(Netflix Streaming, January 2016) While Into the Blue wasn’t favourably reviewed upon release, it’s the fast-paced thrills-and-romance tropical adventure that it wants to be. Who doesn’t love sympathetic protagonists being stuck between two criminal groups as they hunt a lost Spanish treasure and discover a downed plane filled with drugs? With Paul Walker in the kind of charming-action-hero role he did best, Jessica Alba looking remarkably good, director John Stockwell capturing immersive underwater sequences and clean cinematography, this is an unassuming and enjoyable B-grade thriller. (It’s quite a bit more memorable than the similar Fool’s Gold, for instance.) The Caribbean scenery is used judiciously, the underwater set pieces successfully navigate a line between excitement and ridiculousness, everyone is ludicrously good-looking and there isn’t much time to get bored as the plot goes from one thing to another. This is not a great movie, but it’s an enjoyable one for what it tries to do. Keep your expectations in check and the result will leave you smiling and possibly booking a flight to the Bahamas.
(In theaters, May 2015) I’ve been a fan of the Fast and Furious film series since the first 2001 installment (even though my faith was sorely tested by the second film), but I never expected its seventh installment to be so purely enjoyable, even as it features a poignant emotional send-off to a fallen star. Series lead Paul Walker died during the production of the film, and part of Furious Seven’s impossible mandate was to find a way to deliver hugely entertaining action sequences while acknowledging Walker’s final departure. The first part of the mission is obviously achieved: Furious Seven contains bigger action sequences, a decent number of laughs, some innovative camera work (including cameras that move in-synch with people crashing through glass tables), decent villains, likable heroes and a decent amount of innovative stunts even in a series that seems to have done everything possible on four wheels. The action moves fluidly across continents, juggles several recurring characters and a few new ones, harkens back to its perennial theme of family and is just about everything one could wish for in a summer blockbuster. But no one expected the film to be able to deliver such an effective good-bye to Paul Walker, who is last seen here literally taking a fork in the road to stay safely with his new family, accompanied by a montage and a sad song meant to make even the least emotional members of the audience get a huge lump in their throat. It works far better than even the most cynical pundits will allow: Walker was in many ways the heart of the series, and Furious Seven couldn’t have given him a better or more appropriate send-off. Incredibly enough, it doesn’t feel manipulative or crass: it feels like the end of the road, even knowing that the series will have another sequel in two or three years. Well done.
(On Cable TV, March 2015) Action-hero actor Paul Walker didn’t get much respect while he was alive, but his untimely death in late 2013 did much to make critics re-evaluate his solid everyman persona and how he could almost singlehandedly raise the level of even the most hum-drum production. Brick Mansions is a good example of his skills: While the film itself isn’t much more than a routine americanized remake of French action thriller Banlieue 13, (starring parkour legend David Belle in the same role than in the original), it does seem a bit better than it is thanks to an earnest, core-persona performance by Walker. The parkour action seems dialed-down from the original (Bell is almost a decade older, and Walker is no specialist) but the film throws in a car chase and a few other action beats to keep things interesting. The plot, with its walled-off city and nuclear redevelopment plot, barely made sense in the French original and seems even more ludicrous on American soil, but that’s to be expected with Luc Besson writing the script. Still, a few interesting performances are worth mentioning: Aside from Walker and Belle’s turns as protagonists, RZA is fine as a crime lord and Montréal-born Ayisha Issa makes a striking impression as a capable henchwoman. Otherwise, much of the film blurs into an indistinct mass of running, gunplay, fights and chases. Walker may not have been a fine dramatic actor, but he was exceptional at playing a likable action hero, and it’s in mediocre movies like this one that this talent is best appreciated.
(On Cable TV, December 2014) When I state that Hours is an intense nightmare all-too-accurately presented as a thriller, you can be sure that I’m saying so as someone who, not too long ago, went through the exhilarating wringer of caring for a newborn. Becoming a father means an accumulation of fatigue and helplessness that can’t be accurately described to anyone who hasn’t been there, but Hours manages to take the worst of those moments and spin them into a thriller in which things keep getting worse. Consider a new father, being told that his wife died during childbirth and that his daughter depends on a mechanical respirator. Consider that same father stuck in a vacated New Orleans hospital in the path of Hurricane Katrina, turning a crank for a mechanical generator every few minutes to keep his daughter alive. Consider feral dogs, unfriendly thieves, lack of supplies, hunger, fatigue, pain, grief all battering the protagonist until his world become nothing more than a mechanical motion. Hours may not have much (it’s a low-budget effort with few locations and a handful of characters) but it makes the most out of what it has, and uses the defunct Paul Walker in a career-best role as the new father stuck in an impossible situation. This is a thriller that grabs viewers by the throat and doesn’t let go until it has exhausted everyone from the dramatic possibilities of the situation. I don’t think that the film will work as well on non-parents, largely because its thematic and dramatic engines are so closely aligned with one another. But if you’re likely to be in Hours’ target audience, sit down, relax… and don’t forget to breathe.
(On Cable TV, June 2014) I’ve been on the lookout for direct-to-video crime comedies lately, and even misfires like Pawn Shop Chronicles serve to remind me why. An anthology of three interlinked stories, loosely connected by a deep-south pawn shop, this a movie with significant tonal problems and an ending that really doesn’t bring it all together, but the quality of the direction and the number of known actors popping up in small roles is interesting enough. To be fair, Pawn Shop Chronicles starts out well: The first story, “The Shotgun”, brings together people such as a near-unrecognizable Paul Walker and a Thomas Jane cameo for a comic redneck meth heist thriller in which stupidity is never an impediment to attempted crime or loose supremacist affiliations. Director Wayne Kramer’s deft touch is already apparent, with a free-floating camera and small flourishes of visual style. It’s lighthearted and fluid enough to set up good expectations. The second story, “The Ring” is by far the most interesting, but it breaks the tone of the film in a way that’s irredeemable. Matt Dillon turns in a Bruce-Campellian performance as a newlywed husband ready to sacrifice anything to solve a mystery from his past. The story quickly turns gruesome as he keeps investigating, culminating into an abominable discovery that is as gut-wrenching as it doesn’t fit with the tone of the rest of the film. (Curiously enough, I immediately thought about a similarly affecting/atonal scene in Running Scared… and then found out that both movies were directed by the same person.) The ending of the segment can be seem coming from half a country mile away, but there’s a lot of good stuff along the way, including a radiant appearance by Rachelle Lefevre and another quirky performance by DJ Qualls. Still, by the end of “The Ring”, Pawn Shop Chronicles has left a sour taste, and “The Medallion” shifts gears into far more mystical territory with an Elvis Impersonator (Brendan Fraser, quite effective) making a deal with a supernatural entity to ensure an escape from terminal career implosion. There are numerous eccentric sequences along the way, but by this time Pawn Shop Chronicles should be busy bringing together its sub-threads, and while it does, there’s no overwhelming feeling of success: The epilogue set in the pawn shop itself feels more redundant than effective, and by that time the tonal problems are acutely unpleasant, especially when a psychopath thought to have been eliminated earlier reappears on-screen and gets rewarded for his actions. By that time, anyone could be forgiven for giving up on the film as anything more than a collection of interesting sequences loosely strung along a disjointed structure and a lack of satisfying payoffs. (Although it does feature an unexpected “At least Jesus didn’t write Battlefield Earth” bumper sticker.)
(On Cable TV, May 2014) It’s easy to dismiss Vehicle 19 as not much more than a hum-drum thriller: it uses well-worn plot elements, doesn’t show any particularly memorable moments, features a dim-witted lead character, feels slow most of the time and if Paul Walker has now been semi-ennobled in death, he remained a fairly average actor throughout his career. But such a quick dismissal misses a good chunk of what makes this film remarkable. Top of the list would be the fact that, save for its final shot, Vehicle 19 never steps outside the minivan where it is set. The camera looks in (usually at Walker) or looks out but never leaves the vehicle, creating a claustrophobic feeling that’s appropriate for the trapped lead character. Writer/director Mukunda Michael Dewil’s plot screws are occasionally ingenious in the ways they, too, stop the film from leaving the minivan. The car chase sequences may feel too restrained to provide much entertainment, but their limited perspective ranks as unique (and seldom more so than in smashing through a convenience store). Vehicle 19 never quite manages to convert its unique assets into something fully engaging, but it does get a few points for ambition, for its South-African Johannesburg setting and for never quite spelling out its entire back-story. It could have been made a bit better, but what’s in there will strike the interest of a few viewers, especially those who like clever premises.
(Video on Demand, December 2013) I am unapologetic about my enthusiastic love for this series ever since the first 2001 installment: I’m not much of a car guy, but I love the blend of action, machines, and humor that the series offers. Fast Five was a notable pivot in that it took the series away from strict street-racing action (no more girl-on-girl kissing!) towards globe-trotting heists and adventure, with considerable broadening of the franchise’s appeal. Now Furious Six capitalizes on this shifting dynamic, and takes audiences to Europe in the search for bigger and better action scenes. The highlight is a highway sequence that pits muscle cars against a tank, leading to a climax set on a massive cargo plane rolling down a seemingly endless runway. With “vehicular warfare” (oh yeah), we are far from the Los Angeles street-racing origins of the series and yet not that far, given how the series has adopted “family” as an overarching theme and eventually manages to bring back everything to the humble neighborhood where it all began. Fast and Furious 6 successfully juggles a fairly large ensemble cast, while giving a big-enough spotlight to series superstars Vin Diesel and Paul Walker, with able supporting turns by Dwayne Johnson and a spot for newly-resurrected Michelle Rodriguez. The script is more blunt than subtle (the ham-fisted dialogues really bring nothing new to the film) and the direction could be a bit less tightly focused so to let the action scenes breathe, but for existing fans of the series, this is nothing except another successful entry. There are even a few jokes thrown in: The street-racing sequence is introduced by Crystal Method’s circa-2001 “Roll it Up”, while Johnson not only gets at least two jokes referencing his wrestling background (mentioning “The Walls of Jericho” and a final tag-team fighting move with Vin Diesel) but also a few Avengers shout-outs in-between “working for Hulk”, “Captain America” and “Samoan Thor”. By the post-credit end, the film not only straightens out the series timeline to include Tokyo Drift, but introduce a wonderful bit of casting in time for the next installment. It’s going to be a bit of a wait until the next film…
(In theatres, September 2010) Keeping expectations low is one way to best appreciate Takers given how this surprising California-noir crime thriller recycles a bunch of familiar elements into a watchable whole. The story, about a crew of Los Angeles professional bank robbers pulling off one last heist even as the FBI is closing on them and dissention strikes within their ranks, is so generic as to approach cliché: You can pick bits and pieces of Heat, Cradle 2 The Grave and even The Italian Job out of the finished result and it’s not as if the dialogue is anything special. Worse yet is the direction, which feels forced to use an incoherent shaky-cam style every time something interesting is happening, undercutting our ability to make sense of what’s going on. But despite the problems, it works: Takers features a fine multiracial cast (with special mention of Idris Elba, Michael Ealy and Paul Walker), a snappy rhythm, a few surprising stunts and a compelling sense of place for Los Angeles. What may sour the impression left by the film is a curiously off-balanced moral center, with fairly unpleasant cops taking on glamorous criminals with crime-financed luxurious lifestyles: The ending provides plenty of bloodshed and little reassurance as to who, if anyone, actually fulfilled their objectives. Still, if Takers may not be original… it’s entertaining enough.
(In theaters, April 2009) It’s useless to try to judge this film by most conventional standards. Its sole goal, after all, is to stroke the pleasure centers of automobile enthusiasts (a group that mostly overlaps with Y chromosomes) and its success it directly tied to how much automobile goodness it crams on-screen. The return of the first film’s cast isn’t a bad idea, but the boys have all the fun while the girls are kept off-screen or hastily taken out of the picture. At least Vin Diesel and Paul Walker have some fun rekindling their on-screen rivalry. Action-wise, the standout remains the opening chase sequence: The rest of the picture is a bit too over-edited and CGI-enhanced to make much of an impact. As for the cars, well, they’re a satisfying mixture of modern rice-burners and classic American muscle. It’s a shame that the cheerful multicultural shock of Tokyo Drift isn’t as strong here, but make no mistake: Between the colorful Southern California locale and the reggaeton soundtrack, this is still a twenty-first century motion picture for the young and licensed. It’s fun, it’s not often boring and, most of all, it shows fast cars and girls kissing girls –there’s no denying that it’s another entry in the ongoing franchise.
(In theaters, June 2003) Cars, crime and chicks in sunny Miami; what else could you ask for? Okay, so Vin Diesel is missing and so is a lot of the energy of the original The Fast And The Furious. But it doesn’t matter as much as you think: This time around, the cars look better, and if no one can outfox Michelle Rodriguez, Eva Mendes and Devon Aoki are totally appropriate eye-candy. Paul Walker doesn’t have to struggle under the shadow of Diesel, and he emerges as a mildly engaging protagonist. (The homo-erotic subtext of his character’s relationship with buddy Tyrone can be a little ridiculous at times, though; how many jealous glances can we tolerate before bursting out laughing?) It’s a shame that about half the car chases don’t really work; dodgy camera moves, overuse of CGI over stunt driving and over-chopped editing don’t help in building a gripping action scene. At least the two highway sequences are nifty. The last stunt is weak and so are many of the plot points before then, but 2 Fast 2 Furious goes straight in the guilty pleasures category; a fine way to spend a lazy evening.
(Second viewing, On DVD, March 2004) Fast cars, curvy women and sunny Miami: Even the second time around, it’s hard to be angry at this film even as the dialogue is painful, the action scenes aren’t particularly successful and the ending is lame. At least the DVD offers some consolation through a series of interesting making-of documentaries and a few extra car-related goodies. John Singleton’s tepid audio commentary does much to demonstrate the uninspired nature of the film’s production. Competent without being particularly commendable, adequate without being particularly satisfying. This one goes out straight to Eva Mendes fans and car buffs. Not that there’s anything wrong with being either.
(In theaters, June 2001) Yes! After a diet of pretentious pseudo-profound cinema and ultra-hyped moronic flicks aimed at retarded teens, it’s such a relief to find a honest B-movie that fully acknowledge what it is. If you like cars, you’ll go bonkers over The Fast And The Furious, one of the most enjoyable popcorn film seen so far in 2001. The plot structure is stolen almost beat-for-beat from Point Break, which should allow you to relax and concentrate on the driving scenes. There aren’t quite enough of those, but what’s there on the screen is so much better than recent car-flick predecessors like Gone In Sixty Seconds and Driven that director Rob Cohen can now justifiably park in the space formerly reserved for Dominic Sena and Renny Harlin. The film’s not without problems, but at least they’re so basic that they’re almost added features. The protagonist is supposed to be played by Paul Walker, but don’t worry; bland blond-boy gets each and every one of his scenes stolen by ascending superstar Vin Diesel, whose screen presence is of a rare distinction. Feminists will howl over the retrograde place of women in the film, but even wannabee-sensitive-guys like me will be indulgent and revel in Jordana Brewster and Michelle Rodriguez—not to mention the other obligatory car-babes kissing each other. Despite the disappointing lack of racing in the first half, there is a pair of great action sequences by the end, the best involving a botched robbery attempt on a rig with an armed driver. That scene hurts, okay? I still would have loved a better ending, but otherwise, don’t hesitate and rush to The Fast And The Furious if you’re looking for a good, fun B-movie.
(Second viewing, On DVD, March 2002) There isn’t much to that film, if you look closely; three or four action scenes, conventional plotting, a few hot young actors and that’s it. But once again in B-movie-land, it all depends on the execution. Here, the young actors are really hot (from Walker to Diesel to Brewster to Rodriguez), the direction is unobtrusive enough and the film is infused with a love of speed that manages to make all quibbles insignificant. The ending is still problematic, with all its unresolved plot-lines, but the film holds up very well to another viewing. The DVD includes an amusing director’s commentary, deleted scenes (some good, some less. Unfortunately, the director once refers to an alternate ending that’s not included), a rather good making-of, three rather bad music videos and a bunch of other stuff.