By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Apr 11, 2015 at 1:56 PM

Completing the franchise’s evolution from street racing box office surprise to global dominating live-action cartoon, "Furious 7" is basically Hollywood’s version of a turducken.

The movie is meaty meathead ’80s action movie ridiculousness wrapped inside meaty meathead ’80s action movie ridiculousness wrapped in yet another layer of meaty meathead ’80s action movie ridiculousness. It’s a greasy, gaudy monstrosity, a monument to excess and absurdity – all pretty much cooked to lip-smacking satisfaction. I know watching it is probably awful for my health (I could feel it clogging up brain synapses like a KFC Double Down plugs arteries). I know that, really, it probably shouldn’t exist. I also know that I happily gobbled it down with eyes eager for seconds.

After knocking out baddie Shaw (Luke Evans) and his mercenaries on the longest airstrip in history last time, Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel) and company are acclimating to regular life.

While Brian (Paul Walker) is reluctantly moving onto a new phase of his life – having to trade out fast rides for a functional minivan – Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) is trying to get her old one back, struggling to recapture her pre-"Fast & Furious" car crash memories. And despite Dom’s best efforts to summon them back up, she’s still prone to bouts of mild depression and panic attacks – some brought on by her lost past; others brought on by having to interact with Iggy Azalea (the only normal reaction to have, really).

But there’s something worse than pop star-induced PTSD haunting the crew: Shaw’s crazy pissed-off shadow operative older brother Deckard (Jason Statham), looking for revenge for knocking his sibling into a coma. He already wiped out Han and Gisele (Sung Kang and DC’s future Wonder Woman Gal Gadot) in the last movie’s coda. Now he’s planting bombs outside of the Toretto household and crippling The Rock (psh, consider my suspension of disbelief ruined!) in a late-night brawl. It’s up to Dom and the rest of the crew – enter bickering BFFs Ludacris and Tyrese Gibson – to put a stop to Shaw 2.0 before he beats them to the Superman punch.

Despite a vigorously silly (in a good way) intro to Deckard, visiting his comatose brother in a hospital before casually walking through the wreckage he wrought to get there, "Furious 7" takes a while to really get up to full speed.

Part of this might be due to the absence of director Justin Lin, who had been in the driver’s seat since "Tokyo Drift" and brought it to its current heights. Now, it’s James Wan, most recently known for his quality horror flicks "Insidious" and "The Conjuring." There is, however, an action movie on his resume, the 2007 Kevin Bacon revenge thriller "Death Sentence" that’s been deservedly forgotten but occasionally demonstrates some genre creativity and finesse – namely with a parking garage chase captured with a tracking shot – that’s apparent here too.

Early on, though, Wan seems to struggle with getting the right tone out of the starting blocks. The leering at racer girls, cars and moments of brolosophy are laid on pretty thick, almost to the point of parody. Meanwhile, the story – obviously never the franchise’s strong point – almost has a telenovela vibe, especially whenever the focus is on Letty’s amnesia. Much of that drama lies on Diesel’s rather monotone shoulders, and while the growly actor makes for a fine franchise foundation, his glum performance style doesn’t make for a particularly compelling centerpiece.

There’s also a decent Rock-Statham smash-up, but a Rock-Statham fight should also register higher than just decent. It’s destructive, but without the emotional and tactile fury of the Dom/Rock fight in "Fast Five"; it’s preposterous, but without the cartoon creativity of most of "Fast & Furious 6." The sequence is a fine starter fight, but that’s it (it also sidelines The Rock, which is a goddamn cinematic sin).

However, it doesn’t take long – about the time series newcomer Kurt Russell shows up as a covert ops leader offering Dom a helpful mission for his crew and a bucket of iced Corona – for Wan to get all his mirrors lined up and get comfortable in the driver’s seat. From that point on, with the main crew all put together and the mild brooding of the first act dispatched, "Furious 7" delivers ridiculously entertaining set piece after ridiculously entertaining set piece slathered in eye candy.

The action admittedly peaks early with a mountain road rescue sequence for the ages. It’s a perfectly judged set piece, delivering every element of an awesome action scene while constantly escalating in intensity and excitement. The parachuting cars opening is the franchise’s giddily inventive ridiculousness at breathtaking work. The following road race is just as tensely breathtaking, grounded in impressive stunt work both inside and out of the vehicles. Cars blow open buses and toss people inside, who have tough, intense fisticuffs. Characters dangle off hoods, and the chase splits, sending cars and trucks down multiple tree-covered cliffs before a happily laugh-inducing silly exclamation point.

It’s a testosterone-pounding marathon of action movie thrills, both gritty and grandly absurd. All the while, Wan juggles all of the bullet-riddled moving parts with clarity, precision and a dash of humor – like two cars launching into the wild to the peaceful silence of nature – to keep the light cartoon feel. Each part feels tense and exciting on its own, moving with the bone-crunching thrills rather than sloppily editing it into oblivion. Even his nifty, if occasionally distracting, flourishes – like flipping the camera or comically and thrillingly chucking the camera down infinite stairs alongside two fighters – are about following the action, not muddling it.

"Furious 7" may never match that first big set piece, but it certainly comes close the rest of the way through – each time Wan impressively balancing multiple components, tense grounded thrills lacquered in ludicrous entertainment. A trip to Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Towers has multiple hand-to-hand fights – one featuring Rodriguez against Ronda Rousey, taking over the gallingly stiff MMA star role from Gina Carano – all punctuated with a skyscraper leap both awe-inspiring and utterly goofnuts (and that’s before the hilarious, high-octane punch line).

It wraps up with a multi-pronged war sprawling throughout Los Angeles launching every type of vehicle into one another. It’s less an action sequence than a giggle-inducingly destructive battle of the gods – complete with Zeusian ground-shaking blows – and all fueled by muscle-drunk lunacy. Yes, it’s ridiculous; it’s just a cartoon rabbit away from graduating into full-on Looney Tunes. But it’s also a delightful, well-captured hoot. Seemingly untethered to reality, "Furious 7" soars into preposterous ’80s action movie nirvana, where it rains tough guy quips and protein powder.

The series has nicely gathered a great crew for exactly that kind of action film as well. After Chris Morgan’s script drops its pretenses of moody drama, Diesel is able to do what he does best: be a comically manly hulk of gruff one-liners and punches. Tyrese’s cowardly egomania makes for amusing comic relief, while Ludacris gets to have an actual fun little action beat in this chapter.

And then there’s Dwayne Johnson. Even with limited screen time, he still leaves his delightful dent whether dropping tough guy lines (the "Daddy’s gotta go to work," scene should become canon), picking up a destroyed drone’s machine gun or merely stamping papers in an office – with a towel and no shirt, because even simply stamping documents, The Rock cannot be contained. He truly is the new Schwarzenegger, featuring the same easy charisma but with less overly calculated self-awareness and more acting talent.

Of course, not everything can be completely perfect in absurd action movie Valhalla. The plot gets a bit crowded and more webby than need be, with most of the movie sending Dom and company on what seems like a tangent involving a hacker (Nathalie Emmanuel, "Game of Thrones") and her surveillance device God’s Eye. There’s a brief action scene in a warehouse where it feels like multiple screenplay drafts collided together, and the wreckage was never cleaned up. Multiple villains show up, the plot weirdly shifts a bit and both a betrayal and a death are hinted at but then quickly retracted.

None of these clunky plot mechanics are a particular deal-breaker, but it does end up wasting Statham. Instead of being the featured villain, he’s pushed to the side while another infinitely less interesting baddie – played by Djimon Hounsou – takes center stage.

And, of course, it’s utterly ridiculous. If you insist on realism in all of your action movies, you’ll likely hate "Furious 7." Not one, but two car jousts end in the characters smashing into each other head-on – the second one leading into a shoot-out between the newly conjoined vehicles. By the end, every character has taken so much damage, their bones should be a fine powder wrapped in a bloody pulp.

The series’ only logical next step probably involves ramping Dom off a space shuttle into orbit while gargle-yelling, "Family!" And if it’s made up to the entertaining level of this entry, I’ll be right there in line for tickets.

Somehow, "Furious 7" manages to pull all that off all while the too-soon death of Paul Walker – and death in general – hangs gently over the chapter, with two graveyard visits and metaphorical lines about no one escaping God’s Eye. Every risk his character takes and wound his character suffers feels just a touch more hauntingly real. It’s a feat not only that they managed to complete the film – Walker’s CGI-double is only occasionally distracting, mostly due to the editing around him – but that it still turned out so much fun.

At the end, the movie gives him and his character a fitting tribute (say what you will about Walker as a technical actor, but the series will miss his quiet everyday dude sincerity) and wave goodbye. It’s a rather impressively touching grace note for an otherwise ludicrously entertaining movie that says, "You know what this mid-air car versus helicopter joust needs? A bag of grenades."

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.