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.

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Film #112: Southland Tales (2006)

film 112 southland tales

Rating: 5/5

“This is the way the world ends. This is the way the world ends. Not with a whimper, but with a bang.”

Having attained cult status and acclaim for his feature debut Donnie Darko, writer-director Richard Kelly’s second film was eagerly anticipated by many – until it premièred at Cannes in 2006. Having already been significantly delayed, it received arguably the worst reception at the festival: audiences were not even interested in booing it, preferring to simply walk out. The film ended up with the lowest ratings of the festival, a meagre 1.1/5, and Kelly returned to the editing suite in a last-ditch attempt to salvage what was widely acknowledged as an incoherent mess. The work is visible in the film, which was eventually released at the end of 2007 – extensive voice-over, a mass of information at the beginning overloading the brain with facts and throwing the audience straight into the action, strange animated shots taken from the prequel comic books (another attempt to provide some coherence to the plot), new special effects. Characters who once possibly featured prominently now pop up for brief scenes – an unrecognisable Kevin Smith, for example, or a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo from Janeane Garofalo in one of the final shots. It still barely makes sense – I’ve seen it dozens of times by now, and every time I realise something new, notice something crucial that I’d completely missed, lose track of the plot. It emerges like a fevered dream, hypnotic and surreal, a bizarre mixture of pop culture and theology, a supremely convoluted plot with a vast cast of eccentrics and weirdos spouting nonsense. It’s a marmite movie: you’ll either love it or hate it. I love it.

To recount the plot would, quite simply, take too long, but it goes something like this. It’s 2008, the future, and the government has become a paranoid Big Brother. Travel is restricted between states, but an actor with amnesia called Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson, billed as his real name for the first time) has somehow ended up writing a screenplay with a psychic porn star (Sarah Michelle Gellar) that foretells the end of the world. Meanwhile Sean Patrick Scott is identical twin brothers, one impersonating the other, while the Neo-Marxists, a rebel organisation, collect fingers in an attempt to bring down Usident, the government surveillance operation led by Nana Mae Frost (Miranda Richardson), wife of senator Bobby Frost (Holmes Osbourne). Pilot Abilene (Justin Timberlake), a war veteran turned drug addict also monitors from his platform above Venice Beach, looking over the newly built Fluid Karma factory, a new technology developed by Baron Von Westphalen (Wallace Shawn) that could spell the end of global fuel shortages. And so it goes on. In this confused, and confusing, tangled web of a narrative, characters come and go, scandals are revealed, and the apocalypse begins. No pressure or anything.

It could either be a criticism or praise (I mean it as the latter) that Kelly’s screenplay throws the audience right into the middle of the story. The film is divided into three chapters, which are parts four, five, and six, each one named after a song (Temptation Waits by Garbage, Memory Gospel by Moby, and Wave of Mutilation by The Pixies). The first three chapters have subsequently been released in comic book form, but they, like the Donnie Darko director’s cut, are a complete disappointment, revealing that, in reality, Kelly never intended his story to be incoherent. The comics are far more linear – still bizarre – and much of the film’s impact is lost as a result. A brilliantly bonkers scene in the middle of the film, when a large number of the cast meet and all accuse each other of betrayal, is made redundant if one has read the comics, for example. The beauty of the film is that, like Donnie Darko, the audience is expected to fill in the blanks, to reach its own conclusions – the comic books take away that authority, reducing the film’s power to something far more mundane.

There’s so much to praise about Southland Tales. The cast, largely comprised of character actors and those who had previously been typecast in specific roles, all ham up their roles to perfection. Gellar is great as Krysta Now, the porn star with lofty intentions. Timberlake excels, and features in one of the film’s finest scenes, a surreal drug trip that comes out of nowhere. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson took a chance here, but it remains my favourite role of his – he’s charismatic, ironic, twitchy, funny and sympathetic – none of his other roles to date have offered him the chance to expand his repertoire as much as this one.

Kelly’s style is evident as well. There are moments that are reminiscent of Donnie Darko: the importance of music (he has been criticised for basically delivering a series of music videos); the slow motion dance sequences that become unsettling and strangely sinister; the apocalyptic narrative with, at its core, one man’s opportunity for salvation; that stunning tracking shot in the mega zeppelin near the film’s end, as the camera follows Bai Ling through the crowd. Southland Tales is an assault on the senses, each scene filled with beauty and chaos and new things to look for. It’s hectic and manic, seemingly spewing forth without direction, but it all ties together just enough. With references to Revelations, Robert Frost, TS Eliot and others, the characters diverge together, each one responsible for bringing the end of days a little closer, yet all the philosophy is ultimately reduced to one simple question: are you a pimp or not? It’s this kind of audacious combination of high concept and low culture that emphasises the film’s tongue-in-cheek stance – it’s not meant to be taken entirely seriously, but there’s plenty to think about regardless.

I have always maintained that, given enough time, Southland Tales will be reclaimed as a masterpiece. That has yet to happen, but time has been favourable for the most part. In its year of release, it was – like Only God Forgives last year – found on both the “best films” and the “worst films” lists. Its almost perfectly average rating on IMDb (5.5/10) is the result of extreme opinions – everyone either gives it one or ten. For me, this is precisely the kind of film that is interesting: not the average and mundane, but the divisive, the controversial. For better or worse, Southland Tales is the latter – a film that has so much to say it perhaps forgets to say any of it properly, a film that is messy and muddled, stylish and superficial yet complex. For me, it’s one of the finest films of the last ten years. I welcome the counter-arguments!

Film #25: Welcome to the Jungle (2003)

film 25 welcome to the jungle

Rating: 3/5

“You have two choices. Option A, you give me the ring. Option B, I make you.”

Dwayne Johnson is now a bona fide film star, accredited with saving flagging franchises – put this man in your movie, it instantly becomes better. Back in 2003, however, The Rock was still a fledgling actor. The former wrestler, one of the most popular performers in WWE and self-proclaimed “most electrifying man in sports entertainment,” had appeared in only two films – a brief, CGI-heavy cameo in The Mummy Returns, and a lead role in the spin off that proceeded it, The Scorpion King, for which he received a record-breaking salary. It’s not until Welcome to the Jungle, however, that Johnson gets a chance to let loose, unrestricted by silly clothes and a weak plot. Here, the cool charisma and perfect comic timing are evident. This is a man whose impressive presence is not limited to his considerable bulk.

As soon as Beck (Johnson) is introduced, it’s clear he’s more than just a hired heavy. Awaiting a signal, he sits carefully writing “porcini mushroom” in a small notebook, a potential ingredient in one of his future restaurant dishes. When he finally gets the nod to go and remind his mark of his sizeable debt, he’s reluctant to use force, not because he’s worried about the gaggle of linebackers surrounding the man, but because he feels guilty that he may jeopardise their team’s success due to the injuries he will inevitably inflict. It’s a neat and effective way of establishing this likeable giant, simultaneously confirming his ethics and his abilities.

Beck’s next job – and, he hopes, his last – involves going deep into the Mexican jungle to retrieve his boss’s wayward son. Hoping for a quick grab, it’s not long before things take a turn for the worse, as Beck quickly locates said son, Travis (Sean William Scott), and has a run in with the remote village’s creator, the sinister, literal slave-driver Hatcher (Christopher Walken). Soon, Beck and Travis are fleeing through the jungle, trying to avoid Hatcher’s men, the rebels, and some particularly rampant monkeys.

Welcome to the Jungle is Johnson and Scott’s first onscreen pairing (the next being the controversial Southland Tales, a film that is, in my mind, an underrated classic) and they share a comfortable dynamic. Travis is a typical role for Scott – a slightly older, slightly less crude Stifler – but his irritating, exaggerated persona sparks well off Johnson’s exasperated Beck. The addition of Rosario Dawson to the mix adds little, but it’s a minor quibble. Walken is, as always, sinister and enthralling, managing to be menacing even while wearing a straw hat. It’s a shame that he and Johnson don’t share more screen time, because they both display excellent comic timing and a natural charm.

While the film’s funniest moments are those derived from the careful timing and knowing looks captured effortlessly by its actors, it takes full advantage of Johnson’s athleticism. In a clear nod to his wrestling career – which had just (temporarily) ended before filming – he executes a perfect Rock Bottom in a pub brawl, and punches and flips with aplomb whenever possible. He is a dominant force, and his tough, no nonsense moves are an indication of the action lead he has since become. The fight scenes are dynamic and fast paced; one capoeira-inspired sequence in particular is both ridiculous and undeniably impressive. It’s all filmed with the glossy sheen and brash style of a film that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and it’s fun and light-hearted as a result.

Of course, it’s all rather silly, and some of the gags are juvenile. There’s nothing particularly remarkable about the plot either. Yet it’s constantly enjoyable, and is elevated above the unremarkable due to Johnson, who embraces the daftness with both (gigantic) arms. Since Welcome to the Jungle, the man formerly known as The Rock has tried more serious roles, but it’s the films combining comedy and action that have proved his most successful. In ten short years, and with two films due out in the coming months and another seven in the pipeline, Johnson has proven that, with enough talent and determination, it actually is possible to make the transition from athelete to film star.