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.