Furious 7 defines itself early in a sequence where Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and his crew commit to the dumbest and least plausible course of action, which turns out, naturally, to be the best possible option. The film itself operates on the same principle: seven films into a franchise that began as a way to sell running lights and frosted tips, this unlikely saga continues to move forward by pole-vaulting over its own absurdity time and again. Fast and Furious reconfigured the series as a car-centric mashup of Avengers-esque superhero ensemble and post-Bourne socially “relevant” action, leading to this bewildering installment, in which Dom, Brian (Paul Walker) and the rest get recruited by a clandestine shadow-ops outfit led by Kurt Russell, and the best thing you can do is just not ask.

The main villain this time out is Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), the older, even deadlier brother of the previous film’s bad guy. Like so many contemporary archvillains, the elder Shaw is largely a dud of a character, the result of writers consistently mistaking a personal connection to the heroes for personality. Nonetheless, these films mine star power for maximum wattage, and Shaw’s shortcomings as a fictional creation are more than compensated for by Statham’s patented scowl and his capacity for bruising yet fluid fighting, a mixture of choreographed elegance and street-trained brawler that is perfect for the franchise. An early highlight is a vicious fist fight between Shaw and Hobbs (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) in which fleet-footed martial arts are offset by bone-crunching haymakers and go-for-broke pummels; “visceral” is the name of the game in modern action films, but this fight is one of the rare PG-13 sequences to give the impression of the sheer pain of being in the middle of such a duel.

And that’s only the start. The action in this film is a glorious blend of the insipid and the inspired. The aforementioned harebrained scheme blurted out by series clown Roman (Tyrese Gibson) leads to the team parachuting into a drop zone while sitting inside their cars, while a sequence in Dubai uses a Jordanian prince’s penthouse party as a springboard to a sequence of driving an ultra-rare car across the sky as it crashes in and out of Abu Dhabi’s luxurious condo towers, even taking out a squadron of the Terracotta Army because, why not? This is a film of constant escalation, not just between sequences, but within them; no car chase is ever just a chase, and sudden intrusions of military-grade firepower and the independent but coordinated actions of the heroes consistently leave room for unexpected tangents of movement. To attempt to break down the moving parts of any one setpiece, and to describe the fluidity of their progression despite it all, could fill a word count with enough left over for half of an additional review. Above all, each action scene abides by a simple rule: whatever the most ridiculous thing you can imagine, the film will do that and then go even further.

Director James Wan commits fully to this atmosphere; he replaces Justin Lin, whose sturdy, workman style reveled in the series’ gloss while attempting to map out some degree of plausibility in movement. Wan readily dispenses with the shred of internal logic Lin liked to keep, and instead he employs the slickest, most ad-ready shots that the series has seen since John Singleton’s eye-candy-laden 2 Fast 2 Furious. This approach has its downsides—there are so many slo-mo shots of women’s bikini-clad asses gently jiggling in motion you’d think a 12-year-old was the second unit director—but it serves the giddy, nonsensical energy of the action, constantly playing up the mania of Vin Diesel and Jason Statham dueling with giant wrenches, or the innate hyperbole of The Rock’s gargantuan form. Furious 7 is shot, in many ways, like its own highlights reel, normally an infuriating stylistic choice but one that works for a movie that moves even further away from its roots while recapitulating the series as a whole.

It’s impossible to talk about the film, or even to watch it in the moment, without thinking of Paul Walker’s death, and a movie about fast-moving cars in perilous situations cannot help but push those thoughts front and center. Walker’s death is especially sad in relation to this series because he and Diesel had only just aged into their characters, overcoming brash but stilted youth with a tired, aged quality that lent pathos to their matter-of-fact line readings. A subplot about Brian chafing at domestic life would have been nothing more than perfunctory drama under ordinary circumstances, but in its metatextual context it becomes haunting, and it lends a complex layer to the franchise’s steadfast commitment to the families that we make. At best, the Fast and Furious films are remarkably solid, comfortably stupid movies, but they find their most resonant foothold in this notion of loyalty and camaraderie, and if Walker’s death perhaps irrevocably shatters the on- and off-screen closeness of the cast, Furious 7 ferociously defends the franchise’s worldview. “I ain’t got friends, I got family,” Dom says in a line that summarizes seven feature-length movies, and once again a new entry into this series finds yet more people to fold into its extended unit. This may be the silliest and least grounded of the movies to date, but in a coda all the sweeter for being obviously, hurriedly tacked on to say goodbye, it confesses that without the winsome heart at the middle of all its plane-destroying, town-leveling frenzy, no one would ever have taken the journey this far.

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