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'Furious 7' (PG-13)

In Furious 7, the unstoppable Fast and the Furious franchise sputters and stalls, edging from spectacular, tongue-in-cheek B-movie fun to soulless, insulting inanity. Here is a film in which nothing is at stake: Cars crash into each other head-on at high speeds, vehicles sail off cliffs and tumble down rocky mountainsides, people jump out of buildings and fall six stories to the ground, then characters just dust themselves off and continue as if nothing had happened. Even Wile E. Coyote wasn’t  this resilient.

That’s not to imply the previous films weren’t far-fetched. Fast Five, which remains the best entry to date, centered around one of the most preposterous heists in cinematic history, and the previous installment, Furious 6, ended with that now-legendary chase sequence on an airport runway that seemed to be as long as the Florida peninsula. The series’ secret weapon has always been the cheerfully lunatic manner in which the movies tear through the edges of plausibility with a nudge and a wink, letting you in on the joke while putting on a grand show.

But the law of diminishing returns sinks Furious 7, in which the filmmakers succumb to the trap of having to top each successive film — bigger! louder! dumber! — by plunging free-fall into absurd, cartoonish nonsense. James Wan, inheriting the reins of the money-minting series from Justin Lin (who directed parts three through six), shows little of the ingenuity he used in his low-tech, hugely effective horror pictures (The Conjuring, Insidious). He doesn’t even pull off a single setpiece as effective as his long, single-take footchase between Kevin Bacon and a gang of thugs in a parking garage in the underrated Death Sentence.

Instead, Wan seems to have taken some crash courses at the Michael Bay University of Filmmaking, where you never do anything for real when you can fake it with computers and where no idea is deemed to be too much as long as the special-effects crew can put it up on the screen. Realism is for documentaries and stuff. This is a popcorn movie, man! It’s supposed to be stupid, right?

At this point, screenwriter Chris Morgan doesn’t even care about viewers who are unfamiliar with the series. He’s only interested in preaching to the converted, since the previous films have grossed more than $2.3 billion worldwide. As long as the old fans show up, this giant-budget (a reported $250 million) spectacle won’t have any problem recouping its costs. The film practically does away with traditional scenes of dialogue and plot development, in part because these characters, who were thin to begin with, have been stretched to their limits over seven movies now. The actors are essentially playing fictionalized versions of themselves (faring particularly badly are Tyreese Gibson and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, two dynamic, entertaining performers who are given little to do except spout exposition and lame jokes).

As the film starts, Michelle Rodriguez is still suffering from amnesia — she doesn’t remember how much she loves Vin Diesel. Paul Walker and Jordana Brewster are getting used to life as parents (Brewster is sidelined for the movie with a baby in her arms). Jason Statham, the brother of the previous film’s baddie, has come looking for payback and is in the process of taking our crew of heroes down one by one (Statham gets the best entrance, although even his considerable magnetism is muted here). New characters include Nathalie Emmanuel as a genius hacker, Kurt Russell as a shady government agent and Djimon Hounsou as a villain with dreams of ruling the world and fond of spouting “What?” “What?” and “WHAAAAT?”

Outside of Russell, whose weathered, craggy face and impish energy inject some much needed human fun into the movie, the only other actor who fares well is the indestructible Dwayne Johnson, reprising his role as a crackerjack federal agent. He infuses life and warmth into the picture whenever he’s onscreen — a natural comedian, Johnson is capable of being self-effacing and bad-ass at the same time, as in a shot in which he flexes his way out of an arm cast — and you’ll wish, even more than before, that he and Diesel could trade places on the Furious totem pole and Johnson would take over the wheel.

Maybe next time. Furious 7 is comprised of a string of enormous, loosely-linked action setpieces, includes a phenomenal sequence in which the heroes parachute out of an airplane while inside their cars; a vertigo-inducing chase on mountain roads; an I-dare-you-not-to-smile-at-this bit of business involving a limited-edition Ferrari that sails through the air and crashes through not one but two skyscrapers; and some good old-fashioned one-on-one throwdowns. But the film is also padded with unnecessary montages, soul-deadening dialogue (“You made it! I can’t believe we pulled that off!”), hoary cliches (including the requisite jackknifing 18-wheeler carrying a load of large, cylindrical objects) and a protracted finale in which half of downtown Los Angeles is destroyed that is better suited to an Avengers movie than a film about former car thieves and drag racers turned charming, superhuman rogues.

Walker, who has always been the series’ humble, solid center (he counterbalances Diesel’s raspy-voiced, tough-guy cartoon), died tragically while the film was still in production, which explains why the credits list four editors and two cinematographers. There are also chunks in the picture in which the actor is only shown from the back. The movie ends with the requisite “For Paul” dedication, but before that, the filmmakers engage in a bit of shameless, exploitative manipulation, including some computer-generated images, intended to bring the film to a sentimental close and pay tribute to Walker. I wish the producers would have honored him with a better movie. You won’t fall asleep at Furious 7, but the new picture returns the series to the unfortunate place where it started – a ridiculous junkheap of hollow, fleeting thrills, polished to a high sheen and cranked up to 11.

Cast: Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Jason Statham, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Dwayne Johnson, Nathalie Emmanuel, Djimon Hounsou, Jordana Brewster, Lucas Black, Kurt Russell, Tony Jaa.

Director: James Wan.

Screenwriter: Chris Morgan.

A Universal Pictures release. Running time: 137 minutes. Vulgar language, violence, reckless driving. Playing at area theaters.