Furious 7


Paul Walker and Vin Diesel prepare for one last ride.

Paul Walker and Vin Diesel prepare for one last ride.

(2015) Action (Universal) Vin Diesel, Jason Statham, Paul Walker, Michelle Rodriguez, Dwayne Johnson, Jordana Brewster, Tyrese Gibson, Ludacris, Lucas Black, Kurt Russell, Natalie Emmanuel, Elsa Pataky, Gal Gadot, John Brotherton, Luke Evans, Tony Jaa, Djimon Hounsou, Noel Gugliemi, Ali Fazar, Sung Kang, Ronda Rousey, Iggy Azalea, Levy Tran. Directed by James Wan

If there is a motion picture franchise that has escaped convention and turned all Hollywood wisdom on its ear, it is this one. The first movie in the series that has now reached seven films was pretty good, the next two not so much, the fourth one was excruciating but the fifth and sixth ones were the two best of the series. Would this continue that trend?

Picking up directly where Fast & Furious 6 left off, Dominic Toretto (Diesel) is looking forward to some down time with his friends – except he has no friends, only family. His sister Mia (Brewster) is in full-on maternal mode, bringing up a little baby girl with another one on its way. His best friend Brian O’Connell (Walker) is moving into the daddy role although he’s not always happy about it, telling Mia in a moment of reflection that he misses the bullets. His wife Letty (Rodriguez) is still suffering from amnesia and doesn’t remember that she and Dom are married. Tej (Ludacris) and Roman (Gibson) are getting on with their lives after the run-in with Owen Shaw (Evans) that nearly killed them and left the bad guy comatose.

Except that Owen’s bigger and badder brother Deckard (Statham) is out for vengeance and he has already murdered Han (Kang). He drops a bomb on Dom’s house and puts their own private federal agent Hobbs (Johnson) in the hospital. The crew realize they’re being hunted down one by one by a superior killer.

Enter Mr. Nobody (Russell), a black ops sort who is willing to help them drop Deckard out of the world but there’s one little catch; they must retrieve Ramsey (Emmanuel), a comely hacker and her ultimate surveillance hack Godseye from ruthless warlord Jakande (Hounsou). Considering that he doesn’t care how many civilians die for him to get ultimate power and control through Godseye which essentially accepts the feeds from everything with a camera or a cell phone in the world, it can locate anyone anywhere on the planet.

They’ll have to pull out all the stops, taking crazy to a whole new level in the process. None of them will be safe, either from the heavily armed drone that is chasing them or from the lethal Deckard who has already offed one of their numbers and looks to add others to the tally before all is said and done.

This continues the frenetic pace that has made the last two movies in the franchise so enjoyable. The stunts are more breathtaking with cars dropping out of airplanes and flying out of skyscrapers into other skyscrapers. This is some of the best car-centric action you’re likely to see this year and although some of the stunts defy logic, they will nonetheless leave even the most intellectual moviegoer on the edge of your seat. Just go with it, says I.

And there are some pretty badass baddies to deal with. Statham is the best villain to date in the franchise and he is absolutely lethal, having one of the better fight sequences in recent memory with Johnson early on in the movie. Hounsou, an Oscar nominee, also makes for a mad dog African warlord that while somewhat over-the-top and somewhat stereotypical is still one you love to hate. And the great Tony Jaa makes his English language debut as Jakande’s enforcer and he gets a couple of fight scenes with Walker that are amazing.

Yeah, that’s a lot of superlatives to throw around but in fact this may well be the best of the franchise, although I think that the sixth entry edges it out by a hair. There’s a little bit too much mention of “family” by Dom (which would make a great home video drinking game if you take a shot every time he says the word) and this really doesn’t do much more than give us more of the same only at greater volume.

There is also a very nice tribute to Walker at the movie’s end. Walker, who passed away in a car crash (ironically) on November 30, 2014 was about halfway through filming his role when he died, but thanks to stand-ins and body doubles (supplied in part by his brothers Cody and Caleb) as well as timely CGI and archival footage the movie was able to be finished. Now there are some snarky critics who claim they could tell when Walker was “real” and when he was CGI. That’s odd because I couldn’t and I suspect the average moviegoer won’t be able to either. However, Walker’s voice was stilled for much of the film and the actors and crew paid tribute to him in subtle ways throughout.

It is a fitting farewell to Walker who was just coming into his own as an actor and looked to be moving past the typical mumble-mouthed wooden action hero he was generally cast as. Imagining what kind of career he had ahead of him will haunt an awful lot of people’s imagination as to what sort of future he had ahead of him. That his last movie broke box office records is kind of a lovely grace note to all this.

REASONS TO GO: Incredible stunts and driving sequences. A fitting farewell to Walker. Statham, Jaa and Hounsou make fine adversaries.
REASONS TO STAY: More of the same but who cares?
FAMILY VALUES: Nearly non-stop action, violence and automotive mayhem, a fair amount of cussing and some sexually suggestive visuals.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: At 2 hours and 17 minutes, this is the longest entry to date in the film franchise.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/8/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Need for Speed
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: A Better Life

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Nightcrawler


Louis Bloom sneakin' around.

Louis Bloom sneakin’ around.

(2014) Thriller (Open Road) Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Bill Paxton, Riz Ahmed, Rick Chambers, Holly Hannula, Michael Papajohn, Marco Rodriguez, Ann Cusack, Kent Shockneck, Pat Harvey, Sharon Tay, James Huang, Bill Seward, Leah Fredkin, Jonny Coyne, Nick Chacon, Kevin Dunigan, Kiff VandenHeuvel, Carolyn Gilroy, Kevin Rahm, Christina de Leon. Directed by Dan Gilroy

The local news has its back to the wall these days. Even though it continues to be a main source of news for most people, it has become, like the newspaper before it, largely expendable in the face of the internet. With people wanting the news in a more immediate manner these days, news directors have their hands full trying to get footage that will draw viewers in. It has become more economically feasible for them to rely increasingly on third party news gathering agencies, who follow police scanner radio calls to the more lurid types of stories to satisfy the hunger for misery, bloodshed and death.

Louis Bloom (Gyllenhaal) is a man who’s been hit hard by the economic downturn. Scrounging around for scrap metal to sell to a construction site, he isn’t above stealing – and if need be, taking down a night watchman (Papajohn). He even hits up the construction site manager (Rodriguez) for a job, but who would want to hire a thief? Disappointed, Louis heads on home but on the way there comes upon an accident. He also runs into one of those third party news gathering agencies, led by Joe Loder (Paxton) who explains that he doesn’t work for a specific television station but instead sells to the highest bidder. He doesn’t make a ton per story but it’s a lot more than Louis is used to. Intrigued, Louis gets himself a camcorder and a police scanner.

His baptism by fire comes at a shooting; he manages to get the site shut down by the cops when he crosses the line, incurring Loder’s disgust. Still, he has a good eye and that catches the eye of Nina Romina (Russo), the news director at KWLA, the last place station in local news in the City of Angels. He makes a sale and gets some good advice. Encouraged, he hires a navigator (Ahmed) and soon is making regular sales.

Louis however doesn’t exactly have a moral compass and he continues to increasingly take chances – pulling bodies away from where they had been so he can get better light. However, when he arrives at a home invasion ahead of the police, he leaves the line far in the dust, putting himself and his partner at risk and perhaps other innocent people as well. Louis is doing what he loves and doing it well, but who will pay the price?

Gyllenhaal is the focal point of the film and he takes it as far as I think it is possible to. He lost 20-30 pounds for the role (depending on which source you believe) and his gaunt, hollow eyed look and dead-eyed stare is unsettling. Louis can be charming with a quick smile and communicating in aphorisms that might have come off of those encouraging business posters – “Success comes to those who work their ass off,” “In order to win the lottery you have to afford to buy the ticket” and so on in that vein. But those aphorisms betray that there is nothing of substance within him. He’s a hard worker sure, but he’s completely amoral and the ends definitely justify the means and heaven help you if you get in his way. In short, he’s a sociopath. This is definitely one of Gyllenhaal’s best performances to date and there is plenty of Oscar buzz surrounding him right now.

Juxtaposed with the reptilian Louis is Rene Russo’s Nina. She’s smart, hard-nosed and has been around the block in the L.A. news wars. She’s been ground down and made cynical and even though she has a soft spot for Louis, whom she sees talent in, she also soon comes to realize that he’s a monster of her own making, who isn’t above using any means necessary to get what he wants. Russo, who was one of Hollywood’s busiest actresses back in the day, hasn’t had a role this juicy in years, even though she got to kick ass in Thor: The Dark World last year.

Using cinematographer Robert Elswit, first-time director Gilroy paints a lurid Los Angeles by night that is seductive, dangerous and seedy all at once. The urban sprawl is a city of lights by night that while not as charming as Paris has a beauty all its own. Elswit clearly has an affection for the city because it looks so amazing in his eye. I lived there for more than a decade and always had a soft spot for L.A. by night.

Other than Rick, Louis’ long-suffering assistant slash partner slash navigator, there aren’t very many nice people in this movie. As detailed before, Louis is not a nice person at all and he gets less nice as the movie goes on. It is a tribute to Gyllenhaal that we still root for him anyway. Days after seeing the movie, I felt a genuine moment of revulsion when I realized that I had been rooting for the character to get out of the house where a multiple murder had taken place before the cops got there; how sick is that, I wondered to myself. If it had been just a guy and not Jake Gyllenhaal, I would have been hoping the bastard got arrested.

That’s not the way the world works here, and such cynicism might not fly right with everybody. There is a dark world view here, where the masses are ravening for blood and don’t care how they get it, whereas parasitical videographers flit from tragedy to tragedy trying to get enough footage to sate the bloodlust of the masses. Nobody seems to care much about the truth or informing people about what they need to know. It is at the very least a sad commentary on how far our respect for news gatherers has fallen.

REASONS TO GO: One of Gyllenhaal’s most intense performances ever. Gritty and gut-churning.
REASONS TO STAY: Exaggerates the “if it bleeds it leads” concept.
FAMILY VALUES: Expect plenty of violence, some bloody images and foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gyllenhaal blinks only three times during the entire film. He also memorized the script as if it were a stage play.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/9/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: L.A. Confidential
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Stake Land