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.

FURIOUS1

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.

FURIOUS2

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.

FURIOUS3

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: “Guardians of the Galaxy”

Guardians poster

I don’t know if anyone expected Marvel’s cinematic universe to be the humongous global success that it has become. The comic book giant’s first wave of films brought most of its heavy hitters to the big screen and millions of people to the theaters to watch them. Most critics have responded positively to these films while also showing signs of growing weary of them. But Marvel has started their second wave of movies which will feature some of their more obscure characters. “Guardians of the Galaxy” is one such film and I truly felt Marvel was overreaching. But an over $90 million opening weekend proved me wrong. But as the Transformers franchise has proven, a big box office take doesn’t always represent the quality of the movie.

“Guardians of the Galaxy” is a very different installment into Marvel’s movie world. It stands apart in a variety of ways including its tone, its setting, and the characters it brings to the table. It’s overall different feel may have been one of the things that has attracted audiences to it. That being said, it won’t take you long to recognize some pretty familiar plot points wrapped in the film’s shiny, CGI-heavy packaging.

At its core “Guardians of the Galaxy” is a story that you’ve seen before. A ragtag group of misfits must overcome their criminal pasts and personal animosities and join together to quell a cosmic threat. It’s that basic and you can see many of the plot angles coming a mile away. But for me a familiar story can be overcome if its centered around good characters. As luck would have it, good characters are one of the film’s greater strengths.

Guardians 1

Chris Pratt continues to deservedly catch people’s attention. Here he buffs up but maintains that lovable goofiness that seems inherent in every character he portrays. He plays a petty space pirate named Peter Quill, a.k.a.Star-Lord. After swiping a mysterious orb, he finds himself being pursued by the henchman of an alien fanatic known as Ronan (Lee Pace). Ronan has made a deal with the ominous Thanos (Josh Brolin) to retrieve the orb in exchange for power to destroy a rival planet.

Peter gets in way over his head and as his circumstances worsen he finds himself joined by a raccoon bounty hunter named Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and his tree sidekick Groot (Vin Diesel), an alien assassin named Gamora (Zoe Saldana,), and a revenge-fueled warrior named Drax (Dave Bautista). The dysfunctional team begin working together each for their own personal reasons, but as you can probably guess, a proper bond begins to form between them as things move along.

Guardians 2

For me the characters are what anchors this film. Each are unique in their own way and each contribute to the undeniable personality of the movie. There are times when the script does them no favors. There are some corny lines and there are times when the jokes fall flat or feel forced. But there are other times where the chemistry between the characters and between the performers just clicks. These are the moments when the jokes work and the camaraderie is entertaining. I also loved the 70s and 80s culture references sprinkled throughout the film. I did find myself wanting more in terms of backstory from the group (aside from Peter). I also thought Ronan, while extremely cool, was an incredibly bland villain who won’t be remembered past the end credits. But ultimately I liked the characters and am interested enough to see them together again (something that is certain to happen).

The effects and makeup are genuinely good particularly with Rocket and Groot as well as the host of alien side characters three of which are played by Djimon Houndou, Karen Gillan, and one of my favorite character actors Michael Rooker. I do wish Marvel would shake up their standard formula for big action endings. It seems that every film ends with a huge 20 minute CGI blowout that leans more on chaos than coherency. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that the ending of “Guardians” doesn’t work. It just felt a bit generic and almost what I’m starting to expect out of every Marvel movie.

“Guardians of the Galaxy” marks Marvel’s first real foray into their rich cosmic universe. It is in the same universe as the other Marvel pictures yet it feels strikingly different. That is part of the charm the movie possesses. It aims to be unique and features characters that I’m not that familiar with. But how that unfamiliarity influenced my response to the movie compared to other Marvel films is hard to figure out. In fact my response to the film as a whole may seem confusing. There are some glaring flaws and shortcomings but at the same time I was entertained enough through the film’s 2 hours. In that respect “Guardians of the Galaxy” is a success. Yet I can’t seem to shake the feeling that it just barely missed true greatness.

VERDICT – 3 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.

Fast 6 3

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.

Fast 6 1

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

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