Speed Racer (2008)

There’s certainly a message to this film, but it’s buried in layers of aesthetics that you’ll either hate or, as I did, sort of get to tolerate after a while. I think it’s an acquired taste, but I enjoy the Wachowskis and their increasingly baroque output, as witness Jupiter Ascending, one of the great films of the last decade and one equally likely to divide its audience. Anyway, I’m taking a bit of a break this week from the themed reviews, so this is just a post for my regular women filmmakers slot on Wednesday, and I should cover a newish release on Friday.


I’ve seen films based on cartoons and manga before, but they don’t usually go quite so far in capturing a certain uncanny hyper-saturated cartoon-panel-like sensibility as this film. It all but completely does away with standard filmic editing or any kind of naturalistic construction of reality, as each element within the frame looks as if it’s filmed separately and layered on, moving often independently of the other images. Conversations are between superimposed heads swiping right or left across the screen, and rarely between two people standing or sitting facing one another. Even in domestic settings, every shot looks like it’s against a green screen, so it must have been fearsomely difficult to have acted on the film — though, that said, the performances are hardly naturalistic either. It’s all pushed to a ridiculous degree, with the racing sequences themselves more like a very hi-def version of Mario Kart, and certainly defying all laws of physics. And I suppose that’s where the achievement lies, in creating a film so at odds with reality, but still with a very clear message about the corrupting power of capital and the need to resist it.

Speed Racer film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Lana Wachowski and Lilly Wachowski [under different names at the time] (based on the manga マッハGoGoGo Mahha GoGoGo [“Speed Racer, aka Mach GoGoGo”] by Tatsuo Yoshida 吉田竜夫); Cinematographer David Tattersall; Starring Emile Hirsch, Christina Ricci, John Goodman, Susan Sarandon, Matthew Fox; Length 135 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Saturday 1 June 2019.

The Fate of the Furious (aka Fast & Furious 8, 2017)

An enormously silly movie. The gang is still led by Vin Diesel’s Dom, but his allegiances are placed into question by the arrival on the scene of cyberterrorist Cipher (Charlize Theron). The script still throws around the word “family” the requisite number of times, and truly my heart is warmed by seeing Jason Statham properly brought into the fold — even if he’s still somewhat an anti-hero, he is at least now aligned with the forces of good, with a rather heavy-handed Hard Boiled hommage which nevertheless plays into Statham’s established heroic character trait of protecting kids. And yet… and yet, I’m not convinced. I’m not convinced by Dom’s actions, nor by Charlize’s villain — though, incidentally, possibly the most furious thing in the film is the fingers of her and Nathalie Emmanuel’s hacktivist Ramsey (introduced in the last film), as they (ridiculously) hack and counter-hack one another. I’m also not convinced by the fate of poor Elsa Pataky, sidelined since Michelle Rodriguez returned in the sixth film. Look, I still like everyone involved and I’ll still go see number nine (can I get an early vote in for some kind of K9 pun?) but this isn’t their finest work.

The Fate of the Furious film posterCREDITS
Director F. Gary Gray; Writer Chris Morgan; Cinematographer Stephen F. Windon; Starring Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Michelle Rodriguez, Kurt Russell, Charlize Theron; Length 136 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Holloway, London, Friday 14 April 2017.

Speed Sisters (2015)

There has been no shortage of excellent documentaries in recent years, as the rise to prominence of festivals like the UK’s Sheffield Doc/Fest or Canada’s Hot Docs can testify. Many of these new voices have been those of women filmmakers, gratifying within an industrial context which so often marginalises them. In watching Speed Sisters, I think, for example, of the work of Kim Loginotto, whose films like Gaea Girls (2000) have used a subculture as a way of examining wider issues within a society. And while it’s probably easy to dismiss such documentaries as light-hearted — it’s been the kind of criticism most often applied to any filmmaking or artistic creation by women over the, well, millennia really — I think there’s more value to them than is sometimes admitted. (And yes, can you tell I’ve been looking up reviews online and getting grumpy at them?)

Undoubtedly the context of this film, which deals with a Palestinian women’s motor racing team, is one with quite a bit of history and politics to unpack, so any attempt to broach such issues — the fraught relationship between Israel and Palestine not least — is going to seem flimsy to some viewers. But it’s so valuable for those such as me who are not familiar with the area to get a sense of what it’s to live, work — and race — in Palestine, a place overwhelmed by physical manifestations of state control, yet one nevertheless in which people do live their lives with a degree of freedom and vivacity that must seem surprising if it’s only the news headlines you’re reading.

The protagonists of Speed Sisters come from various backgrounds — though, given the expense entailed in the sport they’re engaged in, mostly middle-class (hardly rich, if you see some of the cars they ride, but at least with prospects) — and the documentary is canny in teasing out some of the tensions, notably between the highly-motivated Marah, whose single-mindedness and success at racing makes her sometimes unwilling to deal with the setbacks she encounters, and the self-consciously glamorous Betty, who in coming from a family of racers is Marah’s de facto chief rival for racing success but also far more aware of her media presence and image. The team is rounded out by Mona, an older woman who largely races for fun, Noor, who enjoys the speed but seems to keep forgetting the direction she needs to be going, and their captain Maysoon, barely holding these egos together while working a day job in a little clothes shop. These are thumbnail sketches the film builds up of its chief characters — and given the film’s creation over a number of years, I assume there have been personnel changes in that time that aren’t attentively followed. Indeed, presenting the precise sporting context is probably the weakest aspect of the film: it gives a great sense of what these racing meets are like and the skills involved in handling the cars, but the details of the competition itself (or indeed which race in which season is happening) passes in a blur, and seems less to the point.

The wonder, the joy of the film, is in seeing the women all live their lives amongst these racing meets. It’s a film about the women’s interactions with their family and the men in their lives (all of whom, from the head of the racing Federation down to the fans and the families, largely seem supportive and generous). It’s a film about their friendships and occasionally fractious relationships with one another. But most of all it’s about the way they navigate the very present borders and controls imposed on their lives, in trying for example to find spaces and roads on which to practice, and the dangers inherent in that, which so often they breezily laugh off (watching Maysoon chat away during her daily commute through a checkpoint in Ramallah, moaning about the traffic and the distracting smell of tear gas while there seem to be active clashes happening nearby, is just one eye-opening example). It’s a film that’s not specifically about racing, really, but about people — ordinary people, if obviously interesting and charismatic ones — trying to live in a place where that sometimes seems difficult.

Speed Sisters (2015)CREDITS
Director Amber Fares; Cinematographer Lucy Martens; Length 78 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Tuesday 8 March 2016.

Furious 7 (aka Fast & Furious 7, 2015)

I was excited for this film after seeing the previous instalment, especially having watched the rest of the franchise ahead of that release (and blogged about it, of course), but the past couple of years have brought the sadness of star Paul Walker’s death and subsequent uncertainty about what might happen with the promised seventh film. Well, of course, they totted up the numbers and going ahead was probably never in doubt, but the filmmakers (including a new director) have also managed to sustain the action momentum well for the seventh instalment: all you need to know is that the baddie of the sixth film is being avenged by his brother (Jason Statham) and our team get help from some spooks (led by Kurt Russell). Certainly there are the occasional intrusions of low-angle shots on short-skirted women in glamorous exotic settings, and there remain stretches of (thankfully, not quite mawkish) sentimentality — a feature throughout the franchise. However, there’s genuine pathos in the scenes with Paul Walker near the end of the film, in ‘retirement’ with his family on the beach, and for the most part this film takes all those most hyperactive and ridiculous elements of the sixth film and amps them up (skydiving cars in the mountains! stunt car leaps between skyscrapers! the Rock working an office desk job!), such that there’s very little reprieve from relentless action-oriented silliness, so if this isn’t your thing, then (1) you are missing out on one of cinema’s true delights, and (2) maybe the Fast & Furious series isn’t for you. Still, it works for me and (box office figures suggest) much of the rest of the world’s cinema-going population, so no doubt we’ll be seeing an eighth soon enough. In the meantime, this is an excellent swansong for the always underrated (admittedly by me also) Paul Walker. Oh, and there’s also a bafflingly bonkers recurring reference to Belgian ale, as if the filmmakers, obliged to include Corona product placement, felt they also had to wink at us that there’s better beer out there… So cheers. I raise a glass of Orval to another Furious film.

Furious 7 film posterCREDITS
Director James Wan 溫子仁; Writer Chris Morgan; Cinematographers Marc Spicer and Stephen F. Windon; Starring Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Michelle Rodriguez, Jason Statham, Dwayne Johnson, Kurt Russell; Length 137 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Friday 3 April 2015.

Rush (2013)

Director Ron Howard has enjoyed a lot of mainstream success for his feature films over the past few decades, while screenwriter Peter Morgan has done plenty of good character work dealing with primarily British subjects. They collaborated a few years back on Frost/Nixon (2006), about the English broadcaster’s interviews with the disgraced American President, but this new film sees them dealing with a far more populist and entertaining subject, Formula 1 motor racing. And it is indeed very entertaining.

Morgan’s last foray into sports was The Damned United (2009), though its focus on an historical aspect within English football probably made it of marginal interest to the rest of the world. I’m given to understand that Formula 1 is not exactly a big draw in North America either, but I’m pretty sure you don’t have to know much about it to enjoy the film. I say that because I am largely ignorant of any of its details, aside from the fact that a bunch of low-slung very fast cars race around a track about 80 times. And while I’d heard the name of Austrian driver Niki Lauda, I didn’t know anything about him nor had I heard at all of the English driver James Hunt (the other protagonist of Rush) or of the two drivers’ rivalry.

It’s that rivalry which is at the heart of this film, particularly as it affected the race during the 1976 championship season in which Lauda was critically injured. Chris Hemsworth is energetic as the playboy James Hunt, rarely to be seen without a beer in his hand or dragging on a cigarette, and with a devil-may-care attitude to racing and to life. His rival is Lauda, played by Daniel Brühl as a mousy and unpleasant young man with a passion for tinkering with his cars. Neither of them — as seems to be the rule with Formula 1 drivers — are particularly nice people, being primarily addicted to the thrill of driving, but are given a bit of depth by the observant writing and Hemsworth and Brühl’s acting skills.

For all that I greatly enjoyed Rush, I haven’t really got a lot of knowledgeable things to say about it, I confess. Howard’s direction is polished as ever, attentive to his actors’ expressive faces, and to the grounding role played by the other drivers, their engineering teams, the money men who bankroll them all (for it is undeniably a very male-oriented sport), and by the women in their lives, particularly Lauda’s wife Marlene (a serene Alexandra Maria Lara). There’s some rather graphic medical detail — it is a dangerous sport after all — and the way the 1976 season unfolds is grippingly essayed.

For all that it’s a sports film or a film about high-speed cars, Rush is above all a well-tooled Hollywood-style blockbuster, with a finely-honed and effectively-conveyed sense of unfolding drama. It all zips by at a fair pace, and if I don’t find myself challenged exactly, it’s never egregiously offensive or boring. A fine rendition of a corner of recent sporting history that doesn’t get so much of an outing on the big screen, and I’d happily sit through it again.

Rush film posterCREDITS
Director Ron Howard; Writer Peter Morgan; Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle; Starring Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Brühl, Alexandra Maria Lara, Olivia Wilde; Length 122 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Sunday 15 September 2013.

Fast & Furious 6 (2013)

Having now seen all five of the previous films in the space of a week, it’s hard to really be objective here. In some ways this sixth film in the series is less tightly structured and less single-minded (less good, in a word) than the one immediately preceding it, Fast Five (2011). And yet it can’t help now but be part of a richly-detailed world for those who’ve followed along, a world with its own skewed logic, its own laws of physics, and its own strangely touching code of honour. The film constantly slows down for moments of familial bonding that are at times brazenly sentimental, it mixes and matches settings, villains and languages in an almost arbitrary way, and it causes all kinds of (mostly bloodless) carnage in its wake, but it’s sort of sweet, and not a little bit thrilling too.

The fifth film set up the return from the dead of Michelle Rodriguez in its epilogue, and her character Letty here becomes the focus for Vin Diesel’s Dominic, her boyfriend and by now the emotional core of the franchise. There is of course a greater villain on the loose (Owen Shaw, played by Luke Evans) who has his own evil team, and they are on the hunt for some kind of superweapon, but though that motivates the reformation of Dom’s team and plenty of the action, it’s the relationship between Dom and Letty (and by extension, the team) that forms the film’s heart. There’s a strong familial ethos (Catholic, one presumes) that binds them, signified by the importance attached to Letty’s necklace with its silver cross, and this is even borne out by a prayer at the film’s close.

Yet the filmmakers are by this point fairly cavalier with most of the comic book circus surrounding this core. Tyrese’s character Roman gleefully points out that Owen’s team are the mirror image of Dom’s own, and indeed they are: they’ve even managed to find the one person who matches Dwayne Johnson’s Agent Hobbs in muscle-bound size. There’s an early scene set in Moscow, which is blatantly shot on London’s Lambeth Bridge with the onion domes of St Basil’s Cathedral superimposed in the background. One minor walk-on part is created solely to poke fun at the snobbishness of English people. There’s also a delightful fight scene where Roman and Han (Sung Kang) display the kind of hand-to-hand combat skills you’d expect of racing drivers — a scene which happens to be set on the London Underground, which they managed to get into by running through some doors from a nondescript underground lair. In fact, I could scarcely recount any of the action sequences without being compelled to add parenthetical exclamation marks (!!!) with every twist. There’s plenty of this kind of stuff, throughout the film, constantly. And it’s fine, though I might be biased because one of the chase scenes takes the cars right past the cinema where I was watching the film.

Added to this is the introduction of Gina Carano (last seen in the underrated Haywire) as Hobbs’ partner Riley, who uses her martial arts skills to good effect. The women in general get plenty of chances to take part in the action, though sadly Jordana Brewster still has to be largely ineffectual now that she’s a mother, requiring rescuing at several points.

On the whole though, this is an exciting action film that does all the important things right, and adds even more pathos into the mix thanks to the gravelly-voiced laconic Diesel and the sad-eyed Sung. In fact, the latter’s fate in the third film Tokyo Drift is revisited in this film’s epilogue, and just as Fast Five brought back Letty, so this film raises the stakes for the seventh in quite spectacular style (at least, for devotees of kinetic action cinema). There’s life left amongst the Fast and the Furious yet, and I entirely expect the franchise to have rolled up every major action film star by the time they get to double digits.


Next up: After the sad accidental death of franchise star Paul Walker, it looks like the seventh episode will be delayed, but watch this blog, as they say. I remain eager to see what happens with their new recruit… It arrived eventually as Furious 7 in 2015.


CREDITS
Director Justin Lin 林詣彬; Writer Chris Morgan; Cinematographer Stephen F. Windon; Starring Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Michelle Rodriguez, Dwayne Johnson, Tyrese Gibson, Sung Kang 강성호, Jordana Brewster; Length 130 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Monday 20 May 2013.

Fast Five (aka Fast & Furious 5, 2011)

Of the five films in the Fast & Furious franchise so far, the fifth is certainly the best. That’s not to say it isn’t as loud and stupid as many of the others, and there are definitely caveats, but you have to look at films within the genres they inhabit. As a loud and stupid action film, it is triumphant.

There are probably several reasons for this, but for me the most successful aspect of the series is the comradely fellowship that the lead characters by now have with one another. There is more than one scene of various members of Dom (Vin Diesel)’s team hanging out, and though there are disagreements and sometimes fights, they are all ultimately respectful of one another. Probably the nicest example in that regard is when ex-cop Brian (Paul Walker) and his girlfriend, Dom’s sister Mia (Jordana Brewster), share some good news to this extended ‘family’.

Of course, the family business is still nefarious — conducting heists, stealing money, being chased by agents of the law (represented most forcefully by Dwayne Johnson’s Agent Hobbs) — but the targets are, in the grand tradition, even worse criminals. It’s fair to say the film doesn’t paint a particularly flattering portrait of Rio de Janeiro (its central setting), and I think anyone would be be disappointed were their city portrayed as one of corrupt police run by criminal businessmen, with plenty of drugs and guns amongst the abject poverty. It is in some senses a generic setting — there are many similar cities in the cinematic world, few of which compare to reality (I hold no hopes for the London of Fast & Furious 6) — though Rio provides plenty of local colour. Well, Rio and San Juan in Puerto Rico, where many of the scenes were actually shot.

What marks the film out as a departure is not the introduction of Dwayne Johnson as an archetypal hard man of the law (though he is suitably rock-like in his demeanour), but the clearer narrative focus on the dynamics of a heist film. While heists have figured in the earlier films, they have been more window-dressing to the car racing at their heart. There is of course still racing here, as well as that lingering obsession with automobiles, makes and models; in the obligatory petrolhead gathering scene, the type where women are draped in short skirts over all the vehicles, you know what the protagonists are really interested in. Yet all this remains in service to the heist, and that makes for a film that sustains its extended running time with some proper tension.

Like all the films in the franchise, the makers are generous with their supporting characters, and there’s a great diversity of actors and acting (not to mention languages) on show. The cast are sourced from all parts of the world, with a few returning from the earlier films (notably Sung Kang from Tokyo Drift, and Tyrese and Ludacris from 2 Fast 2 Furious). And unlike the previous film, the women again hold their own: not just Mia, who is seen behind the wheel once more, but Israeli actress Gal Gadot as part of Dom’s gang, and Spaniard Elsa Pataky as the only honest Rio police officer.

In a sense, all of this is just a distraction in an action film if the action scenes are not done well, but luckily they are. One could cavil at the ridiculousness of many of the setups, but unlike, say, Star Trek, such things are accommodated within the genre. It would be a mistake to focus too much on what is realistic, after all, as that would work against the film’s success (action films are the real science fiction, at least when it comes to the laws of science). This is a film in which drug lords take actions that make no business sense, where people can crash through windows and roofs sustaining only a few scratches, and where cars can drag huge metal vaults through the streets at high speed in defiance of the laws of physics.

If you can accept all these things, then it’s not unreasonable to accept that Fast Five is a masterpiece. Those others probably already know they don’t like it and never will. However, I plead a pure love of cinema as my defence.


Next up: I indicated in my review above a slight concern for Fast & Furious 6, but I need not have worried after all…


CREDITS
Director Justin Lin 林詣彬; Writer Chris Morgan; Cinematographer Stephen F. Windon; Starring Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Dwayne Johnson, Jordana Brewster, Tyrese Gibson, Sung Kang 강성호; Length 130 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 19 May 2013.

Fast & Furious (2009)

I had hoped to have this series wrapped up this week, but I’ll be taking a little break before returning with parts 5 and 6 at the start of next week. In the meantime, I have some new release reviews (of the 12th Star Trek, and Mud) to post tomorrow.


With the easy familiarity of a family gathering — which as ever includes a few barely-hidden resentments — we get to rejoin the original cast members after the two intervening films, jettisoning only the definite articles in the title. The sole character from the third who returns is Han (Sung Kang), meaning this is technically a prequel, though set five years after the first film. Also returning is Dom’s beloved hotrod (as pictured on the poster) and some of the perfunctory plotting and ridiculous setups (driving drugs through tunnels between the US and Mexico, for example). However, by this point, it all just seems part of the mythology of what is effectively an alternate reality — one in which bad guys need fast drivers — and in the warm glow of the cast reunion I’m fine with that.

Not much has changed for Dom (Vin Diesel) as this film opens, except for the location, which is the Dominican Republic. He’s still got a gang of racers, including his girlfriend Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), and he’s still pulling high speed heists. The difference is that they don’t try and leap through their prey’s front windows any more (maybe the filmmakers realised that was just particularly silly), and the targets are petrol tankers rather than long-haul trucks loaded with electronics. Needless to say, this means the opening sequence is rather more explosive than previously.

I should take a moment here to mention the 20-minute short film packaged on the Blu-ray, Los Bandoleros (directed and written by Diesel himself). It fills in Dom’s story between the first film and this one, and it’s just a really nice low-key piece, no explosions or car chases, and largely in Spanish. It’s filled with generosity and affection towards these characters. It also smuggles in a critique of big oil companies and the stranglehold that reliance on fossil fuels has over the world. This is ostensibly the reason that the gang are hijacking petrol tankers at the outset of the film proper: because fuel is too expensive.

Returning to Fast & Furious, we still also have Paul Walker’s cop Brian, though he’s now part of the FBI, tracking down a major drug smuggler, Arturo Braga. Brian and Dom’s paths cross in Los Angeles once again upon Letty’s murder, for which it turns out Braga’s gang was responsible. It’s just as well, too, that smuggling drugs requires high-speed precision street drivers, as it allows an opportunity for rapprochement between the two as they team up to make use of their specialist skillsets…

It’s disappointing that Rodriguez’s character disappears so early in the film, as it makes it once again largely a boys’ game. Moreover, though the relocation to LA means that Dom’s sister Mia (Jordana Brewster) can be reintroduced, she is no longer seen behind the wheel, instead confined to a purely domestic setting, as girlfriend and provider. This leaves the film to focus on rekindling the simmering resentments (and budding bromance) between Dom and Brian, and the actors largely do a good job at this. Diesel in particular takes over the emotional core of the film, with his sadness over Letty’s demise often palpable (though never bogging the film down), taking the heat off Walker, who as a consequence is far less objectionable here.

What does impress are the race sequences, though they come ever closer to being facsimiles of video games. One through the LA streets (probably the best of the racing) even turns literally into a video game at several points, while a female voice counts down the time during the drugs run in an extensive labyrinth of tunnels. It’s hard at times to know whether these scenes were crafted to look good on film, or play well on a console.

Despite all this, the film retains a warmth to its characterisation. Part of this will be down to how much you enjoy Diesel as an actor and the qualities of the ensemble, but after three films, Fast & Furious is a ride I’ve started to warm up to.


Next up: After this slightly disappointing recalibration of the franchise, the best film yet approaches with Fast Five.


CREDITS
Director Justin Lin 林詣彬; Writer Chris Morgan; Cinematographer Amir Mokri امیر مکری‎; Starring Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Michelle Rodriguez, Jordana Brewster; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Wednesday 15 May 2013.

The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006)

Sharing none of the cast of the previous two films in the franchise (save for a very brief Vin Diesel cameo near the end), I was not expecting to like this third instalment at all. But in some respects, this may be the best of the first three films; it’s certainly the one I’d most want to watch again. It may even be the reason for the franchise’s continued presence on our screens (though its lower box office takings suggest that may not be strictly true). In any case, the director of this film — Justin Lin, an American of Taiwanese extraction — went on to helm the following three films, so the producers clearly saw something here too.

There’s a lot of Lin’s cross-cultural identity to be found in Tokyo Drift, and not just in the change of setting. Many of the cast members too have varied ancestry — another of the main characters is an American of Korean parentage, while the central female role is a Peruvian-born Australian actress based in LA — and this fluidity of identity to some extent informs the plot. Several of the characters are running (or, rather more literally, racing) from mistakes in former lives and trying to shed these former identities, while the antagonist instead pretends to a status as a bad-ass yakuza gangster which he doesn’t have (that distinction belongs to his uncle, played in an attention-grabbing small role by the eminent Sonny Chiba).

Into the midst of this mélange of identity in a flashily cosmopolitan Tokyo comes the drawling white southerner Sean (played by Lucas Black), and if the film is not quite a fish-out-of-water tale (for it seems petrolhead teenagers everywhere bond over the same kinds of things, not to mention that they all speak English), then at least he finds own assured cultural identity threatened, and he is placed on the back foot. Much play is made in the film of the word gaijin, with all its vaguely xenophobic connotations. It’s testament to some of the self-confidence of his character (and perhaps the new-found respect the screenwriter has for the audience) that he tries to take part in this society — learning the language as well as the racing style (on which more below) — rather than being merely dismissive and imperious.

Where these identity issues become problematic is around the status of women in the film. Of course, there’s still the eye-candy factor of miniskirted hangers on attendant to the racing events (though this seems somewhat less pronounced here than in the previous films). It’s that both of the major female characters explicitly make themselves the prize for the protagonist’s races. There’s no real equivalent to Letty or Mia in the first film, or Suki in the second. In that sense, this is more of a boys’ film.

However, at least it’s a problem that comes with having characters in a plot that carries some vestige of emotional investment. The plot is far more intricate than the previous films, but it also relies on some actual acting, largely carried by the supporting cast — notably Sung Kang as the softly-spoken Han, the protagonist’s patient mentor, and Brian Tee as the “Drift King” Takashi, obsessed with guarding his status in this closed society. There’s also something of a nod towards the juvenile delinquency ancestry of the franchise by having the protagonists be actual high school students, a nice touch that strangely makes the film feel if anything less retrogressive than its predecessors.

The film also finds an interesting angle on the street racing subculture, with the Japanese twist being something called “drift racing”, which involves a cornering technique using plenty of handbrake leading to lengthy skids (the “drift” of the style and the title). This method fits better the different space of the film, which moves from the wide thoroughfares and drag tracks of US cities to largely enclosed spaces like car parks and a precariously narrow winding mountainside road. Even the Tokyo city street races face all kinds of obstacles not present in the earlier films, though the opening Arizona-set race sequence proves that Sean is able to handle a car in tight spaces; he just needs to get up to speed on the ‘drifting’ (which is where Han comes in). This change of focus also means a slightly greater emphasis on vehicular control than on sheer speed, Takashi’s first race against Sean being the proof of this more graceful facet of racing.

Ultimately, of course, it’s nothing more profound than a street racing film: there are skirmishes which lead to a final showdown, and on this level it entertains. It just happens that it’s made with a bit more care and attention to character than has hitherto been the case. The lack of big stars to feature on the poster may make it seem more abstractly about just big flashy cars instead, but this isn’t the case. The best of this series still involves humans.


Next up: The series regroups and rebrands, bringing back many original cast members, with Fast & Furious.


CREDITS
Director Justin Lin 林詣彬; Writer Chris Morgan; Cinematographer Stephen F. Windon; Starring Lucas Black, Sung Kang 강성호, Nathalie Kelley, Bow Wow; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Tuesday 14 May 2013.

2 Fast 2 Furious (2003)

If the first film was a bit perfunctory with its plot, this second instalment pushes it into the entirely forgettable. The villain here is an unctuous drug dealer Carter (Cole Hauser), whose shadowy trafficking ring Customs have been trying to infiltrate. It’s when they capture the first film’s protagonist Brian (Paul Walker) at an illegal street race in Miami, that their plans take a new tack. Since the first film, Brian has been on the run from the law, making ends meet via winnings from street racing (illustrated in a short film/teaser trailer, included as an extra on the Blu-ray). With the promise of a clean slate, he is now conscripted back into the crime-fighting cause, and must pick a partner. He chooses former friend and ex-convict Roman (played by Tyrese Gibson).

Questions of exactly why Brian needs to get a partner, and just what value street racers have to Hauser’s drug lord, are barely addressed. Maybe they were and I wasn’t paying attention (I concede my mind may have wandered during some of the early scenes), or more likely they just don’t matter. In any case, the film has plenty of ways to distract one’s attention from the gaping plot holes.

Eva Mendes plays the drug lord’s girlfriend — and is possibly a federal agent as well, though the possibility is held out that she may have gone rogue — who glamorously crosses the screen in a succession of flattering dresses. The street racing is still going on, under the auspices of local impresario Tej (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges), who has his own little tricks for making the race scenes more exciting (a spectacular and ridiculous bridge jump in the opening sequence, which one of the drivers wisely opts out of). There’s even an all-woman racing crew under his sidekick Suki (Devon Aoki); I am particularly fond of the scene where the various drivers are tinkering with their engines, cosmetically daubed with oil, except for Suki, whose blindingly white dress is entirely free from any kind of smudges.

I’d hardly want to be particularly strident in proclaiming the film’s progressive agenda, though: there are still plenty of scantily-clad women dotted around, even if a macho misogynist Spanish driver gets his deserved and amusing come-uppance at Suki’s driving hands. It is, however, worth pointing out there’s a fairer racial balance in the film from the first one, with more of a buddy-sidekick dynamic at play between Brian and Roman. Some of this may be down to the film’s director, John Singleton — still most famous for his debut Boyz n the Hood (1991) — and if this outing is the most blandly commercial of his films, it’s still put together with plenty of zip (as you’d hope for in a film of this title).

Ultimately, like the others in the series, 2 Fast 2 Furious represents a throwback of sorts. Thematically it’s not unlike a juvenile delinquency film of the 1950s (the title of the series is after all taken from one such), and in style like an buddy-cop action film of the 1980s. This, combined with the sun-blanched Floridian settings, call to mind the recent action of Parker (2013). Neither are particularly groundbreaking, but they do have their transient pleasures.


Next Up: The series gets back on track with a new director and a new location in The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006).


CREDITS
Director John Singleton; Writers Michael Brandt and Derek Haas; Cinematographer Matthew F. Leonetti; Starring Paul Walker, Tyrese Gibson [as “Tyrese”], Eva Mendes, Cole Hauser; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 12 May 2013.