I had been looking forward to this week for quite some time, due to the release of a film in my local cinema… that I actually wanted to see – Furious 7. We don’t live out in the back end of beyond, not by any means, but sometimes our friendly lil multiplex doesn’t carry the specific titles I wish to see. Damn them for not operating like a video store. Or Netflix.

After what seems like a bit of a dry spell (I haven’t been to the flicks since I saw Ex Machina back in England in January) there was finally a film set for release that roused some semblance of fun in my nethers. Typically Fast & Furious movies aren’t high on my list of movie-tinglers. The franchise as a whole evokes the sort of excusatory comments from the more discerning critic such as “fun popcorn movie!” or “check your brains at the door and have a blast!” Which isn’t an entirely wrong form of assessment. The tales of Dom and his crew of racers are unlikely to incite a mass uprising in moviegoers eager for a greater understanding of our corporeal realm and what specifically can be designated as ‘real’. No, The Wachowskis did that in 1999 with The Matrix that sparked a lot of peripheral debate about the works of Jean Baudrillard. I only got excited because I’d read practically every one of his works for my postmodern cinema dissertation.

Right, yes, Furious 7. The last few movies were fit perfectly into those above exclamations. They are fun popcorn movies and you do check your brains at the door, but I’ve never quite been able to participate in the fluffy flair and explosive escapism. More often than not my quibbles with things like the objectification of women and ham-fisted dialogue yank me away from the film-watching experience. My disbelief becomes unhooked and plummets to the ground – in a spectacularly fiery crash of course!

WIth the sad news of Paul Walker’s passing the seventh entry in a franchise that started as a spot of lo-fi Point Break with cars mimicry has almost been granted an immunity of sorts. A movie-going public who would have inevitably turned out to see it are instead lining up to watch Walker’s final performance. If the early box office numbers are anything to go by it’s expected to speed past the receipts of Fast 6, even surpassing last year’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier which held the best April opening since it debuted in 2014. The trouble with an audience manipulated – purely by the tragedy of Walker’s untimely death – is that the ‘free pass’ Furious 7 has been awarded detracts from its actual value as a piece of cinema.

paul walker furious 7, paul walker fast & furious

Don’t get me wrong. It’s still packed with some cringeworthy one-liners and expositional dialogue, but the series’ aspirations are certainly something to be admired. From its humble beginnings (inspired by a news story) it has transformed into a blockbuster juggernaut. While it began as exploitation racer fare it’s emerged as a serious contender for weightier, critical darlings such as the Mission: Impossible flicks and even Bond’s never-ending stream of adventures. It might be difficult to agree with Vin Diesel’s claims that Furious 7 will snag the Best Picture Oscar, but it should rightly be nominated in an effects capacity (or in a non-existent stunts category) because the ante has absolutely been upped. Cars are dropped backwards OUT OF A PLANE. Walker dangles precariously from an upturned bus pivoting on the edge of a cliff and later shotguns alongside Diesel while the pair launch a million-dollar car from an Abu Dhabi skyscraper… into an adjacent building. Twice. This is what evokes such excitement and loyalty from franchise fans. The films’ willingness to enact the impossible with a bunch of very likeable characters leading the way. Awards probably won’t beckon but surely that’s not the point of blowing up half of L.A.?

There’s even a new director guiding the action that makes itself apparent in several instances where James Wan’s horror flair (he directed the first Saw and The Conjuring) surfaces. The ominous revolution of gigantic industrial fans cast shadows across the villain’s faces. Moodily-lit fight scenes in abandoned warehouses and beneath overpasses do the same. He does a remarkable job of delivering exactly what the studio and the fans want while contributing his own skills that pep up the extensive fight scenes (the camera tracks characters mid-fight, demonstrating some of the franchise’s most creative elements). Constructing a studio feature while also injecting fresh verve is no small feat. For the most part the obligations of a Fast & Furious movie override Wan’s creative choices, or his ability to enforce them. The demands of creating a balls-to-the-wall sequel understandably affects the characterisations as well.

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Diesel only open their mouths to issue cheesy maxims, with the former bizarrely absent for most of the running time until he’s brusquely shoved back in towards the end in a Terminator 2-style showdown. One of the film’s big baddies – yep, there’s two this time – is played by two-time Oscar nominee Djimon Hounsou whose sole verbal commitment sees him barking out “NO!” and “FIRE THE LASER!” Well, not the latter but he may as well have. He looks to be having fun with lighter material and that’s ultimately the purpose of this multi-million dollar set of movies.

The takeaway of Furious 7 zeroes in on a familial sentiment that’s permeated the underlining subtext since Fast 5. It’s all the more heartbreaking now knowing that Walker won’t reunite with his on and offscreen family again. His ‘real life’ relationships with cast and crew have been heavily documented, in particular his close friendship with Diesel. It’s with this in mind that the ending is almost certainly guaranteed to make you well up just a little. The closing outro is executed with a deft hand by Wan and manages to play with enough restraint so as not to veer into the overly-sentimental. What’s most brave is the complete lack of Furious 8 setup. In an era where post-credits scenes are nigh-on mandatory their absence in Furious 7 is a refreshing and considerate move by Universal, whose sole goal for the movie was to pay tribute to its leading man. Managing to do so without short-changing those eager for explosions, car chases and a heart-on-your-sleeve storytelling, Furious 7 is my favourite instalment so far. If Furious 8 has more from Johnson and more from Kurt Russell then that will probably change.

My American Movie Life: a weekly round-up of stuff I’ve watched, thoughts on my life as a Brit in the U.S., and anything else that seems inappropriate.