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Posts Tagged ‘Jason Statham’

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 girlfriend. 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…

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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.

spy

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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Making any kind of film, even a bad one, is quite difficult. Relatively speaking, though, it’s much easier to make one good film than a whole series of them, which may be why the cinematic landscape is littered with the remains of those who made an impressive directorial debut and then quickly ran out of puff. Many people just don’t have the legs.

I wonder if this is the category into which we should put John Carpenter. Any decent history of American horror and SF movies would have to make a clear acknowledgement of Carpenter’s massive influence on both genres – providing the model for Alien, sort of, in Dark Star, then inventing the modern slasher movie in Halloween, and creating some sort of masterpiece with his version of The Thing – but the fact remains that after a brilliantly productive first decade, since the mid-80s Carpenter seems to have gone off the boil in a fairly definitive way. He himself apparently blames it on the commercial failure of The Thing; I still think there are good movies after that (for instance Starman and They Live), just precious few of them, and none after about 1990.

So approaching a latterday Carpenter film is always a somewhat charged experience. Could this be the one where he gets his mojo back? Possibly, but you know deep down that it’s almost certainly not going to happen and you brace yourself for a once-major talent groping about trying to recapture past glories. Some times more literally than others, which brings us to Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars, from 2001: something which even the director found such a gruelling experience he didn’t make another film for nearly a decade.

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Set in the late 22nd century, the film is set on (duh) Mars, which has been colonised and terraformed (this seems to be a form of stealth terraforming where the appearance of the place hasn’t changed at all but everyone can now miraculously breathe and not freeze to death). The structure of the film is somewhat complex, something we will come back to, but concerns the travails of a squad of cops sent off to a remote mining outpost to collect wanted criminal Desolation Jones (Ice Cube).

In charge of the squad is Pam Grier, with Natasha Henstridge second-in-command, and technical support coming from a lecherous sergeant played by Jason Statham (and you should now understand why it is I was bothering to watch this film in the first place). On arrival at the camp they find the place initially deserted, but then discover large numbers of mutilated corpses, and a few colonists who are acting, shall we say, somewhat oddly.

‘It’s as though they were possessed!’ observes Henstridge’s character, which is the script’s remarkably subtle way of foreshadowing the fact that the miners will all turn out to have become possessed. This is courtesy of some recently-uncorked ancient Martian spirits who are big on orgies of violence (perhaps the faintest shades of Quatermass and the Pit here). Unfortunately for the cops and a few other survivors they encounter, the Martians and their hosts are still around, and Henstridge soon finds herself leading the others in a battle to survive.

Let’s cut to the chase: Ghosts of Mars is a really bad film, so bad that I actually considered bailing out of it halfway through, which I almost never do. What’s not very obvious, however, is just why it should be such a stinker: it’s the kind of genre mash-up (SF-horror-action-western) which Carpenter had shown some facility for in the past, while the plot itself recalls other scenarios with which he had had considerable success – remote outpost menaced by amorphous alien threat, and cops and crooks besieged by an army of fanatical psychos. So why does it fall so flat?

Well, it looks painfully cheap, for one thing, especially the special effects, and the cinematography is like something from a TV programme: it’s colourful but flat, and not exactly atmospheric. Most of the rest of the film operates on the same barely-competent level. Major characters die off-screen, and when the principals figure out very early on that killing one of the possessed miners just releases its Martian passenger to hop into someone else, do they stop to consider that this may require a change of approach? No, it’s shotguns and hand grenades all the way regardless! The story is bizarrely structured, with a barely-necessary frame story about Henstridge reporting back to her superiors, but various other characters within that launching into recollections of their own. At one point, and I think I’ve got this straight in my head, we are watching a flashback inside a flashback inside a flashback, for no very essential reason. (It looks like the concept of the second draft didn’t make it to Mars.)

Most irksome of all is the fact that top billing goes to Ice Cube, who gives a performance that seems at best disinterested and at worst tranquilised. The character of Desolation Jones, wanted criminal who teams up with a cop against marauding psychos, is perhaps not a million miles away from that of Napoleon Wilson, wanted criminal who teams up with a cop against marauding psychos in Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13, and if you want to appreciate just how duff Cube’s performance is, compare it to that of Darwin Joston in the earlier film: Joston is witty and charismatic, while Cube just sounds like he’s reading out his lines off cue cards. What makes this even more annoying is that Cube was inserted at the insistence of the studio, displacing the actor who was originally cast – Jason Statham. Now that’s what I call studio interference.

Oh well. This was very early days for the great man, though – he still has a surprising amount of hair – and in any case Henstridge is clearly playing the lead role (it is, needless to say, that of ass-kicking babe). Nevertheless – and I know I am biased – Mr S still looks like someone going places, and he has more presence than most of the other people in the cast.

What else can one say about Ghosts of Mars? Well, I have to say that for a bad film, it’s either proved surprisingly influential within the genre, or else is tapping into some other source of ideas with which I am not familiar, for watching its army of crazed, self-mutilating psychos I was immediately reminded of similar menaces from Serenity and certain episodes of Doctor Who from the 2000s. Possibly a coincidence, possibly not.

Ghosts of Mars seems content to sit very firmly within the boundaries of genre convention, anyway. No boats are being pushed out, no risks taken. As mentioned, the main character is that stock figure of low-budget genre action movies, the ass-kicking babe, and this to some extent obscures the fact that the single most interesting thing about the film is its decision to cast women as every authority figure in it, from the squad leader, to Henstridge’s superior back at base, to the scientist who fills in the back story. I can’t help but think, though, that the film somehow messes this up by pointing out from the start that Mars has a ‘matriarchal society’ – the message presumably being ‘relax, guys, things are still normal back on Earth’ – and also by suggesting that at least some of the senior women are predatory lesbians.

The fact that Ghosts of Mars can’t even get a relatively minor piece of colour detail like this right is, though, quite indicative. A bit of a Hollywood maxim has developed that films about, or set on Mars, are virtually guaranteed to lose money – this one, Mars Needs Moms, Mission to Mars, John Carter, and so on – almost as if the fabled curse of the Red Planet had spread beyond NASA to the film industry. I suspect this is not down to vague astrological influences so much as simple bad film-making, and this at least Ghosts of Mars is a very good example of: it is inept in virtually every single department.

 

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It is, as Barry Norman always used to say, football results time down at the local cinema, with the current score being Expendables 3, Inbetweeners 2. I know I alluded to going to see Inbetweeners, and I expect I probably will at some point, but there are more important things to consider when there is a new Jason Statham movie on release – even if it is one where the great man shares the screen with about a dozen other people.

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I mean, look at that thing, that’s not a film poster, that’s a school photograph. There are probably more people on it than there were in the screening that I attended, although this was probably no bad thing as the theatre PA was, for some reason, playing the theme from Terminator on a loop prior to the film starting. Now there’s nothing wrong with Brad Fiedel’s magnum opus, but listening to it more than three times in a row puts one in the vein for running amok (it’s a bit like surreal French comedy-dramas in that respect). You could feel the tension ratchet up every time it started over again. (By the way, judging from the crowd I was in with, the demographic Expendables 3 is most successfully reaching consists of middle-aged men, Saudi Arabians, and drunks.)

Anyway, the film finally got underway, thankfully. Proceedings open with chief Expendable Barney (Stallone) and the boys busting a new character named Doctor Death (Wesley Snipes) out of prison, on the grounds that he is an old mate (and so he should be, after Demolition Man and Chaos). Snipes hasn’t really been in a major movie for about ten years, mainly due to his going to jail for real on charges of tax evasion – which this film duly cracks wise about – and he seizes on his role here with gusto. And it is nice to see him back.

After some more of the laborious bromance between Stallone and Jason Statham they all go off to Mogadishu to bust up an arms deal but are shocked when their target turns out to be evil ex-Expendable Conrad Stonebanks, who used to be a respected and popular figure until he revealed what a horrible person he really was. He is played by Mel Gibson, and you can write your own joke at this point. Gibson puts a bullet in one of the minor team members, causing everyone else no end of distress (they obviously still haven’t really thought this ‘Expendable’ thing through).

Confronted, somewhat ridiculously, by mortality, Stallone gathers everyone down the pub and announces that they are sacked, on the grounds that they are too old. Yes, that’d be Stallone (68) sacking Statham (43) on the grounds of unforgivable dodderiness. Hmm. If they all carry on, Stallone declares, it’ll end up with ‘everyone in a hole in the ground and nobody giving a ****’. It did occur to me that even before anyone ended up in a hole in the ground, there wasn’t a great deal of evidence of people actually giving ****s, but this was just ungenerous of me.

The Expendables’ former CIA liaison, Church, has departed (mainly because Bruce Willis wanted a million dollars a day to turn up, which Stallone refused to give him) and been replaced by a new guy named Drummer. He is played, barely credibly, by Harrison Ford. Ford offers Stallone another chance at bringing in Gibson, which of course he jumps at – even if it means assembling a new team of young Expendables to help him do so…

Something really odd starts happening to the film at this point, although it has been on the cards since the start of the film. As you can see, Stallone has run out of superannuated 80s action movie heroes to recruit for these movies (I’m guessing Steven Seagal is too busy hanging out with Putin to answer his phone) and the net has been cast a bit wider, with performers like Ford, Gibson, and Snipes signing up. This continues with the appearance of Kelsey Grammer as a mercenary recruitment agent and Antonio Banderas as a rather excitable Latino Expendable. Not only are these people not known solely as action stars, but most of them are actually charismatic and can genuinely act, and so there are a number of scenes which are genuinely involving or funny in a non-ironic way.

This really wasn’t what I turned up to an Expendables movie to see, to be perfectly honest: I just wanted cheesy old hulks staggering around bleating out one-liners while stuff blew up in the background. Now, it’s true that Stallone is the main character, and there’s also a significant appearance by Arnold Schwarzenegger, so there’s always a degree of cheesy old hulkiness going on, but even so. The new young Expendables are a highly forgettable bunch – if I say that the most charismatic of the lot of them is a guy who used to be in Twilight, you will get a sense of just how anonymous they are.

And, as I say, it was almost as if I was watching a proper, semi-serious action movie for a bit: the script comes within spitting distance of serious topics connected with deniable government interventions, the use of mercenary troops as a foreign policy tool, and the ethical underpinnings of the concept of ‘war crimes’. And again, this was not at all what I expected. The film was turning out to be much less stupid and ridiculous than advertised, and I wasn’t sure what to make of it.

Thankfully, this attempt to drag the Expendables franchise into less ludicrous territory only lasted for the duration of the second act, at the end of which everything went back to normal and the film became as absurdly predictable as it had ever been. Serious talk of dragging Gibson off to stand trial for war crimes is dismissed by Stallone with a hearty cry of ‘Screw the Hague!’ and everything proceeds to blow up at quite absurd length.

That said, Patrick Hughes’ direction of the action sequences that are crucial to the movie is deeply uninspired, and most of them are just like watching someone else play Call of Duty, which isn’t a great spectator sport. To be fair, he doesn’t let the massive number of characters become a real problem, but it is true that some of the people feel a little underserved – and not just Mr S, either.

There must surely be some serious pruning of the ranks, in the event of this series grinding on for subsequent installments (we are told Pierce Brosnan and Hulk Hogan are already in talks, plus Stallone has been sending up balloons concerning a female-fronted version entitled – oh, God – The Expendabelles). The Expendables 3 isn’t an actively bad film: it’s not as depressing as the first one, or as ridiculous as the second. But the joke is showing serious signs of wearing too thin to be funny, and all concerned might do well to stop while it still has the capacity to amuse or entertain.

 

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