As someone who never really tried to keep up with the Fast and the Furious series, the apparent sharp turn from blockbuster pap to much-loved franchise honestly took me aback. Somehow, under my nose, these movies became more daffy than daft, more joyful than clinical. The latest and seventh instalment – known both as Fast & Furious 7 and Furious 7 – was an interested point at which to jump back in. Two films after its apparent redemption, would its bombastic charms hold any appeal to an outsider? Mercifully, yes. Furious 7 is happily unpretentious, another in a recent – though still rare – spate of blockbusters directed with a real sincerity of tone. Where the broader turn of late has been towards hyper-awareness and/or cynicism – see Marvel and DC products respectively – Furious 7, much like Gravity and Pacific Rim, essentially lays all of its cards on the table. Where it employs spectacle as well as any other, it also has an entire run of films which have established its characters relationships to each other. While none of these relationships is particularly complex, they are unforced and lived in.

The film centres on the simple concept of family. Dom Toretto leads a crew of friends and loved ones: Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), his amnesiac girlfriend; Tej (Ludacris), the tech guy; Roman (Tyrese Gibson), the clown; Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson), the muscle; and last but far from the film’s least concern, Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker), the former cop.

The plot is silly enough not to get in the way, as the crew is hunted down by Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), whose brother they injured in a previous film. Shaw is in cahoots with a terrorist organisation which is attempting to acquire the God’s Eye, a young hacker’s invention which very improbably taps into every camera and listening device on Earth allowing its user to track people. First they must rescue the hacker, Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel), who is of course a young and beautiful genius; then they have to enlist her to track down Shaw so Toretto can get square with him for blowing up the crew’s symbolic home.

Essentially, this story hums along between larger set pieces. The introduction of the God’s Eye, leading to the crew’s recruitment by US government agent Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell), means Furious 7 takes on an element of global conspiracy, confusing political overtones, and a much grander scope than it otherwise might have. They end up in the Caucasus Mountains somewhere around Azerbaijan and then in Abu Dhabi because they make for bigger splashes, and allow for some nutty, fantastic aerial stunts: air-dropping in cars to reach an inaccessible mountain road, and Dom and Brian jumping a car between two massive skyscrapers in Abu Dhabi. You could question the necessity of these sojourns, but what would be the point? The main aim here is put a goofy grin on your face.

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And for the most part, Furious 7 is something you just sit back and enjoy. It’s overlong, and perhaps has one set piece too many – the climactic sequence in which a massive drone tracks crew members all across Los Angeles is particularly ridiculous – but it’s light and frothy, and even the darker undercurrent never feels overly weighty. It’s only at the end, once the mission has been completed, that things shift into a sentimental gear.

It’s remarkable that director James Wan and writer Chris Morgan have been able to make the series’ goodbye to Paul Walker as affecting as they have. You can feel that it’s so much less about the character than the actor himself, who died in 2013 in a tragic car accident. The film used Walker’s brothers as stand-ins to complete the film, and the images of Brian playing with his son and wife on the beach take on a particularly heart-breaking tone when you remember that Walker is survived by his young daughter. It’s a moment of emotional acuity you might not expect from the seventh film in a franchise, but Furious 7 – despite all the factors which might suggest the contrary – is not your average blockbuster.

Score: 3.5 stars

Laurence Barber - follow Laurence on Twitter at @bortlb.