A thrill ride to the end
FAST & FURIOUS 7 (PG13)
Action/138 minutes/Opens tomorrow
After taking down criminal mastermind Owen Shaw, street racer Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and his posse of skilled drivers return to Los Angeles as free men, but find themselves strangers in their own home. Dom takes his former squeeze, Letty Ortiz (Michelle Rodriguez) on road trips to their old haunts to jog her memory about their time together, while his best mate, Brian O'Conner (Paul Walker) is reluctantly settling down as a family man.
It's all good and boring until Shaw's "big, bad brother", former special-forces assassin Deckard (Jason Statham), shows up, putting one of the gang's friends in hospital and another in the ground before dropping a bomb - both figurative and literal - on Dom.
A government spook by the name of Mr Nobody (Kurt Russell) offers Dom a chance to find Deckard in exchange for rescuing a hacker who has been kidnapped by a mercenary.
If Dom and his buddies do not want to end up in body bags, there is only one way to drive...
"IF YOU want to glimpse the future, just look behind you," goes the opening line of this seventh entry in the long-running car racing and chasing saga.
I watched the first film, The Fast And The Furious (2001), in the year of its release, along with every instalment since - my favourite being the fifth one.
Over the years, the franchise crossed the globe - from Miami to Tokyo, Rio de Janeiro to London - and gathered stars of different ethnicities and backgrounds.
Here, Dominic Toretto's (Vin Diesel) band of glamorous ruffians travel to places as distant as Azerbaijan and Abu Dhabi, and as familiar as 1327 Echo Park, the address of Dom's home.
Some old faces return, such as Lucas Black and Shad Moss' drift kings from Tokyo Drift and Elsa Pataky's Brazilian cop.
Some new friends are made, such as tech genius Ramsey - Game Of Thrones' Nathalie Emmanuel, who could rival Chris Hemsworth's character in Blackhat for the title of Most Attractive Fictional Hacker of the Year - and Kurt Russell's self-named government bigwig, Mr Nobody.
And some new enemies emerge, like Jason Statham's tragic villain Deckard Shaw - who has declared open season on Toretto and his crew to avenge his crippled brother - and the scary-looking but ultimately underwhelming mercenary Mosi Jakande, played by Djimon Hounsou.
Unlike his younger sibling, Deckard does not taunt the good guys from behind the ropes. No, this "legitimate English badass" takes them on in the ring, relegating Dwayne Johnson's federal agent to a hospital bed for most of the movie and going toe to toe with Dom repeatedly.
But it is not just the bald beefcakes having all the fun. Mixed martial arts fighter Ronda Rousey, who plays a bodyguard to the rich, gets to slug it out with Michelle Rodriguez's Letty Ortiz in high heels, while Ong Bak trilogy star Tony Jaa has a few brawls with Paul Walker's cop Brian O'Conner.
The vehicular mayhem, as Dom's crew member Roman Pearce (Tyrese Gibson) shrieks at one point, "takes crazy to a whole 'nother level". This is a universe in which a man runs up the side of a bus as it slides over a cliff, a woman leaps from one skidding car into another through their open windows, and people crawl out of mangled wrecks with nary a scratch.
There are also a few callbacks to the first film, like a drag race at motorsports festival Race Wars, and a stunt in which a car is driven under a semi.
Petrolheads will no doubt salivate over the four-wheeled cast, an eclectic mix from muscle cars like Letty's 1970 Plymouth Barracuda and off-roaders like Brian's Subaru WRX STI, to exotics like Deckard's Maserati Ghibli.
Malaysia-born director James Wan, who is taking the wheel from Justin Lin's four-film-long stewardship of the franchise, captures the carnage with a mix of the dreaded shaky-cam technique and rotisserie-style barrel-roll shots.
Some stunts - like a magnificent setpiece of Dom and his team's cars free-falling out of a C-130 cargo plane - were done for real, while others - such as a US$3.5 million (S$4.8 million) Lykan Hypersport flying hundreds of metres in the air between and through three neighbouring skyscrapers - were married with some iffy-looking CGI and green screen.
One thing the movie cannot fake, though, is the real-life camaraderie between the actors, which bleeds into the film's many funny and heartwarming moments. Just last month, Diesel named his newborn daughter Pauline, after co-star Walker.
The film has a special poignancy for Walker's colleagues and fans - in 2013, the car enthusiast died in a road accident midway through production, making this his cinematic swansong.
His remaining scenes were filled in seamlessly by his brothers acting as body doubles, unused footage from previous movies and digital composites. Without giving too much away, the way his character's journey ends was done tastefully, and I bet few viewers will have dry eyes during the movie's symbolic final shot.
Universal Pictures announced last year that there may be three more sequels after this one. But I would be content if the series ended here, as I could not ask for a more beautiful coda.
"Friends are the family we choose," goes a saying. It is a comforting thought that Walker spent his last, glorious, fast and furious days with his loved ones.