The Last and the Spurious
So the trailer is out for Fast and Furious – the fourth in the vehicular exploitation series.
The promise is ‘New Model, Original Parts’, which is about as good a way to sell the return of an almost-ran movie star and three attractive no-marks as you could come up with. More importunately, it allows me to quickly bung up my old blog article covering movies one to three in time to snag a few of the Google searches. (Noise to Signal - tell your friends. Save us from any further whoring.)
So, with a few fixes to allow it to pass its M.O.T., here it is. I’ll be back at the end to waffle a little more.
Warning: This car-porn movie coverage contains Spoilers. (Ba-dum – tch!)
So it’s taken oodles at the box office, but was The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift (known to those such as myself with a fairly limited sense of humour as 3 Fast 3 Furious) any good? Hmm. Well…not exactly.
Thing is, sequel success tend to be an indicator of popularity, not intrinsic quality. Popularity of what? Um, generally the previous movie. It used to be said that a sequel stood every chance of making 40% of the previous film’s income. They get greenlit on the numbers. Do it right, maybe you make more. And in these days of franchises, believe it or not, more are getting it right than you’d think. Bringing back cast, writers, directors, producers – this is the way to do it. Sometimes. Dead Man’s Chest was, for me, a decent example. But I love what the Blade series did – same writer every time, but a new director. You want someone with an eye on the saga.
Unless you’re a silly car-porn film franchise like Fast/Furious. In which case you need whoever’s available.
I’m going to talk about all three films, in reverse order. Because I’m quite perverse.
The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift
Things they didn’t learn from the previous films:
• Colour-coding cars helps audiences keep track of who’s where.
• Heroes like these should be vaguely capable, and certainly not moronic.
• Have more than two cars per race.
So, Lucas Black. When he was a kid, he was incredible in a series called American Gothic as a creepy but basically innocent kid. Grown up, I suspect he’s capable of good things. Just, y’know, not here – where he’s asked to play a kid who gets into trouble for no discernably good reason whatsoever. And he isn’t even good at trouble! He takes on races to win access to the knickers of a cheerleader. Only he can’t drive very well. He demolishes property, shows zero control, and…well, he’s crap. The guy he races against should probably have been the lead.
He’s pushed from mummy’s bosom to daddy’s out in Tokyo, where we discover that English speaking kids are nice, Oriental ones are nasty, and black kids are sidekicks designed to provide wisecracks. Yeesh. (Now, there’s a theory that the director – a Taiwanese chap named Justin Lin – is an outsider himself, arriving in the U.S. and trying to make a name. Buy into it if you really must.)
So, what’s wrong with the movie? One-on-ones, mostly. Races between two cars, two drivers, are incredibly hard to make interesting because it’s such a…binary state. Either one wins, or the other does. This is why straight boxing films are such a pain to script – you win or you lose. And given that we want to feel uplifted, the hero’s not gonna lose at the end, surely? (Rocky, the first one, tried to get around this. At a point slightly too late in the film to be anything other than set-up, Rocky insists that he doesn’t care if he wins, if only he can last that distance. That would be victory enough. Guess what happened next. Still, kudos to Stallone for finding a way to bring some vague twist – a feat he would repeatedly attempt to repeat.)
Confrontation in fiction is like good conversation – it gains further dimension when there are more than two people involved.
Still, Tokyo Drift has other issues. The conflict in the film, the thing the climax hinges upon, is money the ‘bad guy’ (who’s never very bad, actually) was entitled to. Oh, and maybe a girl – the hero never kisses her, or has much conversation with her, but she’s in the mix. Presumably he fancies her because she’s the only non-Asian female in his class. To repeat: yeesh.
I briefly heard this film called ‘darker’ than before. That’s not quite true. It’s not darker, it’s more pedestrian. The crashes are more realistic – more Cronenberg than Michael Bay - but, therefore, don’t really fit a franchise that slides day-glo cars under trucks. A series like this, which carries a ‘don’t try this at home’ warning at the end of each installment, should be flipping the vehicles 12 times over, killing only nameless extras. No moment is less appropriate than when we see a friend of the hero smash his car and blow up. For real.
Painful scene. But dude, you’re in so the wrong film.
What else? It forgets to be a cop movie entirely. Films one and two were, in their Miami Vice-lite way, about undercover investigations. This one’s about a clearly bi-polar kid who couldn’t drive cattle. It’s robbed of half its genre – which takes away that Point Break vibe and leaves you with…binary action scenes.
Oh, and the final race takes place in the dark.
It’s a sequence that fails to realise how important it is to colour-code cars so audiences can keep track. Now, to be fair, the Tokyo location is often well-used (a shot of cars gliding through a dense crowd will leave you gasping); you get a real feel for the city. And the notion – tight-corner racing – is cleverly tied in to the setting. But what’s next? Fast and Furious: Alaskan Snow-Chains? In the meantime, wouldn’t it be great if we could tell the vehicles apart in the wide shots?
For all this, though, it’s the lack of memorable icons that infuriates most. Not one character you’d recognise again. Not one scene you can recall. Barely one moment you’ll talk about in the pub. Yet – millions grossed. Another will follow.
And back in time we go…
2 Fast 2 Furious
Ignoring the too-cool title based on a music track in the first film, what surprised me was this: it’s not rubbish. Oh, it’s trashy cinema, but I happen to like a bit of trash now and again. What it does, actually, it does not-badly-at-all – it remembers to colour-code its cars for one thing.
It also manages to throw variants into the races, keeping events more than just either/or. There’s a tag-team thing where two cars race, then pass the baton to two others. There’s a four-way. And the finale of the film hinges on chases and getaways – not ‘am I quicker than him?’ but ‘can we outsmart him?’ It leaves room for complexity. A little.
It also makes sure to have, oh yes, memorable things. There’s a magical, if slightly shop-worn, trick when the police find themselves chasing 50 cars at once. There’s petrol sprayed on a windshield and set fire to. Taser guns that disable cars. There’s an (okay, okay) wisecracking black sidekick – but he’s got a vaguely interesting grudge history, a lovely habit of eating all the time (see also Brad Pitt in Ocean’s 11), and model/singer/actor Tyrese Gibson is, get this, actually charismatic to watch. Unlike Paul Walker, who’s at least as blond and plank-like as he was the first time around – maybe even blonder and with an extra coat of varnish.
Still, we have a villain who is what they claim him to be. We know he’s bad, because he tortures a cop by putting a rat on his belly inside an upturned metal bucket, then torches the bucket so the rat will dig downwards. Ian Fleming would have loved him. The photography’s good, too.
John Singleton – who seems cursed by certain critics who think a black guy should explicitly be making black movies (I have a theory that an executive put a call out for anyone good with ‘race stuff’ and Singleton getting a call was the misunderstanding of an office junior). To those bizarre voices I say – tough. He’s a solid director of accessible ‘issues’, but, given the chance, he can get your pulse racing, too. I may be the only fan anywhere of his much-derided Shaft remake, I love Four Brothers, and I await his A-Team movie, also set to feature Gibson, with great interest.
He fills the frame with colour and movement. Turns the camera upside-down, but keeps it tight in the edit so it works. Michael Bay wishes his camera were this inventive. He casts smartly, too. Most characters won’t stick beyond the running time, but when they pop up a second or third time, you know who they are – a bigger issue than you may think. Oh, and instead of the cocky little git of film three, our guys this time aren’t at all certain of their victory. (Ironic, really – they’re clearly better than him.) In the face of the race, cocky becomes anxious. The other car is faster. Ulp. Basic drama.
Not art, then. But not arse, either.
The Fast and The Furious
Film one. And yeah, okay, you get why they wanted to carry on.
The first film gets the basic things right – start with incident (a daring hi-jack), find a style (there are some gorgeous time-lapse shots of LA, lovely focus-racking between cars, and you actually see our stars and their explosions in the same frame at the same time), and tense up the undercover stuff. It creates icons quickly, too. “A ten-second car”. NoS injection systems. “Life a quarter-mile at a time”. Spraying checkpoints across the street. The girls and the gears. Hell, I have no interest in cars, but for two hours, it’s groovy.
It’s a hell of a lot more ethnically balanced as well, with gags about Latino names (“Even I can’t pronounce it” says Hector of his surname) balanced with quips right back (Brian O’Conner’s name “Sounds like a serial killer”). Nobody’s coming away any more offended than anybody else.
The story pounds along. On the night our hero and his prey meet, they take part in an illegal street race, get caught, escape and flee, get attacked by Chinese gangsters then go back to his place for a beer and a crack at his sister. There are some ‘relationships’ on show, too. Brian’s boss is also his dad (likely expected to return in film two but didn’t – there’s a character who acts just like him, though), one of Vin Deisel’s gang has A.D.D. and a bright future in design, only he’s in with the wrong crowd. Vin himself has a ‘proper (movie) past’.
Oh, and okay, let’s give Vin Diesel his due. He’s failed to find decent films since, but for a moment here it seemed like we had something hot on the screen. Raw, masculine, not short on charisma…in an era where audiences, myself included, prefer their men a little more complex and capable of emotion, Vin was kinda refreshing.
There’s a mis-lead regarding the bad guys’ identity, some judgment calls, some tough decisions…okay, it’s absolutely basic, but it’s something the third film didn’t do at all. But both this film and the sequel put more on the line than straight victory, than first past the post. There’s only one real car wreck, and it takes place during a smashingly tense set-piece as three cars try to take down a truck and fail, painfully. One on one races – those binary bastards – are treated as perfunctory. One overtake, big deal. It also plays smart with the obvious stuff. When Vin finds out his new best mate is a cop, they just look at each other, never speaking. Again, it’s basic, but it shows a confidence.
People saw the second movie because they liked the first. They saw the third because they liked the second. I doubt many liked the third – though Empire seems to have gone out of its mind, giving Tokyo Drift three stars having given the second film only two – so who knows if a fourth would be any good?
Maybe – if Vin’s in it. He has a cameo at the end of Tokyo Drift, after all (which probably cost half the budget, and actually has more verve than any other dialogue scene in the picture).
Maybe – if they bring Tyrese back. He and Vin work in my head as an on-screen pairing.
Maybe – if they ditch the binary race results.
So, film four does see the return of Vin. And while he doesn’t have a lead role, word is Tyrese Gibson’s back for a Vin-in-Tokyo-Drift-style quick cameo. On the downside, Drift’s Justin Lin returns to direct, as does its writer Chris Morgan. Still – Morgan scored points with me for the fantastic Wanted. (It’s a small hope and I’m clinging to it.) Best of all, though, it looks like we’re back in big crime caper territory. The trailer seems concerningly low on cops, but if it’s gang-on-gang conflict, maybe that’ll do the job.
But I still wish they’d called it The Fast and the 4ious.