Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Apr 17, 2015 6:31 pm 
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Goodbye to Paul Walker

Now we come to say farewell to Paul Walker, who perished in a terrible but appropriate way late last year, in the crash of a fast, expensive car. His death in the middle of the shoot caused this eighth film in the series Walker was most known for to be halted for six months. But now it is in theaters, and he is in evidence all through. Reportedly he is extended through the picture using his own brothers as body doubles with his face digitally transposed. Fanboys and series pros can enjoy the somewhat ghoulish activity of detecting all that. But let us not fret over such theatrical devices. They're not so evident, after all. It's a movie. His brother Caleb looks a lot like him. There's lots worse fakery than that. It's Paul, one last time. It all happens so fast. Stay for the end when Dom pays Brian a fond farewell, gazing from car to car, and there's a final, brief tribute sequence. The closing dedication, "For Paul," is admirably simple. That's what counts. The movie has Paul Walker in it and quietly acknowledges his passing. It was a staggering loss, but the series is invincible.

The script is heavy with references by Dom Turetto (Vin Dielsel) to the team's being "family," and that ideal extended enough to cast members to make the loss of a key cast member deeply painful. So we may see Furious7 as a brave effort to put things back together again. They lost one of their own, a key member. But they have heart, and the spirit lives on.

And there's no flagging of energy here. I just can't go along with the reviewers who praise Furious7 as an outstanding achievement. This is a surprisingly vigorous franchise. it's refreshing elements are enduring -- the humor, the decency, the esprit de corps, the democratic, multiracial makeup of the crew, including soulful and sexy and equal ladies. Recently though there are those of us who have grown weary of the illegal hot rodders series of late, even though ticket sales have done nothing but grow. Each time it has seemed as though the local, intimate quality of the franchise has diminished as the budget has risen and the set pieces and special effects have expanded. The energy and appeal, the soulful machismo and jokey multicultural camaraderie are all there. But more and more they take second place to the explosions and flying cars. And this time these seem more overblown and derivative. Narrative content seems, compared to earlier iterations, almost shockingly perfunctory. I noted that the last one had spectacular car crashes and girl fist fights, but lacked any sequence up to the train car theft and the Brazilian bank break-in of Numberr 5. Justin Lin, the sharp Taiwanese director behind all but one of the previous films, has been replaced by the Malaysian, James Wan.

And this time the action, though spectacular -- more and more the cars are flying through the air like dive bombers, and skipping from one ultramodern Abu Dhabi skyscraper to another like a sequence in Mission Impossible -- lacks a narrative element even more. The plot, such as it is, actually mimics what is going on: Dom, Brian, Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), Roman (Tyrese Gibson) and Taj (Ludacris) and called in and given a machine to takeover and play with, to get some, well, bad guys, particularly a super-bad English bad guy called Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), brother of Owen, who, under the circumstances, is pretty standard-issue; we don't hear much from him. He has been brought in (the budget keeps growing) to augment the guest muscle already on hand with Dwayne Johnson. And there is an African baddie played by Djimon Hounsou.

To set events up this time there's a kind of human Deus ex Machina called Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell). A man in a suit, with a smile, who offers Dom a beer, he represents a mysterious government agency in charge of getting bad guys. Oh yes, the bad guys have World Domination in mind, with the aid of a computer thingey called God's Eye that spies on everybody at once. Had it been available, The US authorities would have tracked down Bin Laden in ten minutes. (I do not believe this.) Mr. Nobody puts his facilities completely at Dom's disposal, and his crew comes in.

Then there are a couple of big episodes. The Caucasus mountains one calls for dropping cars down out of planes. That's pretty unique, and uniquely implausible, but the prolonged road war and chase sequence seems more generic than earlier F&F film action. Then there's the Abu Dhabi episode. It gives the boys and girls a chance to dress up, for a change, for they must attend a posh party with babes in a Jordanian trust fund billionaire's penthouse. Something has to happen here that has occurred before: key secrets encapusulated in a thumb-drive thing must be stolen from a very fancy car. The ante has been upped, but the details have become more vague and generic. This is where Dom and Brian trash a $3 million-plus car, while crashing it into two neighboring glass skyscrapers and while Brian gets out the thumb drive thing. Then for the third big sequence we go back to Los Angeles.

Is it me, or does all this go on awfully long? (The movie does run for 137 minutes.) Maybe a simplification of the plot indeed has something to do with the rethinking that had to be done after Paul Walker died. Certainly one tends to be less fully engaged when a movie seems more driven by the requirements of location and action sequence than by actual narrative elements. We have lost not only Paul Walker, but Jason Lin. As Guardian chief critic Catherine Shoard says, the battles between the bulked up bald men do have "something almost anthropological" about them. That's why we need Roman and Taj, Letty and Mia (Jordana Brewster). It's why we needed Brian. Time will tell how well the series goes on. Next time, Paul will really be gone.

Furious Seven, 137 mins., debuted at SxSW January 2015. Openings all over the world in early April.

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