I watched the first film when it was a new release on DVD, and I caught the first 20 minutes of Tokyo Drift on a plane when it was a new-ish release, and otherwise I was going into this cold. I went to see it for a fairly simple reason – it was basically the only game in town at the time I wanted to see a film. I’m finding this happens a lot in Oxford. The two Odeon cinemas will often pick one film to play full-time, tying up half the screens in the city on one film – recently there has been no screening I could attend for a swathe of films I wanted to see in the cinema. Last month I missed out on seeing Love is Strange, Blackhat, Monsters: Dark Continent, and Predestination. But I could have gone to see 50 Shades of Grey as many times as I wanted. My main alternative was seeing Bladerunner again – but while I love that film, the 15 or 20 times I watched it while writing my film dissertation on it was probably enough for at least another few years. It appears to be the film of the week again this week; if I want to see anything different, it may mean a trip to Reading. If this is how all cinema works in the UK, it’s not surprising that some terrible films have ended up with huge box-office totals: they were probably really the only game in town. I think I may not have been alone in experiencing the film through lack of choice, since I was surrounded by late-teen girls, except for one block of 5 elderly women. I expected not to be the majority demographic, but I at least expected to be the right gender.
Reviewers have struggled to articulate much about this film. The general sentiment that keeps coming across is that this film is a non-sensical roller-coaster ride that gets away with being silly because of it’s shear energy. This is a chronic misreading of the extremely careful and clever forces driving the design of the story and the action. It doesn’t obey “reality” or what we might think of as “logical plotting” because it is compelled by far more primal story archetypes and manouevres. One well-intentioned reviewer said that it wasn’t a movie at all, but a live-action cartoon – as if the view that the classic cartoons can’t stand up to some fair critical scrutiny. Watch the Looney Toons Barber of Seville and tell me it isn’t a supreme work of comic genius. The fact is, what differentiates this film from far less successful similar genre outings is not luck, it’s not an accident, and making a film this good is not a storytelling challenge that that can be solved by simply “throwing more fun” at it. Look at how fantastically un-fun the Transformers movies or the middle Pirates of the Caribbean movies are, both of which tried to simply turn all the dials up and failed spectacularly.
The first thing this film gets right is that it wastes no time on exposition, and hence is extremely economical with information. Nothing illustrates this better than the film’s cold-opening. The film opens with a contemplative Jason Statham looking out a window at a city scape, in a brief monologue he explains to his comatose brother how he always took care of him and nothing has changed. The shot widens to see the frightened hospital staff, and then we get a long tracking shot as he exits the building via the mayhem he caused to get close enough to his brother. In about the same time as it took for you to read this, his credentials as the film’s villain are completely established and the central antagonism that will drive all the action is clearly sketched. In about 45 minutes there will be another five seconds of exposition from Kurt Russell just confirming the basic facts that have already been pretty clearly shown to us. Similarly little time is wasted on diagetic analysis – there is no tedious scene in the film where plans are hashed out, or where anyone needs the situation explained to them.
There are two main benefits for this paring down of exposition. Primarily, it creates a lot of time available in the narrative for things to happen. It sounds trivial – but far too many modern films feel the need to explain every little thing. Bizarely, it appears to take a massively populist blockbuster to actually respect the intelligene of its audience. That enlarged story space means that the film needn’t confine itself to one genre formula, or one anodyne three-act structure. The film playfully explores the nearby genre landscapes, with major subsections including commando raids, street racing, spies, heists and heck, even some romance. While none of these is as fully developed as it is in other films, the parts that are missing are the parts which are interchangeable between different films. The secondary benefit is that by not explaining itself, the film requires the audience to simply trust it. There is, for example, no long explanation of how GPS will guide the air-dropped car convoy on target – the film simply trusts that the audience will get caught up in the thril, allowing a fun reveal when the first car is deployed. The story only explains things that matter, that will have story consequences. That is a remarkable discipline. The need for a lot of plot is driven by the need to keep the pace of the film fast and furious, and to allow each of the entire ensemble cast to have enough to do.
One major casualty of this breakneck pace and story energy is the central spy MacGuffin and its creator. Mid way through the film, Kurt Russell turns up and promises to help Vinnie and friends with their Statham problem, if they’ll recover a device known as the “God’s Eye” from some terrorists. This is basically the tool that Batman uses to find the Joker in The Dark Knight, a plug-in that uses ambient technology to enact mass surveillance. In Nolan’s dark and serious film, this was regarded properly as the threat to basic liberty that it is, and Lucius Fox destroys it once the specific threat for which it was created has been dealt with. In Fast and Furious 7, nobody bats an eye or comments on the potential for mis-use in any way – they simply get on with what is obviously the driver for the next section of action. I was not hoping for deep philospophical enquiry going into this film, I was hoping for the adrenalin it delivered; but without expecting the film to change gears, I think the palpable fear that accompanied the device in The Dark Knight has eroded. Big Brother really is watching us (the NSA is reading this post right now), and in this regard what was a dystopian nightmare has become a reality and so fair game for the summer blockbuster. The casual inclusion of this plot device is at best worrying for the society producing this artwork. With that all said, the absolute danger of the device is made crystal clear by the way the action plays out in the same way as any super-weapon which is completely shelved at the end of this film’s genre peers.
Where the film is less unambiguously good is in its gender politics. This film passes the Bechdel Test test, but is at least somewhat ambivalent in doing so couple of interesting moments in doing so. The hacker that the team rescues as a central MacGuffin for the pot is a beautiful woman. At the earliest opportunity we are treated to a leering shot of her emerging from the water with an attractive sheen of sea water and a minimalist bikini. While the camera unashamedly oggles her breasts, two of the gang discuss how hot she is and who get dibs on her, only to have the conversation broken up by the second important woman, Letty who castigates them in a light-hearted way for their misogyny. And then the whole concept of Ramsey as a sexual object is completely dropped. There is nothing remotely like a romantic overture or a specifically-directed comment for the rest of the film. It’s a clever way of letting the film have its cake and eat it – the straight male view gets its pound of flesh, the feminists get their moment of outrage, the plot is not bogged down by an irrelevant sexual conquest, everyone gets to retain their agency. Everyone wins.
Except, of course, that Ramsey is very much the exception in the treatment of nubile flesh – before and after this little interlude, the camera retains its purile interest in breasts and bums, showcasing flashes of scantily-clad women at the slightest provocation with little in the way of reversal for the ladies in the audience. The one moment of gender-political awareness is a shield intended to prevent criticism of the numerous party scenes. For all that – this film was well toward the more politically acceptable end of the spectrum, being far less repulsive than most of its competition. I wonder what the horde of young women surrounding me in the theatre thought about it all.
This is not a major thing of interest to the film – a super-cut of all the female flesh would be only a few minutes out of the running time, and probably shorter than a supercut of cars. Cars are faster and furiouser, after all.
I had a really great time watching this film, but not knowing that in advance and with limited options, I may not have gone out at all except for the reassuring presence of Jason Statham in the title card. He’s made a small handful of films I didn’t enjoy (Expendables, I’m looking at you!) but on the whole his presence signals a certain basic reliable level of enjoyability. As it turns out, the central spine of the film is Jason Statham. Without his definite presence I am doubtful that the film would have been the 5-star classic of the genre that it is. In Part 2, I’ll talk about the Staith, who, in my view, must now rank alongside the greatest action stars of all time as an equal.