Bloodshot (2020)

2020 #178
David S.F. Wilson | 109 mins | digital (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA & China / English |
12 / PG-13

Bloodshot

If you only know about comic books from the movie universes they spawn, you’d be forgiven for thinking Marvel and DC are the be-all and end-all of that medium. Not so, of course. One of the other publishers with their own stable of superheroes just waiting to make the leap to the screen is Valiant, and (if you hadn’t already guessed) Bloodshot is one of theirs. Indeed, at one point it was intended that it would be an Iron Man-style jumping off point for another cinematic universe, but I can’t imagine that’s still on the cards.

Anyway, in this screen incarnation, Bloodshot stars Vin Diesel as Ray Garrison, a US Marine who is kidnapped and killed along with his wife… but then he wakes up, albeit with amnesia. An experimental scientific programme has seen nanite tech injected into his bloodstream, giving him increased strength and healing abilities. Increased strength? Speed healing? Amnesia? I guess he’s Cyber-Wolverine, only without the cool claws. Anyway, Ray begins to have flashbacks, and he heads off to kill the terrorists who killed him and his wife. But all is not as it seems…

I don’t know why I’m holding back — the trailer spoiled more of the plot than that. And I’m not trying to spare you so you can enjoy the story as the movie unfolds, because Bloodshot is not a film I particularly recommend; and what is enjoyable about it has nothing to do with its storyline. That said, the twist I’ve implied exists would’ve been quite good — certainly one of the film’s higher points — if they hadn’t blown it in the trailer. The only other thrills come from its action sequences, which are passable, albeit constructed with a prominent degree of sloppiness that indicates the filmmakers either weren’t skilled enough or weren’t attentive enough to truly get it right. For example, they didn’t even bother to put British number plates on any of the cars during a chase that supposedly takes place in London; not to mention that the streets they’re darting around look nothing like the UK.

Kind of a superhero

Poor location scouting aside, there’s copious amounts of the computer-generated bombast that’s par for the course in a modern blockbuster. But underneath that digital set dressing, Bloodshot feels like a throwback to the comic book adaptations of 20 years ago; one of those superhero-movies-they’d-rather-weren’t-superhero-movies we got in the late ’90s or early ’00s, before X-Men and Spider-Man finally straightened everyone out. It even has the kind of plasticky CGI stunt doubles you haven’t seen in at least 15 years (Marvel & co use CGI stunt doubles all the time, of course, but they’re better done than these ones).

Like those half-arsed efforts of old, Bloodshot is, when taken as a brain-off sci-fi actioner, mostly adequate. That’s about the best that can be said for it. I was going to say that it’s probably bland enough to scrape a passing grade, but, the further I get from it, the more it lessens in my memory. My score sides with that hindsight.

2 out of 5

Bloodshot is available on Sky Cinema and Now TV from today.

Fast & Furious 8 (2017)

aka The Fate of the Furious

2018 #21
F. Gary Gray | 136 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA, China & Japan / English & Russian | 12 / PG-13

Fast & Furious 8

Anyone who’s watched a Fast & Furious movie will know that the most important thing to our heroes is not fast cars but family. Family, family, family — they don’t half go on about it. But what might make one of the team betray their all-important figurative family? Well, that’s what the series’ eighth instalment sets out to ask, as patriarch Dom (Vin Diesel) is forcibly recruited by terrorist Cipher (Charlize Theron), and government agent Mr Nobody (Kurt Russell) counter-recruits Dom’s family to track him down and stop Cipher’s evil plan.

You may remember that, once upon a time, these films were about street racers who occasionally carried out on-the-road heists, all the better to keep the focus on the cars. Those days are long gone, despite an opening sequence here that tries to pretend that’s still part of the game. No, nowadays we’re in the “international spy actioner” genre, and our former street racers have somehow become highly capable agents… whose primary tools/weapons are still vehicles. It’s utterly ridiculous… but, thank goodness, everyone involved seems to know that.

Well, most people do. I reckon Vin Diesel might think it’s a serious movie about the emotional turmoil of being kidnapped by a global cyberterrorist who lives on a plane and can remotely hijack a city-load of cars and is threatening your family unless you help her steal a nuclear submarine. I mean, we’ve all been there, right?

A lot of men would betray their family for Charlize Theron, to be fair

So, yeah, the story is thoroughly daft. But it exists primarily to connect up action sequences, and in a movie like this I’m fine with that — I’m here to watch people do cool shit in cars, hopefully with some funny bits around that action, not to be wowed by an intricate plot or ponder meaningful character development. On the things I expect, then, FF8 more or less delivers. I mean, the series has always been renowned for using CGI to augment its car chases, which is less thrilling than doing stunts for real, but it really blurs the line nowadays: you might think dozens of cars falling from a multi-storey car park is all CGI, but you’d be wrong.

Any time almost anyone besides Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) or Deckard (Jason Statham) has their mouth open, FF8 is pretty dumb; but when those two are talking, especially when they’re bickering with each other, it’s often pretty funny (they’re definitely in on the joke). And when the action’s a-go-go, the film’s either solidly pulse-racing or, actually, being kinda witty — there’s a prison riot, for example, that is, appropriately enough, a riot. Though it’s as nothing to Statham engaging in a protracted gunfight-cum-punch-up against a bunch of goons while carrying a baby.

Bromance

Fast & Furious 8 isn’t strictly a comedy, but a sense of humour is required to enjoy it. There’s no way to take this palaver seriously, and fortunately the filmmakers have embraced that. It’s deliberately OTT, dedicated to being entertaining for almost every minute of its running time. Taken as just that, it’s a lot of fun. Also, probably the series’ best instalment since the fifth.

4 out of 5

Fast & Furious 8 is available on Sky Cinema from today.

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

The Iron Giant (1999)

2016 #86
Brad Bird | 83 mins | DVD | 2.35:1 | USA / English | U / PG

Adapted (loosely) from Ted Hughes’ children’s novel The Iron Man, the feature debut of director Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Ratatouille, now live-action stuff) relocates the book’s story to ’50s America and mixes in some Cold War elements. The film was somewhat verboten in our household when it came out, because the book was beloved and the film looked so different, but its reputation has only grown in the ensuing decade-and-a-half — and Hughes approved of it anyway.

This version sees the titular robot (voiced by Vin Diesel) crash to Earth near Maine in late 1957, the home of nine-year-old Hogarth Hughes (Eli Marienthal) and his mom Annie (Jennifer Aniston). After the giant eats the Hughes’ TV aerial, Hogarth tracks it to take a photo, and ends up saving it from electrocution when it tries to eat a power station. As the giant sneaks around the countryside eating cars and causing train crashes, it attracts the attention of government agent Fox Mulder from the FBI’s X Files Kent Mansley from the Bureau of Unexplained Phenomena (Christopher McDonald), who’s intent on uncovering and destroying the giant. Hogarth tries to hide the friendly creature with the help of artist Dean (Harry Connick Jr.), but could it be Mansley isn’t so wrong about the threat it poses?

The story, as reconstructed by Bird and screenwriter Tim McCanlies, integrates influences from ’50s B-movies (very apt for a giant robot ‘monster’) and Cold War/Space Race paranoia for a potent storyline that has a different emphasis from the novel’s “world peace” finale, but nonetheless is promoting understanding of alien/foreign powers and, y’know, deep stuff like that. Alternatively — or, rather, concurrently — it’s an E.T.-esque tale of a boy and his quirky alien friend. Bird was keen to emphasise character over action and mindless spectacle, and that’s really where the film’s strengths lie.

Well, that and the technical aspects. The animation is stunningly well done, exhibiting exceptional fluidity and detail in its character animation, in particular. That’s in spite of the film having a reduced budget and time schedule thanks to the box office failure of previous animations by the studio — in Bird’s words, they had “one-third of the money of a Disney or DreamWorks film, and half of the production schedule”, but that meant greater production freedom (so long as they managed that budget). I guess that’s why the film’s ended up only growing in stature since its first release — because it’s able to be committed to its creators’ vision, rather than being battered into homogeneity by a studio desperate for a return on considerable investment.

Beautifully animated and affectingly told, with a style that nicely homages classic sci-fi movies, The Iron Giant is a film that deserves the reputation it has gradually amassed — and which only continues to grow, I think. Last year saw the release of an extended Signature Edition, with a couple of short scenes added, which comes to US Blu-ray (alongside the original version) later this year. Just from reading about those new scenes, I’m not convinced they’ll improve the experience, but it’ll certainly be worth finding out.

5 out of 5

The Iron Giant was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2016 project, which you can read more about here.

This review is also part of 1999 Week.

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

2014 #118
James Gunn | 121 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & UK / English | 12 / PG-13

Guardians of the GalaxyMarvel Studios takes its boldest step yet, moving away from the present-day superhero milieu of its previous movies to a galaxy far, far away for a space opera epic. Its success, both critically and commercially, has cemented the Marvel Cinematic Universe as an infallible force in the current movie world. But, really, how good is it?

The film, as I’m sure you know, sees a gang of misfits — Han Solo/Indiana Jones hybrid Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana, adding “green-skinned alien” to her repertoire), literal-thinking muscleman Drax (Dave Bautista), racoon-like bounty hunter Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and his pet tree/bodyguard Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) — come together around a mysterious item of immense power, that’s desired by villain Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) so he can do something nasty and destructive. Co-written and directed by James Gunn, of Super fame, Guardians of the Galaxy combines space-blockbuster thrills with irreverent comedy (the supporting cast includes the likes of John C. Reilly and Peter Serafinowicz) and an ironically-cool ’80s pop soundtrack.

Guardians is a massively entertaining movie — when it works. That happens when it’s character-driven, with characters talking and interacting and following the story (what there is of it). There should be nothing wrong with that, but as this is a modern blockbuster, there’s an unwritten rule about how many CGI-driven action sequences there must be. The point of such things is to provide excitement and drive, but they actually kill the film’s momentum rather than buoying it up. Gunn and co have plenty of originality and fun to dole out the rest of the time, but the majority of the action sequences are seen-it-all-before whizzy CGI.

Indiana Solo?The worst offender is the pod chase through Knowhere, a several-minutes-long sequence that registers as little more than a blur. There’s a shocking lack of clarity to its images, even by today’s standards. Maybe it’s better in 3D, when I guess the backgrounds would sink into the distance and important elements would be foregrounded; but in 2D, you can’t see what’s meant to be going on for all the fast-moving colour and split-second cuts. Almost as bad, though for different reasons, is the climax. It takes up an overlong chunk of the movie and at times feels repetitive of too many other Marvel climaxes — oh look, a giant spaceship crashing into a city! If anything, the film gets ‘worse’ as it goes on. Perhaps not in a very literal sense, but as the blustering action climax takes over, it moves further away from the stuff that makes it unique and interesting.

Sadly, those feature don’t include the lacklustre villains. Marvel have been rather lacking in this department lately: Ronan the Accuser and his faceless minions are as bad as Christopher Eccleston’s lot from Thor 2, who were already rather like Avengers Assemble’s alien army… Henchwoman Nebula (Karen Gillan) has some potential, but she’s barely used. They make a point of her escaping, though, so maybe next time.

Even if the villains are underworked, the film is so busy establishing its large roster of characters (five heroes, three or more villains, plus an extensive supporting cast) that it doesn’t have time to fully paint the universe, either. We don’t really care when Nova City is being destroyed, because we only saw it briefly earlier on and had no reason to suspect we’d be going back there. Whizzy whizzy CGIIt isn’t even called Nova City, but I don’t have the foggiest what it is called because the film didn’t make me feel I should be learning it. Some more effort making sure we knew why that place mattered, even if it was just a clearer depiction of all the planning for its defence, might have sold the entire climax better.

Most people talk about Guardians in the context of its place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it would probably be more interesting to compare and contrast it with other space opera films — that’s where its heart and style truly lies. These aren’t superheroes, they’re space rogues; to pick on two films from one of Marvel Studios’ top creatives, it’s more Serenity than Avengers. The main connection to the other Marvel films comes in the form of Thanos and his beloved Infinity Gems. It’s questionable if this is a little shoehorned in, and also a little bit Fantasy rather than Sci-Fi. Does forcing that in undermine the film? Or is it only because we know it ties into the Avengers side of the universe that it stands out? If we’re arguing that “it’s more fantasy-y than science-y”, perhaps we should pause to look at the most archetypal cinematic space opera, Star Wars: what’s the Force if not some mystical thingamajig?

Whatever the genre, Guardians leaves you with an instant feeling of having seen a top-quality blockbuster, thanks to its likeable heroes, abundant humour, frequent irreverence, uncommonly colourful visual style, retro-cool soundtrack, and so forth. Unfortunately, once you dig underneath that there’s a little too much that’s rote ‘modern blockbuster’, with the explosive action sequences being the main culprit. Many regarded it as the best movie of last summer; on the evidence I’ve seen, it would certainly seem to be the most fun. The character stuff will likely hold up well to repeat viewings, but the noise and bluster surely gets tiring, Big Damn Heroesespecially the overlong climax. Joss Whedon commented of his own Avengers film (as I quoted in my review) that it wasn’t a great movie but it was a great time, and I think that’s just as true here: when Guardians is firing on all cylinders, it’s difficult to imagine a more entertaining blockbuster space opera; but there’s too many merely-adequate bits that hold it back from joyous perfection.

4 out of 5

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.

For my thoughts on re-watching Guardians of the Galaxy in 3D, look here.

Furious 6 (2013)

aka Fast & Furious 6

2014 #106
Justin Lin | 125 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Furious 6Fast Five’s kinda-villain, supercop Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson), tracks down our band of car-driving criminal-heroes to inform Dom (Vin Diesel) that former girlfriend Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), who apparently died in the fourth film, is actually alive and working with a gang of super-criminals in London — which is Hobbs’ leverage to get Dom, Brian (Paul Walker) and the rest of the gang to come out of retirement to help catch said crims.

Cue two hours in which cars drive fast, people punch each other, and things blow up. Furious 6 (as it’s called on screen, to forcefully indicate a barely-existent “Part Two”-ness with the previous film) doesn’t ask much of you as a viewer, and doesn’t give you much back either — which is fair enough, in its own way. In other ways, it’s a disappointment.

The last film broke the diminishing-returns curve the franchise was on, but Furious 6 slots right back into it. It’s kinda tricky to pinpoint why Fast Five was so entertaining and this one isn’t. I think it just takes things too far. Firstly, the team-up novelty of the fifth film is now the series’ modus operandi, which makes it less special. Worse, there’s a muddled plot (Brian goes back to LA to meet someone in prison for no particularly good reason) and OTT action sequences. Five had the latter too — dragging a safe round the streets of Rio! — but 6 goes too far beyond. In transitioning from “street racing franchise” to “heist franchise (with cars)”, Fast & Furious has lost sight of its roots and become just another overblown action series.

Special delivery... of muscles!For all the intent of this being “Part 2 of 2”, there’s a post-credits tease which sets up the next film’s villain: the brother of this film’s villain! So, what, this is “Part 2 of 3” now? Or, more likely, they’ve adopted the modern movie franchise format of a never-ending series of closely-connected narratives; essentially, a TV series, only with bigger budgets and just one instalment every other year. I suppose it doesn’t matter, but go too far down this route and you end up with films so engrossed in their own years-long mythology that your viewers forget why everything’s happening. Just look at the Saw movies, which had to start building “previously on”-style flashbacks into their editing. Let’s hope Fast & Furious doesn’t start requiring the same — to this point, at least, the primary story of each film has thankfully been established and resolved between the Universal logo and the credits scroll.

Also on the bright side, the action sequences aren’t over-CGI’d. There’s definitely some of that in play, most obviously during the climax (with its never-ending runway), but a lot of the car stunts throughout the film look to have been done for real. Always preferable. As for the Old Blighty setting, although the film does indulge in some tourists-will-recognise-this views of London, it’s not as bad as most Hollywood versions of the city — or British versions, if you look at the work of Richard Curtis & co. Call that a car?There’s plenty of backstreet, underground, grim-and-gritty bits on display here — entirely appropriate given the characters’ street-racing roots and criminal know-how. Still, these are little more than cosmetic bonuses.

Not the worst of the franchise, though certainly not the best, Furious 6 is an overcooked extravaganza that goes on at least one action sequence too long.

3 out of 5

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.