Fast & Furious 7

Gear change

Fast & Furious 7 (2015)

In a move that mirrors Skynet’s terrifying rise of the machines, the Fast and the Furious franchise has become self-aware. As a series, it’s been doing this since the soft reboot 4th instalment, the confusingly titled “Fast and Furious”, testing more and more outlandish elements with each film. I think Furious 7 is them fully embracing the ridiculous and rolling with it.

Enraged by his brother’s defeat, Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) attempts to kill Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and his family. Cue vrooms and booms. When I said that this film embraces the ridiculous, I wasn’t just talking about the tongue-in-cheek dialogue and the physics-defying stunts. It applies to nearly all aspects, including the plot. The whole thing plays out like a dumb Bond film i.e. a globetrotting adventure with plenty of opportunities for mayhem against exotic backdrops. The plot revolves around a program called the God’s Eye that can track anyone, anywhere. It’s basically a more sophisticated version of Lucius Fox’s sonar thing in The Dark Knight. Our heroes are informed that if they acquire the God’s Eye, they may use it to track down the Stath. All well and good, but what is the point in hunting a man who keeps turning up to kill them? He tracks them across the world. He’s doing all the legwork. If they used it to get a heads-up on where he would strike next, that would have made more sense.  As hypocritical as it is for this statement to be said by someone who almost exclusively whinges about narrative, the plot really isn’t important. It’s there as a vague framework for our heroes to bicker and for shit to blow up. I’m totally fine with that.

The death of Paul Walker hangs over Furious 7. There’s a touching realism added to the series’ themes of family and togetherness. I think they did a fantastic job of moulding the film around Walker’s absence and apart from a few off-feeling phone conversations Brian has, he’s convincingly part of the narrative. The film can’t be what they initially set out to make, but the film we do get doesn’t feel too compromised. The way they handle Brian’s departure from the series is beautifully done and genuinely tear-jerking. It’s a fitting tribute and it pulls double time as both a goodbye to the character and the actor. In my Fast & Furious 6 review, I was a bit cruel about the series’ theme of family, basically saying that repeating the word “family” wasn’t enough for me to buy into it. Paul Walker’s death and the effect it had on Furious 7 has removed that issue for me. Every utterance of the word “family” has a palpable tragedy and a deeper meaning attached. Not only does it not feel like a lazy plot device any more, it feels necessary to pay tribute to a lost friend. I’m now fully on board with them being like a family and it’s just a shame it took real life butting its ugly head in to do it.

I love the fact that F&F has evolved into a better version of The Expendables. It’s a real ensemble piece and I was glad to see the familiar crew again. Kurt Russell shows up as Mr. Nobody, a government man who is an eyepatch away from being Nick Fury (or Snake Plissken). I’m imagining he’ll feature in further F&Fs. Good thing too, because he seems to be enjoying every second. I was a little disappointed in the Stath’s role in proceedings. He’s a cool enough baddie, but there’s just nothing much about him. Shaw is rather generic and just shows up when the film needs some shit to go down. He has some funny interactions with The Rock’s Agent Hobbs early on, but as soon as the globetrotting begins, he’s just a British T-1000. I wanted him to really chew the scenery, but he never really got the chance. The Rock is a series regular now, but I want to mention how goddamn great he is. He’s in the film intermittently, but he makes use of every second. There is a brilliant moment where he cracks his arm cast by the power of flexing after uttering the line “Daddy’s got to go to work” that is so retro and awesome that it already ranks up there with some of the more testosterone-pumping moments of action classics like Predator. The image of him wielding a minigun is also badass.

I think Furious 7 may have a series best action setpiece. The sequence starts with the crew skydiving out of the back of a plane in their cars to attack a motorcade on treacherous mountain roads. The whole thing is unbelievably well choreographed and shot and it just keeps ramping up the stakes until you can’t take no more. One of my favourite things about the franchise now is that no idea is too ridiculous. They’ll just go for it if they think it’ll entertain. Best example of this is during the motorcade sequence when the chased bus’s side panels open revealing a row of remote miniguns. I cackled with glee at each fun twist and turn. The film has many other action bits, but none top the early scene. James Wan can definitely shoot car action, but I’m not sold on his hand-to-hand fighting chops. The camera work is a lot more frenetic and it can be tough to tell who is who. I like the trick he does by locking the camera on someone falling through the air, especially when it’s used to follow The Stath getting Rock Bottomed through a glass table.

I really enjoyed Fast & Furious 7. It’s easy to be snobby about it, but I think there’s room for big, dumb fun in this fucking awful world. If the tone and quality continues, I could watch this series forever. Recommended.

Riddick

 

Everyone’s a criddick
 

Riddick (2013)

Yeah, I know. There’s a bunch of “important” films out at the moment and I’m reviewing some lunkhead sci-fi thing from last year. Well, here’s the thing, I’m not exactly paid millions for this gig. In fact, I’m not paid at all, so going to see every film that has had award gold mentioned anywhere near it would be insanely costly. Plus, I’m probably one of the only people outside of Vin Diesel who actually likes the Riddick saga and wanted to see where it went next. So here is us, on the raggedy edge. Don’t push me and I won’t push you.

“Somewhere along the way, I lost a step. I got sloppy. Dulled my own edge. Maybe I went and did the worst crime of all. I got civilized.”

Betrayed by the Necromongers, Richard B. Riddick (Vin Diesel) is left for dead on a desert planet. After a while, Riddick forms an escape plan and finds a way to alert some bounty hunters to his location, all of them hoping to collect the big fat price on his head. The motley crews that show up include your standard violent mercenary types and a man with a personal beef to settle with Riddick. The basic film is solid, although clunkily adheres to the three act structure with audible crunches whenever the film changes gear. I’ll watch Vin Diesel in most things. He’s a fun watch and is notoriously geeky underneath all his dudebro cred. The rest of the cast are a mixed bag. None of them are particularly bad, it’s just that there’s not enough personality to go round and a lot of them fade into the background. Jordi Mollà pops up as Santana, a grizzled mercenary who likes big knives and non-consensual fun. Matt Nable plays Johns Snr. a man related to the Johns in the original Pitch Black. Katee Sackhoff is decent in the role of tough merc Dahl and Dave Bautista shows he’s got some presence to him outside of his hulking appearance and can surprisingly sell some comedic moments, making me anticipate his role in the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy even more. Also Karl Urban shows up wearing way too much makeup.

Riddick is ludicrous, corny sci-fi, but that’s what the series has been since Chronicles of Riddick. It’s an ’80s throwback, full of over-the-top action and slow-motion leaps through the air. If you can’t get on board with that, then Riddick won’t be for you. Don’t go in expecting a modern, flawed character. Riddick is an invincible badass. This is a film series that has names like “Crematoria” for a burning planet, “Furyans” as a race of warrior people and mentions of an “Underverse”. We’re not talking about highbrow sci-fi here. Riddick has a CGI dog sidekick, for instance. It’s Mad Max, Aliens and a fuckton of other films thrown into a blender- and that’s no bad thing. The first half of the film is the best, showing Riddick surviving the planet’s various hostile wildlife in near silence, with only occasional bassy voiceovers to fill in the gaps. It proves that a) Riddick is a decent character and b) Vin Diesel is charismatic and fun enough in the role to carry of the Wall-E style opening. The second act is Riddick acting all mysterious, evading capture and picking off faceless mercenaries one by one. It’s not without its charms, but it falls flat after following the strangely brave first part.

The third act of film is basically an extended tribute to Pitch Black. Sequels are usually overreactions to the perceived flaws of the previous film, so Riddick bypasses Chronicles almost entirely and focuses on its franchise spawner. This would be fine, but the script is clunky as hell, so instead of having thematic links to the original, it’s pretty much the same film. Riddick’s chained up, it’s dark and wet outside and there are vicious aliens wanting to kill folk. It’s here that the wheels start to fall off. I’ve already seen Pitch Black, I don’t need to see it again with slightly better effects. It all builds to an ending that comes out of nowhere and makes no damn sense by any stretch of the imagination. It’s genuinely jarring and baffling. Characters just act in a contrived way just so we have a vaguely happy ending, ignoring any kind of motivation or personality they had up to that point. Director and writer David Twohy needs to have his wrists slapped for that one.

As is often the case with this sort of film, the main token female character is indicative of the film’s problems as a whole. I think Sackhoff does well considering, but there’s something really off about the writing when it comes to her and how others react to her. Dahl is a tough female merc who owes a lot to Aliens‘ Vasquez. As the only female, she has a gratuitous shower scene, has to fend off rape and is apparently a lesbian. However, Riddick thinks he can change that. Chained up, he growls about his intentions to kill a dude before saying he’ll be “balls deep” in Dahl by the end, after she asks him all “sweet-like”. This is meant to be badass, but falls extremely flat. I mean the notion that you can heterosex a lesbian straight is pretty fucking disgusting and having it appear in a 2013 film is just wrong. I know it’s a throwback flick, but that attitude reminds me of the Connery Bonds. Y’know, the era when he seduces the “immune” Pussy Galore and tells a native islander to fetch his shoes. The fact that this actually comes to pass is the worst thing. They could have done something subversive with it, but nope- she literally asks him all “sweet-like”. Goddamn. As I said, the ending is a bathtub of weaksauce, but that element to it is the most obnoxious.

“So what is the best way to a man’s heart?”

“Between the fourth and fifth rib. That’s where I usually go. I’ll put a twist at the end if I wanna make sure.”

So, apart from a poor show feminism-wise, Riddick is actually a decent watch. I enjoyed it for what it was. There have been a bunch of reviews calling it stupid and corny, but I think they’re missing the whole appeal of the series. I’ve got a soft spot for less than stellar sci-fi.To be honest, I’m actually looking forward to the teased sequel. If they keep the OTT violence and sci-fi sensibilities, we could be in for a fun ride. Let’s just work on the women this time round, eh?

Fast & Furious 6

 
Flat out action, stalling script
 

Fast & Furious 6 (2013)

Catching up on a few odds and ends from 2013 before I launch into my first yearly roundup thing. First on the list- Fast & Furious 6 (or Furious 6 according to the movie’s title screen). I wasn’t a fan of the F&F series initially. The first one was fine, but the dire sequels and willful stupidity of it all turned me right off the franchise. I started paying attention to it again when Fast 5 defied all expectations and managed to be damn entertaining. Maybe I’ll review the whole series at some point when I hate myself enough to sit through 2 Fast 2 Furious and Tokyo Drift again.

“You’ve got the best crew in the world standing right in front of you, give them a reason to stay.”

In F&F 6, we catch up with our apparently lovable group of crooks, scattered across the globe and enjoying their big payday from their last heist. Brain O’Conner (Paul Walker) has just become a father, Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) is living a quiet, sunkissed life of retirement etc etc. All of that changes when the hench DDS agent Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and his new partner Riley Hicks (Gina Carano) recruit Toretto and his crew, with the promise of full pardons for all, to catch an even more dangerous criminal outfit, led by a man named Shaw (Luke Evans). Toretto and his team must stop Shaw from getting his hands on some chip that is worth a lot of money and will do something bad if in the wrong hands (I honestly can’t remember exactly what, despite watching it last night). Just when you thought the plot couldn’t get thicker, it turns out that Toretto’s GF, Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) is not only alive, but is (gasp!) working for the other side. Cue lots of high-octane action and gruff mumbling. Maybe I’m being unfair and slightly too snarky with my plot synopsis, but it really is a case of “Tab A into Slot A” in terms of action moviemaking. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as I was hardly expecting subtlety and nuance from a film like this. I bought a ticket for the same reason many others did- for the wicked sick car action. Having said that, the story was shockingly perfunctory. Dwayne Johnson is still the charismatic MVP, but Vin Diesel, Paul Walker and the rest of the gang do well. Gina Carano is a nice addition too. Luke Evans is a passable baddie, although the film could have done better with him.

Let’s get this out of the way- the action is top-notch. No series does car porn better than F&F and 6 continues that streak. The sequences are over-the-top ridiculous fun. From the opening race (which reminded me of a better shot version of Quantum of Solace‘s opening gambit) to a brilliant tank sequence and culminating in a huge runway chase, it’s all high quality dumb entertainment. The cars move with balletic style and precision and it’s genuinely thrilling stuff. Much like Fast 5, there’s some genuine innovation amidst all the roaring engines and close-ups of the drivers looking determined. Even the hand-to-hand combat is decently done, with proper choreography in play and being decently shot to boot. I also dig the fact that it mostly takes place in London, even though the film can’t resist chucking in a snooty Englishman. The point being is that I was enjoying all the stunts an’ shit. It’s just a shame that the connective tissue holding the action beats together is as weak as it is.

I’m a big advocate of dumb fun. A script doesn’t have to be full of highbrow Oscar Wilde-esque lines to get a thumbs up from me. I love Michael Bay’s magnum dopus Bad Boys II, for instance. The lines and gags in that film are just barely above giggling at tits and basic toilet humour but I still laugh. I wanted this film to be complete guilty pleasure, rather than just constantly flirting with being one. I want the whole series to be better, which must show that I actually care enough about them to want improvement.  F&F 6‘s script is a clunky mess. Not only do we have hackneyed-as-shit elements like plot-convenient amnesia being played dead straight, but the film doesn’t know how to handle any kind of joke. It really isn’t that hard to be funny, or at the very least hiring someone who is. There’s a basic theme running through the film that Toretto’s bunch are more like a “family” than a bunch of friends. This is opposition to Shaw and his team (presented as the nega versions of our heroes, in a helpful scene where a character flat out observes it) who take a more clinical approach to the group and chop and change members without any kind of sentiment. The ultimate message being that because our lads and lasses love each other, they will triumph when all is said and done. The film subtly conveys this by repeating the word “family” about 20 goddamn times and having forced scenes of joviality and camaraderie. Look- I know this is for the plebs, but come on. It needs to try harder than that. Repeating the same word over and over again isn’t theming. It’s a Sesame Street skit.

Chris Morgan’s script is by far the film’s biggest failing. Checking out his IMDB page, I was surprised to see he was credited for the rather well-written Wanted. Turns out he had four (yes, fucking four) other writers helping him on that, so maybe that’s the answer. He needs professional help. The dialogue scenes and bits where the plot was apparently going on ended up being a tedious slog until the enjoyable pedal-to-the-metal stuff kicked off again. There’s no reason why it has to be that bad. It has to be said that I also barely gave a shit about any of the characters. Letty’s reappearance was just a thing that happened and everything that occurred after that was just as predictable as you’d expect. Just imagine an F&F film where you actually cared about the characters, which would in turn add some proper tension to the impressive setpieces. It’d be great right? The series has thankfully dropped most of the boring street racing stuff in lieu of big heists and the like. I just need it to go the extra mile and tighten up the writing considerably. If this is all there is, I can probably make peace with that, but the thing that this franchise taught me is that it’s never to late to buck up your ideas. Hopefully by the time F&F 7 rolls around, the script will have been overseen by someone who knows how to actually write and not just drool on the keyboard.

“Somebody do something! I’ve got a tank on my ass!”

I’ve read a lot of nasty reviews of this film, criticising its loose grip of concepts, reality and especially physics. I get the feeling these people are missing the point. I’m completely fine with insane leaps of logic if the film is fun enough and this one is, albeit fitfully. I’m intrigued to see where they go from here for two reasons, one, I’ll be interested to see how they get around the sad, untimely death of Paul Walker and two, the awesome credits sting which promises at least one golden reason why I should slap some money down for the next installment.