Cellular (2004)

There was a time recently when British action star Jason Statham started poking fun at his onscreen persona in projects like The Expendables, Fast & Furious, and Spy and I realized that, despite his rapidly growing fame, I had no real idea who he is. Statham was already a brand worthy of self-satire by the time he registered on my radar at all. I obviously didn’t need to be too familiar with his oeuvre for those jokes to land (any passing knowledge of post-80s Tough Guy action stars of any stripe would do), but I still felt like I was missing out on something. It turns out that the gaps in my Statham knowledge were mostly a string of mid-00s action vehicles like The Transporter, The Bank Job, and Crank, which I’ve been gradually catching up on in recent months while parsing out the persona of this muscly mystery man. Oddly, it wasn’t any of these starring roles for Statham that solidified my understanding of his screen presence. It was instead his minor role as a Tough Guy villain in the 2004 action goof-em-around Cellular that brought home my introspective search for who Jason Statham really is.

It turns out that Jason Statham is a dick, at least onscreen. He even looks like a penis, considering his closely shaved head’s throbbing veins and his penchant for mod-style turtlenecks. Once you grasp that he’s hired to be instantly detestable as screenwriting shorthand, his typecasting become so much clearer in retrospect. In The Transporter, he’s a selfish brute of a nerd who allows his heartless, rules-obsessed professionalism to prevent him from doing the right thing (until a victim of his thuggish clients melts his icy heart). In Spy, he’s a self-aggrandizing blowhard who steamrolls women in conversation and in the workplace. In the Fast & Furious franchise he’s a self-serving, cold-hearted killer who doesn’t know the first thing about Family (until, again, his heart is melted over time). It’s a tradition that stretches back to his bit roles as a growling toughie in Guy Ritchie’s early movies. The brilliant thing about Statham’s casting in Cellular is that he’s only there because of his instant hateability as a total dick. The movie’s plot contrivances are so absurdly over the top that it has no time to invest in fleshing out the character of its central villain, so Statham’s instantly recognizable dickholery is meant to serve as a shortcut. And it mostly works.

Based on a story outline from legendary schlockteur Larry Cohen (who dared to ask, “What if I wrote Phone Booth again, but this time with cellphones?”), Cellular is the exact kind of obnoxious, high-concept nonsense that action cinema junkies are always looking for at the movies. Statham and his army of similarly dickish baddies kidnap a suburban high school biology teacher played by Kim Basinger and terrorize her in an attic for some reason or another. Desperate to call for help, Basinger uses her Science Knowledge to operate the only means of communication left in her newfound prison: a landline phone that Statham smashed to pieces. By tapping the wires of the broken device together to dial random numbers, Basinger miraculously connects to a nearby Nokia brick cellphone helmed by Chris Evans (in total bimbo dude-bro mode here). The original Cohen script was meant as a bitterly cynical social satire about the early days of cellphone obsession, but the version that actually got made is a goofball swashbuckling adventure in which Evans overcomes his carefree Beach Jock life of selfish hedonism to do something heroic for a change. As he gets involved in a series of escalating car chases, gun fights, and kidnapping crises in an effort to save a helpless stranger he has one clear mission: Don’t let the cellphone call drop or she’ll die. That’s quite a premise; classic Cohen.

I wouldn’t necessarily call this a great movie, but it can be a lot of fun as a gimmicky time capsule of quickly outdated tech. The early scenes where Evans is bragging that his brick phone can take pictures is especially amusing, as are later action set pieces where he has to rob an electronics store for a charger or hijacks a stranger’s phone when his all-important call is transferred via a cross-connection mishap. There’s also a very amusing moment where William H. Macy, playing a one-day-from-retirement cop, gets to be heroic in full slow-motion splendor, which is a rare look for him. Even if this is the least interesting execution of a deliriously fun premise possible, it’s still got that Larry Cohen touch of a fully committed gimmick that could just about carry any dead weight you pile on top of it. That might explain why a movie this culturally insignificant somehow inspired international remakes in Bollywood, Tollywood, and Hong Kong. The “Drop the cellphone call and she’ll die!” premise is just that strong. Besides, it has the added lagniappe of seeing Jason Statham’s instantly detestable dickishness being employed for its full villainous potential, which I apparently needed to see to fully understand his deal in general, even if he usually channels that persona into gruff anti-heroes.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #91 of The Swampflix Podcast: The Bank Job (2008) & Who Is Jason Statham?

Welcome to Episode #91 of The Swampflix Podcast. For our ninety-first episode, James & Brandon attempt to answer the age-old question “Just who, exactly, is Jason Statham?” To solve this complex puzzle, they look back to the supposed action star’s early-aughts rise to fame[?] in films like The Transporter (2002), Crank (2006), and The Bank Job (2008). Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherTuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

-Brandon Ledet & James Cohn

Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw (2019)

“Pinhead.” “She-Hulk.” “Sumbitch.” “Wanker.” “Bulldog Balls.” “Asshole.”

These are just a few of the lovely pet names the double-ampersand stars of Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw call each other throughout what unexpectedly turned out to be a deeply, deeply unpleasant trip to the movies. Of course, a little misguided machismo is always to be expected when venturing out to a Fast & Furious movie, but there’s usually an underlying sweetness & sincerity to the series that’s sorely missing from this scaled-down spinoff. Director David Leitch is unfortunately operating here in his Deadpool 2 shock humor mode rater than continuing the over-the-top action cinema slickness he brought to John Wick or Atomic Blonde. Fast & Furious is an absurdly melodramatic series in which global-scale action set pieces are flimsily glued together with teary-eyed speeches about what it means to be Family. It’s understandable why a spinoff from the series would operate with a smaller scale & budget in its action, but once you also substitute its Sappy Bro messaging for winking-at-the-camera meta humor there’s nothing left that feels Fast or Furious at all. It also doesn’t help that this film’s approach to “jokes” is to have its two absurdly muscly stars, The Rock & Jason Statham, insult each other for two solid hours about the size and/or existence of each other’s dicks. It’s as exhausting as it is repugnant.

The best way to encapsulate what’s so wrong-headed about this deviation from Fast & Furious tradition is to point to the godawful stunt-casting choices the movie floats as potential new members of the Family: Kevin Hart & Ryan Reynolds, two absolute clowns who believe any #haters don’t find them as funny as they believe themselves to be are #triggered #snowflakes. Their above-it-all, insincere Family Guy snark humor seeps into the rest of the film’s DNA like a fast-acting poison. In fact, the literal, potentially world-ending poison that Hobbs & Shaw are tasked to contain in this single-conflict plot is called Snowflake as a reflection of that #edgy sense of humor. You can hear it echo in a subplot wherein Hobbs & Shaw are wrongly reported by the Fake New media to be criminals instead of heroes. Worse, you’re strangled by it in every over-written one-liner insult they bitterly trade throughout, like when one describes hearing the other’s voice as feeling “like dragging my balls against shattered glass” and the other retorts, “Oh yeah, well, looking at your face is like having God projectile vomit right in my eyes.” Shut the fuck up, you cruel, unpleasant goons. The only satisfactory line of dialogue from either knucklehead is when they simultaneously point at each other and complain “This guy’s a real asshole!” I couldn’t agree more, but I don’t understand why that should entice anyone to spend 137 minutes with either of them, much less both at once.

Not everything about Hobbs & Shaw is a misstep. The third act of the film, in which our titular Heroic Assholes attend a family reunion in Samoa to overthrow their heavily armed enemies Ewok-style, is sincerely cheesy & melodramatic in a way that actually feels at home with Fast & Furious pathos. The earlier action sequences in urban spaces like London & Moscow are more aesthetically similar to the series’ past but aren’t nearly distinct enough in their goofball stunts to make much of an impression (give or take a shapeshifting motorcycle that hilariously defies all laws of physics, Transformers style). Hobbs & Shaw really finds itself in its Samoa stretch once its stars decide to get along for a common good and cool the insults for a much-needed breather. It’s too little too late, though, as the bitter taste of them flipping each other off & calling in false alarms so that security guards anally probe each other (har, har) has already poisoned the mood beyond repair. Vanessa Kirby & Idris Elba are also welcome additions to the cast who somehow shine through the winking snark humor as a badass hero and a futuristic supervillain, respectively, but both performances deserve to be in a real Fast & Furious movie instead of this Deadpool-flavored knockoff.

A lot of people complained when Statham’s character made the jump from villain to Family in this series, even starting a #JusticeForHan hashtag campaign to protest the decision. It was never really a complaint that registered with me, since the only consistent thing about the Fast & Furious series from the beginning has been its total disregard for consistency in favor of in-the-moment thrills & novelty. By the time the series had forgotten its allegiance to Coronas at its Family cookouts for crew to instead toast each other with Bud Lights or some other such blasphemy, it was clear that nothing is sacred. Apparently, that includes the one thing that has been consistent to this series up until this point: its big, stupid, dorkily sincere heart, which contrasts wonderfully with its over-the-top action. That’s a damn shame; the series is nothing special without it.

-Brandon Ledet

The Fate of the Furious (2017)

The premise of the eighth entry in the Fast & Furious franchise is that Vin Diesel’s long-time ringleader/paterfamilias Dominic Toretto (or, Daddy Dom, if you will) betrays his street racing brethren and turns his back on Family. Now, if you’ve been paying any attention to the first seven installments of the series, God help you, you already know that Family is all that matters to the speed demon lug. He won’t shut up about it. That’s why the betrayal is so cold and so out of character. Worse yet, in this most recent episode the franchise itself turns its back in its own long-time partners, ice cold bottles of Corona. The film betrays over fifteen years of brand loyalty by nonchalantly switching the Fast Family’s beer preference to Bud heavies as if we wouldn’t notice. It also brings back an old villain, played by Jason Statham, who is responsible for the deaths of past Family members as a Good Guy who’s just welcomed to the team with mostly open arms, few questions asked. The Fate of the Furious also breaks format by featuring a couple brutal, non-driving related deaths (including a propeller-aided one that even involves a touch of blood splatter) and by shifting focus from Familial drama to bombastic comedy, where jokes are given far more breathing room than the overstuffed dramatic beats. It’s not just Dom that turns his back on long-established alliances and moral codes in The Fate of the Furious. F. Gary Gray’s contribution to the series also betrays everything that’s come before it in terms of narrative and tone. In a way, though, that kind of blasphemy is perfectly at home with the spirit of the series.

The Fast and the Furious is a universe without a center. It’s a series that continually retcons stories, characters, and even deaths to serve the plot du jour. The first four films in the franchise in particular are a total mess, continuity-wise. It wasn’t until Fast Five that it even found its voice: Vin Diesel endlessly mumbling about Family. The series may be Fast and Amnesious with its various narrative threads on the whole, but Dominic Toretto had always been there to keep the Family together, even in the franchise’s furthest outlier, the under-appreciated Tokyo Drift. That’s why it’s a brilliant move to shake up the sense of normalcy that’s been in-groove since the fifth installment by giving Daddy Dom a reason to walk away from his Family, whom he loves so dearly. At the starting line of The Fate of the Furious, Dominic Toretto is a Christ-like figure, a Man of the People, a Hero to Children Everywhere. He takes a quick break from his honeymoon in Havana with series regular Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) to shame a predatory loan shark in front of the very people he bullies by beating him in an old-fashioned street race while driving backwards & on fire. Every last person in Cuba cheers and we’re all quickly reminded exactly why Daddy Dom is the Greatest Man Alive. This street racing reverie is disrupted by a late 90s holdover Super Hacker played by Charlize Theron. Theron’s newbie baddy preys on Dom’s infamous devotion to Family and mysteriously blackmails him into “going rogue,” stealing EMP devices & “nuclear footballs” to support her Evil Hacker cause. This betrayal of what is Right and Just leads to a global car chase where Dom’s long list of Family members (Rodriguez, The Rock, Ludacris, apparently Statham, etc.) try to steal him away from Theron, who pushes Dom to “abandon his code” and “shatter his Family.” It’s all very silly, but it’s also a welcome departure from the typical Fast & Furious dynamic.

Of course, The Fate of the Furious was never going to survive on its tonal consistency or the strength of its plot. What really matters here is the action movie spectacle. F. Gary Gray brings the same sense of monstrously explosive fun to this franchise entry as he did to the exceptional N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton. The Rock is a real life superhero, particularly shining in a music video-esque prison riot sequence where he manually destroys an entire building full of lowlifes (including local pro wrestler Luke Hawx, who also briefly appeared in Logan earlier this year). At one point, Charlize Theron’s Ultimate Hacker gives the ridiculous command “Hack ’em all,” and remotely takes control of virtually every vehicle in NYC, giving rise to literal floods & waterfalls made of cars. Vin Diesel rocks a heavy metal welding mask & oversized chainsaw combo that makes him look like the villain from a dystopian slasher. Even more ridiculously, the Fast Family is asked to race and battle a nuclear-armed submarine that attacks them from under the Russian ice they drive flimsy sports cars across. And (mild spoilers, I guess) they win! As far as The Fate of the Furious might stray from past tonal choices and character traits, it ultimately sticks to he core of the only thing that has remained consistent in the series (now that Dom’s had his opportunity to Go Rogue): there’s no problem in the world that can’t be solved by a deadly, explosion-heavy street race and even the most horrific of Familial tragedies can be undone by a backyard barbeque, where grace is said before every meal and Coronas, um, I mean Budweisers are proudly lifted into the air for a communal toast. There’s something beautiful about that (and also something sublimely silly).

Besides the narrative ways in which The Fate of the Furious breaks format, the film also marks a shift where the franchise functions as an outright, intentional comedy. F. Gary Gray openly shows his roots in the Friday series with the way humor overtakes Family drama in this entry. Vin Diesel starts off the film with the same “Ain’t I a stinker?” mugging he used to anchor xXx: Return of Xander Cage earlier this year. Ludacris’s nerd archetype is in constant verbal sparring with Tyrese Gibson’s womanizing ham. Dick jokes, Taylor Swift references, and meta humor about The Rock’s past life as Hercules all seem to be afforded more heft than the mood-killing dramatic beats, which breeze by no matter how shocking or tragic. The series also seems to have moved on from stunt casting rappers to enlisting well-respected actors for over-the-top cameos, this time none other than Helen Mirren. Despite rumors about an on-set rivalry between Vin Diesel & The Rock and a few drastic shakeups to the franchise’s central Family dynamic, F. Gary Gray manages to keep the mood in The Fate of the Furious just about as light as its explosions are frequent & loud.

If I have any complaints about this most recent entry to the series, it’s that it wasn’t quite blasphemous enough. The Fast & Furious franchise is overdue for another Tokyo Drift-style shakeup that completely disrupts the rules of its universe. Why not take this carnival to space? Why not have the Family get caught up in A Race Through Time? Why not have them travel to Hell and win back the life of a fallen member by beating The Devil Himself in a street race? If the series continues down its current path, I have no doubt it’ll remain a fun, absurd source of racing-themed entertainment. There’s just so much potential for it to jump a new shark in every franchise entry, though, (including literally jumping sharks!) and I think it’s more than ready to both make the leap and stick the landing.

-Brandon Ledet