** SPOILERS **
How many movie franchises can boast that the fifth, sixth and seventh films are the best in the series? Star Wars... maybe, if The Force Awakens meets the standard of the Original Trilogy. And even then you can argue the prequels are actually the fourth, fifth and sixth films made in real time. The Batman series arguably... if Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy counts as Batman 5, 6, and 7, but they share no continuity with the previous Batman movies. No, the Fast and the Furious franchise speeds off with this unusual crown and leaves everyone else in the dust. Furious 7 unleashes another high-octane, balls-to-the-wall thrill ride of jaw-dropping, forehead-slapping giddiness. Once more, for one final ride, Vin Diesel, the late Paul Walker, and their ragtag family of speedsters gun it through a globe-hopping series of death races. Furious 7 picks up where Furious 6 left off, delivers breakneck, sensational escalation, and ties together the entire saga while sending their fleet of hopped-up super cars where no cars have gone before.
At the conclusion of Furious 6, Jason Statham emerged as the series' new Big Bad. Statham plays the rogue British assassin older brother of Luke Evans, whom Diesel and his crew defeated in 6, and he takes the first step of his vengeance by murdering one of Diesel's crew, Sung Kang. (Kang and Gal Gadot, who heroically perished in the airplane car chase in Furious 6, are credited but appear only in photographs and flashbacks.) Statham is basically Furious 7's version of a Terminator; has the simplest motivation possible: kill Vin Diesel. He blows up Diesel's beloved LA home and then he never stops coming and keeps trying to kill Diesel with cars, guns, rocket launchers, grenades, etc. Statham runs afoul of Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, the jacked-up government agent who was once Diesel's enemy but now positively loves the guy. Their fight scene is the best in the film, with The Rock unleashing his patented WWE finishing move the Rock Bottom, to no avail. Statham hospitalizes The Rock, who sadly sits out most of the movie, but Johnson hilariously flexes his arm out of his cast to join the ultraviolent third act and do his part to lay the smack down on the bad guys with a helicopter gun, exactly the same way his character Roadblock would in the other franchise he helped revitalize, G.I. Joe.
With The Rock on the DL, a perpetually amused Kurt Russell steps in as a new mysterious government agent with worldwide jurisdictional omnipotence. Russell enlists Diesel and his team on a globetrotting quest to find a terrorist (Djimon Hounsou) who kidnapped a mysterious hacker (the fetching Nathalie Emmanuel from Game of Thrones) and the program she created, the God's Eye, which can turn every device in the world with a camera into a weapon. Diesel needs the God's Eye to locate Statham -- but why? Everywhere Diesel goes, Statham is there like a Wile E. Coyote brandishing weapons. There is no time to ask such questions however, as there are cars to drive and exotic locales to visit and demolish. Once Diesel and his team (his family, Diesel always corrects) are reassembled, including Walker, Diesel's amnesiac lady love Michelle Rodriguez, cool techno-wizard Ludacris, and the irrepressible perpetual joke machine Tyrese -- always the comedic MVP of this whole shebang -- they waste no time blazing off on another increasingly insane series of shoot-em-up, crash-em-up, run-em-off-a-cliff car chases.
In Furious 7, you will believe cars can fly. If not fly, then spend ridiculous amounts of time defying gravity. The giddily-ridiculous sequence of Diesel and his team being airdropped in their cars over Uzbekistan is topped only by Diesel and Walker stealing an 8 million dollar super car and driving it through the three tallest buildings in Abu Dhabi. Sky's the limit, literally, for the cars in Furious 7. While in Abu Dhabi, Rodriguez battles Ronda Rousey in a main event super brawl echoing when Diesel battled The Rock in Fast Five (the winner of which is in dispute, depending on whom you ask.) While Diesel and The Rock always come off as equals, it's a little less believable Rodriguez would last even 14 seconds in a fight against Rousey. Ah well, who really asks for believability from Furious 7? The third act is a demolition derby all across the streets of Los Angeles ("The streets we know best," Diesel proudly growls), causing billions of property damage as Walker and friends race their cars against Hounsou's attack helicopter and missile launching drone while Diesel and Statham battle it out car-to-car and fist-to-fist. The news reports declaring Los Angeles to be in the grip of "what can only be described as 'vehicular warfare'" more or less covers it.
For all its crazy, slam bang, super fun action, helmed this outing by James Wan, his spinning slow motion camera moves stepping in for franchise maestro Justin Lin, Furious 7 never forgets its beating heart. The themes of family and loyalty, usually bluntly stated by Diesel, are what drive this franchise. ("I see no fear in you, only loyalty," are how Emmanuel deftly sums up Diesel and his crew whens she joins up.) Furious 7 is also perpetually aware, as the audience is, of the elephant in the car -- that Paul Walker passed away during filming last year. Walker's character is unique in the Fast and the Furious franchise as he's the only one with a family; he's happily married to Diesel's sister Jordana Brewster and a father with a young son and a daughter on the way. Rather than conjure up a violent demise for Walker, which they did tease when Walker is trapped in a literal cliffhanger and escapes thanks to a bravura save by Rodriquez, the character who was previously dead but is now alive and vital, Furious 7 concludes in a meta way with a touching, uplifting tribute to Paul Walker. Through flashbacks to the past 14 years and 5 previous Fast and the Furious movies starring Walker (God, everyone looked so young in 2001) and by narrowing the focus down to just the bond of brotherhood between Diesel and Walker, they and we are able to say a heartfelt goodbye to the handsome, heroic leading man we lost much too soon. Not a dry eye in the house when Walker's car drives off into the sunset. "Everything's gonna be different now," muses Tyrese and it's sadly true. They and we lost a big part of our Fast family. Unlike the endless array of cars in this franchise, our brother Paul Walker can never be replaced. But the Furious franchise is gonna keep driving, as it absolutely must. See you all at the next family reunion, Furious 8.