Under ordinary circumstances, if you'd missed the first six installments in a particular film franchise, I'd never suggest starting your introduction with the seventh. But the circumstances surrounding the Fast & the Furiouses, including the series' new outing Furious 7, are hardly ordinary - and not simply because most film franchises don't have seven installments.
Does anyone even remember 2001's The Fast & the Furious? You know, that summertime sleeper hit in which undercover cop Brian O'Connor was sent by the LAPD to infiltrate a group of fun-loving street racers and suspected hijackers led by the growling behemoth Dominic Toretto? Directed by Rob Cohen, it was an enjoyably disposable low-tech entertainment, and, with its astounding stunts that seemed to employ no overt cinematic trickery, a welcome respite from typically CGI-heavy fare. Boy, has that changed. Over the course of 14 years and six follow-ups, the scope of the F&TFs has morphed from Grand Theft Auto (the 1977 Ron Howard movie, not the video game) to something more closely resembling The Avengers (the Marvel movie, not TV's Emma Peel show). Edifices explode in apocalyptic torrents of fire. Über-villains plot personal vengeance and global catastrophe. Cars are launched out of planes and soar thousands of feet above downtown traffic. The cliffhangers, on occasion, feature characters actually hanging from cliffs.
Yet through it all, somewhat miraculously, this series has never strayed far from its unpretentious, human-scale roots. There's way more CGI now and the on-screen gadgetry wouldn't be out of place in a modern Bond movie. But the filmmakers understand what their fan base truly responds to: the friendship, silliness, and deep sincerity of its multicultural, makeshift family - a merry band of speed-demon misfits equally devoted to honor and one another. As expected, there was applause at my packed Thursday-night screening of Furious 7. I don't, however, recall people clapping for the stunts, though there was definitely audible happiness during the movie's more show-stopping set pieces. Patrons did, however, clap when Tyrese Gibson's macho-blowhard scaredy cat was forced to parachute alongside his comrades, and when Dwayne Johnson extricated himself from an arm cast by flexing, and when Michelle Rodriguez's amnesiac received a satisfying resolution to her soap-opera storyline. And they really clapped - with viewers near me also wiping away tears - when the end credits rolled, mere seconds after Paul Walker got his extremely moving send-off. So you F&TF virgins may as well start here, preferably at a showing you suspect will be well-populated. You'll get all that's good about the series, only in super-sized form, and the delighted buzz of the crowd should easily clue you in as to what all the fuss has been about.
You may also glean what some of us, in review after review, have been complaining about, because the series' traditional detriments have kind of been super-sized, too. Smartly choreographed though they are, the many, many car chases tend to run on so long that they make the film feel overly protracted and repetitive, and given Furious 7's bloated 137-minute length, that means a lot of repetition. (Few male viewers will likely complain, but there are also so many extraneous, low-angle shots of bikini-clad extras cavorting in sweaty slow motion that the movie starts to resemble Hugh Hefner's take on Beach Blanket Bingo.) The major narratives - with the ones here involving Jason Statham's revenge-minded thug and Djimon Hounsou's malevolent cyber-terrorist - are negligible to the point of utter pointlessness. All of the characters, heroes and baddies alike, are so earnest that even their occasionally amusing dialogue isn't remotely surprising; the camera consistently scoots in on Vin Diesel's Dominic for one of his scene-capping, tough-guy utterances, and every one of them is a bland disappointment. (You find yourself longing even for some cornball, Schwarzenegger-ian puns, but no such luck.) And on the subject of Vin Diesel ... . Well, he's still Vin Diesel. Love him or be forced to tolerate him, I suppose.
But the film's epic length also means more chances for true exhilaration and legitimate hilarity, and blessedly, Furious 7 boasts both. Taking over for Justin Lin, who helmed the series' four previous installments, horror director James Wan brings to the movie some of the compositional élan apparent in his Insidious and The Conjuring, and plays particularly neat tricks with framing. (Gibson's panicked parachuting is as funny as it is partly because Wan shows the poor man plummeting, all but forgotten by his friends, as a faraway figure in the upper-left corner of the screen.) Statham, sporting just as much stubble as you pray he'll have, demonstrates the benefits of casting a really good actor as a genre flick's generic heavy, and giving him more great moments than those figures are usually afforded; you love him and hate him and love hating him. (In an early smackdown with the helplessly likable Johnson, Statham moves so quickly and decisively that when he took a momentary pause in the melee, I presumed it was so the editor could catch his breath.) Plus: the awesome Kurt Russell getting a debonair-movie-star entrance and making you wonder how this '80s icon was absent from the Expendables series; Lucas Black, with his endearing Alabama drawl, returning to F&TF duty for the first time since 2006's Tokyo Drift; Rodriguez, looking utterly bewitching in a floor-length red gown, laying waste to a whole team of female enforcers (where's her Jolie-level fame, I ask you?); just about everything having to do with Gibson and Chris "Ludacris" Bridges, whose Mutt-and-Jeff comic rapport suggests that, beyond the F&TF sequels, there should be spin-offs.
And to the relief, I'm sure, of even those of us who never really got on-board with him, Furious 7 handles the presence of series mainstay Paul Walker (who, of course, died in a 2013 auto crash) with devastating sweetness and grace. He's given exactly the intro you want - a funny one, to quickly mitigate any sadness - and the goodbye he earned, and while Walker hadn't completed filming at the time of his passing, Brian O'Connor's role and position in the narrative don't feet unduly truncated. (In only one scene - that previously-referenced cliffhanger - did I think I was seeing some body-double/CGI magic at work, but it wasn't obvious enough to be terribly distracting.) Furious 7 certainly delivers the action-blockbuster goods, double-edged sword though that might be; after last year's Captain America: The Winter Soldier and this, I guess we have to concede that Hollywood's summer, now, officially starts the first weekend of April. Yet it's an action blockbuster that, in a lovely change from the norm, also wears its heart on its sleeve. It doesn't just deserve applause. It deserves a hug.
For wholly understandable reason, the major studios declined to open any sacrificial lambs opposite Furious 7 this weekend. But at Galesburg's AMC Showplace 8, at least, there'll be a counter-programming option in director Garrett Batty's independent drama Freetown, which begins its run on Wednesday, April 8. Just how counter-program-y is Batty's film? It's about a 1989 attempt by six Liberian Mormon missionaries and their chaperone to get to the border of their Civil-War-ravaged country before being found and executed by rebel forces. (Can't imagine why Vin Diesel didn't sign up for this one.) It's also a smashingly effective and touching adult melodrama, one boasting exquisite cinematography by Jeremy Prusso, and one that any major-studio head would've been proud to release if major studios still bothered to release movies of its type.
In many ways - and I mean this as a compliment - the movie is a bit like The Book of Mormon played straight, and without songs; you find the selflessness of our protagonists, and the immediate empathy they generate, so instantly endearing that it's somewhat blindsiding. Yet that comparison, in addition to being wildly misleading, doesn't hint at the film's unexpected complexity, or the bone-deep emotional satisfaction of the experience. There are certainly times in which Freetown plays like a well-intended recruiting film for LDS, especially when characters, at awkward moments, deliver monologues about precisely how they came to their faith. (The most awkward recitation, considering the circumstances under which it's recounted, is presented by Nuong Faalong, but the radiant actress' tale is told with such glorious warmth and simplicity that all complaints are nullified.) More often than not, however, co-screenwriters Batty and Melissa Leilani Larson explore their themes with impressive vigor and honesty; the missionaries may be selfless, but they're also just as conflicted, frightened, weak, and confused as anyone in their surroundings and situation would be.
And while the film plays beautifully as a pro-faith drama with beat-the-clock-thriller elements, it's also, more frequently than you'd expect, a pretty wonderful road-trip comedy. It should go without saying that there's inherent amusement in watching our seven heroes attempt to reach the border, inconspicuously, while crammed into a tiny red compact - six of them in white dress shirts, and one in a short-sleeve number that looks like an explosion of fruit salad. But their relaxed, genial camaraderie leads to many joyously lighthearted bits, and nicely offsets the considerable dramatic tension and eventual crises of faith, the latter of which are handled with exactly the right blend of anguish and hopeful yearning. The sharply edited, well-acted Freetown is completely deserving of a look for offering a smart, sane, multifaceted exploration of a largely ignored historical horror. For those of us in the Quad Cities, it's also completely worth the 45-minute drive to Galesburg to see it. Drive like Vin Diesel, and it'll only be 10.