Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs and Shaw *** 2019

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There’s never been a Fast & Furious film that wasn’t likeable in some way; there have been genuine rewards those hardly souls who gathered round the flaming dumpster fire of 2 Fast 2 Furious, complete with it’s interactive DVD opening, allowing you to join the story has various characters. For the record, the best are probably the decidedly untypically small-scale Tokyo Drift and the epic Rio Heist, but there’s decent action scenes in them all. These are old-fashioned popcorn movies, self-contained, drawing in fading stars like magnets, leavened with crude humour and stereotypes, topped off with doses of sentiment about family; this latest has a speech about how machines are not important that’s about as hypocritical as Rocky IV’s focus on Russian technology vs spartan American training techniques; ie the picture is completely inverted.

Fast and Furious is largely about the toys, but there need to be men to drive them, and with Paul Walker’s demise, these men must be bald and middle aged. Vin Diesel presumably has other things to do, so The Rock and Jason Stratham are drafted in to fuel the testosterone. Both have charisma and a great comic touch, but Hobbs and Shaw doesn’t make much of these natural resources, nor do much with Idris Elba’s superhuman villain. Taking the family theme from the last few Fast movies, the focus is on Shaw’s sister (Vanessa Kirkby) who has injected herself with some kind of plague virus that might end all human life. Hobbs and Shaw put aside their differences to save her, turning to Hobbs’s mother and brother in Samoa. The climax involves a clutch of vehicles attached to a helicopter over a cliff-edge; in the days of CGI screen-work, there’s no sense of danger involved, just excess. Other set pieces, on the side of a London building, a chase around the streets of Glasgow (doubling for London), a disused factory in Moscow, are impressive without offering anything unique.

Ryan Reynolds, presumably as a favour to director Deadpool director David Leitch, gets dragged into the ongoing action, as does Helen Mirren. It would be nice to think that a few of Hobbs and Shaw’s audience might feel inspired to see Mirren’s earlier work, like Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man or Age of Consent. She’s here, one supposes, as a sop to older audiences dragged along by their kids, and puts on a ridiculous accent as some kind of gangster fairy godmother. She’s having a laugh, which is probably the only thing to do in such ridiculous circumstances.

The Fast and the Furious : Tokyo Drift 2006 ****

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The development of the Fast and Furious movies is one of the more abnormal franchises, driven by fan power and divided into two different trilogies, ingeniously tied together by the closing sequences of Fast 6. After the original, solid, entertaining film, Vin Diesel opted not to return, and John Singleton’s 2 Fast 2 Furious seemed to take the sequence down the laws of diminishing returns. Paul Walker also elected to body-swerve the third entry, but it’s arguable that Justin Lin’s Tokyo Drift is the film that got the car-race franchise back on track.

Lucas Black is a serviceable if unexciting lead as Sean Boswell, a US teenager who decides to avoid a jail term by shifting to Tokyo, where he becomes involved with the world of drift racing. Sporting a rather natty blazer, Sean appears to have an almost unlimited budget for high-performance cars, and spends his days practicing driving around in circles with considerable diligence. With no grand heists or any of the crime-busting action of the second trilogy of films, Tokyo Drift settles for street-racing, and delivers in spades, with colourful backgrounds that seem to have been torn from video games. Tokyo Drift is the black sheep of the franchise, with only Han (Sung Kang) and a cameo from Vin Diesel offering a firm connection to the chronology, but it’s a fast paced and enjoyable diversion for the blockbuster franchise.

Back to School 1986 ****

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The United Kingdom is a place where, back in the 80’s, over 70 films were labelled ‘video nasties’ and deemed illegal on account of their depraved content. At the same time, Rodney Dangerfield vehicle Back to School was not released at all, despite being the sixth most popular film of the year in the US. Without using any ‘adjusted for inflation’ rubric, Back to School would be a film bigger than Fast and Furious: Hobbs and Shaw or Aladdin in 2019. So why was Back to School impossible to see while The Beast in Heat and Gestapo’s Last Orgy were on the video-shop shelves?

The answer, of course, comes down to money; no distributor thought that Back to School would make a buck in the staid-minded UK. While is ironic, given that Alan Metter’s film, from writers including Harold Ramis, reflects on how money changes perceptions, and doesn’t suggest that financial prosperity is the most important thing. Dangerfield brings his best boggle-eyed gaze to the role of Thornton Melon, a businessman who has off-the-radar wealth, a beautiful unfaithful wife (Adrienne Barbeau) and a son who lacks gumption. ‘Remember, you’re a Melon’ Thornton tells his son (Keith Gordon), and Back to School sees father attempt to show his son how to get an education. Unfortunately, Thornton Melon only understands business and not learning, and the stage is set for a clash between commerce and education.

Any film that starts with a non-stop stream of fat jokes needs to be carefully approached, but Thornton Melon is a more complex character than might be expected. He is crude, yet he gets what he wants; you can insert your own 2019 political allusion here. He walks into a campus bookshop, puts his credit card behind the counter and announces ‘Shakespeare for all!,’ before eyeing up the cashier with the line ’I’d like to tame her Shrew!’. The screenplay places the wealthy Melon within a vaudevillian tradition of ne’er-do-wells, an oaf who thinks that Joyce is a woman, an affluent man-child who complains to art-lovers that he fears his wife has being showing other men her Klimt. He is an immigrant who lack nuance, and yet he’s less of an idiot than a holy fool who speaks an unvarnished truth in the guise of crude jokes.

Although the diving competition scene goes on a little long, there’s a variety of amusements here; a key scene involves Melon memorably reciting Dylan Thomas’s Do Not Go Gentle Into This Good Night in the room where the final audition for Flashdance was filmed. And there’s terrific support turns from Burt Young, Ned Beatty, M Emmett Walsh and Robert Downey Jr, with long coat, ruffled shirt and multi-coloured hair looking like The Breakfast Club’s John Bender and Ferris Bueller fell into a blender.

Back to School was a funny movie in 1986, and it’s still funny now; the suggestion that money can’t buy everything seems richer with the passing years. Author Kurt Vonnegut appears as himself, hired to write an assignment about his own work (which he fails) and Danny Elfman turns up with his band Oingo Boingo as a frat house entertainment, as if any further inducement to consume this (once unavaliable) product is required.

Two-Lane Blacktop 1971 *****

two-lane-blacktop-vintage-movie-poster-original-40x60-2989Having a car seems like a full time job in Monte Hellman’s Two Lane Blacktop, a road movie that sits neatly in the slipstream of Easy Rider and Vanishing Point. The subject is a cross-country road race, and the film was one of the inspirations for the Cannonball Run race. But we’re not talking celebrity cameos and car crashes here, and although we see several illegal car races, this isn’t franchise material either, although Fast and Furious Presents; Two Lane Blacktop is a title that potentially intrigues. Singer James Taylor and Beach Boy Dennis Wilson are two men who race their souped-up jalopy in one small-town after another; they soon pick up a girl, and get into a rivalry with GTO (Warren Oates). How GTO got his dazzling yellow sports car is never fully explained; the truth is not in him, and yet an odd friendship develops from their rivalry. All the characters are ciphers; as in Walter Hill’s The Driver, they are named for their function; Girl, Driver, Mechanic. GTO functions much like Jack Nicholson’s character in Easy Rider, an emblem of a lifestyle that the protagonists still can’t help but reject, even if he’s still pretty counter-culture. A downbeat line about the life-cycle of cicadas nails the film’s sociological ideas pretty succinctly, and the studied naturalism is something of a joy. Two Lane Blacktop has been tough to find and locate over the last fifty years, but it’s really worth the effort. Wikipedia’s plot summary says, “The film ends abruptly’ but that’s something of a dry understatement; it ends as it begins, in an unconventional style that’s rarely been bettered.

 

Mississippi Grind 2015 ****

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Ryan Reynolds has put his snark to good use as Deadpool; it’s a little frustrating that he’s using the same mannerisms for everything from Detective Pikachu to Fast and Furious, because he can play straight just as well. Similarly, Ben Mendelsohn is a terrific actor who has been typecast as a baddie in Ready Player One, Rogue One and Robin Hood; both of them need to be a bit more creatively cast. Writers and director Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck provide proof of concept that both men have the chops to do great work with Mississippi Grind, a downbeat but hugely impressive character study of who men under the narcotic grip of gambling. Gerry (Mendelsohn) is a poker player who imagines that hanging out with the younger, better-looking Curtis (Reynolds) might change his luck; he’s right in a way, but not the way he imagines. Both men are weak; a key dialogue scene hinges on their willingness to place a bet on something as random as the appearance of the next person to walk into a room. Robert Altman’s California Split was an inspiration, but Mississippi Grind has an energy and a loucheness all of its own; if you’ve only seen these actors paying the rent in blockbusters, it’s something of a revelation to see what they can do in a small-scale drama like this.

Getaway 2015 ****

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“If one person enjoys this movie, then I’ve done my job’ is a cliché for spurned artists; there’s so little love around for Courtney Solomon’s car chase thriller than admirers may well feel that they’re in a minority of one. The public stayed away, the critics were savage, and yet Getaway is a real guilty pleasure. The concept is simple; Ethan Hawke is ex-racing car driver called Brent Magna, trapped in a Die Hard-lite scenario; a mysterious voice (Jon Voight) gives him a series of automotive tasks to complete with the life of his kidnapped wife at stake. Magna ends up stealing a Shelby Super Snake Mustang complete with horrified owner (Selena Gomez), and together they attempt to wriggle out of the trap. Shot in Bulgaria, Getaway avoids CGI in favour of practical race and chase stunts, and there’s plenty of bang for your buck. There’s slumming stars (including perfect B-movie support from Raiders of the Lost Ark’s Paul Freeman and the permanently fabulous Bruce Payne), jazzy, over-cranked action, a ninety-minute running time and a silly but pleasing story; when the Fast and Furious films are getting increasingly bloated and less fun than they should be, Getaway offers cheap but undeniable thrills for the world’s carmageddon junkies.

 

Find Me Guilty 2006 ****

Films rarely vanish as abruptly as Sidney Lumet’s Find Me Guilty, a courtroom thriller made with top talent, but one which somehow failed to connect. Lumet is, of course, the director of classics like 12 Angry Men and The Verdict, and his return to court must have been widely anticipated, particularly as his subject was the longest court-case in US history, involving a crowd of men accused of having mob connections. Throw in a hot new star, Vin Diesel, sporting a lustrous head of hair, and rising star Peter Dinklage, and you’ve got the ingredients of a classic. But Lumet is a talent who has no interest in repeating himself, and the true story of Jackie DiNorscio is told in a serio-comic fashion that reviewers and audiences didn’t get. The opening credits are at pains to emphasise that the court scenes are based on the actual transcripts; if true, then DiNorscio (Diesel) made a mockery of proceedings. Either way, Diesel is fantastic here as a wide-boy who deals with being ostracised by friends and family, but triumph through his own sense of himself. If you only know this actor through his Fast and Furious/XXX characters, Find Me Guilty shows there’s much more gas in the tank.

Ben -Hur 2016 ***

BEN-HURFor many fans of bad movies, an initial taste was found watching the thud-and-blunder epics of the 1950’s and sixties. The 1959 version of Ben-Hur was a perfect example; it may be a spin-off from The Bible in the form of Lew Wallace’s source material, but it’s pure Hollywood all the way. In it’s own way, Timur Bekmanbetov’s much heralded flop is the same; Ben-Hur’s story is now formed almost entirely around a chariot race viewed in a Fast and Furious fashion, and Morgan Freeman is on hand to explain a winning strategy that’s remarkably similar to the one featured in Tokyo Drift. Despite pallid leads in Jack Huston and Toby Kebbell as the brother estranged by fate and circumstance, there’s a full and groaning buffet of delights for bad movie fans. Jesus is treated like a minor character who might get his own franchise one day, popping up in the background to comic effect. There’s a stupendous sea-battle full of expensive money shots, not least when James Cosmo’s galleon-master gets pinged off by a giant oar like a rubber band. Ben-Hur; Full Throttle Drift Racer might have been a better title for this big, daft but undeniably amusing epic.

Running Scared 2006 ****

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The death of star Paul Walker will likely make his 2006 thriller Running Scared into something of a cult item; if it does, it’ll be a belated but well-deserved recognition of an energetic, original B movie that is packed with neat and sometimes disturbing ideas.  Writer/director Wayne Kramer casts Walker as Joey Gazelle, a tough thug entrusted with disposing of a gun used to kill a policeman. A child steals the gun and uses it to kill his father, and Joey must act to save his reputation by finding both the gun and the kid. Vera Farmiga and Chazz Palminteri are hot on Joey’s tail, and things get darker when Joey’s mark falls into the hands of child-pornographers.  Violent, seedy but pulsing with low-rent energy, Kramer seems to relish taking his story over-the-top, and Running Scared has a weird hallucinatory energy, right down to the animated credits at the end. And although he wasn’t first choice for the role of Joey, Walker does his usual accomplished leading man thing; in a short career, Running Scared is probably his best work outside the Fast and Furious films. An unrecognised gem of a thriller.

Road Kill 2001 ***

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Also known as Joy Ride, Road Kill was one of a series of films that brought Fast and Furious star Paul Walker to the public’s attention before his tragic death in 2013. Walker plays Lewis Thomas, who joins his brother Fuller (Steve Zahn) is a cross country trip accompanied by Venna (Leelee Sobieski). Last Seduction director John Dahl, working from a script by JJ Abrams and Clay Tarver, start horsing around with a unseen trucker on the CB radio, only to find themselves targeted by him as potential victims. Similarities between Dahl’s tight little film and TV movie Duel are most likely deliberate, and the cast do a good job of conveying the terror of ordinary people who find themselves hunted by a seemingly unstoppable predator.