The Fate of the Furious is a Fun Movie with Problematic Writing

The Fast and Furious series has overcome humble beginnings to somehow become one of the biggest blockbuster movie franchises in recent memory. The eighth and most recent installment, The Fate of the Furious, was released in April and grossed a staggering $1.2 billion, which puts it at the number 2 spot on the list of the highest-grossing films of 2017 so far (only Beauty and the Beast has made more).

I saw the movie when it came out but I was in a bit of a funk at the time and never got around to writing about it. But since the movie just came out on Blu-Ray I thought it would be a good time to share some thoughts about it. Besides, given the fact that it made such an immense amount of money, most people who wanted to see it probably already have, so I figure the statute of limitations on spoilers has expired. This is my way of saying that the rest of this post will be chock-full of spoilers. You have been warned.

I like The Fate of the Furious. It’s a fun movie that delivers exactly what the fans of the series expect: nonstop over-the-top vehicular action and an emphasis on family and teamwork among the protagonists. So I can’t fault it too much for delivering on its promises. However…I do have some issues with the storytelling.

I might sound like a prude for saying that. After all, no one, myself included, goes into a Fast and Furious movie expecting Shakespeare. But while it is entirely possible to forget the storytelling issues and enjoy the movie for the solid piece of entertainment that it is, there are some glaring flaws with the writing that are hard to ignore.

Image: Universal

The movie’s trailers intentionally caused a bit of a stir by making it look like Dominic “Dom” Toretto, the unkillable protagonist played by Vin Diesel, had turned on his team and become the villain. He does work against his team for a good part of the movie, but he never goes full-evil. That’s okay, because he’s the main character of the series and the filmmakers would never kill him off or make him permanently evil, so clearly the film’s true villain, the dreadlocked super hacker Cipher (played by Charlize Theron) was manipulating him somehow.

Let’s backtrack a bit. For those of you unfamiliar with the series, Dom’s girlfriend and now wife Letty (played by Michelle Rodriguez) was presumed dead for a while, and during that time Dom shacked up with a Brazilian cop named Elena. It turns out that this relationship resulted in a child whom Dom was never aware of, and Cipher now has Elena and Dom’s baby son held hostage. This is the leverage she uses against him to make him do her bidding, which includes stealing an EMP device and a Russian nuclear football.

It’s a pretty decent twist, and since the series emphasizes family so much, it makes a degree of sense that Dom would risk so much and work against his team in order to save his son. I’m okay with that part, but it starts to get messy.

The movie re-introduces Deckard Shaw (played by Jason Statham), the villain of the previous film, 2015’s Furious 7. Deckard was one of my favorite villains of 2015, an unstoppable ass-kicking force of nature. The grudge match between Deckard and Dom felt like it had real dramatic stakes, but The Fate of the Furious retroactively undermines it.

Deckard reluctantly joins the team to help them catch Dom and Cipher, and this leads to some fun macho rivalry between Deckard and Dwayne Johnson’s character, the equally-unstoppable badass Luke Hobbs. But then the movie starts to try to make Deckard look like not such a bad guy, by revealing that he had won medals for valor while serving as a member of British special forces. He even starts to bond a little with Hobbs, and Hobbs appears genuinely upset when they hear Deckard has been killed by Dom.

But before this happens, Deckard explains that Cipher was the mastermind behind the team’s most recent adventures, hiring Deckard’s brother Owen (the villain of Fast and Furious 6) and other villainous characters in Furious 7. Remember in Spectre, when it was revealed that Christoph Waltz’s Blofeld was the mastermind behind the villains of the previous Daniel Craig Bond movies? I thought that approach worked well enough in that film, but in The Fate of the Furious it feels…rushed.

It turns out that Deckard is not actually dead, and that he and Dom (somehow) faked his death. And then, during the movie’s climax, Deckard and Owen (who got kicked out of a plane during the climax of Fast and Furious 6 and was last seen catatonic at the beginning of Furious 7, kicking off Deckard’s plans for revenge against Dom) infiltrate Cipher’s mobile command center to rescue Dom’s son.

If all of this sounds convoluted, that’s because it is. The movie ends as these movies usually do, with Dom and his team (which now includes Deckard) sitting down to dinner.

I have so many problems with this.
Image: Universal

First of all, this series has a tendency to take antagonists from previous movies and turn them into allies. Let us not forget that Dwayne Johnson’s character Hobbs started out hunting Dom and his team back in Fast Five. I’m fine with Hobbs joining the team, because who doesn’t want more Dwayne Johnson in their movies? Hell, I want Dwayne in every movie.

But it’s so much harder to accept Deckard (and potentially Owen) joining the team as well. Hobbs was never portrayed as a bad guy in Fast Five. Dom’s a criminal, Hobbs is a cop, his job was to catch Dom and by God that was what he was going to do. Hobbs was a guy doing his job, and even though his job was to catch Dom and his friends, Hobbs was never evil, and he became sympathetic towards Dom once he realized that there were far worse criminals around.

That makes sense as a character arc, but with Deckard is just doesn’t work. Furious 7 spent the entire movie establishing Dom and Deckard as the most bitter of enemies. Dom kicked Deckard’s brother Owen out of a plane, in return, Deckard killed one of Dom’s team members. But The Fate of the Furious undermines this by showing that Owen is apparently fine now, aside from some facial scarring he seems A-Okay despite having been kicked out of a plane that was going at several hundred miles an hour. Deckard’s grudge against Dom is therefore nullified, but Deckard still killed one of Dom’s team members. Dom seems willing to forget about this, and since the movie makes no mention of Dom’s friend that was killed by Deckard, I’m guessing the filmmakers wished the audience would forget about it too.

This also undermines the conflicts in Fast and Furious 6 and Furious 7. It makes it seem like Owen and Deckard were not that bad after all, despite both movies working hard to set them up as Really Bad Dudes. I mean heck, even if Owen was hired by Cipher to steal whatever the hell it was he was trying to steal in the sixth movie, he still drove a tank on a highway and annihilated several carloads of innocent people. Even if Owen and Deckard had been manipulated by Cipher to some extent, that doesn’t exonerate them of their past misdeeds.

You might argue that in a movie full of over-the-top action and people surviving things no actual human ever could survive, the storytelling issues aren’t that big of a deal, but for me, it’s the other way around. The Fast and Furious movies have always been about crazy action and stunts. Sure, some of it may be impossible, but after eight movies of death-defying mayhem, I can accept it. The plot contrivances, however, are much harder to swallow.

It also doesn’t help that it’s inelegantly done. Much of the final half-hour or so of The Fate of The Furious is composed of non-stop action, and for the most part it’s great fun. As much as I don’t like the whole “let’s make Dom and Deckard be friends now” angle, it is always a lot of fun to watch Statham kick ass, which he’s very good at. The scene where he battles Cipher’s henchmen with a gun in one hand and Dom’s son in a baby carrier in the other hand is one of the highlights of the movie (and also owes a clear debt to John Woo’s masterpiece Hardboiled).

But before this happens, the movie cuts back to show the audience how it transpired that Deckard was not killed earlier and how his mother (played by an uncredited and of course fabulous Helen Mirren) hatched a plan with Dom. I hate it when movies go away from exciting action scenes to show us people talking. It kills the momentum of the movie. I understand why the film is structured this way (so that the appearance of Deckard and Owen comes as a surprise) but for crying out loud, there’s got to be a better way of doing it than cutting away from the frenetic action scenes that are this series’ bread and butter. It interrupts the pacing and always feels like the filmmakers patting themselves on the back for being so clever, but to me this sort of thing always feels contrived.

My other main issue with the movie is Tyrese Gibson. I HATE Tyrese Gibson. The guy is an absolutely terrible actor and his character Roman is an irritating, obnoxious, loudmouthed asshole who does his best to ruin every scene he’s in. What’s worse, every director of every Fast and Furious movie seems to think that he’s hilarious and gives him way too much screen time for his incessantly smug mugging (smugging?). I REALLY wanted him to die during the movie’s climax, although I was sure it wouldn’t happen and sure enough, it didn’t. GAH. I HATE HIM.

Anyway, Tyrese Gibson rant over. Despite its profoundly flawed and somewhat lazy storytelling, The Fate of the Furious is still a fun movie. Even though I spent most of this post dissecting its many problems, I don’t want people to think that I hate it. I don’t. It’s a fun movie that delivers what fans want, and I can watch it and enjoy it as long as I don’t think too much about it. Maybe I’m my own worst enemy here and I need to stop thinking so much (DAMN YOU CLASSICAL EDUCATION) but I can still enjoy the movie as a fun piece of popcorn entertainment, even if it ultimately fails in its aspirations to be much more than that.

Thanks for checking out this spoiler-filled discussion of The Fate of the Furious. I hope it didn’t seem like a rant, except for the part about Tyrese Gibson. That part was definitely a rant. Next up is Christopher Nolan’s epic-looking war movie Dunkirk, which I’m very excited about. Tune in next Wednesday for a review.

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2015: The Year in Villainy

Another year, another roundup of baddies. There were a lot of big-franchise movies this year, with a lot of big-name villains, as well as a couple of memorable new (evil) faces. Without further ado, let’s get to the villainy!

Richmond Valentine in Kingsman: The Secret Service

2015 villains valentine

Samuel L. Jackson played one of the most unique villains of the year. A billionaire who wants to destroy humanity because he believes they are a disease that must be exterminated in order to save the planet, he speaks with a lisp and grows nauseous at the sight of blood. He’s also got a first-rate evil lair hidden in the mountains, protected by surface-to-air missiles and an army of henchmen. He may not be the scariest villain of the year, given the film’s comedic tone, but certainly one of the most entertaining.

Deckard Shaw in Furious 7

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I love Jason Statham, and he doesn’t usually play bad guys, so it was really fun to watch him cut loose and turn to the dark side for a while. I’ll admit that his character didn’t have all that much personality, but every time he showed up in the movie, his appearance was accompanied by a fight, shootout, or ridiculous car chase. He kicked plenty of ass, and probably got his hands dirty more than any other villain on this list, which earns him a spot as one of my favorite villains of 2015.

Ultron in Avengers: Age of Ultron

2015 villains ultron

For a while, Gollum was the most realistic digital character around, but some of the recent Marvel movies have given old Smeagol a run for his money (Rocket and Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy are other examples of this). But in terms of digitally-created villains, Ultron steals the show. Age of Ultron was a mixed bag, the story was a bit of a mess and the whole film felt overstuffed, but it was still plenty of fun and James Spader gave a fantastic performance as the titular villain. He gave Ultron distinctive mannerisms that made him feel like much more than just your average everyday murderous robot. When you’ve got five or six superheroes in one movie, you need a villain capable of standing up to all of them, and Ultron fit that description perfectly.

Immortan Joe in Mad Max: Fury Road

2015 villains immortan joe

I may be biased here because Mad Max: Fury Road was far and away my favorite movie of 2015, but Immortan Joe was also my favorite villain of 2015. A classic dictator and a first-class bullshit artist, Immortan Joe was the kind of villain who would scare the pants off you, but he was so magnetic you couldn’t take your eyes off that terrifying visage. He was the kind of villain you love to hate, and his was also one of the most viscerally and emotionally satisfying deaths of the year. When Charlize Theron’s equally-badass Furiosa hooked his mask to the wheel of his truck and ripped half his face off, it was enough to make you want to stand up and cheer.

John Connor in Terminator Genisys

2015 villains connor

You’ve got to give the makers of Terminator Genisys some credit. It took some serious cojones to make John Connor, the savior of humanity in the previous Terminator films, the bad guy in the most recent installment. That would be like making Harry Potter a dark wizard. But what one hand gives, the other hand takes away, since the reveal of Connor as the bad guy was relentlessly spoiled in every bit of the film’s advertising. Posters, trailers, you name it, all of it gave away the big twist. It was really too bad, since it hugely undermined the film’s big reveal of the villain. Jason Clarke still did solid work in the role, but the damage was done and the twist didn’t have as much of an impact as it should have. Still, it took balls, and I do have to give the filmmakers some credit for that.

Yellowjacket in Ant-Man

2015 villains yellowjacket

Ant-Man was great fun, one of the most purely entertaining movies I saw this year. And it just makes sense that Ant-Man’s nemesis would be another insect-based character. Yellowjacket had the same shrinking abilities as Ant-Man, but of course he added more laser guns, as any self-respecting villain probably would. The climactic battle between Ant-Man and Yellowjacket is one of the most unique in all of cinema. You will not find anything else quite like it, and that alone makes the movie worth checking out.

Solomon Lane in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

2015 villains lane

The fifth installment in the venerable spy series was all about providing Tom Cruise’s superspy Ethan Hunt with equals. Newcomer Rebecca Ferguson neatly stole the movie as slinky, sexy spy Ilsa Faust, who was every bit the equal to Cruise’s character, but she’s not on this list because she was not the villain. That title belongs to Solomon Lane, the devious criminal mastermind who managed the difficult task of frequently out-maneuvering Ethan Hunt himself. He’s a shadowy figure for much of the film, speaking in a silent, raspy voice that drips with menace. The villain in the previous Mission: Impossible movie was a bit flat, but Solomon Lane more than made up for that.

Franz Oberhauser in Spectre

2015 villains oberhauser

Spectre was a bit of a comedown after the awesomeness that was Skyfall, and that included the film’s villain. Christoph Waltz is an amazing actor, and it’s always fun to watch him be evil, but his character was not quite as memorable as Javier Bardem’s was in Skyfall. Still, Waltz is more than up to the task of being a Bond villain. Few actors provide more reliable villainy than Waltz, and he does so again here. There’s nothing really wrong with his character or his performance, but it would be tough for anyone to follow up Javier Bardem’s villainous turn in Skyfall, even an actor of Waltz’s caliber. But it’s still a kick to watch Waltz do his thing, even if his character wasn’t all it could have been.

Kylo Ren in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

2015 villains kylo ren

Don’t worry, this entry will be spoiler-free. Although, given the ridiculous amount of money Episode VII has already made, most people reading this will have probably already seen it. But on the off chance that you haven’t seen it yet, I won’t give anything major away. Suffice to say that Kylo Ren’s true identity drops a pretty big bombshell in the middle of the Star Wars mythos. He’s played by an actor named Adam Driver, who I was unfamiliar with, but I thought he did a pretty great job playing a role that he must have known would be carefully scrutinized by legions of rabid fans. The Force Awakens was a hell of a ride, and it did exactly what it was supposed to do, in that it left you wanting more, and wanting more NOW. It’ll be a few years before we get to see the continuation of the story, but I can’t wait to see what the future has in store for everyone’s new favorite dark Jedi.

So there you have it, the best of the best of 2015’s villainous vagabonds. There are plenty of big movies coming in 2016, including a whole slew of comic-book movies that feature some truly iconic baddies (does the name the Joker ring a bell?), so I’ll see you at the movie theater.

Even More Really Bad Movies

Another birthday, another bad movie roundup! Let’s get started!

Beowulf

beowulf psotre

As an English major, I felt it was my sworn duty to see this movie. Boy, did I regret it. True story: when I was a sophomore at Seattle Pacific University, we read Beowulf in one of my British Lit. classes, because of course we did. I knew that this movie had been around for a while, but I had never seen it, so one day I hopped on a bus to downtown Seattle and bought the DVD from Borders (back before Borders went out of business. RIP Borders). I brought it back to my dorm room on the sixth floor of Hill Hall, and when I tried to watch it THE DVD FREAKING FROZE right when Beowulf’s mother (who, you might recall, was played by naked animated Angelina Jolie) emerged from the water. Try as I might, I could not get the stupid DVD to work.

So a few days later, I hopped on another bus, went back to downtown Seattle, and exchanged my faulty DVD for a new one. This one worked, miraculously…or perhaps not so miraculously, since I hated the movie. That DVD I worked so hard for contained a movie that totally sucked, and that DVD has sat on a shelf in my bedroom unwatched ever since.

Gamer

gamer psotre

I’m pretty sure I bought this DVD from that same Borders in downtown Seattle (I bought a lot of DVDs in college, probably due to my complete absence of a social life) and yeah, this movie also sucked. I do like the premise, though: In the not-too-distant future, there are these real-life video games where players control actual people in kill-or-be-killed deathmatches. Picture Call of Duty, but with real people instead of virtual avatars. It’s an agreeably wacky premise and there are some fun, crazy action sequences to go along with it, but the movie ends up being just too weird and unnecessarily convoluted for its own good, and it ends up being pretty hard to care about as a result. The movie was made by the same guys who made the completely-bonkers Crank movies, and includes all the over-the-top action but none of the momentum of those ludicrous ficks.

Ghost Rider

ghost rider psotre

Here’s an infamous stinker that gave me a title for a couple posts I did a while back, about Comparative Exponential Religiosity Crap. This movie is a mess: the villains are lame, the plot is boring, Nic Cage is…well, Nic Cage. What else needs to be said? At least the special effects are decent, but as anyone who watched the last Transformers movie will tell you, special effects can’t always save a movie. Bafflingly, this movie got a sequel a few years ago from the guys who made Crank and Gamer, which by most accounts was even worse than the original. I haven’t seen it and have no desire to. I guess not every Marvel character is a guaranteed recipe for success, after all.

Godzilla (1998)

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I liked this movie when I was a kid, but I have since seen the error of my ways. This movie was so bad that Toho, the Japanese production company that has made all the Japanese Godzilla movies, bought the rights to the appearance of the character as he looks in this movie, renamed him Zilla, and proceeded to ruthlessly mock him in their own Godzilla movies. Do yourself a favor and watch the epic Japanese film Godzilla Final Wars, which includes the priceless line “I knew that fish-eating monster was useless,” spoken after this much-hated version of Godzilla gets his ass handed to him.

The Matrix Revolutions

matrix3 psotre

Continuing from my previous bad-movie installment, here’s another epically bad trilogy-capper. Between this and the third Pirates of the Caribbean movie, you could write a book called “How not to end a movie trilogy.” Overlong and utterly incomprehensible, this movie was enough to make most people wish the Matrix series had ended after just one movie. The only part of this movie that was even remotely memorable was the part where Keanu Reeves punches Hugo Weaving in the face in super slow-mo.

Terminator Salvation

terminator_salvation_psotre

For some reason that I now find utterly incomprehensible, I used to like this movie. Having rewatched it recently, I have now scientifically determined that this movie is awful. It’s boring as hell, there’s not much action, not many Terminator robots, and no reason to care about any of the characters. For all of its flaws, at least Terminator 3 had a strong sense of purpose. This fourth Terminator movie has no driving force behind it at all, it just spins its wheels for two hours and ends anticlimactically without any sense of having accomplished anything. Even poor old Christian Bale couldn’t save this movie from becoming a generic and quickly-forgotten action flick.

Parker

parker psotre

I feel a bit bad including this one here, since I am a big fan of Jason Statham, but this movie is just boring. The action sequences are admittedly pretty good, but the characters are so thinly-drawn and the plot so dull that it basically sinks the entire movie.

So there you have it, seven more lousy movies. On another note, this is my 100th post! When I first started blogging a few years ago, I never thought I would someday reach 100 posts, and I want to offer my sincere thanks to anyone who has ever taken time out of their busy lives to read something I wrote. I can’t tell you how much that means to me, so thank you all very, very much.

Here’s to the next 100!

Why Fast Eight Will Be a Must-See

Two years ago, when Fast & Furious 6 was released, my review of it was entitled, “Why Fast Seven Will Be a Must-See.”

At this rate, I think I can see where this is headed, because Furious 7 is furious fun.

Furious-7 banner

It was supposed to be released last year, but as most people probably know by now, it was delayed by the tragic death of Paul Walker in a car accident in November of 2013. Walker’s death occurred when Furious 7 was still in production, and the film was put on hold while the filmmakers figured out how to complete it without Walker.

They ended up rewriting the script to serve as a send-off for Walker’s character, and completing his scenes using a combination of CGI, carefully-chosen camera angles, and body doubles, including Walker’s brothers Caleb and Cody.

I think that they handled it pretty well. I’m glad that they didn’t simply kill off Walker’s character. That probably would have been easier from a technical perspective, since if they just killed him off they wouldn’t have to deal with CGI and body doubles. But again, I’m really glad they didn’t go that route, since it would have cheapened Walker’s character and his contributions to the series.

Another good thing about how the filmmakers handled Walker’s death is that the techniques they used to complete his scenes are very convincing. There weren’t any moments where I found myself thinking that Walker’s character looked weird, or that he looked like a special effect. It’s a testament to the skill of the filmmakers that I have no idea how much of Walker’s footage was actually him and how much was simulated.

furious 7 paul walker

Furious 7 ends up being a fitting tribute to Walker, and ends with a very nice little montage with some of his highlights from the series and the simple dedication, “For Paul.” It gives the movie real emotional heft and leaves the viewer feeling that the cast and crew of this big-budget action blockbuster really cared about Walker and really sought to honor his legacy.

So now that all that’s been said, what is the actual movie like?

Well like I said earlier, it’s pretty damn fun.

Part of the reason I was so excited for Furious 7 in the first place was because Fast & Furious 6 ended with such a great tease, in which a mysterious character played by Jason Statham kills one of Vin Diesel’s character Dominic Toretto’s buddies, and then calls him on the phone and intones ominously, “Dominic Toretto. You don’t know me yet. But you’re about to.”

Turns out he’s Deckard Shaw, the big bad brother of the previous film’s villain, Owen Shaw. His brother is now comatose (he seemed pretty dead at the end of the sixth movie but whatever) and Deckard has sworn revenge against Dom and his crew.

Partly it’s because I already like Jason Statham so much, but he’s my favorite villain of the year so far. He’s like a freaking Terminator. Pretty much every time he shows up it’s in the middle of an already-crazy action sequence, or his appearance sets off another crazy action sequence. I saw the movie a week ago so my memory on this may be a bit hazy, but off the top of my head I can’t remember any appearance Statham makes in the movie that isn’t action-related somehow.

He gets to drive fancy cars really fast (and wreck them too, of course), shoot machine guns and he gets to fight both Vin Diesel AND Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, so Statham fans such as myself will definitely get a satisfying dose of Statham badassery. It’s also a bit of a departure for Statham since he usually plays the good guy in his movies, but based on this film I would love to see him cast as a villain more often.

This is actually the first time Statham and Johnson have been in a movie together, which in my opinion has been far too long in coming. I’ve been trying to convince my dad of the cultural and historical significance of this event for some time now, but he’s still not buying it for whatever reason. Oh, well. He’ll come around eventually (I’m not giving up on this, dad).

furious 7 statham vs johnson

Pictured: cultural significance. Can’t you just feel the culture radiating off those biceps? I can feel it like a punch to the face.

Johnson doesn’t get a whole lot of screen time in Furious 7, since his initial encounter with Statham puts him in the hospital for most of the movie, which is too bad. But he still gets some cool moments, such as (spoiler, I guess) crashing an ambulance into a Predator drone and shooting down a helicopter with a minigun, so there’s that, and his battle with Statham at the beginning of the movie is a knock-down drag-out brawl for the ages. He also gets to break a cast off his arm simply by flexing his enormous muscles, which is all kinds of awesome.

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The plot of the movie is fairly simple. Deckard Shaw wants revenge. Dom and his pals have to stop him. In order to find him, they need to get their hands on a computer program called God’s Eye, which is capable of finding anyone on the planet no matter where they are. They are assisted in this particular endeavor by a government agent played by Kurt Russell of all people, who also gets a couple of badass moments, one of them involving night-vision sunglasses. Just throwing that out there.

The cast is mostly the same as the previous films. Vin Diesel is really quite likable as the gravelly-voiced Dom, Michelle Rodriguez returns as his amnesiac girlfriend Letty, and Tyrese Gibson, Jordana Brewster, rapper Chris “Ludacris” Bridges and of course Paul Walker all reprise their roles from the previous films. They’re all pretty great in roles each of them have been playing for years, the only one I don’t really like is Tyrese Gibson’s character, an irritating loudmouth who just gets on my nerves after a while. The only new addition to their crew is a computer hacker named Ramsey played by Game of Thrones alum Nathalie Emmanuel, who helps them get their hands on the God’s Eye program and of course looks gorgeous.

furious-7 cast

All of this involves substantial amounts of mayhem. Cars dropped out of airplanes, cars jumping skyscrapers, cars getting blown up by missiles. I read that 230 cars were destroyed in the making of Furious 7, and I think it’s safe to say that they gave their lives for a good cause. The action sequences in the movie, and there are a lot of them, are consistently thrilling and just an absolute blast to watch, in many cases literally.

The movie was directed by James Wan, known mostly known for his horror films (among them Saw, Insidious, and The Conjuring). He acquits himself quite well as an action director, with a couple of cool camera moves during the fight scenes. The previous four films in the series were directed by Justin Lin (who I think is going to direct Star Trek 3), but the change of directors doesn’t affect the quality of the movie.

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Furious 7, like its predecessors, isn’t high drama. It’s not a masterpiece in the arts of storytelling and subtlety. But it is an extremely well-made and endlessly exciting action movie, as well as a satisfying send-off for a gifted actor gone too soon. Popcorn flicks don’t get much better than this. Bring on Fast Eight, which I seriously hope will be called F8, and pronounced “Fate.” You can use that, Hollywood. I’ll expect my royalty check in the mail any day now.

This is a job… for ONE MAN.

We’ve all seen the trailers. We’ve all heard the story. A desperate situation. An impossible mission. No one can save us… except ONE MAN.

Ah yes, the One Man Movie. A hallmark of action films for… heck, I don’t know. A really long time, I guess. I have an odd fascination with One Man Movies, I’m not really sure why. There’s something endlessly appealing to me about the kind of frequently over-the-top story where something horrible happens and no one can do anything about it because no one is good enough or crazy enough… except ONE MAN.

Sorry, I’m getting a little carried away here. I keep hearing Movie-Trailer-Voice-Guy in my head. Take the trailer for space-prison movie Lockout, where the President’s daughter is being held hostage on a prison orbiting the earth and, as Movie-Trailer-Voice-Guy informs us, “There’s only ONE MAN who can get her out… Snow. He’s the best there is, but he’s a loose cannon.”

At this point in the trailer, about a minute in, I had already made up my mind that this was a movie I would most definitely be seeing. Lockout is a classic One Man Movie. Ridiculous setup, over-the-top protagonist, nonstop one-liners. Check, check, and check. Lockout has it all down.

This is what I love so much about One Man Movies. EVERYTHING ABOUT THEM IS RIDICULOUS. Take Lockout, for example. There’s a prison. In space. Which the President’s daughter just-so-happens to be on. When the bad guys break out and start killing everyone. Who better to save her than an over-the-top badass with one name? IT ALL MAKES SO MUCH SENSE. If Lockout doesn’t become a cult classic I’ll eat my hat. It’s the kind of movie where jokes are made about punch lines after someone gets punched in the face. I mean seriously, what’s not to love?

One of the original One Man Movies has to be 1985’s Commando, with Arnold Schwarzenegger. This one already is a cult classic, and with good reason. It’s well-known as the cinematic milestone in which Ah-nuld kills around 85 henchmen in the span of about five minutes. Seriously, they just keep running out into the open like lemmings and getting shot or blown up. It’s 80’s action movie ridiculousness at its finest. Somewhere in the endless depths of the internet, I read a description of Commando as not just an 80’s action movie, but THE 80’s action movie. I agree.

It should be pretty obvious to anyone who read my post about assassin movies a couple months ago that I’m a big fan of Jason Statham. He kind of specializes in One Man Movies, and his latest film, Safe, is no exception. Statham plays an ex-cop, ex-cage fighter named Luke Wright (another trademark of One Man Movies is the monosyllabic names). He’s a crappy cage fighter, not because he’s bad at fighting (this IS Jason Statham, after all) but because the mob pays him to throw fights (I think).

He accidentally wins a fight he was supposed to lose, costing the mob a lot of money. They promptly kill his wife (or maybe it was his girlfriend, I’m not sure) and tell him that they’re not going to kill him too. But what they are going to do is follow him around and kill anyone he tries to have a relationship with. So anyone Luke tries to talk to beyond buying a hot dog or something (as one thickly-Russian accented bad guy puts it) is toast.

Luke becomes a hobo, wandering in and out of homeless shelters and considering suicide by jumping in front of a subway train. It is in the subway that he sees a young Chinese girl wandering around by herself, looking frightened. He then sees a bunch of bad-looking dudes who are clearly looking for something, or someone. One of these bad-looking dudes is one of the guys who killed his wife. Luke puts two-and-two together and figures that these guys are looking for the girl he saw earlier, and he springs into action.

Turns out that the girl, Mei, has a photographic memory, and the Chinese mafia is using her to remember everything about their various illicit money-making operations, since the leader of the Chinese mafia is old-fashioned and doesn’t like using computers, because computers leave a trail. He has recently made her memorize a very long number, the meaning of which is intentionally mysterious. It is clearly important however, since the Russian gangsters (who killed Luke’s wife) promptly kidnap her from the Chinese. She escapes, wanders into the subway station where Luke was thinking about killing himself, and the game is on.

I like this setup. It’s not as far-fetched as a space prison or as high-stakes as a skyscraper taken over by terrorists (Die Hard, obviously). But it’s something that could, theoretically, maybe, actually happen. So I guess that not every One Man Movie has to have a high-concept premise, although many of them do.

But Safe is definitely a One Man Movie. Both the Russians and the Chinese are after this little girl, the cops are all corrupt, and there is ONLY ONE MAN who can save her. The thing about Safe that makes it maybe a little far-fetched is that LITERALLY EVERY SINGLE PERSON OTHER THAN LUKE AND MEI WHO HAS ANY SORT OF ROLE IN THE MOVIE AT ALL IS EVIL.

Seriously. I mean sure, it kind of goes without saying that the gangsters are evil. But the cops are evil. The mayor is evil. Even the mayor’s aide is evil, for crying out loud. Safe is a One Man Movie almost literally, since there is ONLY ONE MAN who is not evil. Sorry I keep capitalizing ONLY ONE MAN, but I just can’t help myself.

The thing I have realized about One Man Movies is that they are satisfying. It’s always fun to root for the underdog, and One Man Movies are all about the underdogs. The odds are always heavily stacked against him, and yet he always manages to come out on top. Good guy wins, bad guy gets what’s coming to him. There’s certainly some cathartic wish-fulfillment going on with One Man Movies, and I for one have no problem with that. Given the state of the world these days, we could all use a little release.

I have decided to bestow upon Lockout, Safe, and Commando the soon-to-be coveted MAN MEDAL, which is what I will use henceforth to designate the manly films full of manly awesomeness that are well-worth searching out for my fellow action fans. So congratulations, Lockout, Safe, and Commando, you are the honorary first recipients of the MAN MEDAL. And yes, the words MAN MEDAL will always be capitalized. I did a lot of capitalizing in this post, sorry about that. I assure you I am not trying to yell at anyone.

More to come.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a movie to watch.

They’re BACK.

I love action movies. Roger Ebert always complains about how he doesn’t like action movies and turns his brain off whenever a car chase starts. I have a huge amount of respect for Mr. Ebert, he’s pretty much the Godfather of movie reviewing, but I couldn’t disagree with him more. I like movies that are exciting and get your blood pumping. I like movies that no one else seems to for just this very reason. I liked the new Total Recall. I liked G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. I liked the first and third Transformers movies (the second one was terrible). I liked Clash of the Titans AND Wrath of the Titans. I like every action movie Arnold Schwarzenegger has ever been in (except Batman and Robin).

I like all of these movies for one very simple reason: they’re FUN. I go to the movies primarily to be ENTERTAINED, and I like movies that accomplish that.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that every movie should be an action movie, or that movies serve no purpose beyond entertainment. Part of the appeal of movies is that they’re versatile. Movies can tell any kind of story you want them to. So I’m not saying that every movie has to exist solely for the purposes of entertainment, all I’m saying is that when I go to the movie theater, 9 times out of 10 it is just to have fun.

Which is why I’ve been spending quite a bit of time at the theater lately. Over the past month, I’ve been to the theater seven times, which I’m pretty sure is a record for me. Four of those trips were to see The Dark Knight Rises (tying another personal record for me that has stood since 2004, when I saw Spider-Man 2 four times). I’ve also seen Total Recall, The Bourne Legacy, and, this past Friday, The Expendables 2.

Expendables 2 was my second-most-anticipated summer movie, after The Dark Knight Rises of course (Avengers came out in May so I didn’t really count it as a summer movie, though I guess it kicked off Summer Movie Season). I enjoyed the hell out of the first Expendables movie, as you can probably imagine. Take all the biggest action heroes of the past few decades and put them together? Yes, please. The sequel, of course, promised more of the same, with the more-than-welcome additions of Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme, and expanded roles for Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger. All of this was just fine by me, so I headed out to the theater last Friday afternoon, and am happy to say that my expectations of a rollicking good time were largely met.

I say “largely” instead of “entirely” because the movie was mostly missing two elements that are common to most movies, said elements being plot and character development. As in, there were none. Of either. The plot amounts to this: Bad guy (Jean-Claude Van Damme, playing a guy named Vilain, just in case you somehow missed the point that VILAIN is a VILLAIN) wants to get plutonium so he can sell it or something. Good guys don’t want this to happen.

Seriously. That’s it. That’s the entire plot summary, right there. Vilain the villain is given no motivation and no personality whatsoever, aside from one seemingly random moment where he yells, “Let’s make some MONEY!!” or something to that effect. Pretty much nobody in the movie has any personality or really gets to do much of anything remotely interesting.

Jet Li, for example, exits the film after about 10 minutes and does not show up again. He does get to thrash a roomful of henchmen using nothing more than a pair of frying pans however, so I guess that helps make up for it. Chuck Norris appears randomly midway through the movie, shoots some dudes, disappears for a while, and then randomly shows up a little later to shoot some more dudes. He has maybe four lines.

Ditto for Willis and Schwarzenegger. They toss off a few one-liners, blast some bad guys, and that’s about it. The movie’s climactic final battle consists almost entirely of hordes of faceless henchmen being machine-gunned en masse by our motley group of heroes while they toss off one-liners. So from any traditional way of judging a movie’s quality, Expendables 2 was more or less a complete disaster.

But was I entertained? Yes. Absolutely.

It was fun, so I liked it, despite the aforementioned laundry list of flaws. It brought together a ton of recognizable faces, and even though none of them got to do much of anything, it was fun to see them all onscreen together. The action scenes were badass and there were lots of ‘em, although I was a bit disappointed with the final battle. And even though none of those familiar faces got to do anything interesting plotwise, at least they all got to kick some ass.

And let’s face it, a movie like this barely even needs a plot anyway. It’s pretty much just an excuse to bring a bunch of badasses together and let them go town on some bad guys. And you know something? I am okay with that. Expendables 2 is pure entertainment, no more, no less.

I probably liked the first one more since it felt fresher and at least had a semblance of plot and some small amount of character development, and the final battle was more satisfying. But both movies are lots of fun for action fans such as myself, enjoyably self-deprecating about how old some of their stars (especially Schwarzenegger, Willis, and Stallone) are getting. Who needs plot when you can have 100 minutes of straight-up ass kicking? That’s what these movies are for, and they succeed marvelously at being exactly what they set out to be.

And for my fellow action fans, may I recommend “The Raid: Redemption,” an excellent Indonesian martial-arts film that is already something of a cult classic. It’s really, really badass, and there’s already talk of an American remake which will no doubt be nowhere near as good as the original.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a movie to watch.

What I have realized about assassin movies

So I watched the Zoe Saldana movie “Colombiana” a couple weeks ago and it made me realize something about the whole genre of assassin/killer movies. Clarification: when I say “killer”, I’m talking about contract killers/hitmen/assassins, not serial killers or slasher movie villains. Those kinds of killers are always evil. But what “Colombiana” made me realize about assassin movies is that the viewer is always meant to sympathize with the person doing the killing, not with the person being killed.

Wait, hold on a second. Killing is a sin, right? I don’t mean to get all religious here, but whatever happened to “thou shalt not murder?” I mean heck, that’s not even a particularly religious statement. Most people who aren’t sociopaths would probably agree with it, regardless of their particular religious beliefs. So why are we meant to sympathize with the assassin, who is essentially a serial killer who kills people for money instead of killing random victims?

The simple answer is that the victims in assassin movies are always more evil than the assassins themselves, so we don’t feel sorry for them. The people being assassinated in these types of films are always gangsters, drug dealers, pimps, corrupt government officials, dictators, and various other types of assorted douchebags. The viewer is meant to say, “Okay, this guy is clearly evil, and the world is probably better off without him.” This then provides a certain degree of satisfaction when we see the evildoer get bumped off, and we like the assassin for ridding the world of these assorted evildoers.

Okay, fine. So far, so good. But here’s where it gets complicated. What about the people that aren’t evil douchebags? What does the assassin do for work when he (or she) isn’t offing various evil scoundrels and hooligans? In most assassin movies, the assassin is portrayed as being an inherently good (or at least somewhat morally ambiguous) person, who only kills criminals and the like. Take Leon in “The Professional”, for example. What’s his motto? “No women, no kids.” Everyone else is fair game. I may kill people for money, but I have standards, damn it. Not killing people who are seen to be innocent is key to the audience’s acceptance of the assassin as a sympathetic character. If they got paid to go whack some random guy walking his dog or some soccer mom taking her kids to school, we wouldn’t like them anymore because they killed someone we didn’t think should have been killed. (Now that I think about it, Luc Besson seems to specialize in sympathetic-killer movies, what with “The Professional”, “Colombiana”, and “Nikita”, which I haven’t seen but understand to be a similar idea.)

But the problem is that I have a hard time believing that the assassin wouldn’t take the odd easy contract on the side to supplement his or her income a little, as well as take a bit of a break. I mean, wouldn’t it be nice to have a nice, easy job for once, where you could just whack someone simply and easily without having to devise an elaborate scheme to infiltrate the target’s heavily fortified compound and kill the guy in some creative way to make it look like an accident, then escape without anyone knowing you were there? (Look at the opening scene of Jason Statham in “The Mechanic”, for example). Wouldn’t it be nice to have a little relief? But if movie assassins do get this kind of relief, the movie itself will rarely, if ever, show it.

But think for a minute of real assassins. I don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of real-life assassins or anything, but my understanding is that these are folks who are paid by the mafia and various other criminal organizations to kill people that are in their way somehow. Take, for example, Richard “The Iceman” Kuklinski, a real-life contract killer who worked for some very real New York crime families and claimed to have murdered over 250 people over four decades. The guy was a serial killer before he became a contract killer; he killed random people who ticked him off before he became associated with crime families and started killing people for money. He stabbed, shot, poisoned, asphyxiated, burned and beat people to death. Part of the reason the cops couldn’t catch him was because he varied his methods so much.

I think most people would agree that this guy was a pretty bad dude, if not a complete monster. But the sympathetic movie assassin is never portrayed like Kuklinski. The movie assassin doesn’t kill just anybody, only bad people. There are a couple of movies about Kuklinski in the works as a matter of fact, but you can bet that he won’t be portrayed like the usual discerning movie assassin.

Another thing worth pointing out is that the discerning movie assassin is also frequently depicted as having had some kind of experience that caused them to become an assassin. They usually had some traumatic or otherwise formative experience that led them to become killers: their parents were killed in front of them by mobsters when they were children (“Colombiana”), they were trained by the government to become killers (the “Bourne” films), they were raised by secret societies who trained them to be assassins (“Hitman”, “Ninja Assassin”), or their father was actually a super-assassin who passed on his killing abilities to his kid (“Wanted”, “Hanna” ). Those last two examples are admittedly a bit far-fetched, but some kind of explanation is frequently necessary if the audience is meant to sympathize with the assassin. (I mean hell, people tend to forget that Arnold Schwarzenegger was evil in the first Terminator movie, and good in the sequels. The explanation? The rebels took over the robot factory in the future, and reprogrammed Arnie to be a good killer robot instead of an evil one. Evil to good, just like that.)

But the really interesting thing is that all of this only really applies if the assassin is the main character of the movie. Supporting characters in movies who are assassins are usually evil. I certainly don’t mean to imply that all movie assassins are meant to be sympathetic, because they’re not. Plenty of movies have assassins of some kind as villains. How many movies are there where some innocent, good-hearted person is marked for death by some bad dude with a grudge or vendetta of some kind, or for some other reason? We’ve all seen the movie trailer where assassins are chasing someone down and some random bystander comes to the rescue, and of course the bystander turns out to be a total badass. Look at Clive Owen in “Shoot ‘Em Up”. Look at the trailer for “Safe”, Jason Statham’s latest. Look at the first three Terminator movies, and Kyle Reese’s classic line, “Come with me if you want to live.” That line pretty much sums up an entire subgenre.

Another thing I’ve noticed about assassin movies is that there is frequently the worn-out or world-weary assassin, who is tired of running around the world murdering people and decides to retire, to get out of the game. Look at Bruce Willis in “Red”. Look at Jason Statham in “Killer Elite”. (You may have noticed that this is the third Statham film I’ve mentioned, and that is because Statham is awesome. Any movie ever could be improved with a little Statham. Forget “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.” But “Pride and Prejudice and JASON FREAKING STATHAM??!!” HELL yes.)

I mean seriously, what happens in the very first scene of “Killer Elite”? Jason Statham and Robert De Niro kill a few carloads worth of people, only for Statham to have a change of heart when he discovers a kid in the backseat of one of the cars full of freshly-murdered folks. He promptly decides that he’s done killing people for a living, despite having given no indication of being tired of murderizing people in the moments prior to the hit, as we first see him shooting the shit with De Niro, talking about how crappy the food has been in all of the various countries they’ve murdered people in. If not for that one kid in the backseat, Statham might have gone on happily murderizing folks, but then there would have been no movie. (Thanks, backseat kid! You inadvertently provided the catalyst for the entire plot! Now I want to see “Killer Elite 2: Backseat Kid’s Revenge”, where the kid grows up and tries to exact revenge on Statham for murdering his father in front of him… come to think of it, that’s pretty much the entire plot of “Colombiana”, just without Jason Statham…hmmm…)

So… what does all of this mean, exactly? Why do I care enough about assassin movies, of all things, to write 1500 words about them? Well…I’m not sure exactly. I guess it’s because I find the characterization interesting. This is partly the English major in me speaking, I suppose, but this fascinates me. Why do we, as an audience, want to watch assassins of all people being portrayed as sympathetic?

Well, there are a lot of reasons for that that I can see. Part of it is, frankly, financial. Movie producers know that people want to be able to sympathize and identify with the protagonist, and that an unsympathetic protagonist may lead to diminished box-office returns, which they wish to avoid, so, boom, sympathetic assassin protagonist.

This applies to any other kind of movie, too, of course. We want to spend time with people we like. Who wants to go see a movie where the main character is a complete jackass? We want to like the characters in a film, and there are plenty of movies where the protagonist is a total jerk who learns to be a decent human being by the end of the movie (think of the title characters in “Thor” and “Iron Man”, for example, or look at Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day” for an example in a completely different genre. I think part of the reason the recent “Green Hornet” movie was so widely disliked was because Seth Rogen’s character was such an absolute raging jackass for 90% of the movie).

But I think there’s more to it than that.

Okay, this next part might seem like a big leap in logic, but (like Indiana Jones) I’m kind of figuring this out as I go along so bear with me.

All right, here goes. (Deep breath)… I think this is about human nature. It’s about how people view other people.

Now, hang on. Before you say to yourself, “This guy’s nuts”, and take off, give me a second to explain. Why do people want sympathetic protagonists in the first place? Why do people want to be able to identify with the characters in a book or film or whatever? It is, I think, because people are inherently sympathetic to other people. People have a natural inclination to want to be able to identify with other people. I mean, sure, there are exceptions, but for the most part I really think that human beings have an inherent desire or ability or whatever you want to call it to see or believe the best about other people. Even people who kill other people for money.

Anyway, that is what I have realized about assassin movies. As a somewhat random side note, I watched the special features on the “Colombiana” DVD and they talked to the guy who directed the movie. His name is Olivier Megaton, which is a great name for a guy who directs action movies. But the really funny thing about Mr. Megaton is that he appears to be missing a front tooth on both his top and bottom rows of teeth. Seriously. I don’t know if he’s missing teeth or if he is just gap-toothed or what, it was just seriously weird to see this guy apparently missing two front teeth. Anyway, the real point of this little side note is to point out that “The Gap-Toothed Frenchmen” would be a great name for a rock band.