The Fate of the Furious (***): Don’t think. It’s Meat

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The Fate of the Furious – 2017

Director F. Gary Gray
Screenplay Chris Morgan
Starring Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges, Scott Eastwood, Nathalie Emmanuel, Elsa Pataky, Kurt Russell, Charlize Theron

Don’t think that I don’t know that this series is as dumb as anything I have ever seen.

Don’t think I don’t want to see someone beaten like a Cherokee drum.

Don’t think that I don’t know that there is some serious man crushing going on between The Rock’s Hobbs and Statham’s Deckard.

Don’t think that it isn’t kind of cool to see all those cars fall from above in NYC.

Don’t think that it isn’t cool seeing Dom turn heel when they run out of story-lines.

Don’t think for a minute I can’t tell you’re trying to make Scott Eastwood a star eventually. And I hope it works well enough to give him a personality, too.

Don’t think I buy for a second that anyone who dies in this series is really dead. And the one guy who died outside the series will ever be shown as dead.

Don’t think I am any less tired of Tyrese Gibson’s Roman than I am of Dom “Meathead” Torretto.

Don’t think I don’t miss Sung Kang and Gal Gadot.

Don’t think I don’t know it’s not random choice that Theron’s Cipher makes when doling out punishment. It’s about as Random as Gadot dying just before her boyfriend Kang in part 6.

Don’t think I don’t enjoy watching The Rock kicking ass.We always need more Statham.

Don’t think I don’t enjoy watching Luda as a techno Wiz. I would buy anything he’s selling.

Don’t think that the snow chase isn’t as dumb as it is cool. More submarine, please.

Don’t think I can ever get enough of Helen Mirren.

Don’t think the laws of physics on this or any planet will apply.

Don’t think I don’t want to hear Roman stop yelling.

Don’t think any of this will ever make sense.

Don’t think that the grand master antagonist isn’t working for some other grand master antagonist in another movie down the line.

Don’t believe there won’t be a full immunity or full reinstatement at the end of every film.

Don’t think I don’t want to see Hobbs beat down Torretto.

Don’t think. It will all be better that way.

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Furious 7 (***1/2): Meatball Hallmark Card

Furious 7 – 2015

Director James Wan
Starring Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Dwayne Johnson, Michelle Rodriguez, Jordana Brewster, Tyrese Gibson, Chris Bridges, Kurt Russell, Jason Statham
Screenplay Chris Morgan

If one could sum up the entire Furious franchise in 3 phrases, it would be:

I don’t have friends. I got family.

I live life a quarter-mile at a time.

One last ride.

At this point, the gang is on their 3rd consecutive last ride. This time it was made especially poignant in the untimely death of co-lead Paul Walker. The filmmakers made the wise choice to re-shoot parts of the film as an impromptu tribute to a person who had become a key figure in the lives of the cast and crew of this most uniquely enduring franchise. To think it all started as Point Break in fast cars…

In a strange twist often mentioned in the past, the movies went to the edge of American Pie Presents Band Camp status, backed up and headed right into Italian Job and then James Bond. To say this was planned would be disingenuous. Most of the actors, including Diesel, have tried and failed to come up with outside franchises. Fast and Furious, though, is like the really big fuel injected engine that could. The success of the franchise has made many fans that were casual into looky loos. And even if each film produces as many cringe-inducing moments as awe-inspiring ones, it is a tribute to the people involved that they have made it into the Juggernaut we see today.

This time around finds the group looking down the barrel of Deckard Shaw. Deckard is the brother of Owen, the antagonist from the last film who now is resting comfortably under maximum guard at the hospital. That is until Deckard obliterates the guard and most of the hospital just to tell the staff to take good care of Owen. This is ridiculous of course, because by destroying the facility, he has negatively affected the chance of his brother getting said good care. As if that is not enough of a reminder, we then see more of what we ended the last film with; the death of Han (featured in 3 films now), the explosion of a package that has arrived from Deckard (seen in two) and the maiming of Hobbs (Johnson). Apparently, the creative staff think the viewers have short memories.

Dom goes to visit Hobbs in the hospital, then goes to pick up Han and gathers the team together for Han’s funeral. If you can’t guess what will happen at the funeral, you get no Parmesan for your meatball. Dom gets acquainted with the new antagonist, and then gets to meet the new covert ops guy, Petty (Russell). That this meeting prevented the conclusion of the movie from happening 30 minutes in is not lost on either Dom or Petty, but that’s okay, we have another 1.5 hours to fill. Petty tells Dom he and his team need to get a MacGuffin called God’s Eye from some bad guys, capture the person of interest that has something MacGuffinish to do with God’s Eye and get them both back to Petty. Then, Petty says, Dom can use the God’s Eye to track down Deckard, who was just in front of him minutes ago, until Petty interfered. That’s okay, though, because Petty is a professional who was smart enough to hire an amateur for…one last ride.

Or three last rides.

Now the real jet setting begins. Dom and company go from the Los Angeles Caucasus Mountains to Abu Dhabi and then back to Los Angeles. They drop in cars from a military cargo plane, crash down a mountainside multiple times, dress up and sneak into a party, crash, jump, crash, jump and crash again through the Etihad Towers, fight it out in an old abandoned warehouse, and then tear the hell out of downtown L.A. before they approach a conclusion. There is literally more damage in this film than the last Godzilla movie. If you think I have ruined any part of this for you, you have not seen the rest of these movies. Literally the only surprise they’ve ever had was dragging the safes through town in Fast Five.

It’s completely taken for granted that whenever they arrive in a new country, they will immediately arrive in a row of expensive cars. What is also a given is no matter how much damage they cause, no one will ever question them and they will never have a problem walking out of that scene and driving into the next in another bunch of expensive cars.

All of this ridiculous action is augmented by the fact that they have collected a group of characters that we have learned to care about through sheer force of the will of all involved in making the film. They each have a few moments to shine in each episode, along with many requisite scenes that hammer the limitations of their characters into the story. This would normally be for the uninitiated. Until I brought my friend Binage, I had not met someone who hadn’t seen at least one of the films who started with in the middle somewhere. He enjoyed it though.

I enjoyed it too, despite all the belly laughs of incredulity. Through all the explosions, all the crashes, the litany of bullets, and the absolute defiance of the concept of gravity, this film really works. Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of the film is how all of the characters (and the people who play them outside of Bridges, Russell and Johnson) completely lack any sort of self-awareness. It’s almost like a joyful, loving Bronson film. Were it not for Walker’s tragedy, perhaps the defining point of the series would have been when Diesel stomps on a parking garage roof as it is cracking…and a large part (perhaps a quarter-mile) of the concrete  actually breaks away! We should never think of Vin as a short guy again.

The glory in lacking an understanding of who you are results in other great moments, like when, in a flash back scene, we see two characters get married. My friend Binage, until now caught up in the action, leans over and says:

“What kind of guy wears a wife-beater to his own wedding?”

Through it all, the acting is consistent, if not Shakespearean. Walker gets a fitting tribute for the simple fact that they did not take the easy way out. It’s a beautiful statement that choose to alter the formula of the surprise mid-credits scene to set up the next film to give the character the kind of closure he did not get in life.

Throughout the story, however, one gets the sense of déjà vu. Brian is in the midst of fatherhood, now driving a mini-van. He’s frustrated, saying he misses the bullets more than he misses the cars. His woman, Mia (Brewster), hems and haws much like she did last time and tells him over the phone that they are expecting another kid, this time a girl. So if one kid didn’t make him want to retire, the second should do the trick. What would they have done if he’d been around for the next few films? I get the feeling that 5 kids would not be enough to prevent him from taking yet another last ride.

Despite it’s flaws, or maybe because of them, Vin Diesel and company have created a memorable franchise out of ashes. And I am sure this “family” will be around for a while more. In the haze of bad dialogue and forced dramatic tension, there is a brilliant line delivered by Dom that steals the show and demonstrates the draw that the little lug has on the heartstrings of ‘Murica. In a tender moment shared with Letty, she asks him why he had not revealed more of their past together before she recovered from her 3 movie amnesia spell. With complete sincerity, he looks at her an says:

You can’t tell someone that they love you.

Right about now, I think everyone involved with this unlikely saga knows that they are loved.

(***1/2 out of *****)

Fast & Furious 6: High Tech Lemonade

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Fast & Furious 6 – 2013

Director Justin Lin
Starring Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Dwayne Johnson,Michelle Rodriguez, Jordana Brewster, Tyrese Gibson, Chris Bridges, Sung Kang, Luke Evans, Gina Carano, John Ortiz
Screenplay Chris Morgan

Into the void of PG-13 summer action sprang forth the 6th film in the Fast & Furious franchise.  There is a point to all of this speed and fury, I am sure of it.  To date, the most interesting point in the series happens in the credits of this film, which harkens back to the 3rd, seemingly throwaway episode, Tokyo Drift.  The rest of the films have been a progression from “…stealing DVD players, trades up, ends up heisting over $100 million in Rio,” as stated so eloquently by the film’s generic bad guy, Owen Shaw, played with almost no memorable traits by Luke Evans.  Evans has the ability to be great in films that should be mediocre (The Three Musketeers) as well as the ability to hide his charm completely (The Raven).  Here he is all charm no greatness.  What he does have is a fast, flat car with tires that don’t pop when flipping bigger cars.  The car doesn’t slow down at all, either.

That’s the movie, though, isn’t it?  Muscle cars, and musclebound guys.  Both facets are most capably represented in the form of Vin Diesel, who is at home in all the glorious hogwash.  He rips through the clichéd script and action sequences with a beautiful smugness that shows he is in for the ride of his life, even if it comes in 20 parts.  Judging by the struggle he’s had to make Riddick into a practical commodity, it make take 20 parts to keep his other projects going.

Truth is, as powerful of a supporting cast as is present in the Fast & Furious series, none of the other cast, outside of Johnson, have the ability to carry a film.  In this way, it’s kind of a supporting actor’s version of The Expendables.  That might be cutting it a little or a lot short.  The latter series is a continued act of desperation to salvage the career of Stallone, whereas, the Diesel series feels more homogenous, and like there is an overall plan, even if the scripts are rip offs of films like Point Break, The Italian Job or The French Connection.  At this rate, the next theft should be Citizen Kane.

Paul Walker and Jordana Brewster look like an awesome runway couple.  It still doesn’t look like she’s had a baby, and I haven’t seen either of these kids in anything outside the series since it started.  Walker get’s his own sequence inside the clink here, and even if it is a bit superfluous, it still looked cool.

Gibson has the Transformers series going for him, and he may be approaching Samuel L. Jackson numbers in the next decade if his luck holds out.   My favorite scene in the film occurs when he and Kang get their asses kicked by one bad guy.  It takes a confident pair of actors to not be the swiftest onscreen and still keep smiling.

Chris Hayes doesn’t do much this round.  He’s there to figure stuff out on computers and exuberantly remind the rest of the crew when things are not going well.  I’ll take that.

Michelle Rodriguez is back, with the requisite memory loss required for many characters who die off-screen.  There is a pleasure to behold when she goes up against MMA fighter turned actress, Gina Carano.  The first one is a draw.  I will give you one guess who wins the rematch between the girl Girl Fight and the mentor from Fight Girls.

Dwayne Johnson doesn’t do much here but glower, trade clichés with Diesel and fight the big guys.  That leaves Evans for Diesel in the end.

Let’s be frank, this stuff is crap.  The amount of tough guy language uttered in this film make Die Hard 2: Die Harder look like Bard.  For all the talk of family, going it alone, and this one’s on me, there is the feeling of comfort food.  It makes you dumber, bit by bit, but it also feels good.  I haven’t tried watching any of the films twice, though.  I don’t want to risk Cabin Fever in my homey utopia.   

I will leave you with some of the coolest dialogue in the film.  It’s verbose, but concludes with perhaps Diesel’s best delivery in the series:

Owen Shaw: You know, when I was young, my brother always said, “Every man has to have a code.” Mine: Precision. Use what you have, switch them out when you need to until you get the job done. It’s efficient. But you? You’re loyal to a fault. Your code is about family. It makes you predictable. And in our line of work, predictable means vulnerable. And that means I can reach out and break you whenever I want.
Dominic Toretto: At least when I go, I’ll know what it’s for.

I can’t wait for the next chapter.

(***1/2 out of *****)