Saturday, April 4, 2015

FAST & FURIOUS(ly Caught Up)

            For 12 years, I avoided this series like it had swine flu.  Hell, I avoided FAST & FURIOUS like it was swine flu.  I am not a car guy.  I drove the same rickety Saturn (remember them?) my parents gave me 11 summers ago until the last weekend of February.  I may be the furthest thing from a muscle-fueled gear head.  I’m 5’9” & way too damn heavy.  I hate rap music…that isn’t Eminem.
            Needless to say, I’m not the target audience for this soon-to-be seven film series.  I do remember seeing the first one at the friendly neighborhood drive-in movie theatre.  (Side note: That drive-in [Skyview-Twin in Carmichaels, PA] is about two miles from my parents’ house and opens for the season on the night of FURIOUS 7’s release.)  I enjoyed it, bought the DVD in January then promptly threw it off to the side, like it was some 3rd place science fair ribbon you are too embarrassed to say you have.  Each sequel looked progressively worse & worse.  Yet, the box office returns blew up with each installment.
            To say the series is a cultural phenomenon may be an understatement.  A $93+ million Memorial Day weekend opening domestically, $239 million domestic & $789 worldwide totals is impressive.  But the eye-opening moment for me came in the aftermath of the tragic, ironic death of the series’ star Paul Walker.  Fan & industry tributes sprung up everywhere you turned.  FAST & FURIOUS meant something to people.
            And that’s where I come to with this piece.  In order to understand the craze, I had to witness the craze firsthand.  But as I said before, I haven’t watched any of the previous 5 movies.  So I decided to do what my generation does best: binge-watch all 12+ hours of moving pictures with sound.  Just like with TWILIGHT 2 ½ years ago, I watched each of the previous installments over the course of a week & wrote a little something about each one before seeing FURIOUS 7 opening night solo.  Enjoy!

Spoilers ahead.  Continue with caution. 

Who am I kidding?  Are you really going to care if I spoil anything in these movies?  I mean, there’s no “Luke, I am your father” or Bruce Willis is dead the whole time moments.  So how spoilery can I really get?

Warning: Major spoilers for THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and THE SIXTH SENSE above.


            Gearhead Brian (Walker) wants in on the illegal street racing scene.  To do so, he needs to beat/impress the king of the street, Dom Toretto (Diesel).  After a night of evading the police & a rival car gang, Brian meets the crew: Dom’s girlfriend Letty (Rodriguez), Dom’s sister Mia (Brewster), tech guy Jesse and muscle guys Leon & Vince.  Did I mention Brian is an undercover cop investigating a series of robberies of trucks by skilled drivers?
            One major theme of this series is how the quality of the beginning sequence, both as an individual scene and as how it relates to the rest of the movie.  The opening sequence of the series is quite thrilling as we see the band of auto bandits steal a truck of recently imported electronic goods.  As you sit through the remaining 100+ minutes, you can clearly see the tone is established wonderfully by the opening scene.  There is another great truck robbery sequence to open the third act that’s even more thrilling.  The car races are enough to keep the viewer satisfied, even if you have the check your understanding of the laws of time & space at the door.
            As for the drama provided by the screenplay, it is low on horsepower.  The struggle Brian has with himself between his personal relationship with Dom & his professional obligation as a cop exists but lacks the necessary kick to really jump the movie to the next level.  All the actors try their best but their acting chops are average at best (Walker’s best performance, hands down, will forever be in 1998’s PLEASANTVILLE) and the dialogue does little to assist them.  And the music cues are at times laughable.  One of the opening scenes features a confrontation between Brian & Vince wherein Vince comes from behind Brian to shove him into his car.  All the while, a synthesized chorus on the soundtrack warns the viewer (and, I assume, Brian) to “Watch yo, watch yo, watch yo back!”  I lost it.
            Eventually, I regained my composure to, much to my surprise, enjoy this first installment.  I wanted to see what happen to these characters.  I wanted to see why, in the eyes of critics & the audience, these movies failed where this one succeeded.


            Brian is now in Miami, off the force and racing cars.  After the opening racing sequence, which has little significance to the rest of the plot, Brian is arrested and given a deal to get out of it.  Brian, along with ex-childhood friend Roman (Tyrese), are tasked with co-operating with undercover agent Fuentes (Mendes) to bring down drug kingpin Carter Verone (Hauser).
            A big issue with this movie is that everything is standard, subpar elements of movies that you have seen before.  The drug dealer is your everyday extravagant living snoozefest of a guy with minions to carry out all his dirty work.  The black best friend is a wisecracking, gun-toting hothead.  Everything on the young Japanese girl has everything covered in pink and generic anime characters.
            Worst of all, all the action scenes are showoffy without advancing the plot.  The movie features the most shifting of vehicles of any movie released prior to 2013’s GETAWAY.  And the third act features the recreation of a scene from The Dukes of Hazzard or SMOKEY & THE BANDIT with about 1/20 the joy.
And the movie is so forgettable I don’t feel like continuing to talk about it.  It still exists, it’s in color, it’s in focus.  That’s all.


            And now for something completely different.  Mostly.
            High school senior Sean (Black) is in deep with the law.  After destroying portions of an in-construction luxury housing development, it looks like a stint in prison is in his future.  But his mother works out a deal: he’ll finish out his high school career with his Naval officer father…in Japan.  There, Sean falls under the spell of the underground racing scene in Tokyo and a mafioso’s nephew’s girlfriend.  Under the arm of the mysterious Han, can Sean survive the ire of the Yakuza and thrive in the driving world?
            At first glance, TOKYO DRIFT has even less to do with the first movie than the second one.  Sure, there’s street racing & a bland white guy in the lead role but that’s about it.  The basic story is formulaic with the typical hero in a strange land needing to survive with the help of the wise, mysterious guide and the young “damsel in distress” being ruled by the tyrant.  The real problem here is the movie is too crowded.  Alongside the hero’s journey & the street racing, there’s a large chunk of the movie devoted to the villain & his connections to the Japanese mafia.  The movie slides into his subplot so often that I couldn’t help but feel the movie was a Japanese mafia movie first as opposed to how the movie was gift-wrapped & marketed: a FAST & FURIOUS sequel.
            The over-stuffing becomes a major and hilarious problem in the third act.  After Han’s death in a car wreck after being outed as a thief inside the Yakuza, Sean decides to pay off Han’s debt.  After being rejected, he resorts to Plan B: …wait for it…CHALENGING THE VILLAIN TO A STREET RACE AND THE YAKUZA ACCEPTS.  A subplot that was played so deathly seriously that you’d swear the movie were trying for Academy Awards now turns in a way that is so absurd it makes me wonder why the Yakuza didn’t sue.
            And the race itself is even more laughable (if it didn’t take itself so seriously).  First, the race takes place in the dead of night, on a public, hillside road, is at least, in my estimation, 3.5 miles long and contains about 40 turns.  They don’t call the villain “D.K.” (Drift King) for nothing I guess but to run this track would be impossible on the clearest day in the history of Japan, let alone on a foggy, soggy night.  There is little room for spectators on the track.  Luckily, with the (apparent) abundance of HD-quality, live-streaming cell phone video technology (I wish I was kidding) in Japan in 2005, viewing the race is crystal clear.
            Apart from the Vin Diesel cameo and the end credits tie-in in FURIOUS 6, TOKYO DRIFT is little more than the run-of-the-mill, over-serious, poorly-acted, unfocused action flick.  But at least I remember some of it.



            The on-the-road heist-masters (plus Han) from the original are back.  After stealing and selling six tanks full of fuel the Dominican Republic, Dom disbands the group and go their separate ways.  Months later, Letty is killed in a car accident in LA and the group is determined to find the culprit.  Meanwhile, Brian is on the powerful side of the law again.  This time, he is on a team baffled by the trail of drug kingpin Arturo Braga.  Eventually, Dom & Brian, separately, become runners in Braga’s gang, determined to bring him down.
            This fourth installment suffers from the same issues as the second.  Every scene is bogged down by a single, bland, overreaching drug running plan.  Because the end game is so narrow & specific and the specifics of the world created by the script (the US-Mexico border at one point has a high & wide mountain range that the only way across is through an unlit, man-made, rickety tunnel with automatic garage doors that US Customs hasn’t discovered) are so inexplicable that the movie gets really boring, really quickly with the lack of interesting action sequences.  Driving through a tunnel never looked so boring.  And with that boredom hanging over the proceedings, the climax, despite the ridiculous world described above, is taken so serious you’d swear Mike Leigh were in the director’s chair.
            In the end, you could say this movie only exists to introduce the world the actress who would play Wonder Woman and to create the cliffhanger that opens…


            After the events of the fourth installment, Dom is sentenced to hard, long time in prison.  Luckily, his “family” arrives to break him out.  Once freed, the crew heads down to Rio for sanctuary.  After a job stealing cars off a train, Dom & Brian draw the ire of the cars’ owner, drug kingpin Hernan Reyes.  Soon, Dom & Brian discover the scope of Reyes’ influence on Rio and with the help of DEA Agent Luke Hobbs (Johnson), plan to end his empire.
            For the first time since the original, there is a sense of joy in these characters and to the script.  Unlike the second & fourth installments, we see the potential for a more open storyline as the “family” looks at the drug cartel from the outside.  Trying to stop a criminal from the outside is more interesting than inside out unless you have the best of the best screenwriters on the payroll.
            FAST FIVE also features the best action sequence of the series.  I know I said I was going to spoil a lot of this series but the third act here needs to be seen to be believed.  For the first time, the mantra “it’s so bad it’s good” applies here.  The setup is absolutely bonkers and the execution is nearly perfect as well.  If you want to watch as little of the series as possible, watch the third act of this one.  It is worth every second.
            Despite the joyous third act, the movie suffers at little from its length and its meandering and forgettable second act.  You’ll enter the end credits satisfied but the journey there is arduous at times.


            After the events (& profits) of the previous movie, the “family” once again have gone their separate ways.  But soon enough, they are brought together for one last job.  Owen Shaw is a slick, ex-Special Forces criminal with a talented crew.  If Shaw is caught by Dom & his crew, Hobbs can guarantee they can all go home, their records wiped clean.  Just one twist: Shaw’s number two is the presumed-dead Letty.
            To be honest, I remember very little in the four days since watching it, outside of the third act of this unremarkable movie.  The only thing I remember is the juxtaposition of the two crews.  The heroes act like a family, always there for each other even eating together.  Shaw’s crew members are just in it for the money.  A fascinating detail to throw into this movie.
            But the entire movie is nothing more than padding to set up the final, ludicrous action sequence.  After obtaining the MacGuffin (if you don’t know what that is, please look it up), Hobbs & his crew try to get away via cargo plane.  Dom & his crew stop them by grounding the plane.  Literally.  Using military-grade harpoons, the non-muscle members of the team shoot the flaps on the wings and used their cars as weights to keep them on the longest runway in the universe.  All the while, Dom, Hobbs and a converted Letty steal the MacGuffin then escape before the plane crashes.
The final action scene is impressive but the movie stills lacks that dramatic kick necessary to move this, or any other movie, along.


            To put it simply, I don’t get it.  With a title like FAST & FURIOUS, the action should be that and occasionally it is.  But most sequences fall short of the high bar set not only the nomenclature of the title but also by how the first scene of the first movie.  That first heist is fun, exciting and somewhat original.  The cars & the driving abilities of the characters actually mean something in that scene and in the other heist scene early in the third act of the same movie.  Apart from opening scene of the fourth film and the climatic scene of FAST FIVE, at no other time does the ability to maneuver the cars by any of the characters mean anything to the plot.  It is also telling that the most interesting character of the series is chasing them, played by The Rock & is not introduced until FAST FIVE.
And what’s most shocking of all is that this series only get more popular.  I do not understand the movie-going public’s fascination with these uninteresting characters, the horrible dialogue and the (mostly) subpar action sequences.  It both shocks & saddens me that FURIOUS 7, which I have seen & will write about later, will be seen by more people in three days than will ever see WHIPLASH or DRIVE.  SPRING BREAKERS has a more satisfying gun play than anything these screenwriters could ever conceive.

Quantity does not mean quality.  It never has and never will.  The FAST & FURIOUS series is no different.  The lack of drama & intrigue sinks the series.  Movies should not go in one ear and out the other.  Movies are special, unique and precious.  But that’s a different story for a different day.  The series is a mess.  Pure & simple.

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