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Posts Tagged ‘divine and radiant Michelle Rodriguez’

There comes a point during F Gary Gray’s Fast and Furious 8, possibly when the great Vin Diesel is jumping his car over a nuclear submarine in order to rid himself of the heat-seeking missile which someone has inconsiderately launched at him, when it is entirely reasonable for a person to forget that things were not always thus with this franchise. The last four or five installments have been such utterly reliable, if slightly ridiculous, big-scale entertainment, that you might assume that this is really an in-name-only sequel to the moderately gritty and down-to-earth 2001 progenitor of the series.

This is about as good a hopping-on point for newcomers as any film in the series. As things get underway, man-mountain boy-racer and mastermind of good-hearted skulduggery Dom Toretto (Diesel) and his wife Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) are enjoying a postponed (since F&F4) honeymoon in Cuba. This involves Toretto launching burning cars into the harbour at supersonic speed, backwards, but romance is a personal thing, after all. Meanwhile, colossus of justice Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) is enjoying a little down-time, until someone arrives to deliver some important exposition. Thus we get a scene where someone is trying to explain to Hobbs about a stolen doomsday weapon while he is distracted and trying to coach his daughter’s soccer team.

Well, Hobbs retains Toretto and the rest of the F&F All-Stars to help him get the doomsday widget back, not realising Toretto has fallen under the sway of evil cyber-terrorist Cipher (Charlize Theron), who gets him to pinch the widget and zoom off with it, abandoning the rest of the All-Stars. But how is this possible? Given that Dom devotes most of his dialogue in these films to rumbling on about the importance of ‘fam-er-lee’, what could possibly make him sell out his nearest and dearest this way?

Anyway, Hobbs gets slung in the chokey for his part in the failed mission, and ends up in the next cell to Deckard (Mr Jason Statham), the villain of F&F7, conveniently enough. Energetic prison-riot shenanigans inevitably ensue. In the end, shady intelligence puppetmaster/plot device Mr Nobody (Kurt Russell) gets the All-Stars, Hobbs, and Deckard together and tasks them with finding Toretto and Cipher before they can do anything too naughty with the stolen doomsday widget. Cue a succession of monumentally overblown car chases and fist-fights, a peculiar bromance between J-Stat and the Rock, some extremely broad humour, and more than a whiff of sentimentality as people bang on and on about ‘fam-er-lee’…

The key question about this one, I suppose, is whether or not you can make a viable and satisfying Fast and Furious movie without the late Paul Walker (or, for that matter, Jordana Brewster, who doesn’t appear either). The answer seems to be ‘yes’, but I get a sense of the film-makers being aware of the change in the essential dynamic of the series – this may be why Diesel is sent off into his own plotline away from the other characters for most of the movie, and Statham and Johnson inserted into the heart of the ensemble (although rumour has it that this may also be due to Diesel having had a bit of a tiff with certain of his co-stars and refusing to share any scenes with them). This is very successful, I would say, because these are two charismatic dudes who deserve a chance to do more than just sweat and either sit behind steering wheels or wallop stuntmen. The dividend extends further, with both Michelle Rodriguez and Tyrese Gibson getting some of their best material in the history of the series. (Scott Eastwood turns up as a new character and also does surprisingly well.)

Even Charlize Theron does pretty well with a character who is, on paper, not much more than an, um, cipher, much given to slightly preposterous speeches about evolutionary psychology and so on (clearly she’s yet another person who’s just read Sapiens). Given the size of some of the performances elsewhere in the movie (and the size of some of the performers, come to that), it’s hard to make a big impression as the bad guy in Fast and Furious Land, but she has a good go, helped by the fact that Cipher steers the series into some properly dark territory – something genuinely shocking and serious befalls a regular character partway through this film, threatening to tilt it all over into the realms of bad taste.

The casual way in which the film recovers its absurd, freewheeling tone is just another sign of the genuine deftness and skill with which these films are made (although this one does seem to score a bit higher on the mindless slaughter scale than most of the others). I do get mocked for my sincere enthusiasm for this series, but it is simply supremely well-made entertainment, and if the combination of stunts, jokes, fighting, and sentimentality is a bit preposterous, so what? With the Bond movies seemingly locked in ‘glum’ mode for the duration, there’s a gap in the market for something so knowing and fun. At one point in this movie, Jason Statham launches himself into battle with a squad of goons, gun in one hand, baby-carrier in the other, and what follows is both a terrific action sequence and genuinely very funny, with all the craziness you’d hope for in one of Mr Statham’s own movies. I do hope they keep Deckard (and his own fam-er-lee) around for the next one.

If Fast and Furious 8 is silly or ridiculous (and it really is), I would suggest it is silly and ridiculous in an entirely intentional way. And underlying all this is a script that regular writer Chris Morgan genuinely seems to have thought about – he doesn’t quite do his usual chronology-fu, but nevertheless he’s locked onto the fact that ever since the first one, the best of these films have all been about the camaraderie and sense of belonging you get from being part of a gang, or a family, and this informs the plot of this one in a fundamental way – that’s the thread linking the new film to the original one. Silly is not the same as stupid.

So I suppose it’s possible to genuinely dislike Fast and Furious 8, in the same way it’s possible to dislike any movie – but that doesn’t make it any less successful in hitting the targets it has set for itself, or indeed any less entertaining for the rest of us. If every film were made with this degree of skill and attention to detail, then the world would be a happier place.

 

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Ah, the sounds of an overworked big end and someone rapping in Spanish – can there be any more potent auditory tip-off to the fact that we’re back in the peculiar world of the Fast and the Furious franchise? The thing about these big film series is that they can be very different beasts – some of them maintain a pretty standard profile throughout their history, the earliest films bearing a strong family resemblance to the most recent instalments, while others go through remarkable shifts in tone and style as they years go by. The Fast and the Furious definitely falls into the latter camp.

Bearing this in mind, Justin Lin’s 2009 film Fast and Furious (which is technically The Fast and the Furious 4) is one of the key movies in the sequence. The original movie had done rather better than expected at the box office, but the first two sequels were severely hobbled by the fact that mountainous star the great Vin Diesel had jumped ship to attempt to forge his own career as an action star. Luckily for lovers of all things rapid and bad-tempered, by the late 2000s said career was foundering a bit, leading to the big man making a moderately triumphant return to what’s now surely his signature role.

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And so Fast and Furious basically ignores the second and third films entirely and picks up where the first one left off, with baldy boy racer/criminal mastermind Dom Toretto (Diesel) doing his thing in central America (well, the existence of Tokyo Drift is sort of acknowledged, but the implication is that this film is set some time before it). Toretto’s wilful defiance of the laws of the land, not to mention the laws of physics, result in the police being very keen to have a word with him, and in an attempt to spare the rest of his gang (principally, for our purposes, the divine and radiant Michelle Rodriguez), he cuts out on them.

Meanwhile, pretty-boy maverick FBI agent Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker) is in pursuit of some drug dealers in Los Angeles – especially a mystery man named Braga. Having infiltrated Toretto’s gang five years earlier, but opted to release Dom into the wild rather than arrest him, relations between O’Conner and the Toretto clan are rather strained. What could possibly bring them back together?

Well, someone blowing up the divine and radiant Michelle Rodriguez, of course. Somehow she gets herself tangled up in Braga’s operations and meets an entirely and definitely terminal sticky end (well, sort of). With O’Conner out to bring Braga to justice, and Toretto equally intent on exacting revenge, it’s inevitable that the two of them will eventually butt heads and resume their understated bromance…

My understanding is that what happens to the Fast and the Furious franchise in this film was the result of a considered decision on the part of suits at Universal, the studio responsible for the series. At this point in the late 2000s, Universal felt they were lacking a solid blockbuster franchise and decided to try and elevate the F&F series to this status. Prior to this, the series had always been, at best, mid-range action movies, so this was a bit of a gamble, but one which has obviously paid off magnificently.

So the prime objective of Fast and Furious 4 is to take the original characters and some how get them into a position facilitating the production of Fast and Furious 5,6, and 7 on a much bigger scale, and the thing about this film which is too easy to miss is just how easy writer Chris Morgan makes the plot- and character-management look. The start and end points for most of the characters were, I would imagine, pretty inflexible, but the job he does of getting from point A to point B, providing a reasonably satisfying story en route, is actually really impressive.

I’ve no idea how many films in advance this series is planned, but the first act of this one suggests either a startlingly long-term plan or deep inventiveness on the part of the screenwriter. What’s shown here on screen makes sense (at least as much as the rest of the movie, anyway), but – as astute viewers may have noted – these events have been revisited and revised on two separate occasions in subsequent films. And yet it all still hangs together, with no very obvious holes or gaps.

Of course, the shift in gears does result in a film which frequently doesn’t feel quite certain of what it wants to be: for every relatively low-key, character-based moment that feels grounded in reality, along comes a dumbass action sequence or ridiculous stunt. But not that ridiculous – or, perhaps, not quite ridiculous enough, compared to the monumental spectaculars laid on by later films. This movie is neither one thing nor the other, and it occasionally suffers for it.

I could go on to talk about the lamentably small amount of Michelle Rodriguez in this movie, or the forgettable nature of the villains, but even somewhat flawed F&F is still mightily entertaining stuff, with the requisite amounts of beautiful people and machinery doing alluring but transgressive things – one gets the sense these films aren’t really about the clash of good and evil, but perhaps beauty and ugliness, or possibly speed and slowness. Or perhaps there’s a subtext about something else entirely: Vin Diesel gets come on to like a rocket by Gal Gadot (making her series debut), but seems unmoved, preferring to grapple with his need for vengeance. Or Paul Walker. Or, come to that, an engine block.

In the end Fast and Furious is an atypically awkward and difficult to categorise instalment in this particular franchise – all the subsequent films have been effortlessly enjoyably, breezy popcorn fun, but you sense this one struggling to shake off its roots as a rather different kind of film entirely. In the end, though, the conversion from drama to pure blockbuster is a success, and clearly paved the way for the series which is such a fixture of blockbuster season now.

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…aaaaand relax. You can breathe again; it is blockbuster season once more, and first to roar out of the traps this year is – entirely fittingly – James Wan’s Fast & Furious 7, also known as Furious 7. Having a bewildering range of alternative semi-different titles is just one of the many proud traditions this franchise has built up in its rise from modest streetsy action drama to world-conquering action juggernaut. Who can begrudge these films a few little eccentricities, though, when they are such reliably good fun, such consistently well-made entertainment? I write myself as a relative latecomer to the phenomemon, turning up to Fast & Furious 5 fully intent on snidely mocking and finding myself utterly disarmed by its technical merit, grasp of storytelling virtues, and charismatic performances.

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This is not to say, of course, that these movies are entirely innocuous, for the spectre of chauvinistic exploitation is never very far away, especially when the camera is swooping up and down the lineaments of the latest installment’s race girl. Set against this, though, you have to bear in mind how equal-opportunities the mayhem in these films generally is: the women of the Fast & Furious gang, not to mention those of the opposition, are just as competent behind the wheel of a car, or in a fist-fight, as the guys. And, small thing though it may be, these films don’t engage in thoughtless out-and-out slaughter quite as casually as many others.

Of course, I had a special reason to anticipate the release of the new film, as it features one of my favourite actors, Jason Statham, in a proper meaty role as the villain of the piece. Proceedings get underway with Mr Statham (playing a character originally called Ian Shaw, which is a perfectly acceptable British name, but since rechristened Deckard Shaw, which just sounds ridiculous) visiting his little brother in the hospital where he has ended up following his clash with Dom Toretto (the great Vin Diesel) and the rest of the gang in the last film.

Mr Statham delivers a few warm sentiments before glowering at the nursing staff and growling ‘Take care of my brother.’ One suspects they may have a few difficulties with this, as it transpires that Mr Statham has virtually demolished the hospital in the process of getting in to visit his sibling. Nevertheless, off he races in pursuit of a roaring rampage of revenge.

Meanwhile the good guys are getting on with their lives, which to some extent have started to resemble the stuff of soap opera: Mia (Jordana Brewster) is pregnant again, but doesn’t want to tell Brian (Paul Walker), who is chafing under the requirements of domesticity. Letty (the divine and radiant Michelle Rodriguez) is still suffering from Movie Amnesia after dying in Fast & Furious 4 and coming back to life two films later, which is causing problems in her own relationship with Dom. All this may prove a little confusing to newcomers, but soon enough there is a manly clash between Jason Statham and the Rock which should serve to keep attentions from wandering.

Sure enough, Mr Statham blasts the Rock through a sixth-floor window, thus putting him in hospital for most of the film, and for an encore blows up Han (Sung Kang), one of Toretto’s Fast & Furious All-Stars. (Long-term franchise-watchers may recall that this is in fact the third film in which Han’s demise has featured, after both the last one and 2006’s Fast & Furious 3: keeping track of the byzantine timeline of the various installments is probably one of things which appeals to a certain type of fan.) He has a go at blowing up everyone else, too.

Soap opera concerns are put to one side as Diesel convenes the surviving All-Stars to hunt down Mr Statham and put an end to this vendetta. But how? Fortunately Kurt Russell turns up with an idea, thus launching everyone into a comfortingly preposterous plot which reads like a cross between Mission: Impossible and The A-Team. Why shouldn’t cars parachute willy-nilly out of the back of planes into Azerbaijani mountains? Why shouldn’t terrorists own armour-plated coaches carrying more armament than the average helicopter gunship? Why shouldn’t it be entirely reasonable for our heroes to crash a party in Dubai, intent on stealing a flash drive hidden inside a bulletproof sportscar kept in a bank vault on the hundredth floor of a skyscraper? (And if you don’t know how that one’s going to turn out, you’ve clearly never seen one of these films before, or indeed the trailer.)

In short, utter, berserk absurdity holds the reigns throughout: at one point, a clash between terrorists and a gang of ex-car thieves results in large areas of Los Angeles being razed to the ground, but the authorities seem remarkably uninclined to involve themselves in the ongoing confrontation. A multi-story car park collapses on Vin Diesel at one point, from which he is dragged with only a tiny nick on that mighty pate. Reality has been entirely suspended for the duration, which is surely what you go to a Fast & Furious film for.

Those of us wont to visit Jason Statham movies get most of the stuff we like to see, too, as this film finds the great man more purely in action-movie mode than many he has made recently. Not one of his scenes goes by where he is not putting the beat-down on somebody, driving very fast indeed, or doing a lot of shooting. (I was particularly impressed by the moment where he assembles his sniper rifle while running flat-out through dense woodland. I’m sure I would have dropped all the bits at least twice.) That said, this is Jason Statham as almost a talismanic, iconic figure: he isn’t required to do much more than just be Jason Statham and wreak havoc amongst the other characters. (What generally happens is that a full-scale action sequence is already in progress, at which point Mr Statham appears out of nowhere and starts making things even more chaotic.) It’s great to see the big man in such a mighty role and a big film, but it would have been even better had he had more of a chance to show some of his range as a performer.

Even so, he still gets better material than Tony Jaa (star of the insane Ong-Bak and Tom-Yum-Goong movie series from Thailand), who just gets a couple of secondary fight scenes with Paul Walker, or indeed Ronda Rousey, who only appears for a – no pun intended – rousing high-heeled, bare-knuckled fist-fight with Michelle Rodriguez. There are times when the film seems to have more well-known faces than it know what to do with: Kurt Russell makes an impression through sheer charisma, but Djimon Hounsou is rather underused, and Lucas Black’s cameo as the hero of Fast & Furious 3 may not mean much to a lot of people (he is not invited to join the All-Stars on this occasion).

In the circumstances, one might therefore question just why Sung Kang and Gal Gadot are so prominently credited at the top of the film, given neither of them actually appear in it, but the world of Fast & Furious is nothing if not sentimental. I have scoffed about this element of the films in the past, but now I wonder if the sense of affection and camaraderie between the characters isn’t a crucial part of mix. This film more than any other trades deeply on this, given that Paul Walker died while it was still in production, entailing a reputed $50 million visual effects bill to digitally recreate him for his outstanding scenes. (For what it’s worth, the substitution is mostly invisible, but I think I spotted at least one moment where Walker’s head looked suspiciously CGI, and he does spend a lot of the film fighting people in unusually dark rooms.) Fast & Furious movies are normally just an excuse for a barnstorming good time, but on this occasion things conclude with a clearly heartfelt and surprisingly moving coda paying tribute to Walker and his contribution to the series.

(Three more F&Fs have been announced, leading one to wonder who could possibly be tapped to fill Walker’s shoes as second lead behind Diesel. It’s obviously too much to hope that Jason Statham gets the nod – there are only so many big angry bald men one film can support, with Diesel, Statham, and Dwayne Johnson together it would look like a collection of cross babies on steroids – so one is compelled to wonder, who could possibly do this job? Who knows a lot about cars, can handle themselves in a fight, and is looking for a job right now? We can only hope the Fast & Furious catering van serves steak.)

I think the way that Fast & Furious 7 manages to pay proper tribute to its lost star without making the whole proceeding mawkish and uncomfortable is a considerable achievement, and I am curious to see how they address Walker’s absence in future installments (it would also be sad if Jordana Brewster lost her role in the series, but it’s hard to see how they can retain her without her screen husband’s presence). But on the whole I am glad there will be future films in this series: it may be ridiculous, but it still clearly has energy, inventiveness, and the goodwill of the audience. These movies were always just about simple entertainment value, and they retain that in spades. Keep ’em coming, guys, keep ’em coming.

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When it comes to black ironies in the realm of life-transcending-art, the recent, tragic death of Paul Walker takes some beating – I think you’d have to have Christopher Lambert being decapitated in a duel or Sigourney Weaver being killed by an extra-terrestrial parasite to even come close. Walker owed his celebrity almost entirely to an association with fast cars and dangerous driving; nevertheless his death still comes as a shock, not least because it feels so darkly apposite.

By a weird and rather bleak coincidence, the original The Fast and the Furious arrived as part of my DVD rental package only the other day. The idea that I’d end up writing about it as some kind of tribute to Walker had never crossed my mind, obviously; I might even have found the idea laughable, not least because Walker’s contribution always struck me as by far the most dispensable element of the Fast and Furious formula.

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Having said that – obviously, if you were going to pick one of the Fast and Furious films as a showcase for Walker’s talents, you’d pick number two, mainly because he’s indisputably the leading man in that one. But surely no-one would honestly claim that it’s the best of the series, quite possibly for that very same reason. The first film, on the other hand, also gives Walker a very healthy chunk of the action, and has some stuff going for it which more recent, louder instalments are entirely lacking in.

Even the studio heads at Universal will happily admit that the Fast and Furious franchise has been pretty comprehensively retooled in the course of the last few films. Rather than a cheerfully, brazenly absurd exercise in globetrotting and industrial-scale carnage, The Fast and the Furious is a rather more down-to-earth attempt at an action drama. Anyone only familiar with later films may find it a slightly discombobulating experience – to say nothing of the fact that one of the major plot twists won’t be remotely surprising.

Anyway. Paul Walker plays Brian, a young man, greatly into street racing, who spends all his time hanging around the cafe-garage run by one Dominic Toretto (the great Vin Diesel, of course), a major figure in the LA racing scene. Everyone assumes this is because Brian has a thing about Toretto’s sister Mia (Jordana Brewster), or simply wants to impress the big man. All his dreams must be coming true, then, as – despite never quite managing to beat Toretto in a race – he manages to earn a spot in Toretto’s crack team of mechanics and drivers, and get it on with his sister as well. (Toretto himself is usually off getting it on with Letty, played by Michelle Rodriguez, at this point. Ah, those were the days.)

However, Brian has a secret, and this is where I spoil the movie, by the way. He is actually an undercover cop, attempting to discover who has been hijacking trucks in the LA area using precision driving techniques and souped-up cars. Toretto and his crew are the prime suspects, hence the attempt to infiltrate the group. But as his investigation proceeds – or, rather, stalls – Brian finds himself questioning his own loyalty, increasingly finding himself coming to respect Toretto as a man, and feeling something rather deeper for his sister. Will he be able to bring them in if it turns out they are guilty?

Well, given they have made five sequels to date, with filming on another in progress (and several more after that planned, prior to Walker’s death at least), I’ll leave you to work out which way Brian eventually jumps. Grit and realism are relative things when it comes to this kind of movie, and while The Fast and the Furious still looks like a garish pop-video in places, with some slightly cartoony racing sequences, it has a hard, slightly sleazy edge, and is notably short on the laws-of-physics-punishing stunts and supernaturally long runways which were so prominent in its most recent progeny.

The biggest difference is that this isn’t ultimately some sort of absurd caper movie, but an attempt at an action drama based on the personalities of the characters involved. All right, so everyone drives flashy cars and dresses stylishly, but the meat of the story is still about Brian’s growing friendship with Toretto, his romance with Mia, and his reluctance to believe that they could be the people he’s been ordered to bring down. The street racing and long, loving shots of carburettors being disassembled are basically just trappings for one guy having a bit of an existential crisis. I had a bit of a go at Fast and Furious 6 for its fixation on family as a theme – but it was there in the first one, too, and rather more effectively realised.

Perhaps this is why the intrusion into the film of exactly the kind of stunts and action sequences one would expect feels like the main problem with it. There’s certainly something strange going on in a movie when the prime suspect for a crime turns out to be guilty and it feels like a weird plot twist. It’s disconcerting when Toretto and his team are revealed to be the hijackers after all – they’re so obviously capable of it that the revelation that they’re guilty is completely wrong-footing, every rule of genre plotting insists that it should turn out to be someone else. But no. It’s them, and as a result Brian looks a bit of a tool for protesting their innocence to his bosses.

When the stunts and chases began in earnest I got a real sense of the film starting to unravel – the action is competently done, but very generic, and as one chase succeeds another in quick succession with only the most peremptory plotting involved, the film’s previous emphasis on characterisation and atmosphere feels like it’s being squandered. Still, this was where the future for these films lay, for all that it’s the climax of this original one that’s the least involving part.

Vin Diesel is still top-billed, and you can kind of see why: he is the fulcrum of the plot and exerts his usual massive presence and charisma (playing D&D will grant that to a person). But Paul Walker gets more screen-time, and he’s the audience identification character – let’s face it, he’s the hero! This kind of film does not make the greatest demands of its performers, of course, but it still requires a sort of minimum level of competency from them. Walker comfortably exceeds that level – as does Diesel, of course – and if it’s fairly clear from this outing that he was never quite going to be top banana in this series, he certainly isn’t a disgrace to it, either.

No-one seems to be quite sure what’s going to happen to the Fast and Furious series following Walker’s death – there hasn’t been any word yet as to whether enough of the seventh film had been shot to make it viable as originally scripted – but I could easily understand the reluctance of the other members of the ensemble to continue blithely turning them out in Walker’s absence. These are the films Paul Walker will be remembered for, anyway: and there are much worse monuments to leave behind. They are genre movies with bags of energy and a touch of class – and this first one has an unexpected depth to it, as well.

[Even as I was writing this the Hollywood Reporter broke a story claiming Fast and Furious 7 may be delayed but won’t be scrapped. This is a movie I’m looking forward to, for reasons which regular readers will be well aware of, but it’s hard to see how not just the fact of Walker’s death but its nature will have a negative impact on what should have been purely a piece of popcorn fun.]

 

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So, I was in the pub the other afternoon, catching up with a friend: a woman of impressive wit and intelligence, no small measure of physical beauty, and (regrettably) impeccable taste when it comes to romantic entanglements.

‘Have you seen any really crap films recently?’ she asked, fully aware, like most who know me well, that when not working or actually asleep I spend most of my time in front of a screen of some description.

I had to think about that for a bit, and realised I had actually been enjoying a pretty decent run so far this year: a few disappointments, but nothing actually traumatically bad. ‘But,’ I added, ‘I am going to see Fast & Furious 6 tomorrow.’ I filled her in on what I gathered to be the general tone, plot, and content of the film.

‘Good God that sounds awful,’ she said, and then added (knowing me rather too well, come to think of it), ‘it sounds like the kind of film Jason Statham would be in.’

I think I’ve mentioned already that Cocktail is her favourite film. Hey ho. Well, for the purposes of answering her question, I have to say that I can’t honestly describe Fast & Furious 6 (directed, like number 5, by Justin Lin) as a really crap film. I am aware that in doing so I may be using a different qualitative scale to the one traditionally employed on the planet Earth, but so be it.

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Gravelly-voiced boy racer/criminal mastermind Dominic Toretto (the great Vin Diesel), together with his extended family of morally-flexible motorheads, has relocated to the Canary Islands to live off his ill-gotten gains. The film opens with a classic Dumb Movie Bit where Diesel and his rather drab sidekick (Paul Walker) have some dialogue stressing that they have Moved On With Their Lives and the days of constant hazard and adventure are Well And Truly Over. You know this scene has only been included because they are going to go back to their lives of constant hazard and adventure about four minutes later.

And so it proves, as slightly ridiculous colossus of justice Hobbs (The Rock (Dwayne Johnson)), acting on information battered out of a suspect in Moscow, recruits Diesel to help him catch criminal mastermind Owen Shaw (Luke Evans), who used to be in the boy racer division of the SAS. The carrot to get Diesel on board is the presence on Shaw’s team of his old flame Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), who everyone thought was dead and is, in any case, suffering from Movie Amnesia.

(Oh, the divine and fragrant Michelle Rodriguez, back on the big screen! How long has it been, ‘Chelle? Do you remember the days when you first came into my life? Films like Resident Evil, Blue Crush and S.W.A.T.? I guess a lot of water has gone under the bridge since then for us both, and there are other special people who I have to think about now – Rose Byrne, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and Steph who does the business news on breakfast TV, to name but three. Anyway…)

Diesel bites (obviously) and convenes the Fast & Furious All-Stars in London to commence operations against Shaw and his gang. Jordana Brewster has a considerably reduced role this time round, as her character is technically on maternity leave, but stepping in to replace her is the statuesquely lovely Gina Carano of Haywire fame. I’ve been dying to see Carano in another movie, and while this one obviously wouldn’t have the intelligence or restraint of one from the Soderbergh collective, it was still shaping up to be something a bit different…

And so it proves. Very elderly readers may recall the original The Fast and the Furious starring Diesel, which came out in 2001 and was a fairly gritty (if slightly glitzy) thriller about the illegal street racing scene and the subversive glamour of a life of crime. Fast & Furious 6, on the other hand, is… well, look, it’s got to the point where they sit around thinking up stunt sequences and then write the script around them (apparently the climax of this film is a stunt they’ve been trying to think of a way to include since number 4).

It basically goes a little something like this: Vroom vroom. Discussion about FAMILY. Exposition. Exposition. Comic relief. Fistfight. Comic relief. Vroom vroom. Exposition. Discussion of differential tranmissions. FAMILY. Comic relief. Comic relief. FAMILY. Vroom vroom. Explosion. Fist fight. Comic relief. Exposition. FAMILY. Vroom vroom.

And so on. As you may have noticed, the big theme that is impressed upon the small section of the audience’s brains not pummelled into submission by the sound and fury on the screen concerns FAMILY, which is what Diesel and his gang of criminals have apparently decided that they are. This sort of vein of cheesy sentiment inserted into an otherwise relentless cavalcade of violence, misogyny, off-colour humour and general amorality put me rather in mind of the later Lethal Weapon movies, but this is a much bigger and brasher movie than any of those.

It is, on most levels, completely ridiculous, of course: it’s very hard to describe this film, with its dubious premise, ludicrous stunts, arbitrary plot reversals, and general lack of any sense of reality, without using the words ‘utterly stupid’ – there is, for example, a sequence concerned with the apparently-thriving street-racing scene in central London, a city noted for being extremely welcoming to those wishing to drive around it at speed. (I just hope Vin and the rest remembered to pay the Congestion Charge.) And yet, and yet… it is still somehow rather winningly contrived. It looks gorgeous, bits of it are genuinely funny (though I could have done without the scenes where the Rock metaphorically smacks down various uppity Brits), everyone gets something interesting and occasionally involving to do, and the big stunt sequences have a sort of carefree abandonment about them which is rather beguiling – there’s an operatically destructive set-piece involving a couple of landrovers, half a dozen cars, two motorbikes, a truck and a tank, and this isn’t even the climax. Plus, we get not one but two knock-down-drag-out bouts of fisticuffs between Michelle Rodriguez and Gina Carano, which were surely the most, er, thrilling thing I’ve seen on the big screen in ages. (There’s a bit where Michelle starts biting Gina’s thigh, and… and… I’m sorry, you’ll have to excuse me a moment.)

 

 

 

What else can I say about Fast & Furious 6? It is a highly polished, precision-built, beautiful-to-look-at machine of such vaulting absurdity it almost beggars the imagination. I really shouldn’t have enjoyed it, even ironically, and yet the fact remains that I did. In terms of big, dumb, silly, fun action movies, Fast & Furious 6 sets the standard: this is the film The Expendables wishes it could be.

And … spoiler ahoy! … this is before we even come to the post-credits sequence, in which the brother of the villain sets out upon a rollicking rampage of revenge against Vin and the others. Suffice to say that when he appears, he has a baldy head, a variable accent, and a notable history of vehicular mayhem of his own: my alluring friend would not have been in the least surprised to see him. This and the previous Fast & Furious both turned out to be unreasonably good entertainment: but the next one promises to be something truly epochal. I cannot imagine any power on Earth keeping me from seeing it.

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As fate and the vagaries of my DVD rental package would have it, we go straight from Touch of Evil‘s handling of cross-border prejudice and political corruption to another film with a slightly different take on the same themes: Robert Rodriguez and Ethan Maniquis’ 2010 movie Machete. Marching towards this review with ineluctable certainty are the words ‘from the sublime to the ridiculous’… oh look, they’ve arrived.

Machete, as you may or may not know, originated as one of the spoof trailers that accompanied the two Grindhouse movies on their various releases (a complex story). It apparently received such a positive response (I must admit I probably enjoyed it rather more than Planet Terror, the film it was accompanying) that a full movie was duly made. As such, this film is arguably a textbook definition of being an extended joke.

The meandering and not especially coherent plot concerns the exploits of a Mexican ex-cop known as Machete due to his love of sharp objects (and also of hitting people with them). He is played (well, this is a bit of an issue, which we will return to) by Danny Trejo, a leather-faced performer who has carved out a bit of a niche for himself as convicts and lowlives on movies and TV. Machete is illegally working as a labourer in Texas when he is hired to assassinate John McLaughlin (Robert de Niro – yes, that Robert de Niro), a senator whose support mainly comes from his toxically anti-Mexican rhetoric – he also associates with a gang of murderous vigilantes led by Von Jackson (Don Johnson – yes, that Don Johnson).

Accepting mainly so he can pass his fee on to an underground network for the betterment of Mexican illegals run by Lus (the divine and radiant Michelle Rodriguez), Machete sets out to kill the senator – but rapidly discovers he’s been set up by McLaughlin’s aide (Jeff Fahey), intent on creating sympathy for the senator’s views and drumming up anti-Mexican sentiment. Needless to say, our man embarks on a blood-splattered revenge against those who have ruthlessly betrayed him.

(And I haven’t even mentioned Jessica Alba as a government agent, Steven Seagal (yes, that Steven Seagal) as a drug baron, or Lindsay Lohan (yes, that Lindsay Lohan) who wanders through the final section of the film as a gun-toting nun. It’s not that the plot is especially complex – far from it – it’s just utterly all over the place.)

Well, you know, I sat down to watch Machete with reasonable expectations, willing to cut it some slack – Robert Rodriguez is, if nothing else, a consistent film-maker, I’ll watch anything with Michelle Rodriguez in it, and Danny Trejo has certainly got presence. I was hoping for a moderately OTT action movie pastiche that didn’t take itself too seriously. The problem I have with Machete is that it’s actually… well I’m not really sure what it’s supposed to be, and I suspect some of the people involved don’t know either.

Spoof, satire, parody, broad comedy, genuine exploitation (perhaps in this case that should be Mexploitation) movie: the film lurches back and forth across genre boundaries almost at random, its intelligence level going up and down wildly in the process. Particularly baffling is all the stuff about the rights of Mexican illegals in the USA – while I understand this parallels the political dimension of blaxploitation films of the 70s, it’s not in itself particularly funny if it’s here as a parody, and if it’s seriously meant then it’s horribly trivialised by its inclusion in such a determinedly stupid film (‘the most absurd thing I’ve ever read’ was the verdict of one major actor who declined to participate).

That said, some of the Mexican jokes are quite amusing – there’s a running gag where Machete infiltrates the bad guy’s house simply by pretending to be the gardener, and later on beats up a bevy of henchmen using horticultural equipment – even if the climax (our hero raises an army of illegal labourers to battle the forces of evil, and they all turn up waving the accoutrements of their jobs) is again too silly to be genuinely funny. Basically, as a comedy, Machete is only consistently amusing if you subscribe to an oh-ho-ho-isn’t-this-just-so-intentionally-crap? sensibility, and as anything else it’s undermined by the presence of all these laboured attempts at humour.

Compared to this, the film’s problems in the acting department are relatively small beer, but – come on, this is a movie with Danny Trejo in the lead role, which if nothing else demonstrates that presence and charisma are not the same thing. On the strength of this outing Trejo’s range as an actor runs from A to very nearly the far end of A. It’s like making a movie with Chewbacca playing the lead – Trejo just lumbers around making noises and everyone else either tries to copy his style or wildly overacts in an attempt to compensate for it. Almost all the other performances are paralytically lousy, one way or another, which is especially shocking given some of the people Robert Rodriguez has (God knows how) assembled.

Not that long ago, Robert de Niro was routinely being hailed as the greatest screen actor of his generation – one has to wonder what happened, given that his late-period work seems to mostly consist of deeply underwhelming extended cameos in things like this and Killer Elite. Never mind being acted off the screen by Jason Statham, here de Niro is outperformed by, of all people, Steven Seagal. Steven Seagal! To be fair, the world’s least agile martial arts star is on rather good, self-parodying form here.

When Steven Seagal’s acting is one of the best things about a movie you know you’ve slipped a long way off the map of cinematic excellence. Still, neither that nor Michelle Rodriguez kicking ass in a bikini top were quite enough to redeem the movie. At the end of Planet Terror I told anyone who’d listen that it’s all too easy to make a bad film by accident, and plenty of people do every year, and so for a film-maker like Robert Rodriguez to make a bad film intentionally felt like a terrible squandering of both time and talent. I feel exactly the same about Machete, except perhaps even moreso. Of course, I am in the minority, as usual: financing for the two sequels we’re threatened with promised at the end of this film has apparently already been secured, and production is only waiting on Rodriguez to finish writing the scripts. Don’t rush on my account, Bob.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 25th July 2002:

What’s in a name? Quite a lot, if you’re a film director and your name is Paul Anderson. Paul Anderson is an auteur, responsible for my absolute favourite film of at least the last five years, Magnolia. Paul Anderson is also a derivative, unsubtle genre director who has carved out a gory niche for himself as a purveyor of deafening, blood-spattered cobblers.

Confused? Well, there’s two of them, isn’t there, and it seems that steps are now being taken to stop them sullying each other’s hard-won reputations. The reigning genius of American indie now goes under the name of PT Anderson, while on his latest offering, Resident Evil, the UK schlockmeister is billed as Paul WS Anderson. Phew, that’s that sorted out…

If only Resident Evil could be fixed so easily… This is a SF-action-horror pic based on a series of computer games (not that I’m familiar with them) and boy, it shows. It all kicks off with the escape of a virus at a top-security research centre, causing the central computer to lock all the doors and gas the trapped staff to death (thus probably disqualifying the owners from the Employer of the Year award). This is moderately well-staged, the only problem being that the audience doesn’t know who any of the characters are, making it difficult to care about them.

We then get to meet leggy supermodel Milla Jovovich, whose movie career to date has mostly been a trail of big-budget carnage, such is her unerring instinct for starring in rubbish. Milla (her character doesn’t appear to have a name) wakes up in the shower of a vast mansion with amnesia and some never-explained scars. No sooner has she slipped into a mini-dress and leather boots than the place is stormed by a bunch of lads and lasses in body armour waving automatic weapons. There’s a secret tube station under the mansion, y’see, and on the train is a guy who’s Milla’s pretend-husband who also has amnesia, and the train goes straight to the research centre from the start of the film…

Confusing? You betcha it is! It all gets explained eventually although even then it never makes much sense. It turns out Milla is some sort of secret agent who works for the corporation that runs the lab complex, and she and the guys with guns have to go in there and switch the central computer off, little realising that the computer is the one thing holding the disgruntled ex-employees (who are all now zombies) in check. Oh, and there’s this really badly animated monster in the basement that inevitably gets let out…

For all that it’s an adaptation of a video game; this is a very Paul (WS) Anderson movie. This is a bit odd as his other films have all been very derivative, his trademark style relying on pinching other people’s best bits, laying a deafening techno beat over them and indulging himself in his own uniquely sledgehammery kind of suspense cinema. This is very much Aliens meets Day of the Dead (with odd bits that are reminiscent of Anderson’s own Event Horizon), even down to the characters – Milla plays the Ripley-ish anti-corporate ballsy heroine, Colin Salmon plays the token coloured officer who might as well have ‘cannon fodder’ written across his chest, there’s a traitor, a nervous technician, etc, etc, all crayoned in great detail. The only one who transcends the by-the-numbers scripting is the delightfully sulky Michelle Rodriguez in the ‘butch hispanic gun-bunny’ role pioneered by Jenette Goldstein in Aliens.

Resident Evil has three main problems: it’s clichéd, it looks cheap and it’s very poorly scripted. I think the intention was to plunge the audience into a breathlessly kinetic roller coaster ride of a film, without wasting a lot of time on things like characterisation and background. This has the obvious drawback that without characterisation and background you’re left with a bunch of ciphers wandering around corridors, and the audience neither knows nor cares what’s going on1.

But it’s not like there aren’t some striking moments: Milla kickboxing a pack of rabid zombie Dobermans (still, of course, in her mini-dress and leather boots) has justly received a lot of attention. Well, actually, that’s the only striking moment that leaps to mind (there’s a nice bit of stuck-in-a-lift business near the start, I suppose), but most of the time I was captivated by the fact that one of the characters bore an uncanny resemblance to Brit tennis no-hoper Tim Henman. As Tim’s character’s presence in the film was not explained until very late on this brought a welcome air of mystery, not mention absurdity, to an otherwise predictable movie. Put together, Tim, Milla’s boots and Rodriguez’s sulk greased the pill enough to make this film an enjoyable piece of unintended comedy, rather than the piece of low-budget low-brain zero-script trash it by rights should have been.

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