(Netflix Streaming, August 2018) Sometimes, you don’t fully appreciate what you’ve got until it goes away, and that’s a bit how I feel about xXx: Return of Xander Cage considering that it’s a blatant throwback to the kind of silly overblown action movie that they were making in the early 2000s with the original xXx and xXx: State of the Union. Those movies kind of went away while we weren’t looking, replaced by grittier, meaner, shakier but not necessarily better Bourne knockoffs. And now here are Vin Diesel and xXx: Return of Xander Cage, unapologetically renewing with the style and content of the first two films. Our xXx hero, as it turns out, never died despite misinformed reports to the contrary: He just travelled around the world and stands ready to be reluctantly recruited once more when hacky-wacky mumbo-jumbo stuff needs fixing once again. However, this time he gets to team up with slightly-less grandiose archetypes in order to fight for freedom and all that good stuff. So it is that we don’t just get Vin Diesel, but the always-watchable Ruby Rose as a sharpshooter, action sensation Tony Jaa, Nina Dobrev in a very cute nerdy-girl role, Toni Colette and Samuel L. Jackson walking on and off the screen to make sure the plot mechanics are set up properly, and none other than Ice Cube back in a return engagement through an absolutely classic introduction featuring his own music. If you’ve read this far without realizing that xXx: Return of Xander Cage is not a great movie, I question your attentiveness. It is, however, an increasingly enjoyable film especially if you saw its predecessors. Diesel and Cube both try to out-surly each other, while the supporting cast knows that they’re not going for subtlety. The action sequences are just fine thanks to director D. J. Caruso’s competency with the form. (It had been a while since he helmed good genre movies; it’s good to have him back.) Of course, the conscious decision to ape the original film’s methods means that xXx: Return of Xander Cage does feel like a throwback to 10–15 years ago. But there’s no school like the old school, and as a fan of that particular era of action filmmaking, I truly had unexpected fun watching it all happen again. I’m not necessarily demanding another sequel, but I’d be good with it.
(On Cable TV, January 2018) So, it’s January first and what better way to start the movie-seeing year than with the latest instalment of the reliably ludicrous Fast and the Furious franchise? The Fate of the Furious doubles down on the increasing madness of the series, which means that the film starts with a street race in which the protagonist’s vehicle catches fire well before the finishing line and ends with a face-off between fast cars and a nuclear submarine. Yes, it’s that kind of movie. Once again, we’re back in the world of high-end cyber-espionage, with street racers saving the world through various heroics. There are even plot twists, what with series protagonist Vin Diesel flirting with the dark side by dint of manipulation. The character motivations don’t always make sense, the action beats are far-fetched and the plot is an excuse to get from one set piece to another, but that’s the price to pay for seeing Jason Statham joining the good guys, spectacular action sequences and enough self-assured movie mayhem to remind us why this mix of comedy, action and outright absurdity works so well. The most interesting sequence comes midway through the movie, as the newest self-driving technologies and the ever-rising possibilities of hacking combine to make New York a playground for vehicular mayhem, all the way to making cars rains down from above. Great stuff, and a series highlight. Otherwise, what you get is what you’ve been getting since the series pivot Fast Five: attractive actors, beautiful cars, big dumb (but savvy) action, globe-spanning locations, a focus on family that now approaches self-parody and enough dangling threads that sequels aren’t just possible, but expected. (Although the most recent news out of the franchise are of feuds that don’t bode well for the entire cast returning.) I’ve been a fan of the franchise since the very first one (although the second film sorely tested my faith) and The Fate of the Furious hasn’t changed my mind. Bring on Fast Nine…
(Netflix Streaming, June 2016) This is probably the third movie review that I preface with “Poor Vin Diesel”, but here we go again: Poor Vin Diesel. He’s a charismatic actor, with more range than people are willing to concede. Massive crowd pleaser with the Fast and Furious series, but whenever he’s tried to do something else, success has eluded him. His insistence at reviving the Riddick series is admirable but futile given the results. The Last Witch Hunter, influenced by his own enthusiasm for role-playing campaigns, is obviously made to be the first in a franchise … but whatever strengths it has can’t quite manage to make it stand out at a time when urban fantasies can be bought by the dozen from the DVD bargain bin. It does start out promisingly, though: Featuring an immortal victim of witch magic backed by the Catholic Church and dabbling in modern magic, The Last Witch Hunter does have a spark of originality and interest to it. New York becomes (again, but still) an arena for good-versus-evil, and some of the individual world-building elements have some charm. But as fantasy watchers have come to expect, original world building usually takes a back seat to dull plot mechanics as the movie advances, and this film is no exception: By the time a solidly average third act rolls by, we’ve forgotten nearly anything that was good and unusual about the first thirty minutes of the film. Vin Diesel is actually quite good in the lead role, with Rose Leslie being fine as the heroine and Elijah Woods as well as Michael Caine giving decent supporting performances. Still, Diesel looking tough and grim isn’t quite enough to rescue The Last Witch Hunter from mediocrity, and so it fades in the noise of so many urban fantasy movies all following the same narrative pattern. See it if you like Diesel (and who doesn’t?) but otherwise, this is as far from an essential film as it’s possible to be.
(On Cable TV, July 2014) I’m constantly nonplussed at the insistence on making Riddick an ongoing SF franchise. Sure, I was an early fan of Pitch Black. Of course, I really like Vin Diesel. It goes without saying that I wish writer/director David Twohy the best in his career. But after the messy incoherence that was The Chronicles of Riddick, we’ve seen the best that universe had to offer, and it’s something best let go. Not that Riddick is overly enamored of its predecessor either: It’s impressively dedicated at erasing the memory of the previous entry, quickly and definitively putting Riddick back in his favorite environment: battling nature and human opponents on a planet where survival seems unlikely. The first twenty minutes of the film go by with nearly no dialogue, all the better to demonstrate against how much of an invulnerable bad-boy Riddick can be. By the time a “mercenary station” (WHAT???) is reached and two competing teams land to vie for Riddick’s head, the film settles into a comfortable B-movie routine. There are, to be fair, a few good moments here and there. By stripping down to the basic essentials of a survival thriller, Riddick judiciously focuses on its lead character and goes back to straight-up suspense rather than the nonsensical extended mythology of the second film. Other actors get a chance to try to equal Vin Diesel’s usual intensity: There’s a nice rivalry between Matthew Nable and Jordi Mollà as the rival mercenary leaders, while Katee Sackhoff gets to be a little bit more than just “the girl” in the script. Of course, there’s little suspense regarding Riddick’s fate – it’s the kind of film to be watched to see what the protagonist will do to his enemies. (In most movies, we fear when a protagonist is in chains and threatened. In this one, we sit back and anticipate the carnage.) Of course, Riddick is a movie for fans –essentially an attempt to gain operating capital for the next installment. As such, it’s a bit bland, a bit competent, a bit ridiculous and a bit enjoyable. There may or may not be another installment in the series –I don’t particularly care, which is actually a step up from how I felt at the end of the previous film.
(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 theaters, April 2011) My unexplainable love for The Fast and the Furious series suddenly gets a lot more explainable with this surprising fifth segment: Reaching well beyond the street-racing antics of the previous volumes and deeper into the criminal action/thriller mode, Fast Five manages to satisfyingly weave together plot threads and a dozen characters from the four previous films, while delivering inventive action sequences. The prologue effectively sets the tone and the film’s lack of regard for physics: thus reassured, we can enjoy the rest of the film, the over-the-top action sequences, the reunion of the series regulars and the colourful Rio de Janeiro locale. This has to be one of the best pure-action movies of the past few years: It’s snappy, it’s competent, it doesn’t take itself seriously and when it clicks, it really works. Vin Diesel growls as well as he can, and he’s joined by Dwayne Johnson for a head-on collision between two of the most credible action heroes of the moment. While the script isn’t perfect (a few lulls; a few nonsensical plot development; little refinement by way of dialogue), it’s pretty good at giving a few moments to everyone in the cast, at setting up the interesting action sequences, and even at winking at the audience: There are a number of inside jokes for series fans here, perhaps the biggest being a cut that skips over the film’s usual street-racing sequence. The cars may not be as nice at the previous films, but the action sequences are quite a bit more striking. I wish, however, that director Justin Lin would open up his action sequences a bit more, lay off the crazy editing and let the long-shots speak for themselves. (Fortunately, he’s already much better now than in the previous two films.) Don’t leave during the credits: there’s a short scene that will please series fans while setting up a promising sixth instalment.
(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 2004) Oh no; here I am, twisted between a bad film and a genre I love, a ridiculous script and a director who knows what he’s doing. In some ways, this film is the epitome of dumb people’s conception of bad SF. Would I be inclined to melodramatic statements, I’d probably say something like how it “sets back the general public’s perception of SF by decades”, except that Battlefield Earth already damaged the genre’s perception for years. On the other hand, I’ve professed my admiration for David Twohy just about everywhere else, and there’s no denying that he’s attempting something very ambitious here. Too bad that it’s pure bargain-basement nonsense: despite some nifty details here and there, this movie rarely makes sense and is content to rely on tired clichés (the Furian prophecy, the easy “victory by killing the head vampire”, etc.) rather than bring forth something new. It doesn’t help that the direction is just about as original as the writing. Scientifically, it’s all trash (don’t get me started on the impossible weather patterns of Crematoria), but that hardly matters given that the film veers more often in science-fantasy territory. As such, there’s something admirable about the grandeur of the visuals: even though the film’s design is singularly ugly, it’s big and bold. Much of the same could be said for Vin Diesel, who once again turns in a serviceable return performance as bad-boy Riddick, though he’s nowhere near the impact of his turn in the prequel Pitch Black. Judi Dench and Colm Feore spend the entire movie slumming in undignified and humourless roles. Still, there’s an undeniable appeal in seeing scorched-hot Thandie Newton vamp around in a snake-tight outfit, or even Alexa Davalos do her best with the usual “tough chick” shtick. So there I am, twisted between dull directing, bad writing, a love of the genre and respect for Twohy. What’s a critic to do?
(Second viewing, On DVD, March 2005) Some movies improve upon a second viewing and some don’t. This one not only doesn’t, but actively suffers from the supplement of information that is to be found on the DVD. Sure, some of the action sequences aren’t bad, the art direction is imaginative and Vin Diesel has a screen presence that can do much to compensate for the material. But nothing can raise the quality of the atrocious script, nor make sense of the ridiculous excuse for a science-fiction story. In fact, the more information is presented to us, the less sense the film makes. Yikes. Don’t listen to the audio commentary!
(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.