25 April 2017

First Impressions: The Fate of the Furious

By this point we've talked ad nauseam about the miraculous nature of the continuation of the Fast and Furious franchise. So we'll skip that in this review of the latest, The Fate of the Furious (2017), which features an evil Vin Diesel to separate it from the pack, but feels quite a bit lesser without some of its major players, from Han to Gisele to of course, Paul "Brian O'Conner" Walker himself. We'll get into all that and more today, on Norwegian Morning Wood.
So many ass shots in the glorious paradise nation of Cuba.

While it's continuously entertaining and ridiculous in every way that the modern Fast films are (I feel weird writing that, but it's true), Fate is definitively the worst installment of the updated globe-trotting spy adventures these films have become. It lacks the fun camaraderie of Fast Five (2011), the sheer obnoxious thrill of Fast & Furious 6 (2013), or the emotional impact of Furious 7 (2015). The result is a film that feels more like it's going through the motions, caught up in its current boffo spy thriller direction instead of adding anything really new or interesting.

And that's with what should have been a heartbreaking development with Vin Diesel going rogue. For example, what happened to all of this? Simple blackmail with the blockhead's heretofore unseen baby son seems like too simple of a cop out. The film continually flirts with "bringing back the Old Dom" or unleashing his freedom, which is a concept you can trace back to the original 2001 installment, but Dom never seems to budge or even be tempted by the devil Charlize Theron. Any of that could have made his progression more interesting - if he went all the way, seduced by the darkside, then Letty had to turn him back instead of him finding his way on his own. There's all these truly terrible moments where Diesel betrays his team, but they're robbed of emotional weight since his character never actually undergoes any change. Turning your main character against his own team is a wonderful, fascinating idea, that Fate really bungles. Here's to Tranformers: The Last Knight (2017) getting it right!

Beyond that, there's something a bit off with the rest of the cast's chemistry. Maybe that's because without Brian and Dom we're basically down to Michelle Rodriguez and a pair of random dudes from 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003). Sure, Ramsey is in there, but she's largely useless, especially when Ludacris already fills her role on the team (even if she's better at hacking. I'll get more into how stupid the hacking is in this flick in a bit). There's not a lot that demonstrates that this group is a bunch of friends, they still feel like "friends of friends" which hinders the whole set-up.

I suppose The Rock can and should be officially counted as part of these people by now, though, and if anything, Fate cements him as part of the gang, notably in the ending New York rooftop picnic scene (which has some of the worst greenscreen in recent memory somehow). No more baby oil for him. And I guess Jason Statham and Owen Shaw are part of the team now, or something? I'm fine with that - Statham really shined in this movie, and his parts with Dom's baby are some of the best, besides his prison escape alongside the Rock.
The Rock is a fucking Hulk.

Between this and SPY (2015), Statham has shown he can be incredibly funny, which is an amazing gift to the world. In a film overflowing with bald men (literally the entire main non-Ludacris cast), he's a welcome addition. The Rock and him steal this whole movie, though, especially once the gag of the Rock lifting and punching impossible things really gets going. I'm not sure if it's even a gag, actually, but there is a carefreeness to this performance, starting at his daughter's soccer match, that is well above anything he's ever done for this franchise. To be sure, none of that seems pleasing to Vin Diesel, who is mostly fat and grumpy in this movie. I also don't know why the whole Shaw family is apparently a thing now, nor why they felt the need to introduce Charlize's Cypher as a big overarching baddie responsible for the past two films (seemed like shades of SPECTRE's hackneyed Blofeld reveal).

Now, I'm definitely a Theron fan, but she's wasted here. She only exists in weird whisper voice, blathering weird vague philosophical platitudes that again, don't seem to actually affect Dom at all. It's all horseshit. She could have been a greater infection, a more worthwhile adversary. And the hacking - ugh. This franchise seems very comfortable leaving his gearhead origins behind (despite opening with the most gear-heavy car race in perhaps the entire series), but it's far too comfortable being James Bond with cars right now. I mean, this "hacking" is probably some of the worst in movie history. Like 90s bad. Jurassic Park (1993) bad.

As for the rest of the cast, you get the feeling that they introduced Scott Eastwood because Kurt Russell has had enough, and he does a fine enough job and is surprisingly resembling young Clint really well. I got really excited in the opening credits to see Don Omar and Tego Calderon, but they only showed up in the briefest of cameos. C'mon - they were integral in Fast Five, part of the original family scene - everyone else is dying, throw them in the mix again!

As you can tell, I'm full of unending disappointment over this film, but the action really is pretty good. The Rock and Statham are brilliant, and there are still stories to be mined here. They gotta go tot space, after all. But this really does suffer without the balance of Paul Walker and Jordana Brewster, who kind of gets the shaft (although she hasn't had shit to do in like the past four films anyway). There is a really awkward moment where Roman says they should call Brian, who obviously would be a great asset in this specific circumstance. The issue is that they retired the character instead of killing him, so now his absence in truly desperate times makes no sense.

This still isn't the worst Fast film, mostly on the backs of its production value, great side characters, and kind of interesting story. But I'd watch any of the past three instead. That's an insane sentence.

14 April 2017

2 Fate 2 Furious 2 Fast 2 Furriest = 8

Part of this "Road to a Blockbuster" series is an analysis of the critical, cultural, and commercial potential of any big film that hits the cinema. We can typically riff about any major property for a few good paragraphs, with some fun and laughs along the way, but something feels a little done to dirt this week. Maybe that's because we've been through this particular franchise time and time again, each time in disbelief at the turnaround and success it's had, inexplicably rising from a notch above straight-to-DVD all the way to billion-dollar international success.

I mean, I've written about this a lot. A lot. That doesn't even include my impressions of the past two films I've seen in theaters since this blog began (I am really sure I saw Fast Five [2011] in theaters, the lack of an impression could be a huge six-year old oversight for this blog). The whole point is, you may ask yourself what more can we say about this franchise? What more can we do? What other places can we go? Well, as this insane film series has been gracious enough to present an improbable eighth installment today, let's see what else we can wring out of it from our end.
Or just the timeless greatness of seeing big
dudes wail on each other

Let's start with how this is still a thing. The Fast and Furious franchise made a bold decision around Fast Five to stop caring about the limited gearhead extreme demographic which made the franchise popular around the turn of the century and instead lean into a few different genres - from heist to revenge to spy films. It's all weirdly broad. See, the Fast and the Furious can be anything. In many ways, it's the last truly great film franchise because it's origins are just that - derived from brains and put on film rather than some previous source material.

This actually makes the franchise crackle with creative freedom. They're not beholden to any sort of storyline, character base, or anything besides a ton of now-built up fandom. And it's not like other major superhero films really rely on previous stories or characters exactly as they appear on script - but it IS a big deal when you have to continually use 50-year old characters who were all created during a time when stories featured a bunch of white dudes. Part of the Fast and Furious' success is its extreme international appeal, and that is surely helped by its creation of a diverse array of characters that aren't really there so that Disney can be proud of his totally-not-that-gay character or its "stunning" all-Black superhero coming up. It's diverse because it's natural to do so within their storylines, and no one's ever upset that we dared to think that Spider-Man could be played by Donald Glover.

But that's just a small part of this behemoth's success. More importantly, this franchise achieves what so many other series fail to do: surrounding the incomprehensibly stupid action are a core group of characters that are actually well-developed, interesting, and people care about. Simultaneously, there's no real reason or need to see any of the previous installments to get the just of what's going on here - Vin Diesel is evil and there's a big submarine chase. Cool. I'm in. For any flack it may receive from its relatively pulpy origins, it's still successful because it really creates engagement.

Speaking of that, let's talk about family. Ever since Fast Five, that's been Diesel's mantra. While I still call that the actual first shared universe team-up movie, predating The Avengers (2012) by a year, it was also big into this family concept. This rag-tag group of multi-ethnic car racers and hackers (and it should be said again and again that Ludacris' Tej had none of these skills in 2 Fast 2 Furious [2003]) suddenly had a lot of importance to each other, which you could see on screen in every scene. The audience has really bought into this importance, which is uncanny. It's a level that other wannabe series like the Avengers or Transformers haven't really achieved, likely just because there aren't enough films of them together to establish those bonds of teamwork. Also, frankly, there's not a lot of  scenes of Captain America and Thor bonding over barbecues and Coronas. These little touches make the difference and really emotionally involve the audience. It works that we've come back to this ridiculous franchise again and again. All the cross-building car jumps are fun, but at its core the characters are actually really well-defined and that's the glue that allows all the other insanity to be digested.

With our context now well established, what can we expect from The Fate of the Furious (2017)? Supposedly this is the initiator of a brand new trilogy within the film series, although I'm not sure where the previous series fall. Could you go 1-4-5 as a trilogy? 6-3-7 (in that order)? or straight up 1-2-3, then 5-6-7, leaving out 4 like a sore thumb? I think the best way to break up the series so far is 1-2-4 as a first trilogy, then 5-6-3-7 as a quadrilogy. In terms of distinctiveness, it's amazing how much each film actually does separate itself from the pack, and instead of just being another installment, Fate looks to especially turn things on their head. Let's go through this crap:

The Fast and the Furious (2001) was basically Point Break (1991) with cars, which isn't emphasized enough. I'm sure that wasn't lost on the producers of the 2015 version. 2 Fast spun the exact same story while swapping Vin Diesel for Tyrese Gibson and eliminated the tension of one being an undercover cop in favor of both being relative criminals seeking redemption. Tokyo Drift (2006) is out there in a lot of ways, mostly retconned into legitimacy, although it features the best soundtrack. Storywise it eschews the whole cops vs. robbers thing in favor of a troubled high schooler who flirts with streetracing while adjusting to a new culture. Yep. Not great.

Even though there weren't that many years in between Tokyo Drift and Fast & Furious (2009), it did feel like a big deal since we hadn't seen Paul Walker in six years and barring the Tokyo Drift cameo, Vin Diesel in eight. Fast & Furious is basically a redux of the first film, with the exception that Diesel knows Brian O'Conner is a cop. It doesn't change much of the murder mystery of the film, though, and Braga is one of the better villains from the first four films.

Starting with Fast Five, the series really becomes legitimate. The crew heads to Brazil for a heist film while being chased by the Rock. It remains the best film in the series. In Fast & Furious 6 (2013), the team faces off against the evil versions of themselves (evil-er versions?) led by Owen Shaw, who is also a right bastard, teaming up with the Rock in the process to fight the greater evil across London. From there chronologically we head back to Tokyo Drift where we see that Shaw's brother, Jason Statham killed Han in the best retcon in movie history. Putting that out there.

And for the record, we totally need Bow Wow back. C'mon, everyone else is dead. Or at least Sean Boswell. Although, yes, he's aged so damn horribly.

Furious 7 (2015)'s actual plot is so whatever - something about an evil satellite or something, who cares. The important shit is how it becomes a globe-trotting spy film, how Jason Statham keeps popping up to fight everyone, and how it will always be tied to Paul Walker's untimely death, Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth's "See You Again" being the saddest song ever and one of the biggest of the year.
Doesn't your heart just break!?

Fate puts all this family bullshit on its head as it features Vin Diesel, the dad we all wish we had, turning on his own family and Letty, the love of his life (kind of - did she ever get her memory back?) for Charlize Theron. It looks like the Rock and Statham are teaming up in prison and Kurt Russell is back as shady government dude Mr. Nobody. There's no real line of expectation here. Why is the Diesel evil? We've already been through this, but according the latest Transformers: The Last Knight (2017) trailer, it's possible that he was brainwashed by his creators to redeem the destruction of his home planet. That's plausible.

Getting back to why we even have this column, I think that culturally this will stand out on a Furious 6 level, which is sort of remembered but not on a game-changing Furious 7 level. Commercially there's no films in this thing's path, which has owned April for years now. It has lost a lot of its core cast in years due to deaths both on screen and in real life, which hurts that reason we all come back, but if it can keep introducing people we care about (or at least hot chicks), we should be good. Critically, neither myself nor anyone who these movies are made for really care, although the latest films in the series have all been decently well-received. At 76% it ranks third amongst the franchise right now. It'll be just fine.

This is also the first film where F. Gary Gray steps in to direct, who has made most of his name off Ice Cube films (here's to a cameo), but interestingly enough has directed both Charlize Theron and Jason Statham before in The Italian Job (2003) - yeah, remember that?! This has oddly been Justin Lin's baby for years, even though he got started with the series with Tokyo Drift - how he convinced producers Neil Moritz and Vin Diesel that he was the right dude the shepherd the franchise's revitalization is beyond any of my Hollywood knowledge. Furious 7 of course saw James Wan step in, and although it was likely as good as it was going to get, you just think he could have done more, right? When recounting these films, it's also funny how Fast & Furious 6 tends to stand out as an oddball, which may be because they switched up a lot of the crew. But this minutiae is getting distracting. Let's drive some cars off some cliffs or across the Arctic or something.

What are you up to this weekend? Checking this sucker out? Hell yeah.

07 April 2017

At Long Last...A Champion Crowned Again!

It took a lot of votes and a lot of ties and re-votes, but finally, you the people, have spoken: Joining the 2015 winner Han Solo and the 2016 winner, Buffy Summers, I present to you the 2017 March Badassness Champion:

Damn Straight.

It was ultimately a 7 to 6 vote against Rey, which is crazy close. Kudos to an amazing campaign with only one film under her belt. Depending on how she kicks ass in The Last Jedi (2017), she could have swept this thing in years to come.

This has been a lot of fun, and believe it or not, I've scraped below the bottom of the barrel to come up with about 90 or so combatants for 2018 that will spill into 2019. I think I'll keep doing this until I totally run out, which is of course absolutely insane. That's what we're here for. 800 times over.

Lastly, here's a shot of how the whole bracket turned out:

Stay tuned next year for more wackiness wha-hey!!
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