-top action sequences. Cool looking cars are thrown into a variety of locations where they burst into flames, skid around ice, avoid missiles, shoot grappling hooks and topple into each other by the dozens. Sure, these are all fun scenes, but they don’t have that certain level of craziness and creativity that makes The Fast and the Furious franchise so unique. One can only smash so many cars before the audience is just watching a tornado of a junkyard explosion.
Newcomer director F. Gary Gray attempts to give Vin Diesel more emotion and make the story a little more personal, but only as well as he can through the filters of the Furious series’ requirement for quips and car chases. It felt more as though Gray was sticking to a formula rather than doing his own thing in how he shoots and direct scenes that feel derivative of both the franchise and other action films. Lines and scenes that should be fun come off more standard than unique, which is saying something for a movie where a flaming car speeds backwards towards a finish line and hundreds of cars reenact World War Z. This is a franchise that needs to be taken into the shop if it hopes to maintain any sense of charisma and energy before reaching the big one-zero as more than just another dumb blockbuster where cars go vroom and explode into pretty balls of fire.
The Fast and the Furious franchise of movies are long past the era of street racing. It’s even past being called Fast and Furious. Nobody has time for that title – it’s too slow! Now boiled down to the title of Furious 7, the series has reached a level of insane action and likable charm that never fails to crack a smile or widen the eyes. We are long past pointing out that these are street racers performing feats more on par with James Bond than Bullit. The previous movie featured a tank being stopped with wires, a mid-air rescue by slamming into a car and a giant cargo plane crashing into the ground. How could the new director James Wan possibly outdo that craziness limit set by Justin Lin? Believe it or not, Wan – the man behind Saw and Insidious – found a way to keep the ridiculous thrills steady and charming.
It’s a combination of both a likable cast and insanely fun stunts that continues to make these movies so much fun. There’s just enough story and character given to the misfit group of international street racers turned special agents. For all the grit and muscle, there’s a heart to Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) in how he fears for the lives of crew. When a rogue special agent (Jason Statham) starts targeting the racers on a mission of revenge, Toretto takes the matter very seriously keeping families out of it. He’s aware of his best pal Brian (the late Paul Walker) trying to settle down with his wife and son. So before Toretto and company go blazing towards the opposition on all cylinders, they make sure everyone is safe and that those who want in on the mission realize what they’re getting into.
There’s enough for everybody to do and not a single actor in this rather large ensemble feels wasted. Even Dwayne Johnson, reduced to a hospital bed for the majority of the picture, still manages to munch on the scenery. He only appears in three scenes and still manages to steal the movie. For a good chunk of the movie, the crew gets their orders from a special agent played by Kurt Russel who gets an equally big opportunity to strut his Russel-isms. He all but winks at the camera in the way he has more fun in this movie than anyone. All the familiars fit perfectly as well with just enough moments to shine from Tyrese Gibson to Michelle Rodriguez. Even the late Paul Walker, who I expected to be downplayed or written off for his death during production, still plays a key role and is given an affectionate sendoff.
Ultimately, though, it’s the insane car stunts that keep the blood flowing in this series. And at this point the name of the game seems to be finding new ways to keep the cars off the ground as much as possible. The grandest of stunts involves our heroes being dropped from a cargo plane in parachuting cars. But if watching all the cars land safely from such a plunge isn’t crazy enough, there’s a ridiculously absurd scene where Diesel and Walker drive a car through the windows of not one, but two skyscrapers in Dubai. And just in case logic wasn’t completely thrown out the window, Diesel and Statham both smash their cars head-on into each other and walk away unscathed. All these sequences are so over-the-top where it appears as though the finale is just a blur of cars, guns, explosions, debris and fire. I swear there’s a moment in this movie where you could easily confuse it with G.I. Joe: Retaliation.
While Furious 7 is loud and dumb, it’s a playful picture that’s aware of its silly nature and lets us in on the fun once more. It’s impossible not to stare in awe at the over-the-top stunts or crack a smile at the solid cast with real chemistry. The death of Paul Walker does little to dampen the tone of the picture – especially when you consider the comradery of all the characters and tribute ending attached. His death also does little to discourage the series in how it seems to boast that there is plenty of gas left in the tank for another round. By the end of the picture, I felt both thoroughly entertained with popcorn-chomping stunts and touched by the final performance of a beloved cast member. And if a picture that features cars flying out of planes can make me feel something I wouldn’t expect that’s the sign of a strong movie considering it’s already getting by on just being crazy, stupid fun.