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Posts Tagged ‘Jason Statham’

(How’s About This For Unfinished Business Dept.: No word of a lie – while getting ready for the current odyssey I unearthed from a dark corner of my luggage two sheets of aged, crinkled paper. They turned out to be a review actually written in Kyrgyzstan at some point in the spring of 2009, which I never got around to typing up and submitting to h2g2 (many possible reasons for this, none of which I care to dwell on). So here we are, better late than never – and it’s oddly reassuring to see that the core focus of my film criticism has remained unchanged in the last nine years…)

Hello again, everyone, and welcome to another edition of the film review column which proves that the words ‘unmissable release’ have become sadly devalued. As with our previous instalment, caveat lector – I’m talking about a movie I saw in a language I only have an elementary grasp of. That said…

In terms of being a tough movie to get a sequel out of, I suspect Beneath the Planet of the Apes still leads the field, concluding as it does with said planet vaporised along with every single character (or so it appears). I would have put 2006’s Crank somewhere on the same list, though, due to the ending featuring the fatally-poisoned main character falling two miles out of a helicopter into the centre of Los Angeles (thoughtfully phoning up his girlfriend to apologise on the way down).

There were of course three further sequels to Beneath the Planet of the Apes, along with two TV series and various other ephemera. The prospect of Crank becoming a similar multi-media institution strikes me as rather unlikely (not to mention deeply disturbing), but a sequel has duly appeared in the form of Crank: High Voltage, directed as before by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor.

Crank 2

Straight after hitting the ground, crazed psychotic Chev Chelios (perennial favourite hereabouts and Greatest Living Englishman candidate Lord Jason of Statham) is scraped off the pavement and slung in the back of a van by some Chinese gangsters. Impressed by his resistance to the adrenaline poison (the plot device driving the first film), they have decided to harvest his organs. Upon learning this, Chev responds in typically forthright style, but it’s too late: his heart has already been extracted for transplant into an ageing crime lord (David Carradine) and replaced with a battery-powered artificial one. The battery is wont to run low at the most inopportune moments, which only makes Chev’s quest to retrieve his heart even trickier…

By any even moderately civilised standards, the Crank movies are jaw-droppingly horrible – not actually badly made, just amoral, obscene, hugely violent, tasteless, profane, and thoroughly offensive. Crank: High Voltage is very much in the same vein as the original in that it is largely one headlong display of carnage and depravity on the streets of Los Angeles.

Any hopes of increased maturity this time round were dispelled by an early sequence in which Chev interrogates a somewhat-obese bad guy by inserting a lubricated shotgun barrel where the sun don’t shine. I am on record in these pages as disliking the Kill Bill films, in particular, for exactly this sort of thing, which makes my (guilty) enjoyment of Crank rather embarrassing.

So, how to defend it? Well, in addition to all the things previously mentioned, Crank: High Voltage is frenetic, ludicrous and bizarre (it’s even got Geri Halliwell in it), but it’s also frequently very funny (the great man shows signs of a comic touch that could probably be rewardingly utilised in the right role) and never, ever pretentious or under the illusion it’s anything other than junk entertainment. It’s consistently inventive and surprising in its storytelling, which is never confused (I particularly enjoyed the sequence in which Jason Statham turns into Godzilla. Honestly).

The directors deftly handle what turns into a fairly complicated story – the main thread concerns Chev and the increasingly improbable methods he uses to keep his heart going, but whirling around it like demented satellites are subplots featuring Chev’s girlfriend Eve (Amy Smart) who’s now a pole dancer, a rather excitable Chinese prostitute who’s also in love with him (Bai Ling), the twin of Chev’s original sidekick, who is also transsexual but, additionally, suffers from whole-body Tourette’s syndrome (Efren Ramirez)… you get the general idea.

As you may have surmised, this isn’t really a venue for nuanced acting, but everyone seems to do what’s required of them (well, I have my doubts about Ginger Spice, but that’s a matter of principle) and the great man does a nice job of making Chev distinct from his other franchise character, Frank Martin. (Though an in-joke where an old woman complains that she’s been molested by someone who looks like the guy from The Transporter had me rolling my eyes a bit.)

I couldn’t honestly recommend either of the Crank movies to anyone I didn’t know very well, but I hope I’ve given you some idea of what to expect should you decide to take the plunge. It will almost certainly exceed your expectations, though probably not in a good way. I wait with some trepidation the next sequel, which I note the film-makers’ have made much easier to arrange, though quite how they can sustain the concept for another full movie I shudder to think.

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Well, many years of moaning and complaining and muttering sourly on social media have paid off – the big multiplex in Oxford City Centre has finally started showing Jason Statham movies! Long-term readers will know what a big deal this is, especially when you consider that the great man’s recent rise in status means he only seems to be making about one film a year these days. Given that this is the case, it would be churlish to complain about the fact that the actual screenings are, shall we say, a little awkwardly scheduled. Certainly the only first-weekend showing of Mr Statham’s new opus, The Meg (directed by Jon Turteltaub), that I could get to was in 3D, a format which I do have issues with normally – but then again, I’m not going to argue with the prospect of a whole extra dimension of this particular performer, so The Meg in 3D it would have to be.

Hard to believe though it is, not everyone shares my passion for Jason Statham movies, and I ended up going to see this one with Sagacious Dave, Grand Master of Advanced Erudition and Head of Self-Realisation where I work, although I should point out that literally everyone else in the office suddenly remembered a previous engagement or developed a migraine when I invited them to see The Meg with me. It was really more in forlorn hope than expectation that I extended the same invitation to Sagacious Dave, a senior colleague whose cinematic tastes, as far as I knew, extended only to the Planet of the Apes franchise.

‘The Meg? What’s it about?’ enquired Sagacious Dave, furrowing his mighty brow (imagine a slightly ursine version of Gandalf).

‘Jason Statham has a fight with a giant prehistoric shark,’ I said.

Sagacious Dave, a man with decades of experience in the field of thinking serious thoughts, looked at me as though trying to decide which one of us had gone mad. ‘Jason who?’

‘Jason Statham. British movie actor. Used to be a diver, did a lot of mid-budget action movies, now he’s parlayed his success in Fast and Furious into potential global megastardom,’ I said, with (I think) admirable succinctness.

Sagacious Dave gave this some thought for an extended period of time. ‘Yeah, all right then,’ he said, with the slightly distracted air of a man entirely unsure of what he was getting himself into.

‘Really?’ Friends, there was an actual jig of pleasure at the prospect of introducing a great intellect such as Sagacious Dave’s to the full Jason Statham experience. Then I quickly legged it to buy the tickets before he changed his mind on me.

The movie we happily settled down to watch largely concerns the crew of an advanced marine research installation off the Chinese coast, and we are introduced to the cast with admirable economy: although the fact that most of them are stock characters helps with this a bit, I suppose. There is an obnoxious American tycoon (Rainn Wilson), a distinguished Chinese oceanographer (Winston Chao), his daughter (Li Bingbing), who’s in the same line, and her daughter (Shuya Sophia Cai), who mostly seems to be there to tick some kind of cute kid box. Running the place is a strait-laced administrator (Cliff ‘Maori Jesus’ Curtis), a bright-but-rebellious tech whiz (Ruby Rose), a comic-relief African-American (Page Kennedy), and so on.

The team are sending a manned sub into a previously-unexplored aquatic realm which is beneath the sea bed, sort of; it is basically a sort of lost world, underwater. Wouldn’t you know it but the sub gets into trouble, stranding three people six miles down. Who can possibly save them? Well, someone suggests ace deep-sea rescue expert Jonas Taylor, even though an encounter with a mysterious creature at the bottom of the sea some years previously led him to abandon deep-sea rescuing and become a beach bum in Thailand.

This is, needless to say, the role given to Mr Statham. They take a swing at the scene where he initially refuses to come back but is eventually forced by his own better nature to agree, but this is such a formality than no-one’s heart seems to be in it. Soon enough, and despite apparently having been in an alcoholic stupor for the last five years, Mr Statham is piloting his own version of Thunderbird Four towards the murky depths. But there is a problem, for it seems that something big and hungry is menacing the trapped divers – an eighty-foot shark, long thought extinct. ‘It’s a megalodon,’ says Jason Statham, his grim face that of a man recognising a terrifying threat. Or, possibly, that of a man who has pronounced megalodon wrong on the previous sixteen takes and is on the verge of having a serious row with the director.

Well, there is inevitably some chomping and frantic rushing about and a good degree of defiance of death, and the monster fish ends up venturing into the upper waters where there are many more people to eat. Not unreasonably, the local authorities treat our heroes’ warnings of a giant prehistoric shark on the loose as the equivalent of a prank call, so it’s clearly up to Mr Statham to deal with the problem. But what can he do? Well, based on my own reading of the Statham canon, I was expecting him to lure the shark into a disused garage, take his shirt off, and punch the fish to death…

The Meg is a movie which has enjoyed a lengthy stay in the hotel known as Development Hell, from which it has emerged as one of those family-friendly transnational blockbusters clearly gunning for the same dollar as the Jurassic Park movies – indeed, this film is basically Jurassic Shark. (For a long time it was just known as Meg, but the title has been changed, presumably so no-one mistakes it for a film about the Duchess of Sussex.) There is astonishingly little gore, given the subject matter, and the presence of actors like Zhao and Li, not to mention the Asian settings, are an obvious pitch for the lucrative oriental market. In some ways it kind of reminds me of the recent Dwayne Johnson blockbuster Skyscraper, in terms of its tone and the very calculated way it has been rendered as commercially attractive as possible – indeed, I wonder if the producers originally tried to recruit Johnson for the project, and had to settle for the guy he spent much of Fast and Furious 8 standing next to, Jason Statham being (literally) the next best thing.

As I say, the downside of Jason Statham’s rise to superstardom over the last five years or so has been that he simply doesn’t make as many movies as he used to: basically, he just does one movie a year now, as opposed to the three or four you could expect back near the start of the decade. Of course, the movies are bigger, but I would hate to see his essential Stathamity blanded out by the demands of a megablockbuster. Happily, this does not seem to be the case, for The Meg finds our man on fine, laconic form, and the film itself has many moments of tongue-in-cheek humour and in no way takes itself at all seriously. Some of the character-based stuff feels a bit redundant – Statham’s ex-wife is one of the people he has to rescue, but this just feels like over-plotting more than anything else – but I guess that’s the nature of the transnational blockbuster: focus groups like laboriously-articulated character moments and cute kids, so they will appear in this kind of movie.

Along with all that, there’s a rather obvious three-act structure going on here: the effects-heavy deep-sea rescue sequence setting the whole thing up, then a section basically restaging all your favourite bits from Jaws in a Chinese context (this concludes with a rather so-so plot twist), and then finally the shark arriving at a big seaside resort and carving a swathe through the holidaymakers while Statham and his friends prepare to attempt to deal with it. And, you know, it’s not scintillatingly original or insightful stuff, but it’s very competently assembled and a lot of fun to watch. You’re never actually in any doubt as to what’s going to happen next, but that’s really the nature of a genre movie, which is what The Meg is.

But what, you may be wondering, did Sagacious Dave make of all the stereoscopic wonders taking place before us? (In my opinion the 3D is just as annoying and distracting as usual, but I forgot to ask him what he thought of it.) Well, I am happy to report that there were many amused huffs and chortles coming from the seat next to me throughout the film. ‘I want more death! It would add to the authenticity of it,’ was whispered in my ear at one point, and there were approving noises shortly after when a few minor cast members were summarily devoured. Audible delight followed during the shark’s rampage just offshore of a major tourist beach, and an actual cry of ‘Captain ****ing Ahab!’ at one point during the climax. (Sagacious Dave and I were in agreement that the conclusion of the film is particularly inventive and satisfying.)

So, in the end, we decided that The Meg is commercial cinema of the most unashamed kind, but none the worse for that – ‘for a genre movie, that was actually a lot of fun,’ was Sagacious Dave’s final, considered opinion. And I can hardly disagree with him on that. I am not sure the world has actually been waiting for a 3D Jason Statham movie in which he has a fight with a giant prehistoric shark, but if it has, then The Meg is definitely the one.

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Gratifying though it has been to see the great Mr Jason Statham become much more a fixture of major studio movies, with his appearances in the Fast & Furious franchise, the Expendables series, and even a Melissa McCarthy comedy, there has been a definite downside to this – namely that vehicles headlined by Mr Statham himself have become that much thinner on the ground. The fact that the last couple of these didn’t even shown at my multiplex of choice doesn’t help much either – well, at least Netflix loves Jason, even if the Odeon doesn’t.

One victim of Odeon’s Stathamophobia was last year’s Mechanic: Resurrection, which is ostensibly a sequel to 2011’s The Mechanic. To be honest, though, it could really be a sequel to almost any Jason Statham film you care to mention, inasmuch as he is (as usual) playing the Jason Statham Character – which is to say, a tough, taciturn professional whose lethal skills are offset by a strict code of honour.

Rather amusingly, Mechanic: Resurrection‘s director, Dennis Gansel, has opted for the possessive credit (i.e., ‘A film by…’), which is more sensibly reserved for films with a distinctive artistic vision and aspirations to be high art. None of these things is true of a normal Jason Statham movie, and they’re especially not true of this one.

Mr Statham plays Bishop, a retired assassin who specialised in making his handiwork look like an accident. These days he is living the life of Riley in Brazil on his lovely yacht, but, wouldn’t you just know it, his past is about to catch up with him. A young woman turns up and refuses to let Mr Statham’s clever attempts to pretend to be Brazilian fool her. ‘You can’t even get the accent right,’ she observes, which (given Jason Statham’s notoriously variable attempts to sound American) is about as close as the film gets to actual wit. Anyway, she is in the employ of one of Mr Statham’s old acquaintances, Crane (Sam Hazeldine), who has unfinished business with him. Not that it really matters much, but apparently both Bishop and Crane were effectively sold into slavery as children and trained as child soldiers by a gangster. This might make more sense if they didn’t both have London accents, but I digress. Anyway, Crane wants Bishop to carry out three looking-like-an-accident assassinations, or it will go the worse for him.

After a second or so’s consideration, Mr Statham refuses the young lady’s offer in the traditional courteous fashion, by hitting her over the head with a table. Pausing only to beat up all of her bodyguards, he departs (by hurling himself atop a passing hang-glider) and clears off to Thailand and the beach resort of his old friend Mei (Michelle Yeoh, soon to go where no Hong Kong action star has gone before).

Here he meets Gina (Jessica Alba), a young woman who appears to be having trouble with an abusive boyfriend. At Mei’s prompting, Mr Statham intervenes (he’s very ready to sit in judgement on men who are violent to women, given only five minutes earlier he was hitting girls with tables), and the man with a legendary skill when it comes to premeditatedly killing folk and making it look accidental, accidentally kills the dude but makes it look rather like a murder. Hey, everyone has a bad day once in a while, I guess.

It turns out that Gina is also in the employ of Crane, the plan being that she will get it on with him and then allow herself to be kidnapped, thus giving Crane leverage over our man. She is still basically a good sort, though, as she is ex-US Army and also runs an orphanage in Cambodia. Not entirely surprisingly, the two of them get it on anyway, at which point Crane’s goons indeed turn up and kidnap her. Slow off the mark, there, Mr S.

Well, Mr Statham has to go off and do the three assassinations after all, but luckily they are horrible people so his conscience stays fairly clear. I suppose you could call these sequences little vignettes – Bishop has to get himself in and out of a maximum security Thai prison, which involves exploding chewing gum and a fake facial tattoo (done in biro from the look of things), and then does his human fly impression up the side of an Australian skyscraper to flush a human trafficker out of the bottom of his own swimming pool. Then it’s off to Bulgaria for his date with his final target, an American arms dealer (Tommy Lee Jones).

The presence of a relatively substantial performer like Jones, along with that of a high-profile leading lady like Jessica Alba, might lead you to conclude that this is a more serious and credible Jason Statham movie. You would be entirely wrong, I am afraid, for this is a Jason Statham movie in the classic vein, even – if I may be so bold – an especially preposterous one. (In case you were wondering, Tommy Lee Jones basically contributes an extended cameo, while Jessica Alba is, perhaps not for the first time in her career, essentially just ornamental flesh.)

The cinematography is quite nice, I suppose, and the various scenes of Jason Statham doing intricate, determined things in the course of his assassinations are well managed. This is one of those films where Mr Statham spends most of his time scowling intensely, with perhaps a touch of wistfulness now and then – he’s perfectly good at this, and also in the numerous action sequences. For some reason he spends quite a lot of the film in a wetsuit this time, but this is far from the oddest thing about it.

The problems mainly lie with the script, which is hackneyed, has nothing new to offer, and oscillates between deep predictability and moments of the utterly absurd – at one point the villains’ yacht leaves Sydney harbour, and then seemingly only a few hours later is cruising in the Black Sea. Now, I do like a touch of the outlandish and crazy in my Jason Statham movies – it’s the contrast between Statham’s completely deadpan approach to the material and its frequent barking silliness which gives them their distinctive tone – but somehow here it all feels just a bit perfunctory, not even remotely grounded in reality.

The opening section of the film is fairly engaging, but once Mr Statham sets off about his various assassinations, it rapidly becomes – dare I say it – completely mechanical, with very little in the way of characterisation or intentional humour. By the time the final act arrived, with a succession of uninspired shoot-ups and obvious plot twists, I actually found it a genuine struggle to stay focused on the movie and not start thinking about something else. Long-term readers will know that this is something that is very rarely the case with a Statham movie.

I really don’t know. I am, obviously, a fan of Jason Statham, and have sat and watched nearly all his movies and mostly enjoyed them – and while this one does have a few bits and pieces in it to divert the attention and reward the faithful, at the same time it too often feels formulaic and poorly thought through. I really like Jason Statham because he is usually a front man whose presence is the indicator of a Good Bad Movie. Mechanic: Resurrection, unfortunately, is just a Bad Movie.

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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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It’s that special time of the year when people all over the world settle down into their seats, help themselves to a handful of popcorn, and relax in anticipation of the latest movie to star the one and only Jason Statham. Regular readers will be fully aware of the genuine pleasure I derive from watching Mr S do his thing once or twice a year.

Which is why one of the banes of my life is the fact that the people in charge of booking films at the city centre multiplexes in my town more often than not flatly refuse to show Statham movies at all, at least not ones where he isn’t propping up some past-it action derelict or in some other way sharing the screen. Are Mr Statham’s vowels just not up to scratch for Oxford cinemas? Are straightforward action movies just not good enough for the bookers round here? It makes me want to bellow and run amuck behind the popcorn counter. Still, one must face facts and accept that I am simply unable to bring you a review of Mechanic: Resurrection this week.

So, to hell with it, this week I will be reviewing Death Race, a Jason Statham movie from 2008, not because it is any good or because he is particularly effective in it, but just because I want to review a Statham movie and I’m not going to let the prejudices of film-bookers against a certain kind of film get in my way. Yup, I’m not afraid to stand up and be counted when it comes to a matter of principle.

Anyway, Death Race sees Mr S teaming up with the king of boneheaded action cliches, Paul WS Anderson, in a remake of the classic 1975 film Death Race 2000. Well, sort of a remake, inasmuch as some of the characters have the same names and it features cars. The rest is…

deathrace

Well, the first dip into the Big Book of Cliches comes when we get a set of opening captions describing how the US economy imploded in 2012 (slightly ironic given this movie came out near the height of the financial crisis), all prisons were privatised, and gladiatorial combat between convicts became popular mass entertainment – especially Death Race, which involves putting dangerous inmates into heavily armed and armoured high-performance vehicles and letting them battle all the way to the finish line, or to death, whichever comes first.

As is fairly common with a 21st century Paul WS Anderson movie, you are instantly struck with an urgent sense of how utterly implausible all of this is, and how cobbled-together the premise feels. However, things progress and we meet good-guy steelworker Jensen Ames (Mr Statham), whose place of employment is being shut down, leading to a bit of industrial relations tension. This really has nothing to do with the plot, but does allow Mr S to do his ‘I’m incredibly angry and about to go nuts with a big stick’ face while grappling with several cops.

Slightly more relevant to the plot is the brutal murder of Mr S’s lovely wife, for which he is framed and sent to a maximum security prison, run by icy warden Joan Allen. Allen supervises the Death Race events, and she has a proposition for our man: top driver Frankenstein died after the last race, secretly, and she needs someone to carry on the persona and keep the ratings up. If Mr Statham agrees to pretend to be Frankenstein, he will be let out of prison and given custody of his baby daughter should he survive the race. (It transpires that, as well as being a devoted family man and good-guy steelworker, Mr Statham has also got stints as a prison hard man and top racing driver on his CV. Now that’s what I call an eclectic employment history.)

Naturally he agrees, and we are introduced to various other characters, including Frankenstein’s chief mechanic (Ian McShane), his hot navigator (Natalie Martinez) – yes, inmates from the womens’ prison up the road are the navigators, and like female convicts everywhere they all look like supermodels – and his deadly rival Machine Gun Joe (Tyrese Gibson). But Mr S is a smart cookie and realises just how lucky the warden is that a man of his special talents should arrive in the prison just at the moment. Could Allen know more about the conspiracy to murder Mr S’s wife than she’s letting on…?

I originally came across the existence of Death Race during the trailers preceding Wanted, when my considered opinion was that it looked like one of the greatest films ever made (I was perhaps somewhat influenced by the knowledge I would not be getting to see it at the cinema). Now, of course, I realise that it is not one of the greatest films ever made. It is not even the best film called Death Race ever made. It is trashy junk, or perhaps junky trash.

It does look good as a trailer, though. All of Paul WS Anderson’s films look pretty good in the trailer, it’s just when it comes to fleshing the trailer out to 90 minutes or more that things tend to get a bit problematical. So it is with Death Race: all of Anderson’s thought seems to have gone into the various action sequences and tableaux of automotive mayhem, and everything else is just dealt with on the most hackneyed, perfunctory level. There’s a trope referred to as ‘fridging’, which basically refers to introducing a female character solely to kill her off and provide the male protagonist with some motivation to avenge her death (so named due to the moment in an issue of Green Lantern when the hero came home to find his girlfriend’s corpse in the refrigerator), and the way in which Statham’s character is introduced in this film is fridging of the most blatant kind – it’s nothing more than connect the dots plotting, with his wife nothing more than some kind of adjunct.

Not that the rest of the film exactly distinguishes itself when it comes to its gender politics. There is perhaps a flicker of self-awareness when someone admits that the only reason the female navigators are included is to keep the audience interested, but the rest of the time… well, every time most of the women characters make an entrance the soundtrack starts playing a song with the lyric (I paraphrase) ‘Look at me, I’m so incredibly sexy’.

There are times when Death Race kind of resembles a messed-up version of one of the Fast and Furious films – it was made at the point at which that franchise seemed to have terminally lost its way, between F&F 3 and 4 – but watching it really does remind you of what makes that franchise a little bit distinctive. Those films may be occasionally dumb and superficial, but they’re not utterly hopeless when it comes to gender politics, nor are they casually murderous. (There’s a – hmm – running joke about the sexual orientation of Gibson’s character that probably wouldn’t be given house-room in a F&F movie, either.)

In fact, the big mystery about this film is just how it managed to snag a serious actress like Joan Allen to appear in it (stranger things have happened, I suppose: Imelda Staunton once did a Steven Seagal film). A fairly pre-fame Jason Clarke appears as a sadistic prison guard, too. Allen was fairly fresh from the Bourne movies at the time, which may have something to do with it, and it is entirely possibly she was expecting something a little less knuckle-dragging, given the Death Race name.

The 1975 version of Death Race is… well, it’s not high art, by any means, but it has a kind of crazy energy and unhinged intelligence about it. It is ridiculous and absurd, but that’s kind of the point and it allows the film to engage in all kinds of OTT satire about American culture and society. The new Death Race is equally ridiculous and absurd, but it’s only interested in hollow carnage and prison movie cliches. Not a highlight of Jason Statham’s career, by any means – he has done many better films since, and I’m sure Mechanic: Resurrection has much more to offer the discerning viewer. But unfortunately I can’t be sure.

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2015 has, so far, seemed to be a bit of an annus mirabilis for those of us who are fans of (the man, the legend) Jason Statham – true, things got off to a slightly wobbly start with the virtual non-release of Wild Card, but set against this are Mr Statham’s appearances in Furious 7 and now Paul Feig’s Spy. Not only are these big, mainstream releases, well outside the action ghetto which the great man once seemed to be stuck in, but they also indicate that he’s at least attempting to broaden his range a bit – Furious 7 had him playing a villain in a major blockbuster, while Spy sees him trying his hand at comedy. Possibly I’m biased, but the omens looked good for this one.

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That said, Spy isn’t really his movie, but a vehicle for Melissa McCarthy. She plays Susan Cooper, a desk-bound CIA analyst whose normal duties are to support suave super-agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law). She has a bit of a crush on him, naturally, which equally naturally is entirely unrequited. Susan is understandably devastated when Fine is killed on a mission to investigate ruthless arms dealer Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne, sigh).

With the CIA seemingly compromised, Susan volunteers to go into the field herself for the first time (her identity being unknown to the bad guys), much to the chagrin of crazed macho-man agent Rick Ford (you can probably guess who this is). Nevertheless, the mission is approved and off she goes to Paris, technically only on surveillance duties but with vengeance on her mind…

The first and most important thing to say about Spy is that, given his prominence in the advertising, Jason Statham really isn’t in it very much. In a way it’s oddly similar to his appearance in Furious 7, in that his contribution doesn’t amount to much more than a series of scene-stealing (and very funny) cameos. Mr Statham’s usual intensity reaches the point of incipient, swivel-eyed madness, but he’s still playing a version of the Jason Statham Character, which just adds to the humour.

As I said, though, it’s McCarthy’s movie all the way. I haven’t seen any of her previous movies, but on the strength of this one it seems to me that her schtick is based on two things – her physicality, and a startling facility with profanistical vocabularisation. Both of these are given full reign here. I remember that many years ago, Dawn French went to Hollywood with the idea of making a movie in which a short, plump woman found herself mixed up in a Lethal Weapon-style action caper, to comic effect. That movie never got made, but Spy – at least to begin with – is based on a similar premise.

Except, of course, this isn’t a pastiche of buddy cop films, but spy movies in general and the Bond franchise in particular. I say pastiche rather than parody: the opening titles are a spot-on copy of the Eon style, but they’re not actually funny, while the actual plot of the film – a hunt for a missing nuclear bomb – is handled relatively ‘straight’ (one consequence of this is that the film contains some unusually graphic violence for a comedy). The story isn’t terribly original, and I’m not sure how much it actually makes sense, but it mainly functions as a container into which to put jokes, anyway. These start off relatively restrained, and to be fair the film always retains a concern with Susan as a semi-believable human being rather than just as an over-the-top comic character. That said, at some point around half-way through she inexplicably transforms from a slightly awkward but generally decent lady into a sort of foul-mouthed berserker, although one of the results of this is that the film gets funnier and funnier as it goes on.

Quite apart from the reliable technique of inserting McCarthy into staple scenarios of the genre – the visit to be issued with gadgets, the casino sequence, the high speed pursuit, and so on – the film is notable for being a largely female-led crack at this particular target, with equally strong supporting performances coming from Byrne, Miranda Hart, and Allison Janney. And beyond this, the film seems to have an inexhaustible supply of off-the wall running gags and surprise cameos to draw upon – a joke about the surprisingly vermin-infested CIA HQ made me laugh a lot, while Peter Serafinowicz is extremely good value as a outrageously inappropriate Italian agent.

I’m still a little disappointed that Spy doesn’t contain a bit more premium Statham, and I’m not sure I’ll be becoming a regular visitor to Melissa McCarthy movies, but as you can probably tell I rather enjoyed this one. It probably isn’t the greatest comedy spy thriller ever made, but it is consistently funny in all sorts of ways, and if this style of modern comedy is to your taste – let’s just say it’s broad and irreverent – you will probably have a good time watching it.

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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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