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Non-Review Review: 2 Fast 2 Furious

I’m rewatching The Fast and the Furious for a separate project, as solidarity with fellow film critic Jay Coyle for his “Cinema of Experience” project to look at the changing face of cinema in the twenty-first century. He’ll be writing up his account of how the experience of watching movies has changed in the past twenty-or-so years, but I found my rewatch of The Fast and the Furious interesting enough to write a longer-form review of it.

The Fast and Furious franchise exists somewhere in the space between The Fast and the Furious and 2 Fast 2 Furious, but is never quite caught on camera.

The Fast and the Furious is a late nineties undercover urban western about lawlessness in turn-of-the-millennium Los Angeles, of the dead end of the American Dream where young men (and occasional women) drive fast cars in circles to nowhere in particular, living their lives “one quarter mile at a time” without any purpose or any escape. It is a moral quagmire, a tribal wasteland in which law and order mean nothing. The film centres on a police officer sent to infiltrate this world of fast cars, who ultimately cannot bring his target to justice – because there is no justice in this empty and nihilistic world.

2 Fast 2 Furious is effectively a soft Miami Vice reboot. It is a bright and colourful thriller which follows former undercover police officer Brian O’Conner and his old friend Ramone Pierce as they are tasked to infiltrate a drug kingpin’s organisation in Miami. It is a much more conventional and delineated film, and also a much less existential. There are clearly defined good guys and bad guys, and O’Conner has absolutely no ethical objection to bringing in this particular criminal. The film is also appreciably brighter, both be virtue of its heavily saturated surroundings and by an increased emphasis on neon.

Watching 2 Fast 2 Furious, there’s a real sense that the production team had no idea what a hypothetical sequel to The Fast and the Furious would look like, only that it should exist… and maybe it should have some cars in it. Indeed, 2 Fast 2 Furious is pointedly at its most ridiculous when the script is forced to shoe-horn the “obligatory racing bits” into a conventional “undercover Miami drug bust movie.” There’s a weird disconnect between the two films, that goes beyond the absence of Vin Diesel.

Even with Paul Walker present and few small continuity references, there’s little to tether 2 Fast 2 Furious to The Fast and the Furious. It recalls the sort of old-fashioned Hollywood cynicism that produced sequels like Die Hard with a Vengeance, when familiar characters would be clumsily bolted on to a completely unrelated script to create a new franchise installment. Of course, with Dom Toretto in the wind, 2 Fast 2 Furious doesn’t even really have that many familiar characters to anchor it. Brian O’Conner was never going to be the franchise’s breakout character, after all. 2 Fast 2 Furious only has the name.

In some ways, the spark that would drive the Fast and Furious franchise is found in neither The Fast and the Furious nor 2 Fast 2 Furious. After all, the later blockbuster installments of the franchise feel like a completely different breed than either film; espionage-style superhero films involving the fate of the world. That spark is found in the gap between The Fast and the Furious nor 2 Fast 2 Furious, in the cynical idea that just about any kind of movie can be a Fast and Furious movie if you stick enough cars in it.

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Non-Review Review: The Fast and the Furious

I’m rewatching The Fast and the Furious for a separate project, as solidarity with fellow film critic Jay Coyle for his “Cinema of Experience” project to look at the changing face of cinema in the twenty-first century. He’ll be writing up his account of how the experience of watching movies has changed in the past twenty-or-so years, but I found my rewatch of The Fast and the Furious interesting enough to write a longer-form review of it.

The Fast and the Furious is a curious piece of work, especially in the light of everything that followed.

From the opening scene through to the climactic setpiece, The Fast and the Furious is very much framed as an urban western, a tale of conflicted masculinity within an urban wasteland that might as well be lawless. Street racers serve as traffic cops at one point, blocking civilian cars from the predetermined race track without any interference from actual law enforcement. Towards the end, Dom Torreto seeks to evade the law by outrunning a train to a train crossing, one of the classic high-stakes western set pieces.

More than that, the introduction of Dom Torreto in The Fast and the Furious is very much meant to evoke the introduction of a western protagonist. He is first seen from obscured angles, glimpsed from behind and through a wire mesh. His presence is felt at a distance, an island of calm in a chaotic world. Torreto is introduced as an outlaw who seeks peace in a world that is constantly at war. This is perhaps a canny approach from a scripting and directorial perspective, acknowledging Vin Deisel’s strengths as a screen presence. Torreto’s first act is to break up a street fight outside the little restaurant stall operated by his sister.

Released in June 2001, The Fast and the Furious is one of the last action films of the nineties. It is a snapshot of a nation still paranoid about street gangs and boy racers, of urban decay and social collapse, of the apocalyptic notion that Los Angeles is the final frontier of the nation’s westward expansion. Explored in hindsight, these were perhaps more innocent times.

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Non-Review Review: The Fast & The Furious 8 (aka The Fate of the Furious)

Seven cars crowd out an otherwise empty New York street.

In the midst of the carnage, all law-abiding citizens have taken cover. Only the outlaws remain, the powerhouses that rule the street. One black muscle car sits at the centre of this chaos. It stars menacingly at the five cars blocking its path. Behind that black car lurks the vanguard. Inside, a scruffy stubbled Englishman cracks his neck impatiently, waiting for action. The target car revs its engine. The drivers all kick into gear, and it becomes a game of reflexes.

Present and corrected.

There is an endearing charm to The Fast and the Furious as a blockbuster movie franchise. In many ways, it has become Universal’s own home-grown superhero franchise, albeit one that swaps out the capes for cars. A wry observer might suggest that the series is Diesel-powered, but that is not entirely true. The franchise runs on sheer main-lined ridiculousness, on the blurry line that falls somewhere between awesome and absurd. “High noon, but with cars…” is far from the most audacious scene in The Fast and the Furious 8, but it might be the most indicative.

Like a driver wrestling with a powerhouse engine, the series works best when it actively turns into the spin. Fast Five revived the franchise by removing the throttle and setting in motion a sense of escalation that threatens to send the characters into space before the conclusion of the series. In the meantime, The Fast and the Furious 8 settles for a neon orange Lamborghini being chased over ice by a nuclear submarine. There are points at which the whole thing threatens to fall apart like that surface ice, but the film moves just quick enough to stay above water.

Dominating Dom.

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Non-Review Review: xXx iIi – The Return of Xander Cage

Perhaps the most endearing aspect of xXx iIi: The Return of Xander Cage is how absurd the movie feels, on just about every level.

xXx iIi is the third in a trilogy of films that launched in 2002. xXx is highly unlikely to rank as anybody’s favourite Vin Diesel film, sitting somewhere below The Fast and the Furious and Pitch Black on the “viable Vin Diesel movie franchises” scale. The movie was very much part of that turn-of-the-millennium attempt to craft an American answer to the highly successful James Bond franchise, and as such had arguably been rendered redundant by The Bourne Identity two months before it was released.

Quite Cagey on the matter.

Quite Cagey on the matter.

In fact, xXx was such an underwhelming Vin Diesel vehicle that the performer did not return for the sequel three years later. In xXx II: State of the Union, the extreme sports daredevil was replaced by a veteran marine played by Ice Cube. As such, it seems strange that the third film in the trilogy should be released fifteen years after the original and more than a decade following the only sequel starring a substitute lead. It is very hard to argue that the world was crying out for a xXx sequel promising the return of a low-tier Vin Diesel persona.

In its best moments, xXx iIi actively embraces that absurdity and swivels into the insanity. There are points at which xXx iIi ultimately collapses under its own ridiculousness, as it struggles to fill the gaps between admirably over the top set pieces with terrible dialogue delivered by a fairly weak cast. However, there are also moments when xXx iIi works much better than it should, if only because it recognises the absurdity of its own existence and just runs with it.

It's good to be back.

It’s good to be back.

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Non-Review Review: The Last Witch Hunter

There are quite a lot of things wrong with The Last Witch Hunter, to the point that it’s almost endearing that the film sends so long setting up a potential sequel. (The Second Last Witch Hunter, perhaps?)

The Last Witch Hunter is a misbegotten mess that feels like the work of five different writers working with five different directors and a surprisingly consistent VFX team. The film is stilted, illogical, clumsy and ill-judged. Indeed, it seems like the production went wrong from the moment it was decided that Vin Diesel would be the perfect actor to convey the enormity and tragedy of immortality. Diesel is a reliable screen presence, with considerable gravitas, but he is not ideally suited to this sort of pathos.

... and carry a big sword...

… and carry a big sword…

The Last Witch Hunter stumbles from half-formed idea to half-formed idea, through a mess of CGI and misjudged direction. There are point where the action can be difficult to follow, whether through the script’s dependence on liberal amounts of exposition or the fast-paced editing that makes it difficult to get a sense of character or location in the midst of all this computer-generated mayhem. There is something frustrating to all this, given the faintest hints of interesting concepts that are smothered in rip-offs of other better films.

The audience might well wish that it really is The Last Witch Hunter.

Any witch way, but loose...

Any witch way, but loose…

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Non-Review Review: Riddick

Riddick is remarkably candid about the trouble with The Chronicles of Riddick. Somewhere,” Riddick tells us in his introductory monologue, “I lost my way.” The movie sees Riddick trying to get back to his roots – literally and figuratively. He abandons the trappings of The Chronicles of Riddick, casting Karl Urban aside after little more than a cameo and a convoluted back story. He longs to return home.And, in a way, he does.

Eschewing the scale of The Chronicles of Riddick, the movie finds Riddick and the crews of two ships locked in combat on the surface of a planet, discovering that the elements are against them – and the monsters hiding therein. The movie is acutely aware of how tightly it’s mirroring Pitch Black. At one point, before an alien onslaught begins, one co-star asks how many survivors emerged from the crash at the start of Pitch Black. “As many as are in this room,” Riddick replies, underscoring the similarities.

However, Riddick is strongest when it tries to recapture the mood of Pitch Black, rather than trying to connect more directly with its predecessors. The decision to hang the back story of the film on a minor character from a movie released a decade ago feels like a miscalculation, and the movie’s introduction suffers from an indecisiveness about whether it’s breaking free of or following on from its direct predecessor.

Apocalypse how?

Apocalypse how?

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Non-Review Review: The Fast & The Furious 6

The ideal The Fast & The Furious film could only properly be summated with hand gestures and poorly improvised sound effects. “Rrrrrrr….” and then (wavy hand movement) and then “smack!” and then (index finger jams into opposite palm), followed a “bb’tccccch…” and (outward gesture of hand indicating explosion). Fast Five came close to being that perfect macho car chase film, one less concerned with plot and performance than a riveting high-octane spectacle treating its human cast as much like props as the vehicles they drive.

The Fast & The Furious 6 backs away a great deal from the charm of the previous film. There’s the same dumb action set pieces delivered in a charmingly intense manner by Justin Lin, but the script feels over-plotted. There are lots of big emotional moments between an ensemble that really wasn’t built to give those sorts of performances. There are lots of shocking revelations from events several films earlier. There are lots of personal conversations where Lin has no idea what to do with the camera but circle around his actors and hope that the audience doesn’t get too bored.

Not so fast...

Not so fast…

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