Universal Pictures

Perhaps one of the defining qualities of the Fast & Furious movies is their transmutability. Fourteen years ago, the series started as a caper about illegal street racing in L.A. But over subsequent sequels, it offered up an adrenaline-pumping heist thriller, and eventually a bombastic action epic about international super-spies who just happen to drive cars really, really well. Despite (or perhaps because of) the ridiculousness of each incarnation, the franchise has only gotten more lovable the longer it’s gone on. It's fitting, therefore, that Furious 7, the latest entry, is the most giddily enjoyable of the series, though it's all the more impressive considering the challenge the movie faced following the death of Paul Walker, who tragically died in an off-set car crash halfway through filming.

That this meat-headed saga of cars being driven quickly and recklessly has somehow become one of America's most trusted film franchises is simultaneously a feat of studio brilliance and a testament to its swollen, yet charming, ensemble cast. The Fast and the Furious launched Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, and Michelle Rodriguez to fame; a tepid follow-up only starred Walker and was greeted with critical jeers. When the gang got back together for the fourth entry, Fast & Furious, its massive box-office success convinced Universal to keep the franchise going, but as a global spy caper. From Fast Five on, each film has thrived by trying to top its predecessors' outrageous stunts and balletic set pieces. Furious 7 continues on that path, with the added pathos of a sendoff for Walker, who played straight-arrow ex-cop Brian O'Conner in every film but the third.

Walker was never the most versatile actor, but he grew into his role as Dominic Toretto's (Vin Diesel) reliable second fiddle, the obligatory, handsome white dude in a series that has always boasted a truly vibrant and diverse ensemble that never felt remotely tokenistic. And although it feels ridiculous to say this of a brand that never shies away from featuring a montage or two of girls frolicking in bikinis, its female characters are strong, flinty, and individually defined. While other major franchises like Marvel struggle to incorporate women without reducing them to helpful sidekicks, heroines like Letty Ortiz (Rodriguez) felt fully developed from the get-go. Letty's amnesia, developed upon her resurrection from presumed death in Fast & Furious 6, serves as the key story arc of Furious 7, as the gang tries to take down the seemingly unstoppable ex-black ops terrorist Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham).

But the story arcs aren’t really the point. While Furious 7 's story is just as bizarrely intricate as the films before it, you don't need to even remotely understand the complicated plot in order to get a full-throttle kick out of everything else. There's a bad guy (Statham), accompanied by some other bad guys (Djimon Hounsou, the Thai martial artist Tony Jaa, and the UFC champion Ronda Rousey), who need to be defeated by Dom, Brian, and their faithful crew (which includes the chatty Tyrese Gibson, the sardonic Ludacris and The Rock, for whom simple adjectives do no justice). Kurt Russell drops in as a wise, military-ops mentor, and each showdown involves cars in some spectacular fashion—whether being dropped out of a plane, or blasted between skyscrapers. The film jumps from Azerbaijan to Abu Dhabi before a sensory-overloading climax in Los Angeles.

There's a hint of James Bond to the globe-hopping, but through it all the screenwriter Chris Morgan (who's written every film since the third) gently reminds viewers that the heroes are Corona-sipping fish out of water who'd rather be hanging on their porch in the ‘hood. It's a flabbergasting claim—even if they all did start out as simple drag-racers. Each member of the ensemble shows off Jason Bourne-level martial arts skills and has a body that's seemingly made of steel, since they constantly walk away from crashes that would shatter a normal human into dust. For all its international flair and laudable diversity, Furious remains a grinning modern opera of American exceptionalism, with practically half the lines delivered direct to camera like some boneheaded Shakespearean aside.

This is director James Wan's (Saw, Insidious) first go at the franchise, and there's a subtle aesthetic shift from the last four films, which were helmed by Justin Lin (who's moved on to take charge of the Star Trek film franchise). Lin is one of the cleanest and crispest action directors in a generation, eschewing much of the cheap, shaky, quick-cutting style of the genre; Wan has always been a little grittier behind the camera, having mostly directed horror films. Furious 7 has a few too many juddering close-ups and really enjoys switching to crunching slow-motion, but it has fun too—Wan lets his camera tumble around seamlessly as the heroes are tossed through tables and walls for the brutal hand-to-hand combat sequences.

In his first confrontation with Dom, Statham's Shaw (a grunting Brit) insists that he doesn't play by the "rules," meaning a respect for family, a topic on which Dom frequently pontificates. Shaw is a villain with no dimension (the Furious franchise's biggest problem so far has been a lack of compelling adversaries), and this is the only thing that really defines him in opposition to the heroes at all. While the "family" of the Fast & the Furious crew is almost entirely blended, the symbolic significance of the unit has remained consistent throughout the ever-morphing series—it's understood that these characters have each other's backs in some fundamental, magical way.

That might be why Furious 7 sticks the landing so nicely in its goodbye to Walker, which will be the film's most discussed moment; and it's certainly why these films have maintained such consistent charm over the years. No doubt future installments will be produced even without the actor, given the certain financial bonanza that awaits Furious 7. But the key to their success will be conveying that these stunt-driving international men (and women) of mystery are a genuine, live-in clan. As long as that continues, Fast & Furious can keep driving forever.

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