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.
CREDITS 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.
I hated Paul Feig’s last collaboration with Melissa McCarthy, The Heat, so it’s fair to say I wasn’t expecting much out of this return to another well-worn genre (guess which). And though it’s not perfect in every respect, thankfully it’s a lot better — and more sustainedly funny, too. The set-up is that Susan Cooper (McCarthy) plays a shy back-room support role for Jude Law’s suave agent in the field, but when he is taken out of the picture she needs to step up to become a field agent herself. British TV audiences might have difficulty accepting Miranda Hart as a bumbling best friend, or Peter Serafinowicz as a sleazy Italian, but the way these archetypes are framed within the story is certainly done with a lot more intelligence than this year’s Kingsman: The Secret Service, another (apparently) comic take on the James Bond ethos. Perhaps best of all — surprisingly — is Jason Statham, as an utterly unironic (and therefore hilarious) spy film superhero, embodying all the worst traits of Bond, and easily confounded by Susan Cooper. The simple twist is handled with aplomb, and McCarthy puts across her best comedy performance yet (especially when she sheds the shy persona to take control), but most importantly, Spy is funny when it needs to be.
Herewith some brief thoughts about films I saw in April which I didn’t review in full. It includes a couple of films I actually saw in March but had thought I’d write up in their own posts (I didn’t).
Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015, USA) The Book of Life (2014, USA) En duva satt på en gren och funderade på tillvaron (A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence) (2014, Sweden/Norway/Germany/France) Insurgent (aka The Divergent Series: Insurgent) (2015, USA) Notting Hill (1999, UK) Pitch Perfect (2012, USA) Premium Rush (2012, USA) Wild Card (2015, USA)
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.
CREDITS 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.
I think it’s fair to say that Jason Statham has carved himself out a fruitful corner of the action film genre and his oeuvre already incorporates a number of familiar elements. It was said upon Hummingbird‘s release that it marked something of a departure, a more serious actorly turn for this most unchallenging of screen presences. Indeed, there is a bit of subtlety to his backstory as a former soldier in Afghanistan who is scarred by some enigmatic (and ultimately, never fully satisfying) event in his past. Yet, there’s also plenty to link it to Statham’s already burgeoning filmography. There are the revenge plot elements (he has the most perfunctorily set-up relationship with a young woman at the start and we have to endure that peculiarly reprehensible trope of character-building: a woman dying to further a male lead’s emotional depth) and there’s even a young daughter (it’s always a young daughter or daughter-surrogate in his films) with whose mother he clearly has a very strained relationship. However, I don’t mean to denigrate the film’s evident strengths, which are mostly expressed through the central relationship between Statham’s character Joey — initially seen as a homeless outdoor sleeper in London’s Soho — and a Polish nun, Sister Cristina, who works at a Covent Garden soup kitchen. It strains credulity at times (though not as much as the plot contrivance which sees Joey gain unrestricted access to a swanky Covent Garden loft apartment for nine months), but the relationship between this unlikely couple is even touching at times. Statham continues to make enjoyably silly action films, but there’s hope yet for some extension to his actorly range.
CREDITS Director/Writer Steven Knight; Cinematographer Chris Menges; Starring Jason Statham, Agata Buzek; Length 100 minutes. Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Wednesday 2 July 2014.
I’ve not yet seen enough Statham movies to discern the particular mechanics by which he has acceded to action film superhero status — aside obviously from his competence at fight choreography — but comparing this film to the recent Homefront suggests that being a father figure to young, life-hardened but yet vulnerable girls is part of his persona. In Safe, for example, he has to protect Mei (Catherine Chan) from a triple threat of Chinese triads, Russian mafia and corrupt New York cops. The script, also by director Boaz Yakin, is hardly going to win any plaudits for its sensitive portrayal of New York’s criminal underbelly, but then the action film genre is hardly the place to do this. Instead, what the film has is plenty of taut, well-directed and well-staged action sequences — which at least puts it ahead of the aforementioned Homefront — and some small but touching hints at vulnerability on the part of Statham and his pre-adolescent charge.
Statham here portrays Luke, an ex-cop now reduced to violent cage fights, who finds his life turned upside-down when he botches one such fight that he was supposed to throw. Pretty soon his (unseen) pregnant wife is murdered and he’s on the run from a vengeful Russian mafia boss. Meanwhile, in a parallel story, young maths whiz Mei is kidnapped by triad boss Han Jiao (the venerable James Hong) to assist him in his criminal enterprises. She does a bit of, you know, mathematics and stuff, to prove her capability, but her chief function in the film is to remember a number which, it is implied, holds the key to all of Han Jiao’s not inconsiderable fortune — it’s not clear exactly how, or why, or… I mean… seriously, WHAT EVEN IS GOING ON with her special superpowers — but that’s beside the point. What’s important is that as a result of her knowledge, she now becomes the target of the aforementioned Russians, quickly joined by corrupt NYPD Captain Wolf (Robert John Burke), and when Mei escapes it brings her into contact with Luke, and etc. etc. you get the gist.
As I hope you can tell, it’s all really a bit silly just how this young girl can be the key to everyone’s fortunes, but she doesn’t really need to bear the weight of convincing us all of this tortuous plotting (since who could really believe it), meaning the youthful Chan does well with what she has to do. Statham, though, has to convince as a man down on his luck who finds meaning in protecting Mei, and this he does rather well. It’s a touching scene when the two meet, as Luke is at his lowest point, lurking on a subway platform contemplating suicide to escape the dark and despairing world he’s been drawn into. Beyond that, Burke (best known for playing oligarch Bart Bass in teen TV melodrama Gossip Girl) is effective as the oleaginously creepy Cpt Wolf, while James Hong brings gravitas to his bad guy as he always does.
Getting invested in all the twists and turns of the plot is not so much the point, as the way everything is put together. I was only previously familiar with director Boaz Yakin from his film Fresh (1994), a well-wrought coming-of-age-in-the-‘hoods story partly drawn from his own experience and which, it turns out, is a rather singular work in his otherwise fairly action-oriented filmography. What this means is that while he can effectively bring some serious dramatic pathos where required, he’s also got the chops to nimbly execute a good explosive action setpiece, of which there are plenty. Nothing here feels out of place or ridiculous, it’s a generic story told without condescension by a group of actors who are equal to the material. That can sometimes count for something.
CREDITS Director/Writer Boaz Yakin בועז יכין; Cinematographer Stefan Czapsky; Starring Jason Statham, Catherine Chan, Robert John Burke, James Hong 吳漢章, Chris Sarandon; Length 90 minutes. Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Friday 27 December 2013.
Jason Statham has been plugging away at playing the cinematic hardman in a series of taut if unchallenging action films (like this year’s Parker) for the best part of the last decade, and by this point largely exists in a separate cinematic universe where he is a major star. He may never trouble any of the backslapping industry awards for achievements in acting, but in his genre he’s a far more notable figure than, say, James Franco, which is why it’s rather a surprise to see Franco here. Then again, Franco has a notable sideline in taking roles for what I can only call the WTF value, so perhaps I’m overstating my case. At any account, Statham is the real draw and if the pleasures of this retrogressive B-flick are firmly in the right-wing vigilante-justice side of the ledger — Statham’s former undercover cop Phil flees the big city with his daughter after a big showdown with a gang leader to lead a quiet life by the Louisiana bayous, but trouble predictably follows him — it’s still enjoyable for what it is.
I think a lot of the appeal of this kind of film really comes down to how you feel about the stars. Personally, I enjoy Statham and I even feel he’s starting to develop as an actor — there are some quiet early scenes with his daughter where he is pretty effective at concisely hinting at an emotional backstory for his character Phil Broker, and he can certainly come across as likeable on-screen (even if the romance subplot is expectedly underdeveloped, his short scenes with his daughter’s teacher don’t stretch credulity too far). However, most of the film relies on his ability to throw bad guys around, and that’s clearly where his forte lies. Elsewhere the acting is reliable, though Franco’s meth-producer “Gator” is difficult to believe as a dangerous bad guy and by the film’s later stages his initial show of menace has been reliably undercut by a series of real action film heavies (the tattooed biker gang from whom Statham is on the run). The female lead is essentially Phil’s 10-year-old daughter, Maddy (Izabela Vidovic), who gets some playground confrontations with a school bully early on (whose own very brief subplot is rather affecting), but is believably imperilled later (so, no Kick Ass-style action heroics for her). Elsewhere other female characters start strongly (Kate Bosworth’s meth-addicted Cassie) but are also quickly sidelined; Winona Ryder’s supporting role is introduced into the film suddenly and without much fanfare, though one can’t be sure if her overacting is down to a poor script (she takes the brunt of the bad guys’ verbal abuse) or the fact that she plays a meth-addled tweaker.
For me, the real weakness is in Gary Fleder’s direction, and specifically in the editing of the fight scenes, which need to be at the heart of an action thriller. Unfortunately, they pass in an incoherent blur of quick cuts and frenetic movement, making quite what’s happening difficult to discern (beyond one’s gut feeling that Statham’s ex-cop probably has the upper-hand). Still, the script by Sylvester Stallone is pretty decent, though that appearance by a threatening biker gang smacks of retro throwback. Elsewhere it hints at the kind of tight-knit small-town internecine feuding that’s been better and more threateningly conveyed in slow-burning rural dramas like Winter’s Bone (2010) — Statham’s outsider status and certain signifiers of his comfier middle-class status (big old house, brand-new pick-up truck) are frequently referenced by his poor, rural Louisiana antagonists. That said, Theo van de Sande’s solid cinematography keeps it all big and shiny, with swooping helicopter shots to kick things off and golden light filtering across the bayous — threatening darkness and shadows are generally kept to a minimum.
I enjoyed Homefront, though. With a British lead in Statham (whose accent is faltering to say the least, and makes one wish he’d just stuck with the English accent for the whole thing), the gung-ho patriotism is kept to a minimum, whatever may be implied by the title and the American flag colours on the posters. Even the sentimentality is generally reined in, and what we’re left with is a fairly taut throwback of an action movie that delivers on everything it needs to. You should know in advance whether you want to watch it, but I’m sure it’ll keep plenty of home video viewers perfectly happy.
CREDITS Director Gary Fleder; Writer Sylvester Stallone (based on the novel by Chuck Logan); Cinematographer Theo van de Sande; Starring Jason Statham, James Franco, Izabela Vidovic, Winona Ryder; Length 100 minutes. Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Monday 9 December 2013.
I might as well just start right off by saying that, at many levels, this is not an objectively good film, but I’m fine with that. Films of this nature — heist/revenge action flicks — have no business straining for higher meaning, or seeking to universalise the human experience, or whatever. There should be some intricately-detailed plotting involving the liberation of precious and high-monetary-value things, there should be some good villains, there should be a solid moral centre, and there should be some tension in the various interactions between these elements.
The character of Parker is the antihero at the moral centre of the film: sure, he’s a thief, but as so many in fiction, he has principles. His accomplices in the film’s opening heist (the best setpiece in the film, to my mind) do him a wrong, and he spends the film putting that right. And like Walker in Point Blank (1967), based on the same character, all he wants is the money he’s owed. Playing Parker, Jason Statham is adequate. His elocution can at times be difficult to pick up, and he’s not great at accents, but he has the gruffness and directness you expect from an action hero.
The strength of the film, and a weakness of the plotting, is Jennifer Lopez. Her character is basically unnecessary to the central thrust of the narrative (Parker’s revenge) and could easily be dispensed with, yet scene after scene is written seemingly to showcase her acting, without really moving things along much. The interactions between her and a local police officer could be spun off into another (quite different) film. There’s also an odd minute or two where the film basically stops, shifting suddenly into quite different emotional terrain, as Lopez’s struggling estate agent delivers a monologue explaining why she is compelled to help Parker, despite not really knowing anything about him (though even this tenuous backstory justification is dispensed with for her mother, who helps Parker, bloody and battered and dripping blood over her dog, on even less pretext). It’s not even as if this is in aid of a romantic sub-plot; Parker has a girlfriend and, however perfunctory her appearance may be, it’s clear he’s not going to pursue Lopez.
And yet she is delightful, and I’m reminded how much I’ve missed her acting in the many years since Out of Sight (1998) — which shares some of the same sun-dappled Floridian settings as Parker (the latter primarily set in Palm Beach). Her role is essentially as a comedic interlude, intended perhaps to soften some of Statham’s gravelly dourness, and though it doesn’t seem to lighten him up, it was good to see her being given some quality screentime. She has a light touch, bringing to her character a similar kind of vulnerable winsomeness that, say, Rashida Jones brings to TV’s Parks and Recreation. It’s only a pity she hasn’t been in more films in the interim: unlike so many of the other actors here (some of whom have excellent acting pedigrees), she makes it seem effortless.
As for the rest of the film, it’s largely by-the-numbers. The villains are suitably villainous (never betraying any hint of ambiguity), and — Lopez’s character aside — the plot mechanics move everything along swiftly, all elements orchestrated nimbly by the director. There’s some ludicrous and baffling dialogue at times, and there’s a real physicality about the beaten, bloody and bruised bodies on display. There’s also a coda that made me realise that I’d already forgotten characters and plots points from earlier in the film — which may say something about my terrible memory, but also about quite how transitory the film’s pleasures are. Yet there are definitely some pleasures to be had, if you accept its retrogressive generic tropes. It’s difficult for me to wholeheartedly recommend it as a film, but I can’t dismiss it either.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW Director Taylor Hackford | Writer John J. McLaughlin (based on the novel Flashfire by Donald E. Westlake) | Cinematographer J. Michael Muro | Starring Jason Statham, Jennifer Lopez | Length 118 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Sunday 17 March 2013