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Posts Tagged ‘Dwayne Johnson’

‘Why are there two enormous bald angry men in this trailer?’

I couldn’t tell if Sagacious Dave sounded more aggrieved or suspicious. ‘Because the third enormous bald angry man fell out with the second one,’ I said (I decided not to go into details of the Vin Diesel/Dwayne Johnson tiff just at that moment).

Sagacious Dave grumphed. Once again, I couldn’t really believe my luck: having talked the ursine Head of Advanced Erudition from my workplace into going to see The Meg with me last year (as readers with long memories and short change may recall), and his making vaguely positive noises about it, I took the chance on suggesting we go and see this year’s Jason Statham film as well. He had insisted on seeing the trailer first, though.

In the end the Sagacious One said yes, and off we went to the cinema, accompanied by one of his children (I wasn’t sure if the offspring actually wanted to see the movie or just see with his own eyes what the patriarch of the family did in his spare time). As it turned out, if Sagacious Dave had known going in that this was a Fast & Furious movie, I would have had a much harder job talking him into it, as he had seen one of the duff early sequels and not enjoyed it. But he hadn’t so I didn’t and there we were watching David Leitch’s Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw like two serious-minded education professionals (plus a grown-up child).

Never mind that this is officially a spin-off from the long-running Fast & Furious franchise, this coming together of genial Dwayne Johnson and Mr Jason Statham feels somehow fated. I know they’ve technically been together in the last two F&Fs, but on this occasion the movie can dispense with all the supporting cast of sidekicks and just let the pair of them get on with it, which basically boils down to frowning a lot and property damage.

There is something pleasingly purist about the straightforwardness of the plot. Some evil transhumanist terrorists have stolen a plot McGuffin and an MI6 team is sent to steal it back (some iffy editing strongly indicates their secret base is in an underground car-park under St Paul’s Cathedral in London, but I doubt this is intentional). Leading the team is Hatty Shaw (Vanessa Kirby), who is of course Mr Statham’s little sister. Things take on some of the proportions of a citrus fruit when they encounter lead terrorist operative Idris Elba, who has been given the strikingly dubious name of ‘Brixton’ and basically turned into MACH One from the old 2000AD comic. Brixton frames Hatty Shaw for the death of her own team and forces her to go on the run, having downloaded the McGuffin into her own body (of course).

Now, it turns out that Mr Hobbs and Mr Shaw are both already on the case, as depicted through a lively sequence using more split screen effects than have been seen in a movie theatre since about 1971. ‘Who are you?’ growls a bad guy, supplying this feed line with an admirably straight face. ‘I’m a giant sized can of whup-ass,’ replies genial Dwayne, who also manages to deliver this immortal dialogue deadpan. ‘Funny, I’d have thought that would have broken,’ observes Mr Statham, over in his bit of the sequence, having beaten about six people unconscious with a champagne bottle which has miraculously remained intact. Oh, friends, the joy – the joy.

Now, believe it or not, you can’t just have these two walloping people for the whole movie, and the script dutifully obliges by crowbarring in scenes establishing the moral premise of Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw. Mr Hobbs gets a scene with his young daughter (who has had a facelift since F&F 8) and Mr Shaw gets a scene with his mum (still Helen Mirren, who has clearly realised this is the kind of film where you don’t have to worry too much about acting), and it turns out both of them are carrying an inner sadness, because they are estranged from their families. Could it be that all the chasing about and hitting people that will come over the next two hours will bring about a rapprochement? Hint: yes.

So, the CIA (embodied by an uncredited Ryan Reynolds, who is roaringly OTT even by the standards of this kind of film) puts genial Dwayne and J-Stat together to find Hatty Shaw and the missing McGuffin (‘No ****ing way!’ howl the duo in unison) and hopefully fend off the marauding Brixton. They chase about London for a while and blow a lot of it up. Then they go to an evil base in Russia and chase about there for a while, blowing much of that up too (the evil base is clearly meant to be under the Chernobyl plant, but this has been snipped from the script presumably because they don’t want to be seen to be jumping on the bandwagon of that TV show). Then they all go off to Samoa to blow most of there up too (Cliff ‘Maori Jesus’ Curtis appears as Mr Hobbs’ elder brother).

On the way out I asked Sagacious Dave what he’d thought of it (his son had been sitting between us so I hadn’t heard his reaction to the choicer moments of the film). ‘That was very congruent,’ he said, with a beatific smile upon his face. It turned out this meant he thought it cleaved very admirably to the requirements of the action movie genre. And indeed it does: lots of cars and even a few buildings are demolished, Mr Statham gets to beat up multiple people simultaneously in more than one scene, and genial Dwayne gets to do a Samoan war dance before dragging a helicopter out of the sky using sheer muscle power. (If, as has been suggested, the fight scenes are carefully choreographed so both stars take exactly the same number of punches, for contractual reasons, it is not at all obvious.) But it also entertains mightily as a knockabout comedy film, with the two leads sparring breezily and overcoming some very Carry On-level humour. Thankfully the film does have a sense of its own ridiculousness and plays up to this just enough: it is, of course, absurd to suggest that Dwayne Johnson (an actor so monolithic that compared to him J-Stat is described as the ‘small, subtle’ one) can evade an international manhunt by putting on a cap and a false moustache, but it’s such an amusing idea that the movie gets away with it. Only when Kevin Hart comes on to do the actual comic relief do things feel a bit laboured and you wish they’d get on with it.

They even find time to include the necessary character beats and reflective moments as the film continues, and we learn a bit of the back-story of both lead characters (Mr Shaw’s history has become a bit confusing, and his reinvention as misunderstood anti-hero kind of glosses over the fact he murdered Sung Kang in F&F 3, 6, and 7, but hey ho). But Leitch knows not to get too bogged down in this stuff and soon we are back to moments of priceless cinematic gold like Eddie Marsan running amok with a flamethrower or Idris Elba being head-butted in slow-motion.

Needless to say, the action choreography is lavish and immaculate, as you would expect from a movie on this scale. I think there is a strong case to be made that the Fast & Furious films have really displaced the Bond franchise as cinema’s big, brash, outrageous action series – they don’t have quite the same wit or classiness, but they don’t take themselves too seriously, know how to stick to a winning formula, and they are almost irresistibly entertaining, especially when they’re fronted by actors like Johnson and Statham.

That said, we are told that Fast & Furious 10 will mark the end of the series. Happily, though, it looks very much like future Hobbs & Shaw movies are on the cards, separate to all of that. Does the Fast & Furious series really need Vin Diesel and all of that Los Angeles street racer malarkey? On the evidence of this film, I would say not. This is a very silly film, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a lot of fun, too.

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Apparently we are all becoming much more discriminating consumers of stuff, no longer so blindly loyal to particular brands, but making informed and intelligent choices. Well, that may be true for some people, but if I made intelligent, discriminating and selective choices I wouldn’t go to the cinema eighty times a year, and where would we all be then?

Certainly, there are some people whose new films I will turn up to almost without fail, regardless of the subject matter, mainly because I’ve consistently enjoyed their stuff in the past. Firmly ensconced on the list of those so favoured are genial Dwayne Johnson and (from a different kind of performance tradition) fabulous Florence Pugh. Get these two together and I will be there like a shot, even if the movie involved is a womens’-wrestling-themed comedy-drama biopic, not something I would necessarily want to go anywhere near.

Actually, don’t bother, for all of this has already occurred, in the form of Stephen ‘Goggle-eyed Freak’ Merchant’s Fighting with My Family. The pairing of Florence and Dwayne looks almost natural when set against the highly peculiar group financing this film, which includes MGM, the usually-credible British company Film 4, and a major wrestling-entertainment corporation. It all makes a certain form of sense when you consider the story.

Fabulous Florence plays Saraya Knight, part of a family of wrestlers – go with it – operating the ‘World Association of Wrestling’ in Norwich, England. Her father (Nick Frost) is an alcoholic former armed robber who credits his discovery of wrestling with giving him a positive outlet for his violent tendencies, but on the whole they are a positive and loving family (when they are not clobbering seven bells out of each other in the ring, anyway).

Opportunity knocks when Saraya and her brother Zak (Jack Lowden) are given the chance to try out for – let me check – something called ‘the WWE’, which is apparently a wrestling-entertainment company. There they meet gruff but wise coach Hutch Morgan (Vince Vaughn) and passing superstar Dwayne Johnson (Dwayne Johnson).  Saraya, wrestling under the name of Paige, makes the cut and is signed for the youth wing of the WWE – but Zak is left totally despondent when he is not selected. Saraya flies off to Florida to train with the rest of the wannabes, leaving her brother in despair. Can she make it to the top of the pile in the WWE? Can her relationship with her family take the accompanying strain?

As you can perhaps discern, there is rather more of Florence than of Dwayne in this movie – a sizeable percentage of Johnson’s on-screen contribution (he also produced it) is in the trailer – but the big man’s scenes are as charismatic and funny as you might expect. For most of the rest of the movie the comic heavy lifting is done by Nick Frost, who fully deploys his always-impressive ability to steal scenes: he even has a good try at upstaging genial Dwayne, which is no mean feat.

The trailer for this movie certainly focuses on some of the more comedic scenes, and with a director like Merchant – still really best known as a comedian, despite more dramatic appearances in more recent films – you might certainly expect this to be light, (perhaps literally) knockabout stuff, playing up the general absurdity of entertainment-wrestling.

However, this expectation would fail to take into account the involvement of the real-life WWE in the making of this film: entertainment-wrestling is their meal ticket, and it is not to be mocked or satirised in the slightest. Instead, what we end up with is essentially a fairly formulaic sports movie with added funny bits here and there. As such it requires proper acting to really work – and fortunately, it gets it, from Pugh, Vaughn and Lowden. These are really actors playing stock characters in a formulaic story, but they do so with skill, and the more dramatic scenes of the film do have a surprising degree of heft to them.

Dramatic is not necessarily synonymous with truthful or authentic, of course, and even as I was watching this movie I found myself growing rather suspicious of the story it was telling me, simply because it fits rather too well into the underdog-makes-good narrative arc. Even the most cursory research indicates that the film’s connection with reality doesn’t extend very much further than the fact that there is indeed a wrestler from Norwich who used to fight under the nom de canvas Paige. 

On the other hand, the film is fairly honest about the sheer amount of hard work and dedication it takes to succeed in American entertainment-wrestling, and the ruthlessly competitive and unforgiving nature of the machine – it chews people up and spits them out, and there are always fresh volunteers to replace them.

Of course, the film doesn’t exactly state this in so many words, and its depiction of entertainment-wrestling in general and the WWE in particular is essentially benign. The main problem with Fighting with My Family as a sports movie comes from the fact it concerns something which is – I’m going to have to take shelter in the bunker again – not actually a real sport. Paige’s rise to success in the WWE is secured after her defeat of another fighter, which the film depicts as a tense struggle resulting in an against the odds victory. When, as even the film admits, there are few things in the world less in doubt than the result of a wrestling-entertainment bout. I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that the WWE makes a lot of money out of treating its fans as idiots, but at this point it felt like the movie was doing so to me, and I do not find that easy to forgive.

Still, the contrast between Norwich (sweaty church halls, dingy gyms, and New Wave of British Heavy Metal) and Florida (much better hair and teeth) is fun, and it is solidly if predictably structured and generally well played – although Florence Pugh barely needs to get into third gear to ace her character; you can tell she has many more just waiting to be deployed when she gets to headline a film with a bit more nuance to it.

Wrestling fans will probably find Fighting with My Family rather more captivating than I did (there were quite a few, mostly old ladies, in the screening with me, all cheering and expressing sympathy in the right places), but that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it a lot. Maybe there is a bit less Dwayne Johnson than I would have expected, but there are lots of other enjoyable elements, even if as a whole it doesn’t entirely ring true. But hey – that’s entertainment-wrestling.   

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Well, thank heavens for that: the football is over at last, meaning the ever-cautious film studios are willing to release some properly sizable films once more. (Although I note that the first two really big releases are movies aimed either at a family audience, or the more feminine echelon of the cinema-going public.) Amongst this number we should probably include Rawson Marshall Thurber’s Skyscraper, which naturally concerns a sturdy, towering edifice, or Dwayne Johnson, as he prefers to be known.

This time around genial Dwayne plays Will Sawyer, an ex-Marine, ex-FBI agent security consultant, who as the story proper gets going is in Hong Kong with his family – his wife (Neve Campbell) being an ex-military doctor who happened to steal Dwayne’s heart, round about the same time she was also amputating his leg (sometimes a hostage rescue goes a bit sideways – we shall return to the curious issue of genial Dwayne Johnson’s artificial leg later on). Why are the Sawyers there? Well, tycoon Zhao (Chin Han, who has been playing sleekly powerful Chinese dudes in Hollywood movies for a good ten years now) is just finishing up his latest project, the tallest building in the history of tallness, and needs someone to do a security and safety assessment so he can get it insured. And Dwayne’s the man for the job!

Of course, this may just be because genial Dwayne has been set up as a patsy by a gang of international mercenaries, led by the irredeemable Botha (Roland Moller, O with a line through it), who has a nefarious plan to break into the tower and set fire to it for reasons which are initially just a little bit obscure. Of course, what the bad guys have not reckoned on is the fact that, even if he only has one leg, Dwayne is still a very handy fellow. Faced with the news that his family are trapped at the top of a burning skyscraper with only a gang of gun-toting villains for company, he does not hesitate, but springs into action in the time-honoured fashion…

It’s not all that long since genial Dwayne’s last vehicle, the rather jolly (if somewhat weird) Rampage, was in theatres worldwide, so you could certainly argue that the big lad is risking overexposure by releasing another movie quite so soon – especially when there is nothing especially distinctive or remarkable about the movie. I mean, there’s very little that’s actually wrong with Skyscraper, it’s competently plotted, scripted, written, directed and played, and you can see where every penny of the budget went (the clue is in the title). It’s just that the whole enterprise feels very soulless and calculated.

As long-term readers know, I generally feel those lazy ‘this film is X meets Y’ descriptions are the work of Satan, but in this case it’s almost impossible to write about Skyscraper in any detail without saying that this is basically a remake of Die Hard with a hefty dollop of The Towering Inferno thrown into the mix, right down to the European villain (though it goes without saying that Moller (O with a line through it) is not even playing the same game as Alan Rickman, let alone appearing in the same ballpark). Many of the other decisions seem to have been influenced solely by the desire to make the film as profitable as possible – it’s very common now for sensible would-be blockbusters to attempt to crack the ultra-lucrative Asian market by including actors and locations from that neck of the woods, and this is doubtless the reason for the film to be set in Hong Kong and have a largely-Chinese supporting cast. The film’s credentials as a proper action thriller are meanwhile undermined by a distinctly discernible attempt to make this another family-oriented film: there’s a lot of attention paid to Dwayne’s plucky wife and adorable kids, and while there’s still a degree of our hero hitting people with axes, throwing them out of burning buildings, and generally putting the beat-down on the deserving wicked, the emphasis is always on how much he loves his wife and kids and just what he’ll put himself through in order to protect them. Which is, you know, a perfectly commendable sentiment, but it just feels like it’s here to tick a box.

This is that sort of script: it feels like it was written by software, or at least using some sort of spreadsheet, with all the key exposition inserted in precisely plotted locations, and key plot points appearing exactly where screenwriting dogma dictates – once again, there’s nothing particularly wrong with that, but it feels like everything remotely quirky or distinctive about Skyscraper has been ruthlessly winnowed out in case the Average Cinema-goer doesn’t like it. The only thing which is a little bit odd about the film is all the business with Dwayne Johnson’s prosthetic leg.

I’ve seen one review of Skyscraper suggesting that the film is in slightly bad taste for featuring a burning high-rise structure only a year or so after the Grenfell Tower fire – honestly, I’m not sure the two scenarios really have enough in common for that to be an issue. However, I do think there may be something a little bit off about casting Dwayne Johnson as an amputee – although I suppose that, if Dustin Hoffman can win awards for playing someone with autism, we shouldn’t be sniffy about letting Johnson play someone with one leg. You’re never far from a reminder of Johnson’s leg in this film, and the script is at least inventive in how it manages this. Dwayne’s first big fight sequence is made to seem less one-sided than usual (let’s face it, all of Johnson’s fights seem a bit one-sided, unless he’s taking on Vin Diesel or Jason Statham or Godzilla) when the bad guy steals his leg (Johnson is – wait for it – hopping mad). Later on the leg proves invaluable in jamming open doors and suchlike. How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Prosthetic Leg would be a good subtitle for this movie.

Johnson and the rest of the cast are clearly trying hard throughout Skyscraper, and – as I have suggested – the rest of it is at least competently put together. The problem is not just that it never really rises above the level of functional competency, but that it doesn’t really want to. It will not really surprise or engage you in any but the most superficial way. Not an actually bad movie, but simply very bland.

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You would have to be a real curmudgeon, I submit, to object to the rise of genial Dwayne Johnson to his current position as the most world-bestriding movie star in the business. As it happens, Johnson started his movie career at round about the same time I started sticking my first bits of film-related writing on the internet. There have been a few missteps and quiet patches since the likes of The Scorpion King and The Rundown, of course, but since he joined the Fast and Furious circus in 2011 he really doesn’t seem to have looked back. (I, on the other hand, have steadily progressed from writing humorous film reviews on a fairly obscure website, to writing humorous film reviews on an entirely different and even more obscure website.)

They’re not doing a Fast and Furious film this year, thus freeing up genial Dwayne to make another film instead, and his choice has turned out to be Brad Peyton’s Rampage. While I was buying my ticket for this movie, I noticed one of the ticketeers struggling to deal with a young mother who’d brought her kids to the cinema.

‘I brought them to Peter Rabbit but this one says he’s already seen it,’ she complained, indicating a small child. (Another young life needlessly blighted.) ‘What’s Rampage about?’

Panic glittered in the ticketeer’s eyes. I felt it incumbent upon me to step in. ‘Dwayne Johnson plays a zookeeper,’ I said helpfully. ‘But there’s an accident and the animals get sprayed with magic chemicals that turn them into giant monsters. So he has to fight them all.’

The rictus mask of horror which settled upon the face of the young mum is not something I can easily describe, but I think it’s safe to say that Rampage did not receive her custom. This is a shame, for Rampage is pretty much the perfect Dwayne Johnson vehicle – big, slightly absurd, but essentially good-natured and very likeable.

I must confess to having simplified the plot a bit when I was pitching the movie to the lady in the cinema. It says something about Rampage that genial Dwayne plays a crack special forces soldier turned brilliant primatologist, and yet this is very far from the most preposterous thing that the film requires you to believe. Well, anyway, the film is predicated on the fact that ‘genetic editing’ technology exists allowing unprincipled scientists to basically mash up different kinds of animal.

Some experiments along these lines have been taking place on a space station, which as a result is experiencing an infestation of Rodents of Unusual Size (this sequence kind of resembles a gonzo remake of Gravity). Needless to say things go badly and cannisters of the (very vaguely defined) monster-animal-creating jollop fall to Earth in various locations across America.

The principal one of these, from our point of view, is the zoo to which Dr Davis Okoye (genial Dwayne) is attached. Davis likes animals more than people, on the whole, and his special friend is George, an albino gorilla. So he is as cross as two sticks when exposure to the falling space debris results in his pal growing two feet in height in a matter of hours and becoming uncharacteristically violent and aggressive.

Other people have more serious problems. The evil corporate types responsible for the whole mess, the Wydens (played with cartoon gusto by Malin Ackerman and Jake Lacy), need to get a sample of the jollop in order to shore up their stock price, so they pack a team of mercenaries off to Montana to find another one of the cannisters. But they all end up getting eaten by a wolf the size of a bus.

So, as you would expect from people who think that creating giant mutated near-indestructible monster animals makes good business sense, they hit upon an equally sensible plan B: sending a radio signal from the roof of their skyscraper in Chicago which will attract the monster animals to the city, thus allowing the armed forces to kill them all (and letting the Wydens get their sample).

In the meantime, Davis and a female scientist who is mainly there to be decorative and exposit (Naomie Harris, who is not, perhaps, over-stretched by this role) have been nabbed by the government, along with George the gorilla. Agent in charge Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan in scenery-devouring form) would quite like the whole mess clearing up, but with George and the wolf proving uncontainable, and a third even larger beastie swimming up the Chicago river, it’s clear that a lot of things are going to have to explode before it’s all sorted out…

Even by the standards of Hollywood blockbusters, there’s something fundamentally weird and off-kilter about the premise of Rampage – for example, why a wolf, a gorilla, and a crocodile, exactly? The answer may partly lie in the fact that this is yet another movie based on a computer game – in this case, however, one from the 1980s with minimal plot and depth. The barest essentials of this – monsters vaguely resembling an ape, a wolf and a crocodile tearing down buildings – are at the heart of the movie. (It’s perhaps somewhat ironic that this production was at one point sued by Uwe Boll, director of many terrible video game-based movies – not, as you might expect, for threatening to bring the genre into repute, but because he himself directed a series of movies called Rampage and felt he held the rights to the title.)

If I say they do a pretty good job with some unpromising material (it took four people to write this thing), this is not because I am claiming that Rampage is a film of great moment which will long be remembered as a significant contribution to world cinema. It is not. It is a film about Dwayne Johnson having a fight with a giant albino gorilla, a giant mutated crocodile, and a giant wolf-porcupine-flying-squirrel hybrid. But as such, the movie knows exactly when the audience will probably cut it some slack (yeah, so the monster animals can home in on radio signals…) and when it really has to deliver – namely, in the scenes of the monsters running amok in Chicago and fighting the armed forces.

I don’t know, maybe we’re living through a new golden age of the American monster movie and we didn’t even notice it start – in the last year or so, there’s been Skull Island, Pacific Rim: Uprising, and now this, all of which have captured the energy and fun of classic monster movies much more than things from even four or five years ago. The original Rampage game clearly owed a debt to King Kong and Godzilla, of course, so there’s a sense in which the circle is closed here – it also seemed to me that the croc in this movie bears something of a resemblence to a classic Toho monster. The shade of Ishiro Honda would surely approve of the various sequences of urban devastation which make up the bulk of the third act of the movie.

However, I think we are in danger of overlooking the contribution made by the actors to this film. It’s true that the villains are just there as plot devices, and they are essentially ciphers, and it’s equally true that no matter how hard New Line Cinema push for an Oscar nomination for genial Dwayne, he ain’t gonna get one for this movie – but he and Harris and Morgan do an essential job in putting a human face on all the CGI, and giving the film a bit of warmth and humour and even soul (Johnson’s range obviously has its limits, but within those limits he’s a very effective performer). Even when the film is at its most over-the-top, there will be a little moment of knowing humour, just to reassure you that the film is entirely aware of how preposterous it is, and I can’t describe how relaxing this feels.

It’s fair to say that the only award Rampage is likely to win is Popcorniest Popcorn Movie of the Year (emphasis on the corny) – unless they introduce an Oscar for best flying CGI wolf, anyway. I am also very sure that this is the kind of film that many people would run a mile rather than go anywhere near. But as a bonkers monster movie, it is simply a huge amount of fun. It is probably the most ridiculous thing that will appear in cinemas this year – but ridiculous doesn’t necessarily mean bad.

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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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When you go to the cinema as often as I do, one of the resulting perks is that your accumulated loyalty points earn you a free ticket that little bit more often. This brings with it an important philosophical question – namely, is it more satisfying when your free ticket takes you in to see a truly great movie, meaning you’ve had a fantastic time gratis? Or is it better when the freebie turns out to be for a complete yapper, meaning you at least haven’t had to pay to watch a really bad film?

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Which brings us to Brad Peyton’s San Andreas, the most recent film I managed to snag a free ticket for. Now, while Spanish-speaking readers may be wondering if this is a film about a golf course outside Edinburgh, most other people will rightly assume this is going to be a story concerning earthquakes and how best to prosper during and immediately after them. San Andreas‘ top tip seems to be ‘find something sturdy and hang onto it’, which is probably why it stars Dwayne Johnson, surely the – er – sturdiest leading man in Hollywood. Sometimes he’s so sturdy he’s practically immobile.

Anyway, this time round Dwayne plays Ray Gaines, an enormous rescue helicopter pilot working for the LA fire department, following an illustrious career in Afghanistan (etc, etc). However, Dwayne is struggling with some personal angst, which has led to his wife (Carla Gugino) filing divorce papers and planning to shack up with a rich but worthless property tycoon who you just know is going to let everybody down quite badly when the crunch arrives (Ioan Gruffudd). Now, you and I both know that when someone gets sent divorce papers at the start of a film, this is a flag to the effect that the film is going to be about their reconciliation and a second chance for their family, and so it proves here: there are a lot of special effects and things going bang (crash, crunch, tinkle, etc) in San Andreas, but the main thrust of the film is ultimately about Dwayne and his wife getting back together, not to mention his comely daughter (Alexandra Daddario) finding a nicely non-threatening boyfriend. It just so happens that the piquant backdrop to all this is one of colossal devastation with nameless other characters being mown down horribly by the truckload – but as they have no connection to the Rock family, we are encouraged not to care about them, rather to just enjoy the spectacle of their lovingly-rendered deaths.

Off in another section of the film entirely, Paul Giamatti plays a seismic boffin who is responsible for this film’s Gravitas Provision Department. Giamatti spends a lot of time looking grave and professorial before one of his young assistants bursts in and shouts ‘Sir, you’ve got to see this!’ about something. This is invariably followed by Giamatti looking pop-eyed with concern and crying ‘People have to be warned!’ before hiding under a table. This stuff has no connection with the Rock family’s various travails, it’s just here to provide context and some sort of bafflegab explanation for why most of California now seems to be sliding into the sea. (Giamatti gives a decent performance in the circumstances, by the way.)

Or, to put it another way, this is another Roland Emmerich disaster movie pastiche. Emmerich has never been a particularly lauded or cool director, but in films like Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, and 2012, he did at least manage to reinvent the disaster movie formula in a way that had a certain lightness of touch and tongue-in-cheek quality, and while those films may have been cheesy and absurd, they were also very entertaining. San Andreas is just grindingly earnest and more than a bit annoying as a result.

You find yourself noticing things like the way the Rock family cheerfully loot everything in sight – boats, cars, shops, planes, fire appliances – and questioning the film’s assumption that it’s perfectly acceptable for a hugely experienced First Responder to basically walk out on his duties and put his family’s interests ahead of those of the public he’s actually supposed to be serving. If the film acknowledged even slightly how improbable and laboured (and yet also, somehow, obvious) its plotting was, that might make it more acceptable: but it doesn’t, which somehow makes it worse.

San Andreas is a classically modern movie in that the whole enterprise is built around lavish special effects the like of which didn’t exist even twenty-five years ago. Back in ye olden days, films couldn’t just rely on empty CGI spectacle, and so they had to worry about things like engaging characters, innovative plots and interesting dialogue. What San Andreas repeatedly proves is that you can have all the wibbly-wobbly skyscrapers, burning buildings, collapsing bridges, and Kylie Minogue cameos you want, but if you use them as a subsitute for those old-fashioned narrative virtues rather than a supplement to them, you’re going to end up with something which is pretty to look at but ultimately rather uninvolving (this happens in the first few minutes, when a character we barely know has a spectacular, visually striking car crash and you find yourself thinking ‘Why should I care, particularly?’).

Give the Rock some credit, he takes a fair swing at some of the more emotional moments in the script, and the results are not exactly painful to watch. I expect most of the people involved in this film will work again, because it will probably make money: this film most likely scrapes into the ‘too big to fail’ category. But the story just isn’t good enough – it’s predictable and silly from the first scene to the last. Watching horrific natural disasters shouldn’t be fun, but somehow it is when watching a well-done disaster movie. This isn’t a well-done disaster movie, nor is it very much 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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