Thursday, 23 April 2015

Quickness and Quintessence

“Fast & Furious 7”


Paul Walker, Michelle Rodriquez, Vin Diesel, Tyrese Gibson, Nathalie Emmanuel and Ludacris take on Abu Dhabi in evening wear

In a number of ways, I think the car movie – movies concerning themselves with the sensual allure of automobiles, movies set on highways and racetracks, and movies in which the final frontier is ever higher and higher speeds – is cinema’s answer to literature’s pulp fiction. Both evade character development and strong political or social statements for a gripping narrative and for an ephemeral thrill in a reader or viewer. Both are often scoffed at by high-minded critics and art-lovers, but bolted down by the larger public, copiously and repetitively. And, while car movies, particularly in recent years, have been more blatantly commercial than hardboiled detective novels ever were, both have yielded works of enormous entertainment and fascination, with merit enough to challenge the views of the snobbish and provide more enjoyment than high-brow, more ambitious pieces – merits which cannot be dismissed even by those who jeer at the mass appeal of the unashamedly mercantile. It’s tempting for me to tell you here that the car movie reaches its apotheosis in Fast & Furious 7, but that would be exaggerating a little. And anyway, as I said in my introduction to this blog, there’s (probably literally) a myriad of important films I’ve yet to see, many of them decades – or even a century – older than this one, and so I cannot begin to conjecture on what the apex of any genre might be. (I’m given to understand, based on the many critical pieces I’ve read, that at least one of the greatest car movies by general cinephilic consensus is Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960 classic, Breathless, as yet unseen by this eager spectator.)

You don’t need to have seen the first six films of the franchise to enjoy this one. I didn’t – having missed instalments one to five, I watched the sixth when it was released in 2013, and, with some quick background explanations from a friend, pretty much had all the necessary context for Furious 7 (the name it’s been released under in America). I wouldn’t wish to spoil the plots for those who’ve yet to see any of the films, but for the enquiring F&F-virgins, overviews of the series can be read here, here and here.

The new film picks up after the events of Tokyo Drift (2006), while films four to six took place between 2 Fast 2 Furious and the former, making Furious 7 the first in the series set after 2006's Japanese jaunts. Brian O’Connor (Paul Walker) is struggling to adapt to a life of secure domesticity, married to Mia (Jordana Brewster), and raising their young son, Jack. Mia’s brother, Dom (Vin Diesel), is married to Letty (MichelleRodriquez), who suffers from amnesia and can’t remember her past life, including her romance with Dom. A British rogue assassin and super-thug, Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), has declared himself at war with the entire Furious crew, and a terrorist named Mose Jakande (Djimon Hounsou) has interests which conflict with those of the United States government.

Jakande has kidnapped a genius hacker (Nathalie Emmanuel) who has written a device to unlock global surveillance, modestly named “God’s Eye.” The US government, rather understandably, wants the device, but can’t risk taking any official route to procuring it. They find their solution when Shaw tracks down Dom and his family and blows up their house. Knowing that the Furious are eager for vengeance, they are contracted by the government to retrieve the device, and in return they will be allowed to use it to track down Shaw before handing it over to the government. And so Brian and his family, the Furious clan – including their technical wiz Tej (Ludacris) and jokester Roman (Tyrese Gibson) – return to action for one more mission. To personify and represent the government, in all its weaselling charm and creepy benevolence, is a Mr Nobody (Kurt Russell): an amiable executive type, with a network of connections which runs very wide, and very high up. He lends the Furious his workshops, equipment and gunmen, for their mission of rescuing the hacker and her device.

Furious 7 exhibits simple joy in its elaborate cunning, and heartfelt wonder at physical action, the heat and primacy of familial bonds, and jovial humour in pressing situations. It’s been called out by many critics for what it is – a brash caricature of passions and virtues – but the actions all happening on the surface reach deeply into an essence of raw feeling. Nobody in the audience is prepared for the sharp sting of pathos when Walker first fills the screen, or the even keener experience of it in his and Diesel’s scenes of brotherly affection and open-road conquests. To see him here and realise this was his final performance is to appreciate how much more we could have gotten. He and the other actors manage to bring out the proximity of a world without bylaws and bureaucracies, a lateral world of fellow-feeling gained from tests and forged in unfailing responsibility and loyalty. Or, rather, they seem to be living it: they have an easy, relaxed and good-humoured familiarity, and the performances here suggest the wide range of movies that these actors should be cast in. They understand that the power of movie performances resides not in line readings, but in the embodiment of an attitude and the suggestion of identity. A veteran trained thespian can speak Shakespearean verse as gracefully as any language could ever be uttered, but if none of the ineffable sparkle of film aura is present, the performance is worthless and the pentameter falls dead at his feet.

Not only is this film wondrously moving and poignant, however, but it’s also exhilarating fun. The director, James Wan, has treaded a path already in audience thrills and titillations, with movies like Saw and The Conjuring, and here he engrosses us and immerses us in filmic phantasmagoria by rendering large and substantially heavy objects virtually weightless. Such as an elaborate set piece, in which Vin Diesel drives a beautiful and rare sports car out of the penthouse of a skyscraper in Abu Dhabi, through the window of a neighbouring skyscraper, across the floor, out of that building as well, and again through the window of the next building. The tenants of the wrecked apartments and showrooms are none too pleased, but the audience is in cheers and raptures.

As delightful a jape as these movies are (feign to deny it), Furious 7 takes on a particular poignancy and significance. Walker died during production, and the script was rewritten to pay tribute to him. His character does not die in the film, but immortalised in the surprising ideal of a happy family life, while Dom drives on with the profound tie to Brian knotted firmly to his heart. Such unconcealed and unadorned sentiment may prove a surprise to some unfamiliar with this genre, and this series in particular, but I cannot foresee anyone remaining immune to its potency and charm. Furious 7 is not the high art we applaud as in recent ambitious works such as The Grand Budapest Hotel or The Wolf of Wall Street, but it’s in the family, and cinema is the richer for it.

Paul Walker, in a keen and piercing tribute to the late actor

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