Donnerstag, 11. Mai 2017

FAST & FURIOUS MARATHON - Collective Review

An Essay about an Odyssey

Hello there puny humans,
my buddy B.A. and I decided to continue our love for marathoning movies with one of the weirdest, longest running and most bonkers franchises: The Fast and the Furious! Neither of us had seen all of these films and it was an undertaking neither of us was 100% sure about. We were pretty pumped, but also knew a brain could only take so many testosterone driven muscle-heads, over-revved engines, female properties and vast violations of Newton's carefully logged laws. Also we realized, that the whole thing would take us about 16.5 h (without any considerably big breaks in between). It became clear I probably should arrive at B.A.'s place at 7.30 am. Naively he asked me whether I'd arrive by train or by car. I mean come on. It's the "Fast & Furithon". I ain't ridin' on no tracks. On my way to his place I thought of the following statistics I wanted to collect across all of these movies:

  • Biggest Stunt - for the most WTF moment of the film
  • MVP - for the best member(s) of cast and crew, or the best character
  • Physics Score - for how much the movie abides the basic laws of physics
  • Gear Shift Close-Ups - for everytime the camera punches in on someone operating the gear shift (or the e-break)
  • "Family"-Counter - for the number of times someone (preferably Vin Diesel) says the word family

So, now where I had my rating system ready, and B.A. had prepared for the adequate and sufficient dietary intake, we were able to start our highly anticipated and yet, somewhat dreaded adventure:

As our quest begins, we rejoice over how early 2000's this film is. There are people wearing dog tags and leather jackets, information is transferred via diskette, internet references are made that clearly show that they had no real idea about how it works, the 'hot stuff' Dom's crew is stealing are DVD players and digital cameras, and there even is a Ja Rule cameo, because well, he still was relevant back then. Also, for some reason, the bad guys always do wheelies when they ride away maliciously. Story-wise this movie basically is just Point Break with cars, which is okay I guess. Paul Walker's wooden acting doesn't really help to elevate the material, but it is nostalgia that makes the movie still kind of work.
However, we make some interesting observations. For one, the film makers make the odd choice of playing their dramatic piano cues over the techno/hip-hop tracks playing in the background of the scenes, without fading it out. Therefore, the music doesn't only fail to hit its emotional mark, but it becomes a weird mix of sound. Like when you and your flatmate listen to different music in your rooms at the same time and you are standing in the hallway hearing both. Secondly, although the movie already introduces the franchise's favorite brand of beer, Corona, the film lacks its trademark family theme. In Dominic Torreto's 'heartfelt' speech Vin Diesel even states that "the crew and their bullshit doesn't matter." We are shocked...

Biggest Stunt: Vince is hanging from the side of a Truck, tangled up in a wire. Brian approaches in a convertable, and tells Mia to take the wheel. While she does so, he climbs on top of the car and jumps on the truck. He untangles Vince and both of them jump back on the convertible, just before the shotgun of the angry truck driver goes off, barely escaping getting their heads blasted off. Watch here!

MVP: The police officer Muse (portrayed by Stanton Rutledge) who, one hour into the movie, is the only one connecting the word "family" to the crew, probably not knowing what he has started.
Physics Score: 8/10               Gear Shift Close-Ups: 12             "Family"-Counter: 2

2 FAST 2 FURIOUS (2003)
We are lucky enough to find the six-minute short film The Turbo Charged Prelude for 2 Fast 2 Furious in the DVD extras. It tells the story of how Brian flees from the LAPD and goes on a road trip. After winning a few races on the way, he ends up in Miami. There is no dialogue. Till then I had thought it was the film The Artist that reintroduced the world to silent cinema. But apparently it was the Fast & Furious franchise.
As its second installment begins, B.A. and I realize that this film doubles down on the early 2000-ness. This film came out the same year that Need For Speed: Underground did, and you can tell. The cars are in bright orange, green, red, purple or pink colors, fully equipped with rear spoilers and neon lighting. In addition, director John Singleton goes all-out with crazy camera angles and visual representations of what he apparently thinks driving a fast car looks like (including the highest "Gear Shift Close-Up" count in the franchise). It's almost unsettling for the eyes at points. Trading in Vin Diesel for Tyrese Gibson fills this style-heavy film with much more quips and humor compared to its predecessor. All this flashiness almost makes you forget about the somewhat dull plot. For some reason, this movie reminds us of another "all-style-no-substance" sequel that didn't have any impact on its franchise:
Mission: Impossible II.

Biggest Stunt: Roman and Brian jumping with their car from the road onto a boat that has just left shore. Watch here!

MVP: The casting director, for not only casting the soon-to-be integral crew members Tyrese and Ludacris, but also Devon Aoki as Suki, who unfortunately didn't get to resprise her role, but later kicked ass in Sin City.
Physics Score: 7/10               Gear Shift Close-Ups: 46             "Family"-Counter: 0

We discuss whether we should skip this film for now, in order to preserve the story-line chronology (as it takes place between Fast and Furious 6 and 7), but B.A. is determined not to "disrespect the artist's vision" and keep the order of release.
This time, we are taken back to High School with an all new cast. And this was back in the day when Hollywood would cast mid-twenties to play teenagers. As a result, we get 24-year-old Lucas Black as our new protagonist (Sean), who unfortunately doesn't really boost the acting game compared to an underage kid. His character is as flat as his fake southern accent. Further, with the exception of the outrageous pedagogical approach to exile a student to Tokyo one day before school starts despite him not knowing any Japanese, the plot is pretty by-the-numbers. The new kid who has a passion for something meets the big bully who is better than him in said particular skill, motivating him to work real hard and beat him in the end. It hits all the familiar plot points, including "training through montage". The one time the film throws you a bit of a curve ball and kills off Han (the only charismatic character in the film) everyone else handles it like it is not that big of a deal. We are certain the worst movie is behind us. Also, we are relieved not to have watched this film in its chronological order. With all its outdated references and technology, this film would have stood out even more. To be fair though, this is the most realistic film in the franchise, which might also be why it is the most boring one.

Biggest Stunt: The only moment where your heart jumps a bit is when Sean drives in full speed towards a mass of people. The crowd splits, creating a narrow passageway that Sean drifts though like a pro. Watch here!

MVP: Sung Kang, for making the small character of Han so compelling that the producers messed up the whole time-line of the franchise just to include him in future movies.

Physics Score: 9.5/10               Gear Shift Close-Ups: 40              "Family"-Counter: 1

We top the Pizza, put it in the oven, and sit down to watch a movie that missed the big opportunity to call itself "The Fourth of The Furious". We are happy to see the original cast back even though Michelle Rodriguez's Letty is killed of so quickly that we would have missed it if the whole plot didn't revolve around solving her murder and getting revenge. In general, this is a more personal story that lays the groundwork for the new direction this franchise is taking. There is some good stuff in Fast & Furious: Elements are properly set-up so that they pay-off later, the reason the characters come back together again is actually believable and dynamic, the action sequences are shot quite well, Paul Walker's acting has very much improved, and even Wonder Woman herself, Gal Gadot, has joined the cast. It's also kind of cool that they tried out a different genre and went a bit more of a crime thriller route.
However, the franchise has not quite found its footing yet. Apart from a pretty unnecessary twist, B.A. and I feel like there is something more missing, but we can't put a finger on it. After a little time to reflect, we realize, that it is the humor and lightheartedness of the previous and later installments. We now try to recap the number of points at which we laughed or even chuckled during the film and realize that there are vanishingly few. This reinvention of the franchise appears to be just a shade too dark, and we'd love to see Dom and Brian do a little bit less brooding.

Biggest Stunt: We called it "Execution by car". The bad guy, Fenix, stands next to his car and holds Brian at gun-point. Suddenly, Dominic Toretto comes blasted out of the mountain in front of them in his car. He flies directly towards Fenix, who tries to jump away. But Brian takes a dive, grabs Fenix by the ankle and holds him down, so that Dom crushes him in half between the two cars. Brutal... but totally awesome. Watch here!

MVP: Brian O'Connor, for holding that dude down just so he can get executed by a car.      
Physics Score: 6/10                Gear Shift Close-Ups: 34               "Family"-Counter: 2

FAST FIVE (2011)
We see the The Rock in the DVD menu and we know: Now we are getting to the good stuff. Because Fast Five is so far considered to be the best film of the series. And we see why: The dark tone from its predecessor is gone, and instead this film turns into a "getting-the-gang-together"-type heist movie. This kind of playful concept as already worked very well for films like Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, Ocean's Eleven and The Italian Job. (FUN FACT: two of the cast-members, as well as the director of the 2003 The Italian Job remake, reunited in Fast & Furious 8). This movie however has the additional benefit that the different crew members are taken from all four previous films respectively, making it a lot of fun for fans of the franchise to see some of them interact for the first time.
The film feels like a "Best Of", bringing in the personal story telling from the first one, the ridiculous fun from the second and even some of the dark elements from the fourth. On top of that, the addition of The Rock as a no-nonsense hands-on cop gives the film an extra bit of flavor and a few more "Fuck Yeah!"-moments. B.A. and I agree that while Fast & Furious might have been the film to get the franchise back on track, it was this installment that steered it in the right direction. You can also tell by the fact that the word "family" starts to come up more often.

Biggest Stunt: Dom destroying over a dozen police cars in a row by slinging a freakin' enormous vault at them that is attached to his car. Watch here!

MVP: Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson as Detective Luke Hobbs, for reinvigorating the whole franchise.

Physics Score: 5/10                 Gear Shift Close-Ups: 21               "Family"-Counter: 5

FAST & FURIOUS 6 (2013)
We had totally forgotten that already at the end of Fast Five Eva Mendes (seen before in the second installment) comes into Hobbs office with photos of Letty that had just been taken days before. How is that possible? Didn't she die in the fourth film? Who is she working with now? If she's alive, why didn't she come back to Dom? Will their love blossom again like it did when Dom dry-humped her in his garage in The Fast and The Furious? What will Dom do about the hot Brazilian cop he is banging at the moment? These are the burning questions we now hope to get answers to in Fast & Furious 6. And we do: Letty has amnesia and thus, has forgotten all about her tank top wearing lover. To cap it all, she is also working for a rogue crew of thieves that are opposing our protagonists. Now Dom must not only defeat these bad guys, but also remind Letty of her past life with him. It is the point where we enter the soap opera elements of this franchise. For the first time on that day, B.A. and I feel exhausted. Sure, there are some of the dumbest physics defying stunts in this, but the film seems to drag a little. The premise is fine but a little predictable; there are side plots that seem to unnecessarily tie the film to previous ones; a betrayal is shown that we couldn't care less for; and Michelle Rodriguez and Vin Diesel in combination are just not expressive enough to give the "dramatic" scenes any significant weight. Further, Luke Evans' villain is a little underdeveloped, and his plan so forgettable that we just don't really feel the stakes in this movie. Granted, they kill off another character, but that moment kind of gets lost in the action.

Biggest Stunt: While on a huge bridge, the tank that Letty is climbing on the top of crashes, threatening to throw her into the deep ravine. Dom, the math genius he is, does a controlled and calculated crash himself, catapulting exactly into Letty's trajectory, allowing him to catch her mid-air and land (safely) on a car. Watch here!

MVP: Jason Statham, for appearing at the end very end with his bad-ass "Dominic Toretto, you don't know me, but you are about to."-line getting you pumped up again.

Physics Score: 3.5/10             Gear Shift Close-Ups: 22             "Family"-Counter: 11

FURIOUS 7 (2015)
I have actually already reviewed this film when it was initially released, and back then, I thought it had some serious script issues. Rightly so, B.A. says that one simply has to turn a blind eye to that, since the writers had the incredibly tough task to rewrite the script in the middle of shooting, when Paul Walker tragically passed away. And as it turns out, when you are already prepared for the somewhat messy story line, the film is much more exciting than on the first viewing. It's moving quickly, taking you from one action set piece to another. Statham versus The Rock, Diesel versus Statham, cars jumping out of buildings, people jumping out of cars, people in cars jumping out of an airplane. It is a blast and the best dumb-fun we've had so far. We are at a point where this franchise knows how ridiculous it is and really owns it. I mean... The Rock breaks the cast on his arm by flexing his biceps. It's amazing.
Then, after all this grand scale spectacle the film ends on a personal and sincere note. If someone had asked me before, if a Fast & Furious movie could cause me to have a lump in my throat, I would have laughed. A lot. But here, even the second time around, the ending chokes me up. We say "Fare thee well!" to Paul.

Biggest Stunt: There is a lot to choose from, because the "dropping cars out of a plane" sequence was actually done with practical effects. So was the scene with Brian jumping off a bus off a cliff. But in the end, this one has to go to Dom and Brian driving a car - not once, but twice - from one building through the window and into another... all on the 45th floor. Watch here!

MVP: Universal Studios for handling Paul Walker's death in the most respectful and sincere way, giving the character of Brian a worthy send-off.

Physics Score: 2/10               Gear Shift Close-Ups: 33               "Family"-Counter: 9

Here we are. The great finale. We put on our jackets and take a long needed walk to the movie theater. When we sit down with our nachos and the curtain opens, we are pumped. Who would have thought this series would once have eight installments and counting? What then unfolds in front of our eyes might be the most unbridled, wildest, and most absurdly entertaining film of the franchise. While B.A. was certain this one's gonna be a blast, I am genuinely surprised about how much I am enjoying this movie.
It starts off with an appropriately ridiculous racing sequence between Dom and a cocky Cuban race driver. Dom wins the race in reverse gear with half of the car in flames. From here on out, they keep upping the ante from scene to scene. Because, as we saw in the trailer, Dom's team has soon to face the one thing they are not prepared for: Dom himself. The reason for this betrayal is kept from the viewer for the first half of the film, and I find myself hoping it is not some bullshit made-up leverage. When the revelation comes, however, I am actually a little impressed how well it fits into the over all franchise. In general this film brings in quite a few elements from past films that it weaves into its story. Just like Fast Five, this movie gains a lot by bringing back a large number of characters we have met before, only that this time it has seven instead of four movies to choose from. They even do their very hardest to redeem Jason Statham's former bad guy Deckard Shaw. In addition, they of course got some new faces on board as well. Most notably, a classy cameo by Dame Helen Mirren (who actually specifically asked to be in the franchise) and Charlize Theron's turn as the main antagonist. What's fun about Theron's performance is that she finally gives us a villain, who doesn't scowl all the time, but actually seems to be enjoying herself. Vin Diesel on the other hand does nothing but scowl for most of the movie. This is first and foremost due to the fact that his story line gets unexpectedly dark. At one point during the film, B.A. and I even silently turn to each other with an "I didn't think they would go there" kind of look. Still, you get enough stunts, quips and goofiness to balance these moments out. As a result, this movie seems like an updated version of the Roger Moore Bond era, where gruesome deaths were accompanied by silly action sequences and cheesy one-liners. It is exactly what you expect from this franchise by now, and so this film gave me everything I wanted an eighth installment of Fast & Furious to be.

Biggest Stunt: Once again, its a tough call. The amazing "Zombie Cars" come in at a close second to the visually pompous "Cars vs. Submarine" sequence, including the awesome destruction of the latter vehicle. Find these scenes in the trailer!

MVP: Director F. Gary Gray, for creating a fun ride and breaking two records while doing so: "Highest grossing black director of all time", and "Highest worldwide opening of all time".

Physics Score: 4/10              Gear Shift Close-Ups: 31               "Family"-Counter: 14

We did it. Finally! And on our way home, we recapitulate what we just saw. To begin with, we think of Dom Toretto's character development and realize that in the course of eight films (actually only six to be exact) he went from stealing DVD-Players to stealing nuclear launch codes. That is quite a career path. Then we talk about the franchise as a whole. Admittedly, it is a mixed bag when it comes to the quality of the films, but we can't help but to praise it for the way it respects its characters. It keeps bringing characters back, enriching their story. Even some of the ones that seem like a one and done type. Surprisingly so, the continuity is pretty solid with the exception of a few unclarities as to when characters first met and the fact that a 33 year old Lucas Black reprised his role as 17 year old Sean in Furious 7. It is easy to make fun of the series' "Family"-theme, but it is apparent through the way they expand roles instead of replacing people. It is also impressive that our main heroes, Dom and Brian, are one of the very few action leading men that stay in a committed relationship for largest part of the franchise, which is quite uncommon.
Furthermore, the cast shows an unusual amount of ethnic diversity with Black-, Latino-, Asian- and even Middle Eastern-actors in its main or recurring roles. And while the franchise has always prominently featured a bunch of hot female extras whose sole purpose it is to shake their booty in front of the camera, it has recently started to add, flesh out and strengthen female characters. It is more progressive than it gets credit for.
Of course, it is still a ridiculous action franchise that is just incredibly dumb fun. But with the afore-mentioned positives plus its tendency for self-mockery, it feels really genuine. Even if you can't get behind this kind of absurdity, you can still see that this series is not a simple cash grab, but sort-of "means well". Something I wouldn't say about the transformers franchise for example.
Even my parents, who are generally more into the european/arthouse/intellectual kind of cinema, had to grin when I showed them the major action scenes from Furious 7 on YouTube.

Oh, and Universal, in case you are reading this, these are my pitches for the next and ninth installment of this franchise:
  • The Fast & The Führer: a prequel set in Germany revolving around Dom's grandfather Johann 'Hans' Toretto, who fights the Nazi regime with his Mercedes-Benz 770 (alternative title: Fast & Furious Nein)
  • Fast to the Future: Dom and his crew buy an old garage that they want to pimp up, where they find an old DeLorean that must've stood there for 30 years. When Dom dusts it up and takes it for a spin, he realizes that this is, in fact, a time-machine!
  • The Force & The Furious: Dom sits in a bar, when a mysterious person in a brown cloak approaches him and asks him, why he thinks he can do things with cars that no one can, why he is almost indestructible and can defy the laws of physics. The person is an old Jedi and reveals that Dom must be Force-sensitive. In order to defy a new Sith organization that has spread through the galaxy, the Jedi takes Dom and his crew on a journey, where he teaches him the ways of the force and prepares him for the ultimate battle against the dark side.
So, this was my in-depth review of my "Fast & Furious Marathon". It was exhausting, but still a blast. A big thanks goes out to B.A. for joining me on (and actually initiating) this endeavor as well as helping me with the stats.

Your Cinemartian

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