Fast & Furious 7 (2015)

aka Furious Seven

2016 #52
James Wan | 132 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA, Japan & China / English | 12 / PG-13

Fast & Furious 7The franchise that can never make up its mind about what each instalment’s called continues with its most outrageously ludicrous entry yet.

Picking up from the events of the last one, this time our ‘family’ of car-racing heisters are targeted by their previous enemy’s brother, Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham). After Shaw’s first attempt to kill our heroes fails, they’re recruited by covert ops agent Mr Nobody (Kurt Russell) to obtain a computer surveillance program, on the promise that, if they’re successful, Nobody will help them deal with Shaw. Because when you’re in charge of a covert ops team, you don’t have your own guys for that kind of thing. Anyway, this leads us on a globe-trotting mission that involves things like parachuting cars into Azerbaijan and using cars to leap between skyscrapers in Abu Dhabi.

So yes, the action is ridiculous and implausible. Even the stuff that doesn’t seem physically impossible is overblown. But it’s so ludicrous that the film can’t possibly be trying to claim it’s real anymore, and therefore it kind of works — they’ve committed to it. Though anyone who started out enjoying this series for its broadly-realistic car-racing thrills must be pretty disappointed in it by this point.

Despite that, the series is beginning to feel increasingly “fans only”. That’s the way of all things these days, I suppose. Long gone are the days when movie series aimed at accessibility, each entry fundamentally a standalone adventure for a popular hero. Serialisation is the new discreteness, and it pays dividends for Marvel and, indeed, for Fast & Furious: in the same year as the return of Star Wars, the return of Jurassic Park, the return of the Avengers, the return of James Bond, and the return to form of Pixar, Furious 7 was still the third highest-grossing film worldwide, and sixth of all time.

But I still find it remarkable how well it did at the box office, because while most of those other films are actually very accessible to newcomers, this is resolutely a film for those well-versed in the franchise. Its story joins the dots between several previous films — as far back as Tokyo Drift, four films and nine years ago — but seems to assume you’ll know what those dots contain, because it only shows the joins. Even as someone who knows what events are being linked (that Tokyo Drift connection has been long-awaited!), it feels a bit disconnected and piecemeal. And it doesn’t help anyone that Tokyo Drift’s Lucas Black looks like he’s aged every single day of the nine years since his last appearance…

Of course, you can’t ignore that part of the reason for the film’s financial success is the death of Paul Walker, particularly as it occurred halfway through production and the filmmakers understandably felt the need to give one of the series’ primary stars a fitting send-off. With seemingly little of his part shot, his performance is mostly faked. It was created with a mixture of techniques, many of them pioneering — while we’ve seen computers being used to generate a performance for a deceased actor for over 15 years now (I believe Gladiator was the first), those tend to be for very short scenes and/or filtered through some other medium (like Laurence Olivier appearing on a videoscreen in Sky Captain), whereas here they’ve attempted to create a co-lead-sized role. Truthfully, the effect is variable. If you’re looking, it’s always obvious (well, I say that — if it was so good that you couldn’t see it, you wouldn’t know you were seeing it). However, if you’re not looking too hard then a lot of it is very well done… though some remains pretty glaring. At the end of the day, you know why they did it, but it still rather draws attention to itself. However, a post-climax finale is a nice send-off for Walker (again, you can’t deny that it’s more about paying tribute to the actor than writing out the character), and represents a moment of catharsis that clearly worked for the cast, crew, and the series’ die-hard fans.

The quality of other elements is rockier. Kurt Russell’s spy is a cool new character, but can’t escape the feeling he’s been introduced to play a bigger role in the inevitable sequels. Jason Statham has clearly been cast for his ability to fight, which he does well enough, but a bit more dialogue-based antagonism might’ve added some flavour. He gets a very cool opening scene, though. And while a coherent story is not likely to be at the forefront of many people’s minds when it comes to these movies, the plot is nonetheless scattered with holes. Like, the gang’s entire motivation to undertake the mission is so they can borrow the software to track down Deckard… but he keeps showing up anyway.

But hey, what does it matter? The point is the big dumb fun of the action sequences, be they well-choreographed and -shot fisticuffs, excellent stunt driving, or computer-generated ridiculousness. Is it okay to just give a movie’s plot a free pass like that? Sometimes, I think it is. Furious 7 is an action movie, in a fairly pure sense of the term, and action it delivers.

4 out of 5

Rush (2013)

2015 #83
Ron Howard | 123 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | UK, USA & Germany / English & German | 15 / R

Screenwriter Peter Morgan (of The Queen and Frost/Nixon) and director Ron Howard (of Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind, as the trailer is keen to remind us, rather than, say, The Da Vinci Code) tell the story of the rivalry between racing drivers James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) as they vie for the 1976 Formula 1 championship, a true story so full of twists and turns that (as Howard seems fond of saying in the special features) you wouldn’t accept it if it were fiction.

Appropriately, the racing sequences are the best part. Those were the days when F1 was a little wild and uncontrolled, which the film does a good job of conveying, and also of using to its advantage to create tense and exciting set pieces. Kudos to every element of production here, not only the brilliant camerawork and editing, and the array of special effects required to tie it together, but also the production design that makes the one or two tracks they filmed on look like circuits all around the world.

Unfortunately, the film stalls in the personal relationship scenes, an equally-weighted part of the narrative. They’re an undercooked mess of clunky dialogue and characters so sketchily drawn they barely resemble stick figures. Lauda’s story is the less objectionable of the two primary threads, because his lack of skill at social engagement at least makes it moderately unusual, and it goes somewhere when he has the accident. Hunt’s stuff is just noise. And he learns nothing from it — he doesn’t change — so there’s no arc. I presume the point of engaging with their personal lives away from the track was to add depth; to make sure it was a two-hander, rather than just about one or other of the drivers, and to ensure Hunt wasn’t just two-dimensional. However, without any growth on his part, or even some kind of active change, he’s just as flat, only now the star of some pointless scenes.

Considering the amount of unwarranted time spent on Hunt, it’s as if Morgan and Howard feel they have to lure us in by making the film about the English guy, then once they’ve got us it can transition to being about the real story, which is the Austrian fella. A “Lauda edit” would make for a better movie: strip out all the BS about Hunt’s personal life; focus right in on the 1976 season, including losing a good chunk of the first 45 minutes, which is so much preamble. The movie would focus more on what it’s really about, not have such a slow start, and feel all the better for it. Interestingly, of the ten-or-so minutes of deleted scenes on the Blu-ray, many are Lauda-focused and from early in the film. Would it have been more balanced to include them? However, a quick scan suggests they weren’t bad deletions, so maybe Hunt’s scenes should’ve been cut back in a similar fashion. Considering his general acclaim as a writer, it’s a little surprising that Morgan’s screenplay is so frequently the weak link.

Similarly, some have criticised Rush for being a bit of a rote, clichéd sports movie. That’s a slightly tricky one to address. I mean, it’s a true story; it happened. If that narrative fits snuggly into familiar plot beats, what are you meant to do? Change the truth to make it less like fiction? That’d be a first. Saying that, I’m taking it on faith (based on comments in the making-of) that the true story was so perfect you wouldn’t believe it if it had been fiction. Maybe they did streamline it. But assuming it’s real… well, it’s not the filmmakers’ fault if life imitates art.

One thing the film doesn’t do, to everyone’s credit, is fall into the stereotypical good guy/bad guy rivalry story. Each of the pair has his pros and his cons, and during the final race it’s genuinely hard to call who you want to win (I guess some will have their favourites regardless, but I know I’m not the only person who didn’t know who to root for). I’d argue that, when it comes to sports movies, you don’t get much less rote-genre-cliché than that.

The two leads give strong performances, particularly Brühl, because he has so much more to work with. Others are less well served. Olivia Wilde’s English accent is faultless, not glaringly over-egged like most yanks playing Brits, and that’s about the most I can say of her. Her mirror image, Alexandra Maria Lara, gets to inject some humanity into the Lauda story, and is pretty much the best supporting actor in a film full of roles but with few of significance. For example, for some reason Natalie Dormer has been shafted with a teeny tiny part. Were her scenes cut? Is it just because she’s mostly a TV actress? Surely she deserves better roles than this. And I didn’t even see Tom Wlaschiha, who is apparently in it too.

All in all, I’m a little surprised how well-liked Rush is. I mean, as of posting it’s at #162 on the IMDb Top 250. That’s a pretty solid placement for the kind of film I’d expect to have a score in the mid- to high 7s on IMDb, enjoyed by some but dismissed by others, not be an 8.2 Top 250er. It is a good film with much going for it, the action scenes in particular, but there also plenty of times when I felt it dropped the ball — I didn’t buy Hunt’s storyline as good moviemaking at all. One of the 250 best movies ever made? No, probably not. There’s a lot to like, but don’t get carried away by the hype.

4 out of 5

I’ve just noticed that three of my last four reviews have been sport-related true stories. Weird, random coincidence.