Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Fast & Furious 7

Alternate Title:  Art!

One sentence synopsis:    The Fast & Furious crew must try to stop an SAS-mercenary from taking revenge for the crippling of his brother in a previous heist.

Things Havoc liked:  In this movie, there is a moment where The Rock drives an ambulance off of an overpass and onto a flying predator drone, from which he then salvages a Gatling gun, with which he engages an attack helicopter in a battle through downtown Los Angeles.

Do I really need to say anything else?

The Fast and The Furious was a terrible movie, many many years ago, and since its inception it has spawned a whole series of seven films, completely unseen by me, all of which I had rather assumed were also terrible. And while I didn't see these films and consequently can't speak with authority about them, those who can have more or less echoed my expectations. At least until somewhere around the fifth movie, when people began reporting to me that, contrary to all the laws of fiction, filmmaking, and frankly physics, the series had begun to become good. Or perhaps not good, but awesome in the way that a movie that is not good can sometimes be. I generally regarded these reports as being the natural result of lengthy experiments with fantastically dangerous mind-altering chemicals, but in the aftermath of last fucking month, as I cast about for something to see that did not fill me with a desire to instead jump off the Golden Gate Bridge, a good friend of mine "suggested" (read: "insisted") that indie dreck about Russian mechanics and Depression-era lumber barons was out, and that this week, we were going to go watch shit explode, come hell or high water. So that's just what we did. And thank god we did it, because Fast & Furious 7 is awesome.

No, not good, awesome, and bear in mind the difference. This is a movie that knows precisely what it is, a vehicle for insane, over-the-top action in a world pre-established by many, many previous films as being designed precisely for this. Comparisons to The Expendables series invite themselves, and yet unlike The Expendables, the result is not a tired aping of obsolete mentalities, but a riotous festival of more modern ones. Consider the murderer's row of modern-day cheesy action stars on offer here, from Vin Diesel to The Rock to Michelle Rodriguez to Jason Statham to the late Paul Walker, with Kurt Russell of all people thrown in just for a little old-school cred (and because the sight of Kurt Russell donning night-vision sunglasses and whipping out a pair of handguns to fight a mercenary army is badass regardless of era). All of these people are experts in the field of badassery, and if their resumes are not as storied as those of Arnold or Sylvester or Bruce, it's only because they did not invent the genre out of whole cloth the way the previous generation did. And given the casual disregard that this film has for anything approximating realism, the result is a relaxed, eye-pleasing, fun affair, buttressed by an understandable need to pay homage to Paul Walker, whose death midway through the film's creation is more or less explicitly memorialized within the movie. Other than that though, it's all business, whether it be an excellent opening sequence which establishes Jason Statham's invincible-badass credentials without a shot being fired, to ludicrous car stunts through Abu Dhabi, Georgia (the Asian one), or Los Angeles, to a moment where, for no reason anyone can properly establish, both Vin Diesel and Jason Statham break out akimbo lug wrenches for the purposes of a martial arts fight. It's a movie where Rhonda Rousy, who is still the worst actress I have ever seen (though I'm not sure I can claim that in a world that includes Denise Richards), but who is also a bonafide UFC killing machine, gets into a martial arts fight with Michelle Rodriguez in eveningwear and heels. Lest this sound catty, unlike most movies where the token women get into fights that are more acrobatic than combative, this fight involves smashing each other facefirst into blocks of marble and delivering blows that would lay any man, woman, or for that matter, elephant, dead on the floor were they to be employed in our reality.

But this isn't our reality, and the movie knows it, knows that this is the reality of action films, and that different rules apply. Rules like practical effects, the rule in question being "yes, please". Some three hundred cars apparently gave their lives for this movie, quite a few of them through being thrown out of a cargo plane at 16,000 feet strapped to parachutes. Rules like badasses, the rule in question being "as many as you can get". Mui-Thai Tony Jaa, who the martial arts fans among you will recognize as the star of the sterling Ong Bak series joins the cast more or less to be a badass, and the cast is overall simply dripping with them, such that even basic characters established explicitly as non-badasses are given their moments to shine. Rules like drama, the rule in question being "only when it won't get in the way". This movie relegates the absurd "plot" and "character development" to the side, allowing for the proper elements to take center screen. These aren't characters, but archetypes, and archetypes are allowed to do things differently. Nobody complains that Achilles doesn't evidence enough character development in the Illiad after all. Given the almost congenital overuse of CGI in movies like this, their tendency to oversell a single badass who effortlessly slaughters mooks until we're bored, or the aggravating overreach wherein an action film about brooding badasses with enormous guns suddenly confuses itself with The Grapes of Wrath, stats like these give me hope for the genre overall.

Things Havoc disliked:  That's not to say there aren't some bad habits in play here though, and one of the foremost is a blight I had thought (and hoped) we had already banished, a cancerous relic of the age that this generation of action stars grew up in, shakeycam. A great many fights, particularly the hand-to-hand ones, employ what we used to call "MTV editing", meaning they look like they were filmed by someone suffering an epileptic fit. It's not merely that the camera gyrates wildly, ruining our ability to actually see what the hell is going on, but the movie compounds this by making the average shot length of the fight sequences somewhere between 0.1 seconds and the lifespan of a higgs boson. In consequence, all of the hard work that went into these fight sequences, the do-your-own-stunts and practical-SFX and expert choreography that I have every faith the filmmakers employed is rendered entirely useless, as even basic blocking is impossible to follow. Why Shakeycam became such a big deal in filmmaking, I have no idea (my suspicion is that it's the fault of Saving Private Ryan's famous Normandy sequence), but it has been an abject disaster since its inception, and remains one here. Not everything that was done in the 90s is worth preserving.

There's also, of course, the question of acting, or perhaps the lack thereof. Michelle Rodriguez can't act, ever, and Vin Diesel, for all his awesomeness and sterling credibility as a badass, isn't exactly Olivier himself. Having not seen the original six Fast and Furious movies, I have no idea what is supposed to be going on here, but the moments where the movie stops the action and cuts to the character drama!!!! between these two are moments where the movie comes to less of a halt and more of a collision with a retaining wall. The plot circulates around amnesia, or so I assume, as again I don't know what happened last time, but plots about amnesia, whatever their sources, tend to suck horribly, and exist more as cheap writer tropes than actual plot points, exceptions like Memento notwithstanding. Similarly pace-shattering is Paul Walker's wife (Jordana Brewster) and son, who are established rather explicitly at the beginning of the film, no doubt for the benefit of the fans, and then summarily shunted off to a compound in Panama to wait for the credits to arrive. I know that the family drama and "compelling" moments are afterthoughts in a film like this, I remember Men of Valor as well as anyone, but the problem is that the movie treats these as obligations to the fans, which deaden the film every time they arise.

Final thoughts:   It's tempting to be hipsterish about a series like Fast and Furious, either by condemning it as plebeian trash or by perverse praising it as some dynamo of modern filmmaking. But if the truth be known, this film was exactly what I needed to see at the tail end of a long, punishing slog through indie films that varied from mediocre to awful. Call it what you will, this series has managed to capture an audience, and unlike other vulgate series for which that could be said (Transformers comes to mind), it seems to have done so by getting the basics right, good action, fun stunts, practical effects, snappy one-liners, and ludicrous, over-the-top sequences that would not be out of place in one of Arnold's sillier jaunts. No, it's not some undeservedly maligned classic of the silver screen, ignored by serious critics because of snobbery, and no, I do not place it in the pantheon of great action movies of the last couple of years. But it is an irreverent, silly, over-the-top explosion-fest that knows what tone to take and what type of movie it is making. Good movie nights have been made from worse materials than this.

But if you absolutely must have a more intellectual gloss on your film selections, and who am I to argue with you, consider that this is an action movie where, without drawing the slightest attention to the fact, six out of the seven main characters, including both of the leads, are persons of color, representing practically every major ethnicity in America (including mixed), where the women in the film are permitted to be just as bone-shatteringly violent (and just as preternaturally indestructible) as the men, and where, despite being set rather prominently in the Middle East, the only terrorist in the entire film is a Brit.

We could do a lot worse indeed.

Final Score:  6.5/10

Next Time: Lassie meets The Birds in Hungary

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