Films #120-122: Fast and Furious 4-6

film 120 121 122 fast and furious

Ratings: Fast and Furious, 3/5; Fast and Furious 5, 5/5; Fast and Furious 6, 4/5

Who’d have thought, fourteen years ago, that the fairly low-budget, kind-of exploitation movie Fast and Furious would have spawned six sequels, with another three to come? Now one of the hottest franchises around, part 7 promises to be ridiculous, and ridiculously entertaining – albeit tainted by the sudden death of Paul Walker in a real car accident. How they’ll deal with this remains to be seen, and how the series copes with the loss of one of its lead actors will largely depend on what direction the writers choose to take it. In advance of part 7’s release, however, I watched parts 4-6 – the revamped, rebooted portion of the franchise, following the less memorable Tokyo Drift. Back to back, it was a great afternoon/evening and, by the end of it, Vin Diesel had become one of my favourite bad actors. Bless his cotton socks, he tries. He really does – you can see the effort in every heartfelt scene, every moment of conflict. He so clearly takes his craft so seriously, but no matter what inner turmoil the character’s going through, none of it translates. He is the man with one face – blank, stoic, an empty void. Yet I can’t help but enjoy his performances, particularly when they’re watched one after the other. Somehow this franchise has survived despite the fact that I’m fairly certain neither of the leads (and most of the ensemble cast around them) can act.

And it’s not just about the cars. The F&F movies have succeeded for a few key reasons. One, the characters are simple and unremarkable, but they’re all likeable and, to the writers’ credit, each one has their own distinctive personality – however unimaginative and lacking nuance – and they all spark off each other well. I can’t even complain about the women, who hold their own while looking smokin’ hot. Two, the action sequences – of which there are many – are dynamic, explosive, absurd, and thoroughly engaging. These are such macho movies, but they’re not alienating, and that’s quite impressive really. Three, the cars themselves are a thing of beauty, if you’re that way inclined, and there’s something for every afficionado, from American muscle cars, to hot hatches, and even some proper supercars. Needless to say, everything’s really shiny. Four, Dwayne Johnson is now most definitely part of the F&F “family”. More on him in a bit. And finally – perhaps even more importantly than the inclusion of The Rock – these films are just plain fun. They do exactly what they say they’re going to: fast cars, fast driving, furious action, full-on entertainment. Having moved beyond the original street-car themes, these movies are now straight-up action, and all the better for it.

Although each film in the series does fit into the F&F universe, it’s the last three that have really moved directly on from each other – part 4 even finishes on a cliffhanger that opens part 5. Part 4 is good, but it’s nothing compared to 5, when all hell breaks loose in Rio and Dwayne Johnson turns up to out-Vin-Diesel Vin Diesel. Sporting a tough-guy goatee and some serious muscle, Johnson is the actor Vin Diesel can never hope to be – bigger, stronger, and infinitely more charismatic. Whereas Vin Diesel appears to think he’s starring in the next hard-hitting think-piece, Johnson knows full well where he is: slap-bang in the middle of a world where the laws of gravity no longer apply, where criminals are good guys but bad guys are super bad, where jail never really seems to be a possibility and money is rarely an issue. This is a world like the one that James Bond inhabits, where the bad guys’ cars instantly implode on impact, but the good guys can be taken out by trucks and walk away unscathed. It’s a world where, somehow, everyone seems to have a licence to kill, and no qualms about using it, where law enforcement is fully aware of this fact but does nothing, and there are absolutely no repercussions whatsoever following the majority of Rio being taken out by a giant runaway safe. Simply put, it’s my kind of world.

There is a risk, of course, that the films will become stupid in their efforts to outdo themselves, and it’s already happening. Part 6 is a step down after the glorious stupidity and hugely entertaining heist scheme of part 5 – there’s more action, less story, more ass-kicking, less attention to physics, less The Rock, more London. By the time the plane started taking off on the runway, signalling the beginning of one of the most ludicrous final scenes in recent cinema memory (experts claim the runway must be almost 30km in length, exceeding the world’s longest by almost 25km), I had completely lost track of why they were there in the first place. Something about an international terrorist and a bunch of top secret “components”? Not that it really matters much – who cares about plot when you’ve got a tank taking out innocent drivers on a Spanish motorway, a street race through Piccadilly Circus, and a bad-guy plane (you know what that means!)? Well, in truth, me – a little bit. Part 6 is fun, don’t get me wrong, but it doesn’t quite get the balance right. So it goes like this: Part 4 is them finding their feet (wheels?); Part 5 is them in their prime; Part 6 is trying just a bit too hard. As for Part 7? Well, the trailer looks pretty epic – and I expect nothing less.

Random Thought Corner: The Curse of the Boxset

random thought corner boxset

Some eagle-eyed readers may have noticed that Movie Lottery hasn’t been updated in a shamefully long time. There is a legitimate reason for this: I’m in the final six months (fingers crossed!) of my PhD, and have had to prioritise my university writing over my blog posts. It’s understandable, right? Well, it would be, I suppose, if that were the only reason. Now is the time to stand up and admit the truth: I am a boxset addict. You might have seen Virgin Media’s recent “boxset owl” adverts, with the endearingly wide-eyed owl resolutely staying up until the wee hours of the morning, just to watch “one more episode”. That’s me.

It’s not that I’ve not watched any movies over the last four months. I’ve tried to go to the cinema more often, I’ve attempted to clear our Tivo box of some of the films I’ve recorded (because we just don’t own enough unwatched movies already…) and, if I’m being honest, part of the reason why I’ve avoided picking movies out of the bag is because I just don’t have time to update this blog as regularly as I want, but I still feel an obligation to write about the films on our shelves. But mostly, I’ve spent the last four months watching television – or, more accurately, binge-watching television series. This is the golden age of TV, the emergence of “quality” television, a time when one of last year’s most cinematic events was True Detective. Movie stars – bona fide, Oscar-winning, still-in-demand actors – are now appearing in televisions shows, and there’s no shame in it. It’s no longer taboo, the sign of declining popularity, of desperation. Now, it’s viewed as an opportunity to stretch one’s acting abilities, to truly embody a character in long-form storytelling. The accolades are there, the money is there, the talent is there. TV is where it’s at.

Do I really believe this? Well, in part, of course – visual media is changing, and as more people reject the picturehouses in favour of their home cinema, their 42inch flat-screen HD TV, their surround sound, their comfy sofa, their supermarket-priced snacks, so too is the way audiences consume television. But can I really argue that I am a boxset owl because movies no longer interest me, because there’s just too much quality television? Well, no. Not really.

In the last four months, I’ve watched – well, anything really. If I have a season or more at my disposal, I will watch it. My quality control is now determined by quantity. Some of the TV I’ve consumed has been great: Broadchurch, season one (watched in one day); Twin Peaks (watched over two weeks, with an accidental spoiler revealing the final shot of the final episode with just three instalments to go – thanks a bunch, Empire magazine); Homeland, season 4 (watched over a weekend – the first ten episodes are possibly the most tense television I’ve ever watched, but it was sorely let down by a weak and irrelevant final episode); Orange is the New Black, both seasons (a week’s viewing). Others were more forgettable: Grimm, season three? Four? Once Upon a Time, season 3. Duck Dynasty, season seven (okay, I know it’s trash, and it’s a reality show, but I can’t help but love it – no shame). Almost all of That 70’s Show, despite having seen it many times before, and knowing that it goes on for at least two seasons too long. There are probably others that made so little impact I have forgotten them already. In fact, the only show I’ve not stuck with despite having the first two seasons sitting waiting to be watched is House of Cards – sorry, Kevin Spacey, you just didn’t grab me. I’ve not even dared to get a hold of Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad, for fear that they’ll be as good as everyone says, and I’ll lose another two or three weeks of my life.

Why are boxsets so addictive? What’s the appeal of binge-watching? Well, there’s something very comforting in knowing that there’s another episode just around the corner. We can get fully immersed in the story, feel involved with the characters in a way that is less achievable in movies – and movies seem to be taking some cues from television. Just look at the Marvel universe, which now spans television, cinema, and asks audiences to follow the characters not just in a contained, two hour story, but in a world that spans years and works in a cross-media format. Consider the popularity of franchises. Viewers love seeing their favourite characters in new situations. The only problem is that, in cinema, we have to wait too darn long for the next two hour instalment. With boxsets, well, it’s instant gratification. We can see the next development RIGHT NOW, and by golly, we want it that way. There’s nothing worse than seeing the final credits roll, the screen go blank, and to suffer the realisation that, after hours or days or weeks of watching, the story is finally over.

Binge-watching is all about instant gratification. It transforms the way we consume television, whether we realise it or not. What’s the point in a cliff-hanger, for example, if we can see the outcome a few seconds later in the next episode? Take the last season of Homeland, for example. Each episode set up the events of the next, leaving me wide-eyed and open-mouthed, feeling stressed and anxious, worrying about the fates of my favourite characters, knowing that this is the kind of show that isn’t afraid to kill off its leads. Yet I had recorded the whole season. I didn’t have to wait a week. I didn’t have to think about the potential effects or the implications of events. I just had to stick the next episode on.

Does this diminish my experience of Homeland? No, but it does alter it. Surely I’m not the only one who realises that, weeks – or even days – after a particularly intense binge-watching session, I can barely remember what actually happened, no matter how much I enjoyed it at the time? Episodes blur together, events bleed into one large, long, convoluted episode. Instant gratification has its perks, but in terms of actually making a real, genuine, long-lasting impact? Binge-watching might make it seem like you’re really experiencing the fictional world – you dedicate hours of your time to it, your life is put on temporary sabbatical while you immerse yourself in another, vicarious living experience – but it’s fleeting, temporary. For one day, perhaps, your focus is rigidly fixed. The next, it’s onto something else. From hard-hitting, intense, political CIA thriller to all-female prison dramedy. From super-weird Lynchian fantasy to camp Disneyfied fairytale, each world ready to replace the previous as the focus of all my attention.

So what about movies? Why is it that, after some intensive binge-watching, when I happily – eagerly – sat for perhaps six or seven hours a night, dragging myself to bed at 2.30am knowing I have an early start the next morning, the idea of sitting down to watch a two hour movie seems like such a chore? It’s not like my boxsets have ad breaks – they’ve either been recorded and stored for future binge-watching (a conscious decision, so bad is my addiction) or they’re on DVD, hopefully with a “play all” button so I don’t need to do anything but sit back and let the fictional world wash over me, wrap around me like a big comfy blanket, familiar and easy. But the pacing is different, whether we take advantage of ad breaks and episode conclusions or not. Despite its long-form storytelling, each episode has pauses and breaks and mini-cliffhangers. It’s like watching six hours of soundbites, the action neatly divided into easily digestible fifteen minute wedges. It’s not like a movie, where you should, ideally, not be distracted, not have bathroom breaks, not get up or discuss the events on screen as they’re happening, or answer that text. Boxsets allow you to do all these things, but there’s always another episode. You can be distracted, but your time can be entirely consumed nonetheless.

What of the future? Well, the problem with binge-watching boxsets is that eventually you do reach the last episode. And then the wait for the next season begins. Instead of pacing myself, of allowing myself an hour a week to slowly digest my favourite shows, I have been a glutton, devouring them all in one sitting. Now they’re all gone and, just like the next instalment of a movie franchise, I have to wait – maybe even years. So maybe now that I’ve run out of boxsets, I can restart watching movies. Or, I could rewatch Buffy. Then I could rewatch Angel. Then I may as well watch Firefly, and Dollhouse – what the hell, why not. Plus there’s still Breaking Bad – most people are horrified to hear I’ve not watched them. And Banshee‘s on television again, that’s ten episodes or so (and it’s great, by the way – really, truly, trashily great). And the next season of Orange is the New Black should be starting at some point, right? Not to mention Twin Peaks – after twenty-five years! And I now have season two of Broadchurch to watch…. Oh well. Movie Lottery will resume… eventually.