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Posts Tagged ‘Vin Diesel’

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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Well, what a year it’s been so far at the cinema, and it’s still only the third week of January – A Monster Calls, Silence, La La Land, and Manchester by the Sea all went on release in the space of a relatively few days, any of which individually would have been a great harbinger for the year to come. Collectively, it’s looking like an anno mirabilis, twelve months in which every movie proves to be a rewarding, sophisticated, intelligent work of art. But how long can this kind of quality continue?

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Who knows, but let’s take a moment to look at D. J. Caruso’s xXx: Return of Xander Cage, starring the great Vin Diesel. Now, you know me, I like Vin Diesel, broadly speaking, and will give anything he does a fair hearing. But this doesn’t change the fact that Vin has a dark secret known to only a select few with access to an obscure website known as ‘Wikipedia’.

Once upon a time there was a sincere young artist called Mark Sinclair. Mark was a screenwriter, director and actor who spent his time working on heartfelt, serious films about what it was like to be of ambiguous ethnicity in the modern USA, breakdancing, and playing a lot of purist Dungeons & Dragons. And then something happened. Just as the virtuous and heroic Anakin Skywalker was consumed and obliterated by the dark animus of Darth Vader, so no-one ever seems to hear from Mark Sinclair any more, but we do get regular offerings from Mark’s alter ego Vin Diesel, who seems unlikely to make a heartfelt, serious film about anything, but seems very comfortable playing a tree in various Marvel Comics movies.

So it is with the utterly mind-boggling xXx: Return of Xander Cage. Now, for anyone not following along (wise souls), the xXx series was launched in 2002 as a tough-guy vehicle for Vin Diesel, then riding high after the first Fast and Furious movie, but – somewhat bizarrely – continued in his absence when he dropped out of 2005’s xXx: State of the Union to make the eminently forgettable comedy The Pacifier. Roll on over ten years and we still find Diesel there or thereabouts when it comes to movie stardom, but still one of those people whose ability to open a movie is severely limited: people will go to see him in droves for Fast and Furious sequels, and to a lesser extent in films about his Riddick character, but anything else with him on-screen struggles to get a wide release (here in the UK anyway). One might even suggest that this very belated return to the xXx series puts one in mind of a dog returning to his own… you know what, let’s not even complete that image, as things are going to get unsavoury enough, I suspect.

The first scene sets the tone quite well, as Samuel L Jackson (barely appearing) delivers a bafflegab lecture about the need for the xXx programme, wherein people with minimal actual skills but bags of kewl attitude are recruited to save the world. The gag is that he is talking to Neymar Junior, who I understand is a football player, and the lad almost at once gets to show his potential by using his ace keepy-uppy skills to subdue an armed robber. No, honestly.

Well, anyway. The CIA have got their hands on a evil Maguffin widget capable of blowing lots of things up, and no-nonsense CIA dominatrix Toni Collette (really slumming it) is not best pleased when a bunch of scallywags led by Donnie Yen break into the building, cause all kinds of mayhem, and run off with it to their top-secret lair, which is a beach resort in the Philippines.

The CIA decide to disregard the fact that former top agent Xander Cage (Mark Sincl – sorry, Vin Diesel) died in the previous sequel and ask him to come back and get the evil widget out of Donnie Yen’s hands. Naturally he says yes, or this would be a very short film. Up to this point proceedings have been rather vacuous, but once Vin gets going… well, calling this film empty-headed would be a profound insult to Barbie dolls everywhere.

See Vin ski through the jungle. See Vin skateboard down a road against the flow of traffic. See Vin get his end away with someone half his age. See the CIA try to recruit Vin. See him scorn and mock them but agree to help out anyway. See Vin lech at more young women. See him track down the incredibly hard-to-find bad guys in about eight seconds flat. See him get his end away again. See the CIA assign Vin a backup squad of uptight soldiers who sneer at his rebel ways. See Vin throw them all out the back of a plane in flight. See Vin juggle grenades at a beach party. See Vin flirt laboriously with imported Bollywood star Deepika Padukone. See Vin ride a motorcycle, underwater. And so on (this is just the first act of the movie, more or less).

I mean, I’m not even sure where to start with this film. It is admittedly never completely dull, although this is in the same sense that it’s not dull being inside an oil drum being repeatedly struck by baseball bats, and there are at least a couple of sequences in which we get to see Donnie Yen in full flow, which is always a cherishable experience (Tony Jaa, who also features, is much less well-served), and there is at least one laugh-out-loud in-joke about this series’ somewhat peculiar production history.

If I were a young person I think I would feel profoundly insulted by this movie, as it seems to operate according to the belief that all young people are congenital morons capable only of involvement on the most superficial of levels – that, or the film is intended to be enjoyed with the dreaded ironic sensibility (but I really doubt this as it would require a subtlety utterly lacking in all other departments of the movie). Vin dismisses the trained soldiers originally assigned to back him up, instead plumping for a tattooed lesbian sharpshooter (I suppose she does have some utility for the mission), an unhinged stunt driver whose hobby is crashing into things, and a kid whose main talent is that he is a really good DJ. I mean, what? What? Being young and edgy can only take you so far in life.

Nor does it last, of course: and perhaps it might be worthwhile for someone to have a quiet word in Vin Diesel’s shell-like, to the effect that having extensive inks and wearing cargo pants all the time only go so far in disguising the fact that you are a grown man pushing fifty but still really acting like a teenager. And, not to put too fine a point on it, a grown man who appears to be having a mid-life crisis of some kind. One scene has Vin, who has chosen to turn up in an extraordinary fur coat which even a mid-1970s football manager would quail at wearing, being descended upon by half-a-dozen young lingerie models – the next we see, they are all in a happy, stupefied heap, with our hero standing nearby looking as smug as only a highly-paid actor-producer can.

And it just radiates a kind of lazy contempt for its target audience – these kids are stupid! Just stick in a load of overblown stunt sequences and hot young women in swimsuits and they won’t care if the plot is just an absurd assembly of set pieces! Let’s keep on about what a rebel Vin’s character is even though he hardly ever does anything especially rebellious that isn’t also ridiculously stupid! Let’s keep on with those cool and edgy credentials – anyone in a suit is the Man and evil (except for Sam Jackson, he’s cool) and anyone into extreme sports is great!

I still like Vin Diesel a lot. I’m looking forward to Fast and Furious 8 and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 very much. But this is like the dark, twisted, idiot brother of a Fast and Furious film: sexist, soulless, and calculating in a particularly thick-headed way. I like an absurd action movie as much as the next person (probably), but this film works much too hard at being actively stupid. Return of Xander Cage sets the bar for this year’s crop of thicko movies impressively low. I wouldn’t be surprised if xXx turned out to be the xXXxiest film of 2017.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Any gambler, whether professional or recreational, would be in awe of the run of luck enjoyed by Marvel Studios since 2008. These people have released film after film in the notoriously unpredictable superhero genre, only to be met with ever-increasing popularity and financial reward. They have attempted what looked like the impossible, in the form of a fully-connected, open-ended series-of-series, and not only seen it work, but expand to include a growing number of TV programmes and other spin-offs. You get the impression, almost, that the top people at Marvel have become intent on pushing their luck to see just how far it will go.

This could be one reason why, with relatively major characters like Doctor Strange still untapped, Marvel have chosen to make their latest original release an adaptation of an obscure comic book featuring a selection of characters virtually unknown to anyone but dedicated fans of the genre. The result is Guardians of the Galaxy, directed by James Gunn (just to compound the boldness of this gamble, Gunn is the director of the bravura-icky horror film Slither and the deeply twisted superhero satire Super).

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Central to the action is Peter Quill, aka Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), who was abducted from Earth as a child in the late 1980s and who has risen to become a minor-league space pirate in a wild and wacky cosmos. A mysterious orb comes into Peter’s possession, which is his bad luck as it is also being sought by powerful cosmic forces: principally the genocidal alien warlord Ronan (Lee Pace), a sometime ally of Thanos (the behind-the-scenes villain in The Avengers). Peter finds himself pursued by Ronan’s renegade enforcer Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and the unlikely bounty-hunting duo of uplifted procyonid Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) and tree of few words Groot (the great Vin Diesel). The four of them are packed off to prison where they make the acquaintance of monomaniacal psychotic Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista).

The ill-matched quintet hit upon a plan to get rich by selling the orb to enigmatic alien the Collector (Benicio del Toro), little realising that Ronan is still in pursuit and plans to use its cosmic powers to devastate a large chunk of the galaxy. Does this disparate band of thieves, killers, lunatics and imbeciles have it in them to actually become heroes…?

It is quite difficult to overstate just what a departure Guardians of the Galaxy is from the last few Marvel Studios movies. It’s their first non-sequel in three years, for one thing, and there is notably less connective tissue to other projects – much has been made in certain circles of the presence of Josh Brolin as Thanos, but this isn’t much more than a cameo appearance to keep the character on the radar. There are only highly oblique references to other movies in the series and even the obligatory post-credits scene is telling a joke rather than trailing a future film (for all that it features a notable Marvel character unseen in movies for a number of decades).

Then again, perhaps all this is fortuitous from Marvel’s point of view, given that it’s their first release since the departure of Edgar Wright from next year’s Ant-Man amidst what sounds like some bad feeling. There was much speculation that Wright’s vision had been deemed to be too far removed from the house style of the other Marvel films, which some – myself included – took to be confirmation that maintaining the massively profitable Marvel brand had taken precedence over making genuinely interesting, creative films.

Ant-Man is still looking like a troubled project for various reasons, but in its own way Guardians of the Galaxy delivers a mighty rebuttal to any suggestion that Marvel are simply opting to play it safe when it comes to their movies: for, readers, Guardians of the Galaxy is absolutely bonkers.

The film opens with a genuinely moving sequence depicting a youthful Peter’s final moments with his dying mother, before blasting off into space and jumping forward to the present day. Here we see Star-Lord on a hostile alien world, apparently intent on a serious search for something – until he pops on a vintage walkman and proceeds to bust some funky moves across the surface of the planet. This is closely followed by a lavish, FX-slathered action sequence.

This generally sums the film up: moments of apparently sincere emotion jostle with full-blown space opera pyrotechnics and absurd comedy. Gunn has cast Bradley Cooper as a raccoon and Vin Diesel as a tree, and those characters are every bit as preposterous as they sound. As you can probably tell, this is by no means intended to be a serious drama, but it is highly-accomplished entertainment.

The plot itself – a struggle for control of an apocalyptic McGuffin – is not exactly innovative, and you can probably predict the team’s trajectory from misfit outcasts to responsible defenders of liberty yourself. Certainly the climax, which has about three different battles going on simultaneously at one point, is done very much by-the-book for this sort of film and seems in no hurry to conclude itself, and the presence of a remarkable supporting cast (including Glenn Close, John C Reilly, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Djimon Hounsou and Peter Serafinowicz) can only do so much to cover for the familiar nature of much of the story.

What really lifts the film and makes it work, other than its comedic elements and a revelatory, star-making performance from Chris Pratt, is the decision to give Star-Lord his walkman. This allows Gunn to soundtrack the film with a selection of rousing, feel-good tunes from the 70s and early 80s that add tremendously to its cheery, freewheeling atmosphere: Guardians of the Galaxy has a sense of fun about it that’s incredibly infectious and almost impossible to resist.

Once again, Marvel are probably looking at a massive hit (and a sequel has already been announced, to say nothing of various other spin-offs and crossovers) – if these guys had been visiting a casino, they would surely be being politely asked to leave town by now. This is a deeply atypical Marvel movie, and certainly by no means perfect, but as a piece of entertainment it’s incredibly difficult not to like.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Some things I have learned recently about the great Vin Diesel: his real name is Mark, he is a keen player of Dungeons & Dragons (somehow the image of him bouncing up and down in his seat rattling polyhedrals and yelling ‘I fireball the bastard!‘ is a hard one to shake), and – if I understand correctly – he has basically re-mortgaged his house to raise the money to make his new movie Riddick (written and directed by David Twohy). This is presumably because the last movie set in this universe, a grandiose and slightly absurd Star Wars knock-off, did not exactly set fire to the box office – it may explain the nine year interval between installments, too.

Indeed, I’m slightly surprised they’ve made another one at all, but I suppose it’s good for Diesel’s career for him to headline a non-Fast & Furious picture (wouldn’t do for him to get typecast – there’s more to this guy than hulking, laid-back, gravelly-voiced action hero car thief anti-heroes, after all, he can do hulking, laid-back, gravelly-voiced action hero escaped space convict anti-heroes too. Isn’t versatility an awesome thing?) and Diesel claims to be doing it ‘for the fans’. Hmmm.

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Anyway, Riddick opens with Diesel’s preposterously omni-competent sociopath struggling to survive on a rocky hell-planet inhabited entirely by CGI beasties that want to eat him. For a nasty moment all this started to remind me of After Earth, but it is thankfully bereft of life lessons and Diesel is allowed free reign to display his considerable charisma. The film has quite a bold structure and for quite a long time the film is just about Riddick doing various things to prove what a badass he is (improvised DIY surgery, that sort of thing) and how he comes to feel fairly comfortable in his new environment (although there is a fairly lengthy flashback which we will return to shortly).

However, Riddick discovers the planet is shortly about to turn even less hospitable than it currently is and activates the distress signal he discovers in an abandoned outpost. No fewer than two teams of bounty hunters turn up in search of the considerable bounty on Riddick’s shiny head, amongst them characters played by Jordi Molla, Matt Nable, and Katee Sackhoff (wasn’t she in a new version of Buck Rogers or something?), and the film takes another interesting turn as Riddick practically vanishes for the whole of the second act: this part of the film focuses on the tensions between the two groups of hunters and their increasingly fraught attempts to capture or kill Riddick before he picks them all off one by one.

Eventually, though, time runs out and Riddick and his hunters are forced to work together as the true scale of the threat from the local ecosystem becomes clear. We’re very much back in the same territory as the original Pitch Black here – a small group of under-equipped people forced to co-operate against encroaching alien nasties.

Well, I must say that given a choice between Vin Diesel starring in a Star Wars knock-off and an Aliens knock-off, I’ll choose the latter every time – there’s a sense in which Riddick really is a vanity project, in that it’s all about the main character and star, and this works much better in a film with a tight focus than a sprawling space opera epic.

That said, those fans to whom Diesel alluded – hang on, is there a large and vocal fanbase for Pitch Black and The Chronicles of Riddick? If so they must operate entirely off my personal radar. Anyway, in some ways the film is clearly written with an eye on the supposed fanbase, because the last film ended with Riddick being declared emperor of the galaxy or something similar (I haven’t seen it since its original release), and Diesel and Twohy feel obliged to respect this. And so, rather than simply have a throwaway line in the voiceover explaining how Riddick used to be Lord High whatever but was slung out for spending all his time disporting himself with concubines, there is a relatively lengthy and elaborate flashback, in which Karl Urban shows up to reprise his role. I suspect this will be slightly baffling to audiences who don’t remember or haven’t seen the other films – there is some blatantly gratuitous T&A from the concubines, too.

However, this is Riddick‘s only major slip up, for the rest of it is a engagingly crunchy and tense SF action movie. I suppose it would have been preferable to have at least one major character who wasn’t a sweaty badass, and the beat where the enormity of Riddick’s personal awesomeness is communicated to us by two other characters telling each other how awesome he is is slightly overused. And the scenes intended to give Riddick the faintest of softer sides end up looking slightly absurd set against the towering machismo of the rest of it, as well – but on the whole this is slick and entertaining.

You know what, I haven’t seen that many Vin Diesel films but the ones I have seen I’ve enjoyed a lot (I am, naturally, particularly looking forward to seeing him take on Jason Statham in the next Fast & Furious), and Riddick is no exception. It’s a relatively modest production with equally modest aims, but it hits the targets it sets for itself with great ease. Whether or not I want to see yet another movie in this milieu I don’t know, but for the time being I hope that Vin Diesel gets to keep his house and makes enough off this movie to buy a special glittery d20 or two. Good fun.

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