“Cars can’t fly! Cars can’t fly!” mutters a panicking Brian (the late Paul Walker) when his pal Dom (Vin Diesel) is about to drive them out the window of a very tall building, but “Furious 7” expends a great deal of its running time asserting that cars can fly, at least in this nuttiest of franchises, where the movies get better the more they ignore both logic and gravity.
And if incoming director James Wan (“The Conjuring,” “Saw”) falls the tiniest bit short of what Justin Lin brought to the third, fifth and sixth entries, “Furious 7” nonetheless ranks a very successful fourth place overall, with at least one gargantuan set piece that ranks among the series’ finest.
As we learned in the closing credits of “Fast and Furious 6,” Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) is out to get the gang of street-racers who put his brother Owen (Luke Evans) into intensive care. Having already taken out Han (Sung Kang), Shaw is gunning for Dom, Brian, the still-amnesiac Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), droll techie Tej (Ludacris), and flashy motormouth Roman (Tyrese Gibson).
After Shaw sends FBI agent Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) to the hospital and blows up Dom’s house, our heroes are out for revenge, but to take on the black-ops–trained Shaw, they’ll need a little help from shadowy government agent Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell), who approaches Dom with a proposition: rescue a mysterious hacker — and more importantly, a device that can track anyone on earth via every closed-circuit camera and cellphone — from terrorist Jakande (Djimon Hounsou), and Dom and his team can use the device to track down Shaw.
MacGuffin plot in place, the cast ventures forth to the Caucasus mountains and Abu Dhabi to track down their various foes before bringing everything back to downtown Los Angeles for a high-speed throwdown that involves not just souped-up cars but airborne assaults as well.
“Furious 7” often feels like it’s attempting to hit the heights of its two predecessors, so it’s hard not to make comparisons — Rodriguez, for example, gets into a pretty intense brawl with Ronda Rousey (“The Expendables 3”), but it’s not quite up to the two fights she had against Gina Carano in “Fast & Furious 6.” And while it’s exciting to see martial arts legend Tony Jaa join the cast (as one of Jakande’s henchman), he doesn’t get as much to do as Joe Taslim did in the previous film.
While most of those parallels don’t work in this new film’s favor, “Furious 7” makes plenty of smart moves, from giving the ever-stone-faced Diesel fewer speeches about the importance of family to mounting a giddily exciting centerpiece involving cars, parachutes, a well-armed bus and lots of sheer cliffs. (If anything, the Caucasus sequence raises the bar so high that the rest of the movie can’t compete.)
The death-defying nature of the stunts is, of course, underscored by the real-life passing of Walker, and the film gives both the actor and his character a beautifully graceful farewell. (Bring a handkerchief.) Walker’s familial scenes with on-screen wife Jordana Brewster take on an unforeseen poignancy, and he brings the film a kind of energy that it’s easy to take for granted: Brian is simply a good guy, wanting to do right by his spouse and child, and the actor makes that relatable and interesting, even in these larger-than-life situations.
Proving that the best villains have the charisma of a hero, Statham makes a strong impression, supplying the kind of menace that permeates the movie even when he’s not on screen. His fight with Johnson doesn’t have the bang you’d expect from a The-Transporter-versus-The-Rock match-up, but the climactic Statham-Diesel battle more than delivers.
Rodriguez manages to be tough and tender, even making us believe Letty when she talks about all the things she sees in Dom’s Mount Rushmore eyes, and Gibson and Ludacris have their comic-opposites patter down to a science. These characters, like the franchise itself, don’t go very deep, but if you aren’t having a good time with all of this absurd machismo, superheroic stunt driving, and bro-bonding by now, you probably never will.