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.

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.

Pain & Gain (2013)

Like a lot of people, I’m guilty of throwing out disparaging comments about Michael Bay’s filmmaking style, based on his favoured genre, the special effects-laden science-fiction tentpole Summer blockbuster; I did it just the other day in a review of Jurassic Park. The thing is, though, he does have a distinctively meretricious style, which probably makes it perfectly suited for an action comedy heist film set in the permanent dayglo of Florida in the 1990s. I’ve seen quite a few films this year set in that pendulous part of the world — it’s a popular film setting after all — and all of them have gone out of their way to impress upon me what a strange and warped corner of society it is.

So we find ourselves in a world where obscene displays are the norm — whether of wealth or of bodies. Our protagonists are bodybuilders who meet through Sun Gym. Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) and Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) are personal trainers, the former very much the ringleader. Daniel fancies himself a smart self-made man, who has helped to build up the gym to be a flourishing business with little personal return to himself. Inspired by the self-help motivational speaking of Johnny Wu (another memorable small turn from the dependably maniacal Ken Jeong), he gets the idea to take what he deserves in that time-honoured fashioned of stealing it, and for this he enlists the help of born again Christian, the impressively built Paul (Dwayne Johnson). Their mark is Jewish-Colombian businessman Victor (Tony Shalhoub) and this, as is also the time-honoured fashion, is where things start to go awry.

It’s not just the men’s impressively-defined pectorals that are on display. There’s the wealth of Victor — with his flashy cars, boats and large airy mansion by the sea — and Frank, the porn baron who becomes the gang’s second victim. And of course there are the women, most of whom seem to be (or have been) strippers; the movies are starting to convince me this is the only profession down in Florida, and it’s wearying to be honest. Therefore, Rebel Wilson is refreshing as Robin, a nurse at an erectile dysfunction clinic who marries Adrian without being aware of his source of income. She’s only on screen for a few scenes, long enough though to convince us that when this film isn’t obsessing over pecs and breasts, penises are a matter of abiding interest. The only ones we see on screen are rubber (one of Victor’s sidelines is in sex toys), though they are much discussed — apparently Adrian has suffered some adverse effects from his heightened steroid usage — and we even get one teasingly brief shot of Daniel in his Calvin Kleins, a cute little nod to Wahlberg’s pre-acting days.

For aside from its plentiful action setpieces — chases and shootings — the film is also a comedy, and I cannot deny there are laughs. Mostly these are had at the expense of the three central protagonists, who get up to some very silly (and very morbid) stuff. It’s a difficult blend to pull off, but this much I think the film succeeds at, and reveals Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson to have a deft touch as the dimmest but most personable of the three, a man somewhat misguided by the power of Christ, but still hopeful for redemption; for me, his character is the strongest in the film and remains compulsively watchable. The difficulty is in finding these men funny while also needing to judge them for the horrific crimes they commit — the film seems to be in several minds as to whether they are murderous aggressors or victims (of class and circumstance) or heroes (low angle shots against the sky, heroic slow-motion striding into combat), and ends up trying to advocate rather uncomfortably for all three.

After all, the other thing on display is Michael Bay’s directorial style, and it’s not a style that feels comfortable being subservient to characters or a story. There’s not a scene that goes by where the action doesn’t move briefly into slow-motion, or feature some other eye-catching visual effect (a freeze-frame with witty text superimposed is another favourite). By now, he’s able to make it seem the most natural thing in the world — possibly thanks to having in part created the grammar of visual expression in modern blockbuster movies — but it’s still diverting, and doesn’t always mesh with the emotions on screen.

That all said, I wanted to like what feels like Michael Bay’s first recognisably human film, though the location and the story can at times make that difficult. It’s based on real events, as the film likes to constantly remind us, but as ever such claims must be taken advisedly (the Wikipedia entry details all the changes made to characters and storylines) and there’s not always a lot to grasp onto in terms of recognisable character motivation. It’s a look at a seedy underbelly of society filmed as if it’s the most glamorous thing in the world and if it’s not entirely hateful, that at least marks it as a small step for one of the titans of violently dehumanised spectacle.

CREDITS
Director Michael Bay; Writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (based on articles by Pete Collins); Cinematographer Ben Seresin; Starring Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie, Tony Shalhoub, Rebel Wilson; Length 129 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld O2 Greenwich, London, Sunday 25 August 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.