REVIEW: “Furious 7”

FURIOUSPOSTER

The evolution of the “Fast and Furious” franchise has been an intriguing thing to watch. It went from being a goofy street racing franchise that I easily dismissed to a huge scaled, amped up action series that I have enjoyed. It’s a franchise that banks on its silliness and absurdity but succeeds because it never takes itself too serious and it knows what it now wants to be. I can appreciate that. Part of the charm of what it has become revolves around how cinematically insane they can make things.

2011’s “Fast Five” was the turning point for me. The drastic change in formula was welcomed and that film still has some of the best action sequences of the last ten or so years. It was followed by the less satisfying but still entertaining “Fast and Furious 6”. Now we reach the seventh film because naturally there has to be another film, right? Unfortunately the path to bringing “Furious 7” to the big screen has been a tragic and complicated one. On November 30, 2013, halfway through filming “Furious 7”, Paul Walker was killed in a car accident while on Thanksgiving break. Understandably this threw the film’s likelihood in doubt. After the film was confirmed to be still on, script rewrites and cast changes caused a number of delays.

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But now it has hit theaters and the question becomes can it sustain the crazy, fuel-injected fun that has won me over to the franchise? In a nutshell, yes. “Furious 7” hits every note that you would expect from this reinvented series. The characters are formulaic and cliche. The dialogue is sometimes silly and hokey. The action blows believability to smithereens. But (and this may sound nuts to some readers) those things are part of the weird charm that these films have. James Wan takes the directing reins from longtime helmer Justin Lin and he doesn’t make the mistake of tinkering too much with the formula. This is definitely ‘more of the same’ but for fans that’s a good thing.

The film begins by reintroducing us to the crew and giving us a quick rundown of where they are and what they have been up to. Dom (Vin Diesel) is working hard to help Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) with her amnesia. Brian (Walker) is struggling to put aside his love for ‘the ride’ for the white-picket fence, mini-van family life. It also addresses the killer mid-credits scene from the last film. As it turns out Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), the older brother of the last film’s antagonist, is hot under the collar and seeking revenge on Dom, Brian, and their crew. After Shaw’s attacks get personal and deadly, Dom and company set out to get him.

The hunt for Shaw also pulls in Agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) who quickly feels the full force of Shaw’s resolve. Other familiar faces like Roman (Tyrese Gibson) and Tej (Chris Bridges) show up and fill their established roles. Their automotive adventure takes them all over the world – The United States, London, Tokyo, Abu Dhabi, and a host of other places. Say what you want about the series, but their recent use of locales is one of its real treats. It’s not simply that it has a global feel. The locations are beautifully shot and injected into the storyline.

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The story itself is pretty simple and the structure is basically set around moving things from point A to point B. It’s nothing innovative or new when it comes to the storytelling. When it is focused on its main revenge-versus-revenge thread it hits on all cylinders. But there are some moving parts that don’t quite work as well. Kurt Russell shows up has a US shadow agent apparently with limitless government resources. He’s after the ultimate hacking tool called God’s Eye. A well-funded terrorist (Djimon Hounsou) is also after it for obvious nefarious purposes. The entire side plot isn’t particularly well presented or compelling. They do serve to fill-in necessary potential plot holes and to set the table for some of the better action sequences, but that’s about all they have to offer. There are also couple of weird, almost obligatory, diversions meant to reflect back to street racing roots of the franchise. Personally I wish they would get past that.

The performances are about what you would expect. They range from steady and serviceable to pretty shaky. This installment does try to inject more emotional weight than the previous films and that’s when the performances struggled the most. But ultimately they get the job done and with the exception of Ronda Rousey (who to be fair is just there for a glorified cameo) none are distractingly bad. And I have to say that despite the flimsiness of his character, it was a load of fun to watch Kurt Russell having a blast with what he was asked to do.

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But let’s be honest and true, nobody goes to a “Fast and Furious” movie for the performances. It’s all about the cars and the action we can get a lot of both. You almost get the feeling that each movie wants to top the other one in terms of the craziness of the action sequences.  This one definitely takes things to a higher level and most of the sequences are pure adrenaline-fueled excitement. Even when they pull something totally absurd out of their hat, it works within these reality-defying scenarios. That being said, the big action finale was the weakest. It certainly has its moments but it’s too long and overthought. Ultimately I was ready for it to end.

The movie ends with the fitting tribute to Paul Walker and his character, something I was expecting. It’s done really well and that could be said for most of the movie. It’s not perfect and there are stumbles that keep it from being an action movie classic. But these movies have embraced this new direction and this installment stays loyal to that. If you didn’t like the last two films I would be shocked to hear that you like this one. It definitely does the same things. But if you are a fan of their new model, and you enjoy just sitting back and going with its wildness, I have no doubts that you will find some of that same entertainment in “Furious 7”.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

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

5 PHENOMENAL MOVIE FOOT CHASES

As an action movie fan I love a good chase regardless of the kind – motorcycle, car, or even on foot. It may surprise you just how many great foot chases there have been in movie history. And as technology has gotten better, particularly with new cameras and methods of shooting action scenes, movies have been able to create some incredible foot chases. So I decided to give some love to 5 great movie foot chases. I left out a few that certainly deserve mention, but these 5 were impossible for me to leave out. So, here they are. Now as usual, I wouldn’t dare call this the definitive list. But there’s no denying that these 5 movie foot chases are absolutely phenomenal.

#5 – “FAST FIVE”

“Fast Five”

The “Fast and Furious” series has made it’s reputation on fast cars and some ridiculously wild car chases. Who would have thought that one of the coolest scenes in 2011’s “Fast Five” would have been a foot chase? After meeting back up at Dom’s safe house in Rio de Janeiro, Dom, Brian, and Mia find themselves boxed in by the armed thugs of a local crime lord on one side and Special Agent Hobbs (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) and his men on the other. The three take off on a foot chase through the cramped, densely populated, hillside streets – running through tight alleys and jumping from rooftop to rooftop – with a host of pursuers hot on their tail. It’s a tremendous, high-octane sequence with some incredible camera work. I love this scene.

#4 – “POINT BREAK

“Point Break”

In what was one part free-spirited surfer movie and one part gritty heist film, “Point Break” was a popular action romp from director Kathryn Bigelow. Bodhi (Patrick Swayze) is the ring leader of a group of surfer bank robbers and FBI agent Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) has infiltrated their ranks. As Utah gets closer to making the arrest, the “Ex-Presidents” – the name they go by due to the rubber masks of past presidents that they wear – pull off a heist. Utah arrives as they are leaving and bodhi is forced to take off on foot. Utah chases him into a neighborhood, over fences, through backyards and living rooms, and finally down a ravine where Utah hurts his knee and Bodhi gets away. It a furious chase with tight, close quarter camera work and even a touch of subtle humor. “Point Break” has a lot of memorable scenes, few better than the foot chase.

#3 – “THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM

“The Bourne Ultimatum”

The third film of the Jason Bourne series featured the same intense, spy thriller action and around the world globetrotting that the series is known for. One of my favorite sequences is the sequence in Morocco. Bourne (Matt Damon) and Nicky (Julia Stiles) are trying to get to a source who is coming clean about the CIA’s undercover project known as “Blackbriar”. But the organization has an asset on the ground to take him out before they get to him. After Bourne and Nicky split up, the asset turns to her with orders to kill on sight. Nicky takes off, the asset chasing her, and Bourne chasing the asset. The three run through the crowded streets of Tangier and finally through a series of close, cramped houses, before the scene ends with the best fight scene of the entire series so far. Director Paul Greengrass puts it all together perfectly with the perfect amount of tension and action. It’s an awesome scene.

#2 – “RAISING ARIZONA

“Raising Arizona”

Leave it to Joel and Ethen Coen to give us not only one of the best foot chases in movie history but by far the funniest. In 1987’s “Raising Arizona” Nicholas Cage plays H.I. McDunnough, a dimwit struggling with a most unusual addiction – robbing convenient stores. He’s stressed over some events at home, namely the kidnapping of one of the “Arizona Quints” – the children of unpainted furniture tycoon Nathan Arizona. While the story revolves around H.I. and his wife Ed’s lamebrain idea to solve her infertility by taking one of Arizona’s five babies, one of the funniest moments is when a stressed out H.I. gives into his addiction and holds up a convenient store with ED and Junior in the car outside. Once she realizes what he’s doing, she drives off leaving him behind. With the police arriving and the store clerk pulling out his Dirty Harry .44 magnum, H.I. takes off on foot. He’s chased by lunatic cops, dogs, and eventually Ed again. He runs through suburban backyards, living rooms, and supermarkets running into an assortment of funny characters and hilarious obstacles. It’s hard to beat.

#1 – “CASINO ROYALE”

“Casino Royale”

I’ve never been the biggest James Bond fan although I did enjoy some of the Sean Connery and Pierce Brosnan films. But that changed dramatically with director Martin Campbell’s “Casino Royale” from 2006. Daniel Craig took over the role of 007 and brought a gritty more realistic Bond to the big screen. I absolutely loved it. It doesn’t take long for the action to fire up in “Casino Royale”. We see Bond in Madagascar where he has tracked down a wanted bomb manufacturer. When his partner botches the apprehension, the suspect takes off on foot with 007 right behind him. I recently rewatched this scene when preparing this list and it still blows my mind. The chase takes the two to a construction site where a high-rise in being built. They leap up scaffolding, run along steel girders, and fight on high altitude cranes. Then the chase takes them back to the ground and through the streets and finally through the Nabutu Embassy where it has an explosive ending. Even though it’s close to 10 minutes long, this chase keeps you glued to the screen, constantly draws “ooo’s” and “aah’s” from the audience. It’s beautifully shot, masterfully edited, and it serves as a wonderful introduction to this new era of Bond. I love the movie and I really love this scene.

There ya have it – my 5 Phenomenal Movie Foot Chases. See something I missed? Disagree with one of my choices? Please take time to share your favorite movie foot chase.

“FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS” – 3 1/2 STARS

If you looked at a list of movies made about World War 2 it would probably stun you. Hundreds of films have been made worldwide that have examined and portrayed the global conflict from a variety of different perspectives. Many have focused on the combat, particular battles, or even well-known officers. Others have looked at different aspects of the war including the horrors of the Holocaust and the resistance movements that rose against the Nazi aggression. In 2006 director Clint Eastwood released “Flags of our Fathers” and it’s sequel/companion piece “Letters from Iwo Jima”. It was an ambitious undertaking as both films attempted to look at the brutal and bloody battle of Iwo Jima, one through the eyes of the Americans and the other through the eyes of the Japanese.

“Flags of Our Fathers” was adapted from the James Bradley and Ron Powers book of the same name. It’s story centers around the six soldiers who raised the American flag on top of Mount Suribachi. The flag raising was captured on camera on February 23, 1945 by Pulitzer Prize winner Joe Rosenthal and is considered by many to be one of recognized photographs from the war. The story is told through a series of flashbacks that are at first tough to navigate though. Eastwood sets up the battle of Iwo Jima and introduces us to the main characters early on. We see the landing, scenes involving the intense and rugged fighting, and the eventual flag raising.

But it’s all being told through the flashbacks of three of the soldiers who raised the flag, Navy Corpsman John “Doc” Bradley (Ryan Phillipe), Private Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford), and Private Ira Hayes (Adam Beach).  After the photograph is released in the states, the three are called back to participate in a war bond tour to raise much-needed money for the war effort. But what’s being promoted isn’t exactly how things happened and the soldiers have a hard time reconciling the importance of the war bond campaign with their painful memories of the bloody battle they took part in.

Staying with Eastwood’s film can be a bit challenging and I found it at times be a little clunky in its transitions from the stateside scenes to the battlefield flashbacks. But that’s not saying the story is bad. It packs a lot of emotion and sincerity and Eastwood clearly wants to tell the stories of not just the soldiers at war but the people back home as well. He nicely portrays the battlefield camaraderie that goes well beyond the trenches and he also puts great effort and detail into presenting the United States and it’s mood during that pressing time. Everything looks and feels just right. The problem is that the attempt at clever storytelling does more to hurt the flow of the movie than to help it.

I was also a little mixed on Eastwood’s battle scenes. The visuals are at their best during the wide shots of the battlefield or the Naval fleet around the island. There are also a few really cool scenes involving airplanes attacking Japanese hillside fortifications. But the ground combat seemed to be missing something. There certainly are moments of intensity but as a whole things looked plain and with the exception of a few standout scenes, the combat feels a bit repetitive. I’ve thought that maybe I’ve seen too many war films and maybe the combat in movies doesn’t pack the same punch that it used to. But I don’t think that’s the case here. Eastwood is trying to create the same atmosphere that those soldiers faced back in 1945 but it’s the actors that relay that more than the visuals.

The performances are strong and the big cast of quality actors add a lot to the film. Phillippe is really good both on the battlefield and during that stateside scenes. I also enjoyed Beach’s performance as the Native American soldier who fighting more than just one war. There are several other good performances from the likes of John Slattery, Barry Pepper, and Neal McDonough.

“Flags of Our Fathers” ends with a poignant reminder of just how much this war effected our country and our people. In many ways it’s the final 15 or 20 minutes that helped bring everything together for me. I was really mixed during several parts of the film but after seeing it through, I get a better idea of what Eastwood is conveying. It’s a story of patriotism, sacrifice, and brotherhood. But it’s also a film about desperation, vulnerability, and exploitation. It does become a little melodramatic but never to the point of drowning the film. Instead the bigger problems centered around the movie’s structure and it’s so-so combat scenes. But I still find “Flags of Our Fathers” as an easy movie to recommend and it certainly looks at the war with sincerity and care.

REVIEW: “Fast Five”

I wasn’t expecting to say this but “Fast Five” was actually quite fun. I haven’t been the biggest fan of this series and it’s lack of appeal has caused me to skip some of the installments in what’s become a pretty popular franchise. But there was enough in the trailer to grab my attention and I came out pleasantly surprised. I think one reason this film worked for me is that it moves away from the street racing theme. At it’s core, “Fast Five” is a fuel-injected heist film and it makes no bones about it.

Thankfully it doesn’t take an in depth knowledge of the previous films to understand “Fast Five”. While being transported to prison, Dom (Vin Diesel) is sprung by Brian (Paul Walker) and his sister Mia (Jordana Brewster). They flee to Rio de Janeiro where they are offered a job swiping some cars from a train. They find out that the cars have been seized by the DEA and belonged to powerful crime boss Hernan Reyes (Joaquim de Almeida). Reyes has men in on the job who kill three DEA agents and turn on Dom, Brian, and Mia. But the three manage to escape with the one car Reyes has the most interest in. Dom is framed for the deaths of the agents and Special Agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) is called on to bring them in. So with both Hobbs and Reyes hunting them, Dom assembles a team for that “one last job” – stealing $100 million from Reyes and then disappearing for good.

One thing I liked about “Fast Five” is that it never tries to be something it’s not. This is a high-octane action picture and it never veers too far off that path. Director Justin Lin goes for the outrageous and does things with cars that stretches the boundaries of belief. But it works because “Fast Five” aims for the spectacular and delivers it through several huge cinematic action sequences that I couldn’t take my eyes off of. There are plenty of RPMs, bullets, and flying fists injected throughout the rather simple but cohesive and entertaining narrative. There’s a particularly cool rooftop chase, a mano-a-mano throw-down between Dom and Hobbs, and a ending vehicle sequence that blew me away.

One thing that’s instantly noticable is how beautifully the film is shot. There are some gorgeous ariel shots of Rio that really helps set the atmosphere of the picture and the furious camera work during the action scenes give them such energy. The camera is imperative to Lin’s storytelling and it gives the film it’s biggest kick. The acting is steady and Diesel and Walker sell their characters pretty well. But it’s Johnson who seems to be having the most fun with his performance. Whether he’s hamming it up with the stereotypical tough guy oneliners or throwing haymakers, Johnson is a great fit.

I wasn’t expecting much from “Fast Five” but I really enjoyed what it offers.  There’s nothing challenging or contemplative here but there’s plenty of fun and excitement. If you watch the movie knowing what to expect there is a lot to like. Yes, there’s some corny dialogue and it’s sometimes overtly implausible, but it’s impossible not to be drawn in by sprawling action scenes and overall enjoyment. This is certainly one of the bigger surprises of 2011.

VERDICT – 4 STARS