Give Them a Reason to Stay: Justin Lin’s FAST & FURIOUS 6

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Review originally posted at Movie Knight, here.

It’s hard to stay objective or be overly critical about certain kinds of films. Some movies are so flat out uninterested in being traditionally (and often times claustrophobically) “good” that they somehow transcend the usual evaluative criteria and become something more.

FAST & FURIOUS 6 is not one of those transcendental films. Unlike its predecessor – which reached that rare, awesome place where things get so goofy and dumb that things magically transform into sheer joy – the sixth entry in this unstoppable, car-racing-gone-heist-film franchise feels lifeless, soulless and bereft of all the fun that it had accumulated over the last few years.

Here, Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and his crew are dragged once more back into the game by the eternally-sweaty Agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson). Hobbs suggests the possibility of complete exoneration if our dream-team can help him take down the best racing squad / criminal organization since, well, our dream team. There’s only one catch: it turns out that Toretto’s old flame, Leddy (Michelle Rodriguez), is not quite as dead as they’d once supposed – and she’s playing for the other side.

Director-and-writer combo Justin Lin & Chris Morgan return for one more go around the track (my only car pun – I promise), now in their third straight collaboration on the franchise, and the fourth entry for Lin. By this point, they seem to have nailed the formula down to a science, and it certainly shows – everything about this film feels like a repeat of what has come before, a grab bag of early-day street races and latter-day heists. Toretto is still waxing philosophically about the importance of family. Characters are still hopping into cars for a friendly race down the street for no real reason other than audience nostalgia. And Johnson still constantly looks like he just came out of the pool.

At this point, it’s worth noting that for many people, all of those things are exactly what they want out of this franchise. The trouble is, watching Johnson fly through the air and punch somebody in the face is much less entertaining the seventeenth time you’ve seen it happen. It’s worth a chuckle, sure, but it won’t have you cheering and roaring with laughter the way it did in the last film. This film is all punchline and no setup, because the filmmakers know that they already have a built-in audience – one who, they seem to think, responds more to the big explosion than the ticking bomb.

Still, the movie isn’t a complete train-wreck, by any means. It’s just also not particularly entertaining or enjoyable either. And that’s a big problem, considering how much good will was built up with the refreshing, over-the-top pleasure that was FAST FIVE. Whereas that film had a firm self-awareness and breakneck pacing, SIX meanders along, inserting unrelated or unremarkable set pieces and plot points just for the sake of dragging up old characters, situations and plot threads – most of which are seemingly tossed in without any real effort or thought. You could feel how much fun Lin and Morgan had on FIVE – it was the cinematic equivalent of a filmmaking team throwing their hands in the air, punching it up to 11 and just having fun with the material. “Fun” is the key word there; if the duo were having fun with this installment, it doesn’t show. It should come as no surprise that Lin has finally left the franchise, and one can’t help but wonder whether he grew bored of it halfway through making this movie.

It’s clear from the get-go, however, that Lin and Morgan had only one item on the agenda for FURIOUS 6go bigger. Much bigger. And though the film takes its sweet time getting to those big, adrenaline-infused set pieces in the final act, it certainly pays off that ambition. After all, the final action sequence here is probably the biggest, loudest and most elaborate of the entire franchise. It’s an absurd but totally effective half-hour of fun, and maybe the only point in the run-time where Lin pushes himself as an action director – which, in turn, makes it feel like the only point where he’s having any fun with these characters anymore.

FAST FIVE worked because it was big, dumb fun. FURIOUS 6 fails because it goes too far with that philosophy: it’s much bigger and much dumber, and that actually takes almost all of the fun out of watching it. And once the franchise had abandoned any semblance of reality (something I’m sure many critics and fans will actually celebrate and embrace), it lost its ability to excite. When characters are actively and frequently leaping 50 feet or more without a scratch – from one car to another, no less – things stop being impressive and start getting dull. Previous installments pushed that boundary to its limits, and this one finally breaks it.

With all of that said, I’m sure fans will get a kick out it. There’s plenty of plot points which will get longtime fans excited – both in the moment and for future entries. And though the first two acts aren’t particularly exhilarating, it all ends with an entertaining bang. Sure, the dialogue is horrendous and the script is an all-out mess, but nobody goes to see these movies for the writing. They go for the fast cars, beautiful women and lots of fun. It may be lacking a bit in that last department, but it’s got just enough gas in the tank (last one, for real this time) to please fans.

6/10

d.a. garabedian

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Respect the Chair: J.J. Abrams’ STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS

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Review originally posted at Movie Knight, here.

Throughout J.J. Abrams’ latest foray into the world of science-fiction, a couple of phrases and ideas get repeated a noticeable number of times. Both of these remarks refer to the level of responsibility inherent to being the captain of a ship. They also happen to be at fundamental odds with our protagonist’s natural instincts.

Above all, respect the Captain’s Chair. But more importantly:

The choices you are making, if wrong, will get every single living person that you care about killed.

When we last left off with Abrams’ newly-rebooted take on the STAR TREK franchise, he had assembled himself a ragtag group of absurdly capable and entertaining explorers: Sulu (John Cho), the pilot and swashbuckler-extraordinaire, Chekov (Anton Yelchin), the accented navigator, Uhura (Zoe Saldana), the talented linguist, Bones (Karl Urban), the nervous doctor, Spock (Zachary Quinto), the logical but emotionally crippled half-human and, last-but-not-least, James Tiberius Kirk (Chris Pine), the overly-eager and arrogant captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise.

In a move born less out of reluctant necessity than seized through self-aggrandizing delusions of destiny, Kirk assembles his crew and saves the day, proving himself worthy all in one swift stroke. But a single victory does not make a man a leader, nor does a declaration of greatness necessarily make one great.

And so, Abrams has returned to the franchise he reinvigorated with STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS, a bigger, bolder and ballsier crash-course in blockbuster filmmaking.

Picking up around a year after the first film, Abrams (along with screenwriters Damon Lindelof, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci) immediately thrusts us back into the waiting arms of the newly formulated super-team, already mid-mission. But when things go increasingly awry, Kirk is forced to improvise, violating the Prime Directive in the process – a rule under which no civilized species can intrude on the development of a less civilized, alien one.

It’s not the first rule we’ve seen the over-zealous captain break – and it certainly won’t be the last – but it’s an important reminder of Kirk’s true nature: that he thinks of himself as outside of and above the rules. Even when acting selflessly, he still believes his natural instincts and moral obligations take precedence over his other responsibilities. It’s a trait which his mentor, Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood), believes he needs to have rubbed out of him. His lack of humility is not just a danger to himself and to his crew; it’s a sign that Kirk has no respect for the demands and responsibilities of a position he has barely earned. He’s not ready.

It’s an interesting twist on the standard “you’ve earned your stripes, now prove you can handle them” storyline which so many action heroes are faced with in their sophomore efforts. Kirk doesn’t fail because he broke the rules and risked the lives of his crew – he fails because he broke the rules while trying to save them from a mess he put them in in the first place. His respect and love for his crew is readily apparent, but it always comes second to his own arrogant ambitions. This isn’t a film about learning to love your family. This is a film about learning to be worthy of your family – especially when you’re the one seated in the chair at the head of the table.

All of this discussion naturally brings us to Benedict Cumberbatch’s villainous John Harrison. The less said about this character, the better, and I have no intention of spoiling him for you after all this time spent keeping him under wraps. He is, however, an infinitely more interesting character than Eric Bana’s Nero, and reflects the themes of the film well.

Harrison is one of those villains who mirror the hero in all of the right ways. He too is a captain, and he too would do anything for his family. His anti-authoritative (borderline terrorist-esque) tactics are aggressive and amoral, but his philosophies – and sometimes even his goals – line up pretty notably with Kirk’s. His plan seems to be fueled by passion rather than anything more insidious. He is a conflicted, relatable, ruthless monster, and his (reasonably) nuanced character makes him easy to root for and easy to misread – by both the audience and the other characters. The twisted and unexpected path down which his character travels is constantly surprising and a little bit incredible; if he wasn’t such an enigmatic force, it might seem contrived, but instead it feels honest and compelling.

And that may as well be true of the entire film, as it were. Lindelof, Kurtzman and Orci have cooked up a fairly detailed, politically-charged backdrop for INTO DARKNESS. That kind of storytelling requires a lot of turns and surprises, and some of it will certainly play better with some than for others. The final hour or so is a nonstop barrage of turns, reversals, shifted alliances, militaristic strategy and uncovered truths. It might seem easy to get lost in all of the shuffling around at breakneck speeds, but Abrams nails these plot developments like they’re going out of style.

Because what’s truly impressive about INTO DARKNESS (much like STAR TREK before it) is how unbelievably effortless the entire affair feels. It takes a rare sort of filmmaker to grind such a massive project down to something so polished, it literally shines (yes – there’s more lens flare to look forward to). There are cracks in the surface here which weren’t as readily apparent in the previous installment – wasn’t Kirk’s punishment in the opening of the film washed away a little too quickly? – but it’d take a heart of stone to let them diminish your enjoyment of the sheer wonder on display here.

But lest you believe that Abrams runs this franchise like nothing more than a well-oiled but soulless machine, you can rest assured that the same levels of heart and humor which were so prominent in the first film are on full display here. It’s as consistently funny throughout as the first film (maybe even more so), all while simultaneously embracing darker, edgier and more ambitious goals. The tone never needs to shift, as the film combines both the light and dark in perfect balance. This machine’s soul is fully intact.

And that’s great news, because the men who drew this blueprint are a marvel of the technological revolution. INTO DARKNESS is as tightly structured and as breathlessly paced as the first film in just about every way. As it moves from spectacular set-piece to spectacular set-piece, it’s hard not to be impressed by how the film never relents and yet also never becomes tiresome. It’s a true testament to everybody involved that this ship just keeps blasting through space without a single hiccup.

With that being said, the film is not perfect. Its first hour, exhilarating as it is, lacks the punch that the first film delivered so powerfully throughout.  In STAR TREK, you never felt as if you could see the machinery working behind the scenes; here, however, setup feels a bit like setup, rather than plot. It’s not a serious knock against the film, and it’s not dreadfully problematic, but it’s noteworthy. And after the jaw-dropping final act, the whole thing wraps up with a bit of a dull whimper after a bang: the ending is very abrupt, and could have probably used a little breathing room.

All those nitpicks aside, however, STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS is another home run for Abrams and his Bad Robot team. Giacchino’s score is wonderfully bombastic as always, though maybe not as unexpectedly great as the first film. The cast all do a terrific job, as well; the main characters are forced to dig a little deeper into their characters, especially towards the end of the film. And the special effects are, as always, top-notch.

Summer blockbusters which operate on this level are a rare treat. Hopefully, once Abrams is done making a little film called STAR WARS: EPISODE VII, he comes back and finishes this trilogy off right. The franchise deserves its latest captain back in the chair, where he belongs.

8/10

d.a. garabedian

You Know Who I Am: Shane Black’s IRON MAN 3

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“Who’s your favorite superhero?”

It’s a common question among both so-called geeks and their less diehard equivalents, and has never been asked more than in recent years, when the genre has finally successfully made its way into mainstream cinema. It’s not a particularly important inquiry, and it doesn’t really do much in the way of enlightening much about the chooser; “because he / she is cool” is the rationale you’re most likely going to be given if you press the question harder. Occasionally, however, there is one factor which tends to divide fans, and it has a lot to do with the most basic element of the genre: how much do we like a character’s superpowers or – as in this case – their lack of particularly fantastical abilities?

It’s one of those bizarrely divisive opinions, and one that it’s increasingly hard to get away from in a world where Batman and Iron Man are kings. These characters were not hit by waves of gamma radiation, or bit by radioactive spiders, or alien in origin. They are, in fact, quite human – completely fallible in all of the traditional senses, except for a few noteworthy skills which do not inherently differentiate them from any of their audience. Do we love Iron Man simply because he is a normal man (albeit one who was gifted with seemingly inexhaustible wealth and intellect)? Or do we find Bruce Wayne a less interesting hero because he is essentially buying his powers? This humanity may be appealing to those who prefer their drama with a little more nuance, but it may not always be particularly compelling to those who desire fantastic stories and escapism.

Of course, all of this has changed over the last ten years. Filmmakers like Christopher Nolan and Jon Favreau took these fallible heroes and constructed legitimately compelling (and legitimately grounded) film worlds for them to exist in. Their status as “mere humans” was the fuel which has made them some of the most beloved comic book superheroes out there today. So, of course, it’s only natural that Tony Stark’s return to the big-screen would tackle this frailty head-on.

Directed by Shane Black (who reunites here with Robert Downey, Jr. from their KISS KISS BANG BANG days together), IRON MAN 3 is easily the most nuanced superhero film to have come out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe yet. It’s absolutely loaded with imagery and ideas about what kind of toll being a superhero would take on a completely ordinary man. This isn’t another story about the responsibility or isolation of heroism; it’s about the psychological cost. But more importantly, it’s about identity. Wisely, Black chooses to ignore the “hero as a symbol” metaphor – which was hammered into the ground by Nolan over the course of his Dark Knight Trilogy – and instead opts for something equally interesting but heretofore unexplored: the symbiotic relationship between the identities of the hero and their alter-ego.

Stark (who is once again played to delightful perfection by Downey, Jr.) spends most of the film struggling with his identity – both as Tony Stark and as Iron Man. In an opening flashback sequence, he traipses around a New Year’s Eve party with a name tag which reads “You Know Who I Am” – a phrase which is repeated several times by several characters throughout the film. It’s a declaration of self-confidence in one’s identity, and one which is stripped from Stark over the course of the film before being returned in the final frame. Black brings us back to this moment in 1999 for reasons outside of narrative function; he also uses it as a reminder to both remind us of how far Stark’s identity has shifted since we first met him as well as to show us a moment in time where his identity was wholly (and obnoxiously) secure.

This is where we pick back up with Stark in the present day, following the events of THE AVENGERS. And in a surprising turn, we find that his glorious triumph alongside his newfound, superhero brethren has not given his ego a stroking from which he might never recover. Rather, we find that Stark is a hopeless wreck: he’s suffering from insomnia, anxiety attacks and an intense vulnerability which has him trying desperately to fuse his own personal identity with the only one he feels can protect him – Iron Man. One of his very first scenes involves him injecting himself with nanotechnology, making him able to summon pieces of his suit just by willing it with his mind. This merging of tech and man is more than just a cool upgrade to his superpower arsenal – it’s a fusion of identities, a desperate attempt to leave behind the fragility of his own mortality and enhance it beyond its own capabilities. In a world where gods fall from the sky and scientists can transform into huge, green monsters, it’s easy to imagine somebody as narcissistic as Stark feeling both inferior and incredibly vulnerable – especially after his near-death experience at the climax of THE AVENGERS.

But Stark takes this process one step further. Soon, he’s developing tech which allows him to live inside of the Iron Man suit without ever leaving the safety of his lab. It’s a mildly agoraphobic tendency which is played for laughs, but reveals a troubling dependency on his superhero facade for protection. This is a man who is unable to reconcile the differences between himself and his alter-ego, an identity within which he is able to feel powerful, strong and fully capable. Outside of his suit, he finds himself growing weaker: upon experiencing his first anxiety attack, his instinct is to run right into the arms of his waiting suit, inside which he can be safe. And when he encounters a young boy named Harley, the kid doesn’t recognize Tony Stark – he only recognizes the suit. In a candid introduction, Harley and Stark talk about the disabled suit as if it were a third person in the room, calling it “he” and explaining its troubles. Stark is all but forgotten in this conversation – his own identity is second to the suit’s.

But the suit is more than just an alternate identity for Stark to adopt from time to time. In IRON MAN 3, the suit is a characterStark and the suit sit side-by-side on a couch, looking at one another. The suit comes to life and attacks Pepper as she tries to wake him from a nightmare, reacting to his subconscious defence mechanism. He hauls it behind himself across frigid tundras like penance for a sin when it malfunctions. It is a physical presence throughout the entire film: close-ups of the helmet’s face are numerous, and its interaction with various characters are some of the most important in the movie. In Stark’s both literal and figurative isolation, Pepper’s face falls not against that of her boyfriend’s, but against the empty helmet and face of his alter-ego. And when he finally comes to terms with the strength of his own identity at the climax of the film, the face on that helmet burns away, leaving a place for Stark’s own to fill it.

And there’s more, too: when Guy Pearce’s delightfully eccentric Aldrich Killian shows up at the beginning of the film to attempt to woo Pepper away from Stark, he shows her a virtual map of his own brain, which they step inside and explore. It’s played as a romantic moment, and it’s obvious that Pepper appreciates this chance to delve into the mind of a possible suitor – something which she can’t really do with Stark, especially given his current psychological state. This sharing of pieces of one’s self is a through-line of the story, as both men gradually give more and more of their own alternate identities to her.  Killian, who forces her involvement in the Extremis program which gives him superhuman abilities, treats her as a trophy – someone who he can force into the mould of his Extremis identity. Stark, on the other hand, gives away his own powerful identity to her in times of need: when their home is destroyed, he protects her using the suit, essentially giving her his body to keep her safe at the risk of his own well-being. Later, at the end of the film, Pepper seizes pieces of the suit herself in order to save him, affirming her choice to share in his alternate identity – something which Killian attempted to force on her.

It’s particularly noteworthy that Black makes the bold decision to focus most of the film on Tony Stark, rather than Iron Man. More than half of the film’s runtime keeps Stark outside of the suit, a move which requires him to get back in touch with the things that make him special when he’s not flying around in a hunk of metal. This, of course, brings us back to the argument at the beginning of the piece: is Tony Stark a hero without his gadgets, or did he simply buy his superpowers? It’s a question that’s as important to the audience as it is to the character, and Stark’s journey over the course of the film involves him learning to live without the safety net of the suit – and being a more impressive and effective hero because of it. His final decision to remove the reactor from his chest plate and finally eliminate the shrapnel in his body is less a refusal of one identity as it is the acceptance of another: we all know that Iron Man can be a hero, but it’s important that both we and the character also know that Tony Stark can be a hero, too.

What’s truly incredible about this film isn’t all of these delightfully nuanced convergences of fantastic, superhero semantics and grounded character development: it’s the fact that all of these things exist in a film which is downright hilarious and spectacularly entertaining. The action sequences here have been ramped up beyond anything we’ve seen in the MCU before (yes, even in THE AVENGERS), and there’s more laughs in the second hour of IRON MAN 3 than there was in the last two movies combined. In spite of how much time Downey, Jr. spends outside of the suit, Black still manages to pack in a ton of action – and make every single one of those sequences count.

The tone is pitch-perfect, and as hard as it it to believe, Black seems to understand this world even better than Favreau did. The depth of the script (which he co-wrote alongside Drew Pearce) is rivalled only by the remarkably shifting tone: at moments dark and introspective, the story is quick to take a huge left turn into the unexpected and the hilarious. Some of the plot developments are downright shocking for a major, summer blockbuster, and they’re an absolute credit to Black’s direction. He makes the franchise feel fresh and new again, and that should come as a sigh of relief to fans who have seen Iron Man four times in the past six years.

The performances are great, the action is compelling and the story is the best we’ve seen thus far in an MCU film.

Welcome to Phase Two.

8.5/10

d.a. garabedian