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Posts Tagged ‘vroom vroom’

Interested parties could be excused concern when it comes to the directorial career of Edgar Wright – over the last few years, anyway. Following the successful one-two of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, with their associated popular and critical success, a promising career in big-budget movies beckoned – until 2010’s Scott Pilgrim Vs The World proved to be just too idiosyncratic a vision to find an audience, and he was notoriously booted from Ant-Man (a film he’d been working on for the best part of a decade), again because Marvel couldn’t quite get on board with his approach to the material. Wright’s only significant success since Hot Fuzz has been The World’s End – which harsh critics might say suggests he can’t make a good movie without Simon Pegg and Nick Frost.

Nevertheless, Wright’s long-time backers at Working Title have stuck by him, and here they are putting their name to another very un-Working Title-like movie – neither a rom-com nor a film with especially serious aspirations, Wright’s Baby Driver is in many ways a modern take on both the kind of stylised urban drama made by Walter Hill in the seventies, and the teen-oriented drive-in tales of a generation earlier.

Ansel Elgort plays Baby, a young man with two great passions in his life – classic music and dangerous driving. Following a traffic accident as a child in which his parents were both killed, he has been left with tinnitus and is obliged to listen to music virtually non-stop in an attempt to drown out the buzzing in his ears. If only that were the worst of his problems. For some considerable time he has found himself in the sway of veteran criminal mastermind Doc (Kevin Spacey), for whom he has been working as a supremely gifted getaway driver. After many years of, basically, indentured servitude, Baby finds himself on the brink of discharging his debt to Doc, and finds himself beginning to dream of freedom… the open road… Debora (Lily James), the waitress at his favourite diner…

Doc, however, has other ideas, and sees no reason to dispense with Baby’s services – his concession is that Baby will receive his share of the loot in return for his participation now, and if he refuses it will be so much the worse for him, his girlfriend, and his elderly adoptive father (CJ Jones). And so he reluctantly shows up to participate in planning sessions for a raid on a post office, other members of the team including a stockbroker turned robber (Jon Hamm) and a violent psychopath (Jamie Foxx). Baby finds his capacity to ignore the violence and cruelty that’s an essential part of armed robbery is reaching its limit, but how is he going to extricate himself from the dangerous world he’s so deeply involved in?

On paper it sounds like a fairly generic crime thriller, with many elements we have seen numerous times before (you may detect faint echoes of the 2011 movie named Drive, as well as The Driver from 1978).  What makes Baby Driver distinctive, however, is its soundtrack, which is very prominent throughout the film, and the way the music is integrated into the story: Wright’s inventiveness when it comes to this sort of thing has been clear ever since the ‘Don’t stop me now’ sequence in Shaun of the Dead. I’ve seen it suggested that this is essentially a jukebox musical (although none of the characters actually do any singing), which couldn’t function without the songs on the soundtrack.

Well, maybe. In a few places the way the songs are woven into the movie is brilliantly handled – a gun battle where the shots are choreographed to match the drums of the song playing over it, for example – but much of the time Wright doesn’t appear to be doing much more than just sticking a cool tune on over a scene. Maybe the director is a little twitchy about making the film too surreal and stylised, after what happened with Scott Pilgrim, in which case this is kind of understandable. In any case, it is naturally a very good soundtrack; anything which brings artists like Marc Bolan and The Damned to a wider audience will get the nod from me.

So in the end, instead of something particularly adventurous stylistically, we are left with that, let’s be generous, archetypal crime thriller, which on the whole is handled fairly seriously. (Although there are some very good gags along the way.) Ansel Elgort is not really required to do much more than look soulful and conflicted, and Lily James is honestly not very much more than a symbol, but they are perfectly fine in these roles. Most of the heavy lifting, in terms of actual acting, is done by the more senior members of the cast, and these performances are possibly the best thing about the movie. Kevin Spacey, Jon Hamm, and Jamie Foxx are all extremely good as characters which frequently turn out to have a bit more depth than you might honestly have expected – the result is a nicely twisty-turny caper, although a few of the final character beats and reversals don’t ring entirely true.

In any case it’s nice to find so much heft in a movie that promised to be much more about style and directorial whistles and bells. Those are still here to some extent, and perhaps this is why the various chases don’t give the breathless hit of adrenaline that a really classic movie car chase provides , and why the romance between Baby and Debora feels a bit anaemic and lacking in real heat – an ostentatious reminder of Wright’s directorial presence is never very far away, which stopped me, at least, from completely engaging with the film as a piece of fiction.

Still, this is well put together stuff, even if I’m not sure the target audience will recognise all the narrative riffs that Wright is looking to play – rather unexpectedly, he takes the morality of the film and his characters rather more seriously than is fashionable than in a lot of films aimed at this sort of demographic, and it will be interesting to see how that plays with the target audience.

Baby Driver is unlikely to transform anyone’s world, but it is a solidly assembled and consistently entertaining film. Whether (and how much) Wright is forcibly restraining his natural instincts in order to make a commercially more viable film is a question I suspect we’ll never know the answer to, but this deserves to do well for him.

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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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It may well come as a surprise to you to learn this, but someone once took exception to my general principle of referring to the Dungeons & Dragons-loving actor known to his parents by the name of Mark Sinclair as ‘the great Vin Diesel’. Vin Diesel is simply not that great, ran the argument. He is a man of limited range. When he is not doing a Fast & Furious movie or playing Riddick, the chances of you wanting to see what he’s been up to are frankly quite small.

And I suppose there is a case to be answered here. But, as I’ve often said, the Fast & Furious movies are generally pretty entertaining ones that you have a good time watching, and this is surely reflected in the massive success of the last few episodes. And if you should doubt the importance of Vin Diesel to the whole undertaking, all you need to do is watch the only one he makes no appearance whatsoever in, John Singleton’s 2 Fast 2 Furious, from 2003.

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With Diesel off making xXx at the time (possibly not a great career move, Vin), the only major character from the original to make an appearance is Brian O’Conner, played as usual by Paul Walker. O’Conner has left his former career as an undercover cop and is now making a living as a professional street-racer in Miami. Unfortunately his past catches up with him when he is nabbed by the local cops.

Brian is presented with an ultimatum: go undercover working as a driver for local drugs kingpin Verone (Cole Hauser), or go to jail. He agrees, but only on the condition that he can have his old friend Roman (Tyrese Gibson), another boy racer, as his partner on the job. The authorities inevitably agree, and…

Well, here’s the thing. I’ve watched 2 Fast 2 Furious three times, I think, including twice in the last ten days or so. And yet if you asked me what the plot of the film is about, or indeed what happens in the course of the story, I would find myself somewhat stuck. There’s a bit where a car gets crushed by an oil tanker, and a ridiculous CGI bridge jumping stunt, and Eva Mendes in a succession of tight tops (just for a change), and a bit where a guy has a rat trying to burrow into his stomach, and a big chase at the end with some ejector seats and someone crashing a car into the top deck of a yacht. Ludacris, not yet the Q-like techno-wizard his character later becomes, shows up in a couple of frankly startling hairstyles. But it’s almost as if your brain rejects the plot of the movie and refuses to give it headspace.

Or it could be that the film is just a tottering stack of action and racing movie clichés assembled with an eye to slickness and general aestheticism. None of the characters are in any danger of achieving a second dimension, let alone a third. The whole thing is just vapid and feels pointless – there’s never any sense of anything being at stake, the film is just about floating a series of pretty pictures past the viewer.

The most recent time I watched the movie it was in a vain attempt to try and dig into it and find something worth discussing about it – some subtext, intentional or not, some comment on society or the time in which it was made. Somehow I ended up watching it with the director’s commentary switched on, and in the end I decided to go with that as it seemed likely to offer a few insights.

Hmmm. Well, John Singleton earned his place in the history books as the youngest person ever to get Oscar nominated as Best Director (at the age of 23, in case you were wondering). Sadly this seems to have been a classic case of someone peaking too soon, as his work since then has been increasingly undistinguished. The odd thing is that his is the opposite case to that of a successful genre director who tries his hand at making a serious statement and promptly comes a cropper: Singleton started off making socially-conscious dramas about urban life in America, which were generally fairly well-reviewed, only to later switch to making populist fodder which has generally stunk out the theatres it has (briefly) appeared in. However, the commentary on 2 Fast 2 Furious reveals that a startling amount of considered thought seems to have gone into the making of this very generic, rather dumb movie: doubly startling given that Singleton himself declares the film to be all about ‘fast cars and sexy girls’. (Said commentary also regularly features Singleton describing in some detail what’s happening on the screen. This confusion of the ‘director’s commentary’ and ‘audio described for the visually impaired’ functions is generally a sign of a film-maker struggling to find things to say.)

It’s true, the movie is filled with this sort of thing – in places it has an almost cartoony look to it, the result of a Japanese anime influence (it would be nice to think this was a conscious foreshadowing of Tokyo Drift, but I really, really doubt it) – but, as I said, there is nothing underpinning it, at least nothing that Singleton can persuade you to care about.

In fact all you really take away from watching this film is a deeper understanding of Tyrese Gibson’s place in the group dynamic of the other F&F films: here, he’s definitely playing the hero’s sidekick. But in the other movies, the guy who’s the hero here is actually the sidekick. Which means that Gibson has been stuck playing the sidekick’s sidekick for the past three films, which may explain the look of thinly-veiled desperation I’m sure I’ve spotted in his eyes now and then. Maybe he will be able to move up the pecking order a bit in future outings.

What else do I need to say? It’s the one genuinely bad Fast & Furious movie. It really has nothing to commend it beyond the fact it introduces Tej and Roman. It’s one for completists only. We’ve all already wasted too much time discussing it. Let’s move on.

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When Justin Lin’s The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift first came out in 2006, it did okay for itself, though it didn’t quite cross the double-its-budget box office threshold that apparently is the requirement for a film to be considered a genuine success. Most people dismissed it as a clutching-at-straws third instalment of series which had run out of ideas (not to mention original cast members). Not-quite-ten years on, of course, with the Fast and Furious franchise elevated to world-bestriding colossus status, it has acquired a certain curiosity value – is it the franchise misstep it initially looks like?

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Like I said, the main characters of the series are distinctly thin on the ground this time around, and protagonist duties are left to Texan bad lad and (inevitably) boy racer Sean Boswell (Lucas Black), who at the start of the film is expelled from high school. This is not, as you might have thought, because he is visibly about 25 and much too old to be at school – everyone at high school in Texas seems to be well on the way to their thirties, which is not a great advertisement for the state’s education system when you think about it.

No, Sean gets kicked out for racing, predictably enough, and is packed off to stay with his dad, who is living a slightly sleazy expat lifestyle in Tokyo (which often looks suspiciously like Los Angeles with bits added via special effects). Despite not speaking or reading a word of Japanese, he is nevertheless packed off to the local Japanese school. Here he makes friends with a comic relief sidekick (Bow Wow), who is not Japanese, and sort of starts a bit of a thing with a hot-looking girl (Nathalie Kelley), who is not Japanese either.

All this inevitably leads Sean to the local street racing circuit, where finally a (these days at least) familiar face appears – it’s Han from the Fast and Furious All-Stars (Sung Kang), who isn’t Japanese either. When Hot Girl’s boyfriend Takeshi (Brian Tee), who is actually Japanese, takes exception to Sean putting the moves on her, a race inevitably breaks out – but Sean’s skills at going very fast in a straight line are of limited value in Japan, where one apparently wins races by going very fast round corners in a manner I would describe as fairly unsafe. Having wrecked one of Han’s cars and lost this vehicular combat, Sean finds himself having to do odd jobs for Han. But will he win the heart of Hot Girl? Will the simmering rivalry between Sean and Takeshi ignite again? And will he ever manage to learn how to go around corners properly?

Now, enjoyable as I find the Fast and Furious movies, even I will cheerfully admit they are not exactly highbrow entertainment – but even by the standards of the series, Tokyo Drift is an unusually vacuous piece of work, as you may have noted from the the number of times ‘inevitably’ and ‘predictably’ crop up in the synopsis just above. To say the plot is contrived and more than a bit silly is an understatement, and while all of these films have a glossy sheen, this one has little else.

These days, Asia is such a major market that it’s quite common for films to incorporate Asian characters and even extra scenes just to appeal to crowds over there, but I doubt the decision to set this film in Tokyo was made with an eye on seizing the audience’s yen: if so, they would probably have included a single sympathetic named Japanese character. (There’s kind of a suggestion that Hot Girl may be half-Japanese, but the film virtually admits that she’s just there to be ornamental and doesn’t bother with giving her any depth.) But they don’t – every local whose name we learn is either a local thug or an actual member of the Yakuza. Being – well, calling it ‘heroic’ is pushing it in a movie where the height of moral and personal achievement consists of going round a corner at high speeds while not pointing the right way, but whatever – is left to the expats. Japan is just there because it looks nice and because it presents some interesting cliches to mess around with (Sean gets into a bit of a contretemps with a sumo wrestler at one point, who is very unflatteringly depicted).

I think it’s also probably an issue that most of these films are about various legally-dubious capers, with a little light car racing on the side, whereas in Tokyo Drift the situation is reversed – Han is up to some dodgy deals, but the focus is firmly on going round corners quickly at funny angles. The non-vehicular action quotient is lower here than in any of the other films in the series, which somehow makes the whole thing a bit more of a niche movie – you either have to be really into car racing, or alternatively absurdly misrepresented Japanese pop culture, to find this very engaging stuff. (Although I suppose cultural historians may find the way the film makes a big deal out of people having cameras on their phones interesting, as this clearly still had novelty value back in 2006.)

In short, it’s an eminently dismissible entry in the series, or would be if recent instalments hadn’t tried so heroically to retcon a little significance into it. If you’ve seen the later films in which he appears, Sung Kang’s performance here seems loaded with a kind of soulfulness and significance that probably just wasn’t there at the time the film came out: in any case, as the main link to the rest of the series, he does a sterling job. There is also the pleasure of imagining a surly-looking Jason Statham lurking just out of frame for much of the film, as we must now imagine is the case. It really does tie in with the other movies remarkably well: one has to wonder just how far in advance, and in how much detail, they plan ahead.

Having said that, I suspect they’re just very good at improvising and stitching bits together, because if in 2006 they were planning to make a series of very good films some years down the line, one has to wonder why they didn’t make a better one at the time. Tokyo Adrift would probably be a better subtitle for this one – most of the elements that make this series fun are present and correct here, but it’s even dumber than usual and you really do miss the regular characters. The film is kind of flopping about trying to find a reason to exist and not quite managing it – if the next four films hadn’t gone on to be such massive hits, I doubt anyone would spare it very much thought at all.

 

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All things considered, it’s not a tremendous surprise to find adverts for new Jurassic Park and Terminator movies hanging around the trailer portion of the cinema-going experience – these series both have the feel of studio cash-cows about them, regardless of how they appear to have been mucked about in a dubious attempt to make them appear fresher and more original. Slightly more unexpected is the first Mad Max film in thirty years, directed – as before – by George Miller.

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For the purposes of Mad Max: Fury Road, Mel Gibson has – not surprisingly – been replaced by Tom Hardy. This appears to be another instance of that modern plague, the reboot, inasmuch as the events of the story seems to replace or overwrite those of Mad Max 2: Hardy starts the film in a costume clearly derived from Gibson’s, and is driving a very similar car, but things take a different turn when he falls into the clutches of a post-apocalyptic warlord known as Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who of course played the main villain in the first Mad Max in 1979).

Things look bleak for Max as he is pressed into service as, basically, a source of medical supplies, but all is not well in Immortan Joe’s kingdom, when his trusted lieutenant Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) makes a break for freedom in a heavily-armed battlewagon, taking with her the warlord’s harem of young brides (including Rosie Huntingdon-Whiteley as the slimmest-ankled heavily-pregnant woman in history). Immortan Joe, following standard post-apocalyptic warlord procedure, mounts an energetic pursuit in a variety of peculiar vehicles. One of these is driven by Nux (Nicholas Hoult), a young warrior whose need for regular medical fortification leads to his mounting Max on his car as a sort of hood ornament. Could this be Max’s chance to make a break for it? Can he find enough common ground with Furiosa and the others to form an alliance? And what are the chances of Miller doing another Babe sequel?

Just to reiterate, there is a complete absence of Mel Gibson as far as Fury Road is concerned, and as his replacement Tom Hardy is… hmmm, well, we’ll come back to that one. I can’t imagine that anyone will miss Gibson too much, however, as all the other elements of Mad Max movies of years gone by have been reconstituted, albeit in a larger, glossier, and louder form. The central through-line of the plot is the same as that of previous sequels – damaged loner Max reluctantly finds himself making common cause with a group of other survivors, and much vehicular carnage ensues – and while it would be overstating things to say that Fury Road is basically just the final chase from Mad Max 2 stretched out to two hours with some of the weirder and more grotesque elements of Beyond Thunderdome drizzled lightly over the top, neither is this a completely unfair description of the film.

Certainly there is not a great deal of plot taking place here beyond an extended pursuit across some extraordinary, devastated landscapes, and what gives the film its drive and identity is the sheer raw energy of the thing, along with some strikingly bizarre art direction. There’s a lot of inventive mutilation and mutation even before the bullets start flying, and the initial assault of the film – its first act – is almost oppressively relentless in the succession of over-the-top images and moments it delivers, never quite giving you time to assimilate them. It calms down eventually, though not by much, and you’re never very far from something exploding or a gory death of some description. Did I mention that George Miller is 70 years old? This film looks like the work of somebody many decades younger.

Still, it would all look very much like a hollow sort of retread of past glories, were it not for the core of the story, which is something new and quite different for a major studio action movie, namely some of the most uncompromising sexual politics I can recall seeing in a mainstream release of any kind. ‘Feminist’ doesn’t begin to do it justice: the plot is initiated and driven by the female characters and it’s the women in the film who are presented as competent, sympathetic, and sane throughout – the men are all crazed, unpleasant, acquisitive fools obsessed with ideas of theology and possession. You could even argue that the whole film is ultimately the weirdest statement in favour of womens’ reproductive freedom in world history (a prominent scene has the harem clipping off their chastity belts with bolt cutters). Even Max, the ostensible hero, doesn’t get very much to do in terms of actually shaping the plot: he’s an entirely passive figure for most of the first half hour, for example. It’s not really surprising that Theron, as Furiosa, shares top billing with him, as she is essentially the main protagonist of the film.

Perhaps my view of this film has been somewhat coloured by an early review I saw entitled something along the lines of ‘New Mad Max movie is so feminist it made my nuts drop off’, but I really don’t think so. Nevertheless, as usual I can’t shake my suspicion of any film which suggests that real feminism is about women acting so viciously and violently they are almost indistinguishable from men, and I do think the film is compromised by the fact that it is, even if only putatively, about a male hero. (Still, I’d be fascinated to learn more about Miller’s creative process – did he decide to insert the political angle into a pre-existing idea for another Max movie? (This one seems to have been in development hell for at least a decade.) Or was it just that he wanted to make a film about these ideas and concluded that he’d have the best chance of financing another SF action film, rather than something more overtly political?)

Maybe I am overstating things, because even if you’re oblivious to the ideas involved, the film has more than enough energy and grit and movement to be fully acceptable just as an action movie. After a slightly wobbly start, not helped by the fact he spends a fair portion of the film with some kind of gardening implement attached to his face, Hardy brings his customary charisma to bear and is an entirely satisfactory lead – even if he arguably doesn’t get the material he deserves. One could, perhaps, suggest that Hardy’s accent goes on a wild geographical odyssey of its own in the course of the film (he starts off apparently attempting an Aussie accent and by the end seems to be doing the Bane voice again), but this is not really a serious issue for him or Fury Road.

I’ll be honest and say that I didn’t turn up for Mad Max: Fury Road with especially high expectations, mainly because it did just look like a karaoke version of the earlier films, with a vast budget taking the place of any real invention. Well, this is not the film that I was expecting, but something with a much more twisted and subversive edge to it. I still wouldn’t say it was in the same league as either of the first two films, and it’s obviously not going to have anything like the same kind of cultural impact, but it’s still going to satisfy fans of both this series and action-oriented fantasy in general. The other SF revenants I mentioned at the top of the page look like being, at best, good Bad Movies. This is quite probably a Good Movie, full stop. Worth a look.

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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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