REVIEW: “Fast and Furious 6”

FAST 6 poster

I’ve tried on a few occasions to watch the earlier movies in the Fast and Furious franchise but I could never get into it. The whole underground street racing scene has never appealed to me and the barrage of Skittles colored cars and bikini-clad women gyrating in slow motion got old quick. Now clearly the series has an ardent following as evident by the four total movies that fit this description. I just couldn’t count myself among them.

But in 2011 the series took a sharp turn in the right direction with the release of “Fast Five”. Gone were the street car racing raves and gratuitous skin shots (with the exception of one obligatory homage of sorts). Instead director Justin Lin and writer Chris Morgan made the film into a full-blown old school action picture only with vehicles as the main weapon of choice. It was a great move and I had a ton of fun with it.

So that brings us to “Fast and Furious 6” (yes, there have actually been six of these films). Lin And Morgan return as does franchise stalwarts Vin Diesel and Paul Walker. After making his franchise debut last time, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson returns as do many other faces that franchise faithfuls are sure to recognize. The good news is “Fast and Furious 6” sticks to the same formula as the last picture. It’s loud, preposterous, and seemingly custom made for the summer popcorn season. I don’t think it’s as good as “Fast Five”, but it’s still a fuel-injected good time.

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Once again an international location is chosen and our cast is thrown in it. Last time it was Rio. This time it’s London, England. Dom Toretto (Diesel) and Brian O’Conner (Walker) are still wanted men. They’ve both settled down in the Canary Islands with hopes of putting their former lives behind them. But that quickly changes when DSS agent Luke Hobbs (Johnson) appears at Dom’s doorstep with news that an old acquaintance has appeared and is working for a powerful ex-military criminal named Owen Shaw (Luke Evans). Dom is persuaded to get his team back together and help Hobbs stop Shaw and find out about this mysterious person from his past.

There are several things about this film that are a given. Diesel grinds up his handful of lines in his familiar deep and gravelly voice. The Rock is given an endless supply of hammy tough guy one-liners and corny testosterone-laced analogies. And Paul Walker still has that sheepish and boyish vibe going. The rest of Dom’s crew aren’t asked to do any heavy lifting and that’s a good thing. Neither Sung Kang or Chris “Ludacris” Bridges are particularly good actors and Tyrese Gibson’s comic act grew old quick. But none of these performances are why people will go to see this film.

But I do want to talk about the two newcomers to the Fast and Furious world. I’ve just recently noticed him but I quite like Luke Evans. He gives a rock solid performance here as the main baddie. While his character is really nothing more than a thief and his overall motivations are shallow, Evans brings a pretty menacing quality to the role. And then there’s Gina Carano. Can I just go ahead and say I LOVE Gina Carano? Once again she’s tough as nails and she holds her own among the macho types. Just like Steven Soderbergh in the movie “Haywire”, director Justin Lin keeps her within her comfort zone and never stretches her beyond her bounds. She’s one of the high points for me and she gets her scenes to shine.

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But enough about the acting. “Fast and Furious 6” is a straightforward action picture built upon some ludicrous yet spectacular set pieces and more flipping, jumping, and crashing of cars than you can count. The movie aims to be even more outlandish than the previous film and it succeeds. But it still keeps you glued to the screen as the vehicular mayhem amps up with each big sequence. Sure it’s sometimes dumb and always over the top. Some of the dialogue is high-end cheese at its finest and the jokes often fall flat. But it still delivers the pedal to the metal, “ride or die” adrenaline rush that has made it such a guilty pleasure.

I still say this film isn’t as fluid or as polished (if you can call any of these movies polished) as “Fast Five”. But I appreciate that the movie never pretends to be anything other than what it is. The filmmakers know the type of movie they’re making and there is no pretension or artifice at all. That’s key for the audience as well. If you know what kind of movie this is, you’ll know what to expect. Don’t think you’re getting a film with deeper, thought-provoking themes and top-tier performances. Understand that this film and this series is all about the wild ride and if you’re willing to get into the car, you’re going to have a good time.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

THE TOP 5 MOVIES OF 2012…SO FAR

2012 has been an interesting year at your local theater. We’ve had our share of big budget, target audience pictures, some pointless and some amazing sequels, some highly anticipated films, and some smaller surprises. We’ve also seen several trends that mercilessly continue – a bombardment of raunchy comedies and the typical assortment of sub-par romantic comedies. I could point several other negatives about the 2012 movie year but this is all about the positive.

It’s July which marks the half-way point of the movie year. So in place of the normal “Phenomenal 5”, I’m going to look at my top 5 movies of 2012 so far. Mid-year lists do carry with them a disclaimer. Things can change throughout the movie year and when my year-end top 10 list is done, all of these could be in still here or left out. Second viewings always help in determining my overall feelings about a film and I’m really anxious to see some of these again. But, all have made an impression on me thus far so they have earned their spot on the list. With that, here we go….

#5 – “HAYWIRE”

I was stunned that I liked an action thriller starring a mixed martial arts fighter. But such was the case with “Haywire” and it’s largely due to the fantastic Steven Soderbergh. His direction, editing, and cinematography gives the film a slick stylish look which perfectly matches the unorthodox action movie vibe. Also surprising is the movie’s star, Gina Carano, who works in large part to her tremendous physical ability but also due to the measured way she is used. And how can I not mention the fantastic supporting cast featuring Michael Fassbender, Antonio Banderas, Ewen McGregor, Michael Douglas, and an even decent performance from Channing Tatum. “Haywire” went largely unnoticed by audiences but it’s a movie that I had a blast with.

#4 – “THE KID WITH THE BIKE”

From the Belgian filmmaking duo the Dardenne brothers, “The Kid with the Bike” is a foreign picture that debuted overseas in 2011 but made its US opening earlier this year. It’s an emotional drama that completely grabs you from its opening moments. The Dardenne’s use a visual style that pulls you into the story and that also engages the audience with the characters on pretty personal levels. Young Thomas Doret’s performance is quite good but it’s Cecile de France that really blew me away. Her character’s acts of grace combined with the personal void in her own life is a key component to what makes the movie work so well. It’s a great little movie with a punch and it’s one more people need to see.

#3 – “PROMETHEUS

Many have voiced their problems with Ridley Scott’s highly anticipated return to the science fiction genre. And while I don’t deny the second half of the film isn’t as polished as the first and there are a few storytelling issues, I really responded to the film. The visual presentation is astounding and Scott’s mix of top-notch CGI and elaborate set  pieces make the futuristic world believable. For my money Scott asks enough questions to challenge the audience and his intentional ambiguity, a turn-off for some, worked for me. The cast is strong particularly Michael Fassbender who is already on my short list for Best Supporting Actor for his performance. I’m a huge Ridley Scott fan and “Prometheus” does nothing to change that. It may not have met everyone’s expectations but it certainly met mine (and they were high).

#2 – “CORIOLANUS

Coriolanus” is a movie that could also be considered a 2011 film but it made its limited premiere here earlier this year and I loved it. The film marks Ralph Fiennes’ directorial debut and he really shines. He takes the Shakespeare story and throws it into a more modern setting while keeping the original language intact. It’s tricky material and the movie nails it. Fiennes also stars in the film and his towering performance is mesmerizing from his first appearance on-screen until the last scene. “Coriolanus” also features a fantastic supporting cast including Gerard Butler, Jessica Chastain, Vanessa Redgrave, and Brian Cox. The movie’s choice of language can be a bit jarring at first but it quickly becomes perfect for what the movie is shooting for. Fiennes’ first shot at directing is incredibly good and his performance reminds us that he’s one of the better actors in the business.

#1 – “THE AVENGERS

Speaking of high expectations. In what may be one of the most ambitious projects in movie history, Marvel Studios not only succeeded in bringing their superhero team together on the big screen, they gave us an incredibly funny and action-packed movie that took the movie world by storm. What’s great is that “The Avengers” is actually a genuinely good movie. It’s not all explosions and spandex. One of the reason it works so well is because of Joss Whedon’s script. His familiarity with the characters and the injection of just the right amount of humor makes everything gel nicely. Whedon also had the challenge of taking the previous movies that have led up to “The Avengers” and giving them all a harmony. Mission accomplished. The cast, led by Robert Downey, Jr., is simply wonderful and Whedon (who also directed the film) uses them perfectly. “The Avengers” is a blast and Marvel Studios accomplished their goal. I think the over $1 billion box office proves that.

So what did I miss. There are a few other movies that were right there but just fell short of my Top 5. What are your top 5 movies of the year so far?

5 PHENOMENAL MOVIE TOUGH GIRLS

There’s plenty of action pictures featuring movie tough guys. In fact, an entire action genre centered around muscle-bound movie tough guys in the 80’s and early 90’s. But we do a disservice if we fail to recognize that there have been some tough-as-nails women that can hold their own against any of the guys. So I thought it would be fun to give the ladies their due by listing 5 Phenomenal Movie Tough Girls. It may surprise you but there are a lot more tough girls to choose from than you might think. So after much deliberation here are my top five. As always, this isn’t the definitive list. But there’s no denying that these 5 Movie Tough Girls are absolutely phenomenal.

#5 – ALICE (“Resident Evil” Series)

While the movies are far from great, Milla Jovovich’s Alice has evolved into a very recognizable movie tough girl. Through several sequels she has punched, kicked, sliced, and shot her way through hordes of zombies and creatures. Jovovich has used shotguns, rocket launchers, swords, and special powers and she does it with the same sneering gravitas that many of the better male action stars used. Even though she doesn’t have the best material to work with, there’s just something too cool about watching Alice in action.

#4 – MALLORY KANE (“Haywire”)

Gina Carano blew me away with this year’s “Haywire”. She plays a government black ops agent who is double crossed and on the run. Director Steven Soderbergh puts Carano’s MMA background on display as she kicks butt from New York to Barcelona to Mexico. She has attitude to spare and her ability to fight is undeniable (just ask the likes of Michael Fassbender, Ewan McGregor, Channing Tatum, and Antonio Banderas). If you doubt that Mallory Kane belongs on this list, check out “Haywire”. It just came out on DVD.

#3 – SARAH CONNOR (“Terminator 2: Judgement Day”)

In the first Terminator picture, Sarah Connor was your basic girl on the run from danger. Boy how things change in “Terminator 2”. Linda Hamilton bulks up and gives Sarah a harder edge and an almost militaristic personality. Knowing the war that’s coming, Sarah fights alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger and more than holds her own. Whether it’s with her fists or with machine guns, she blasts away at anyone who gets in her way including the new T-1000 terminator. This new Sarah Connor certainly qualifies as a movie tough girl.

#2 – PRINCESS LEIA (“Star Wars” Series)

When watching the original “Star Wars”, it doesn’t take long to see that Princess Leia is as tough as they come. We see her open rebellion against the evil Galactic Empire and her unwillingness to compromise with them in the movie’s first scenes. It also doesn’t take Han and Luke long to see that she’s a no-nonsense woman who tells it like it is. She’s handy with the laser blaster and she doesn’t mind putting herself in danger. She plays an intricate role in saving Han’s life and it was Leia that kills Jabba the Hutt. Carrie Fisher’s Leia is as surly as any tough guy and she has the smarts to make things happen. Leia is the quintessential tough girl.

#1- ELLEN RIPLEY (“Alien” Series)

It’s been argued that Ellen Ripley is the best female movie character of all time. I don’t know about that but I do think she’s the toughest female character of all time. And regardless of what other role she may play, anytime I see Sigourney Weaver, I automatically think of Ellen Ripley. In the first Alien picture she was the only survivor of her ship’s crew and she single-handedly killed the alien. In the second film we see just how tough Ripley is. She uses grenades, flamethrowers, pulse rifles, and even a robotic crane to kill a load of aliens and even the queen. In the third film she even kills herself to keep the alien inside of her from getting out. Throughout the series Ripley encounters a variety of so-called tough guys. Isn’t it interesting that she is the one that actually survives. Sounds like she’s the one that’s truly tough.

There you have it. There were several others that I considered but these were the five that stood out the most. Do you agree or disagree with my list? Do you see someone who I left off? Who would you include on your list? Please take time to comment and share who is your favorite tough girl.

“HAYWIRE” – 4 STARS

One the surface, a movie advertised as an action film starring a female MMA fighter and one time American Gladiator doesn’t exactly raise my anticipation level. But seeing the name Steven Soderbergh attached to the movie changed that. Many moviegoers who are unfamiliar with Soderbergh and who go see “Haywire” strictly due to the movie trailer may go away a little disappointed. I found the movie to be an entertaining and stylistic action thriller tightly wrapped in a snug 90 minute package.

Soderbergh’s fingerprints are all over “Haywire” and that’s one of the main reasons the movie works so well. Not only did he direct and shoot the picture but he also edited it and it doesn’t take long to notice his sharp visual style. While Lem Dobbs’ story is smart and concise, it’s Soderbergh who engages the audience with clever camera angles, several tension-filled long takes, and his strategic use of music and sound. He tells the story without many of the contrived devices we see in most modern action pictures. There aren’t loads of blood and constant gunfire. But there are some great hand-to-hand fight scenes where the camera pulls back, the music stops, and the audience is allowed to take it all in. It’s the perfect approach.

Another huge plus is the impressive and memorable lead acting debut of Gina Carano. Her character is pretty straightforward and doesn’t require a lot of range, but Carano holds her own with the strong supporting cast featuring Michael Fassbender, Michael Douglas, Ewan McGregor, Antonio Banderas, Channing Tatum, and Bill Paxton. She plays Mallory Kane, an ex-Marine who does contract black-ops work for Kenneth Jay (McGregor) a slimey character with government contacts. Kenneth teams her up with a suave British Agent (Fassbender) for a mission in Dublin. It would spoil things to go much more into detail but let’s just say things don’t go as planned.

The supporting cast is strong and polished, just as you would expect. But it’s Carano who gets the bulk of the screen time and she nails it. One of the best things is that she actually sells her character. Unlike many of the fashion show runway models we often see in lead roles, I had no trouble believing the more full-formed Carano was an ex-Marine or that she could kick some serious butt. And while she is larger than life in many respects, there are certain touches that made her more believable. There is one particular chase scene where she is running on the rooftops and she actually gets turn around. She doesn’t know which way to go and has to backtrack. It’s a small and subtle detail but the film is filled with them.

“Haywire” isn’t your typical January release. Often times January and February movies are those that get pushed back after awards season. But this a really fun and well crafted picture. It’s a film that causes the audience to think and stay focused from start to finish, yet it’s a thrilling and fun ride that uses style over cliche. It’s a fast moving and compact story and Soderbergh’s direction keeps everything running smooth. I enjoyed “Haywire” and it’s a really good way to start the movie year.