By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Once a movie franchise starts cranking out sequels, we start expecting it to fizzle — if not commercially, then at least aesthetically.

The Fast and the Furious franchise of escapist, vroom-vroom action thrillers, on the other hand, has exhibited an unusual pattern.

It followed up its sputtering 2001 premiere by getting stuck in neutral with three mediocre-at-best sequels.

Then, with different directors at the helm, it found its rhythm and suddenly started doing more than just spinning its wheels.  Exhilarating installments five and six rocked the right way.

So now, here we are, two trilogies in the rear-view mirror, beginning a possible third trilogy with the seventh adventure, Furious 7.

Like its predecessors, number seven offers diverse casting, rooting-interest-friendly teamwork, excessive and preposterous vehicular mayhem, and car-toonish indestructibility.  As always, the signature sequences involve the spirited rewriting of the laws of physics, as cars routinely do things that cars are not supposed to do.

So place this one on the shelf holding the last two outings, which it is on a par with: call it a qualified compliment.

(2½ stars out of 4)

(2½ stars out of 4)

 

And after five sequels in a row set elsewhere, Furious 7 returns to Los Angeles, where it all began.

Vin Diesel returns as Dominic Toretto, with the late Paul Walker (who died during production) as Brian O’Conner, while the plot is triggered by Jason Statham, who joins the cast as Ian Shaw, who seeks revenge against Toretto and his crew (and intends to kill them one by one) after the crippling of his terrorist brother, Owen Shaw, who was the villain in the last installment.

At the same time, a surveillance program called “God’s Eye” has been stolen by terrorists and, you know the drill, somebody has got to get it back.

Let’s face it: the plot hardly matters.  It’s just connective tissue, an excuse to put the crew through their paces.  Which also means that it doesn’t really matter whether you’ve seen any or all of the previous installments, especially if you’re an adrenaline junkie.

Still, the film is most certainly aimed directly at fans of the franchise.

Returning in the ensemble are Dwayne Johnson, Michelle Rodriguez, Lucas Black, Jordana Brewster, Tyrese Gibson, and Ludacris, joined this trip by Kurt Russell and Djimon Hounsou.

Director James Wan (Saw, Insidious, The Conjuring, Dead Silence, Death Sentence), a horror-thriller specialist hereby moving out of his comfort zone, takes over in the director’s chair, working from a screenplay by Chris Morgan –- who has now written five of the seven films –- and does an impressive job with the numerous extravagant, extended, outlandish, dizzying action set pieces.

This seventh extravaganza is stuffed to the gills with everything the franchise has come to stand for, “More is More” apparently being the operative motto and “enough” never being enough.

But the film also serves as a sensitive memorial tribute to Walker, whose passing provides an additional element of emotion to the proceedings and whose scenes were finished with stand-ins and remarkably seamless CGI trickery.

On balance, make this the third of the seven outings -– and the third in a row –- that’s more impressive than depressing, more satisfying than stultifying, and more exhilarating than exhausting.

So we’ll drive 2½ stars out of 4. Furious 7 is furiously engaging.

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