F9: The Fast Saga (2021)

Ten films into the “The Fast Saga“, I have no idea how to evaluate individual movies in the franchise beyond noting how much fun I had while watching them.  During the last entry, Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw, I didn’t have any fun at all despite seeing it in a theater full of braying strangers; the mood was sour & off-brand.  During its pandemic era follow-up, F9, I had a moderate amount of fun watching a borrowed public-library DVD alone on my couch.  F9 mostly offers more of the same from the decades-running action franchise, which has ballooned from street racing heist films to superhero fantasy epics that just happen have car engines revving in the background.  In this outing, Dom’s gang/family drive over landmines, through weaponized magnetic fields and, inevitably, into outer space.  I can’t tell how much my enthusiasm for these stunts was dampened by watching the film at home vs. how much it was dampened by feeling like I’ve seen it all before.  All I know is that after the bitter taste left by Hobbs & Shaw‘s aggro-bro sense of humor, I’m now way more conscious of how these films generate their moodsetting comedy. As it turns out, it’s a lot more difficult to have fun when you’re thinking about whether or not you’re having it.

A lot of the straightforward, dialogue-based humor in F9 is pretty dire, but at least it’s delivered in a better spirit than Jason Statham & The Rock’s play-hateful banter.  Its verbal comedy is typified by Ludacris’s computer nerd side-character making lazy pop culture references to fellow IP giants like Harry Potter, or by Michelle Rodriguez’s A-team hero quipping “Well, that was new” after Vin Diesel swings a sports car off a cliffside rope like an automotive Tarzan.  Most of the fun to be had in these films relies on the visual absurdism of those impossible car stunts, which has gotten exponentially self-aware since the skyscraper jump in Furious 7 (my personal favorite in the series).  They want to clearly signal that they realize it’s all in good fun by adding MCU-style one-liners to the script, but the series’ internal humor’s just not there yet.  In that respect, F9‘s biggest blunder was in casting John Cena in a dead-serious villain role despite him being the funniest member of the cast (judging by his recent string of R-rated raunch comedies) while feeding its proper Jokes to dead-behind-the-eyes action stars like Vin Diesel.  All longtime fans really want out of these movies is for Diesel to mumble the word “family” with outsized gravitas in-between Looney Tunes-level car stunts; he doesn’t need to land any bon mots.

To F9‘s credit, it does find a way to push its hack “Well, that just happened” MCU humor to new, absurd places.  Roman (Tyrese Gibson) escalates that self-awareness of the improbability of his family/gang’s superheroism by pausing to remark “We should all be dead.”  After dodging machine-gun fire, landmine explosions, and physics-defying car wrecks, he desperately tries to spread his self-aware epiphany to the rest of the crew.  He points out how out of control the street racing gang’s “insane missions” have gotten, declaring their continued existence on Earth “damn near impossible”.  I wish he had pushed that line of thinking a little further beyond “We are not normal” to realizing that he must be a fictional character in a Hollywood action franchise.  At least that post-Last Action Hero meta narrative would’ve landed as a novelty in a series where the only other frontiers they haven’t yet explored are time travel & dinosaurs.  Give them enough time, and I’m sure they’ll get there.  After all, launching Ludacris & Tyrese into space is already lightyears away from the gang’s first-movie mission of stealing DVD players out of 18-wheelers.

If I had to narrow down Roman’s “We’re invincible” epiphany to a more specific observation, it’s that the Fast & Furious family appear to be invincible as long as they fall on a car instead of the ground.  There are multiple stunts in this film in which an actor (or a CG blur standing in for an actor) flies through the air while their partner rushes towards them in a car, making sure they land on the hood instead of the concrete below.  Apparently, that three-foot difference is enough to save the day in this loopy-logic action series (and even if it weren’t, fan-favorite characters frequently return from the dead anyway).  That’s the kind of inane bullshit that makes this series fun, and the more you can focus on those cheap thrills instead of the halfhearted one-liners the happier you can drive away.  I do think it helps to watch these films in the theater, where the rumble of car engines helps drown out the whimpers of dialogue, but Hobbs & Shaw is proof that watching these action blockbusters big & loud isn’t enough to cover up their worst attempts at straightforward humor.  Thankfully, F9 is still a lot of goofball fun when it lets the cars do the talking.

-Brandon Ledet

Widows (2018)

I’m not sure what aspect of Widows’s marketing led me to expect a stylish heist thriller about vengeful women transforming into reluctant criminals in the wake of their husbands’ deaths. That version of Widows is certainly lurking somewhere in the 128-minute Prestige Picture that’s delivered instead, but it’s mostly drowned out by what I should have known to expect: an ensemble-cast melodrama packed with talented women in beautiful clothes & a world of political intrigue. Everything about 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen’s involvement, his collaboration with Gone Girl writer Gillian Flynn, and the film’s Oscar-Season release date should have tipped me off that the promise of a heist genre action picture was merely a cover-up for a thoughtful, handsomely staged drama about women’s internal turmoil in the face of gendered, financial, and political oppression. Widows might still be a slight deviation from McQueen’s usual Prestige Drama fare in its isolated nods to heist genre convention, but surprise twists are becoming Gillian Flynn’s clear specialty; this entry in her modest canon includes a twist in the basic tone & genre of what you’d expect from an ensemble-cast heist picture.

Viola Davis stars as the ringleader widow, who attempts to rope three other widows (Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, and a barely- present Carrie Coon) into a heist job to help heal the financial wounds left by their dead criminal husbands. Following the detailed instructions left behind by her respective husband (Liam Neeson) in a Book of Henry-style notebook, she transforms from grieving teacher’s union organizer to criminal mastermind in the blink of a teary eye. The nature of her planned caper lands her in the middle of a hard-fought Chicago City Council’s race between brutish local politicians (Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, and Robert Duvall), which is dangerous territory for her small crew of grieving non-professional women who just want to put their lives back together. Oh yeah, and Bad Times at the El Royale’s Cynthia Erivo joins the crew as a getaway driver/muscle, just in case the cast wasn’t already overstuffed. And the dog from Game Night is also along for the ride; and Matt Walsh too. And Lukas Haas. And Jacki Weaver. If the enormity of that cast and the themes of that premise sounds like it might be overwhelming, it’s because it very much is. Widows plays a lot like an entire season of Prestige Television packed into a two-hour span – complete with the execution of the central heist acting as a self-contained episode. The economic & political backdrop of a stubbornly changing modern Chicago sets the stage for a wide range of actors (mostly playing dirtbag men and the women who love them) to patiently wait for their spotlight character moment to arrive in due time. Meanwhile, Flynn adds a new wrinkle to the plot every few beats to leave the audience salivating with anticipation for what’s going to happen next. It’s overwhelming (and a little thinly spread), but it’s also exhilarating.

Widows feels like a movie custom built for people whose all-time favorite TV show is still The Wire (and who could blame ‘em?). Its tangled web of debts, power plays, and barely-concealed vulnerabilities make for sumptuous melodrama, where lines like “We have a lot of work to do. Crying isn’t on the list,” don’t feel at all out of place or unnatural. The POV may be spread out too thin for any one character’s emotional journey to stand out as especially effective, but the performers are all so strong they manage to make an impression anyway: Davis as a once-confident woman at her wit’s end, Kaluuya as an inhuman terror, Erivo as an athletic machine, Debicki as the world’ tallest (and most tragic) punching bag, etc. I was way off-base for looking to Widows as a highly stylized heist thriller, as if it were the 2010s equivalent of Belly. Instead, it’s more of an overachieving melodrama and an actor’s showcase, the exact kind of smartly considered, midbudget adult fare Hollywood supposedly doesn’t make anymore. The action-heist element of the plot is just some deal-sweetening lagniappe for a stylish, well-performed story that would have been just as entertaining 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

Resident Evil: Retribution (2012)

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fourstar

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I had more or less given up on the entertainment potential of the Resident Evil franchise after its fourth installment, Afterlife, wasted its entire runtime treading water & showing off its The Matrix Zombified aesthetic for a 3D lens. In a way, I had also given up on Paul WS Anderson as an auteur, since that entry tore down a lot of the good will established by Russell Mulcahy’s contribution to the franchise, the Mad Max-riffing Extinction. I was wrong to lose faith. The fifth Resident Evil film, Retribution, matches (if not surpasses) Extinction‘s entertainment value as a standalone feature, but does so without having to step outside the franchise’s usual formula. Retribution fully embraces its zombie-themed shoot-em-up video game roots as well as its nature as a late-in-the-game sequel by conducting a simulated, virtual reality retrospective of the series where each film is a level that must be cleared on the way to the final boss. Here, Anderson establishes his particular brand of nu metal technophobia as its own distinct artform, turning what should feel like an exercise in generic action film tedium into high-concept, reality-bending sci-fi with a kick-ass female protagonist in the lead. It’s an amazing act of genre alchemy, one that completely turned me around on the merit of the series as a cohesive whole.

It takes a few minutes of housekeeping exposition before Anderson feels comfortable with mashing the reset button in this way. The ending of Resident Evil: Afterlife teases an Umbrella Corporation attack on a ship of uninfected zombie virus survivors and this follow-up delivers that action set piece upfront . . . twice. The attack is first shown in reverse motion, starting with Milla Jovovich’s lead badass floating in an underwater void before being sucked onto the ship & downing a helicopter. She then explains the plot of each Resident Evil film to date in a detailed recap before the same Umbrella Corporation attack is shown in a more linear, traditional fashion. That’s when Anderson mashes the reset button. Project Alice (Jovovich) awakes from her underwater grave to a reality-shift, apparently living an alternate life as a housewife in the Raccoon City suburbs at the start of the zombie outbreak. This traditional George A. Romero scenario is revealed to be a simulated experience, in essence a video game, staged within an underwater facility where The Umbrella Corporation is holding Alice captive. The brilliance of this premise is that it allows Retribution to incorporate all of Resident Evil‘s past lives & themes of cloning, virtual reality simulation, and supernatural beasts in a single, interconnected location Alice must escape as if she were clearing levels on a video game. Where the movie really gets interesting is when pieces of these simulations, including the clones, begin to overlap and the narrative bleed-through finds the series finally reaching its own sense of distinct purpose that doesn’t feel like a riff on a pre-existing property.

Figuring out exactly what makes a franchise special and how to retread old ground without merely going through the motions five films in is no small feat and it actually reminds me of the way Fast & Furious movies similarly took their sweet time figuring their own shit out. Curiously enough, in both cases actress Michelle Rodriguez plays a badass toughie retroactively raised from the dead after a long absence (this time through cloning), which is just about as small of a genre niche as you’ll ever find. Other old characters like the rogue cop Valentine from Apocalypse & the axe-swinging giant from Afterlife also return, giving the film a distinct The Gang’s All Here vibe that’s been absent in its search for consistency. All that’s missing now is Vin Diesel raising a Corona to toast the makeshift family as they fire endless bullets into the zombie hoards that threaten to wipe out what little is left of humanity. Retribution ends in the same frustrating way all Resident Evil films insist on ending: shamelessly setting up a sequel (this time concluding at a zombie & dragon-surrounded White House) and fading out to tacky nu metal era tunage (this time supplied by Deftones singer Chino Moreno teamed up with some dubstep dweeb). Even that aspect feels like a tried & true feature of a series that’s finally come into its own, though, one final adherence to its already-established genre tropes before you leave the cinema. I’m not exactly sure how he did it, but Paul WS Anderson slowly turned me into a fan of his own bullshit just when I was on the edge of giving up on him as recently as one film ago. Even if he doesn’t stick the landing with the franchise’s sixth entry, The Final Chapter, he had already cohesively pulled it all together in the fifth, so the mission was already, in effect, accomplished. Retribution was Resident Evil‘s de facto resurrection, its sorely needed saving grace.

-Brandon Ledet

Resident Evil (2002)

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three star

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I’m not a video game nerd. The last legitimate gaming system I got excited about was the Nintendo 64. The only one I’ve bought since was a used Wii and that beaten-up relic served exclusively as an emulator for NES games. As such, I’ve never had much interest in the Resident Evil film franchise. My limited knowledge of the series, based entirely on vague hearsay about its video game source material, has been that it’s about a lady who shoots zombies in some kind of underground bunker. While I’m not over the moon about video games as an entertainment medium, I do actively seek out eccentrically inane movies, but there was just never anything about yet another zombie action horror starring a sexy lady with a pile of guns that had much promise for Super Mario Bros. levels of potential silliness in a cinematic video game adaptation. There are now five Resident Evil movies in what has become a decade-long franchise, however, which lead me to suspect that there was more going on here than just a walking dead genre pic with little to no distinguishing features in a crowded field of zombie media. It’s true, too. Resident Evil is more than just a zombie-filled shoot-em-up featuring a beautiful woman with a giant gun. In fact, it actually kinda holds its own as one of the sillier & more entertaining video game adaptations out there, much to my surprise.

While I wasn’t exactly wrong in assuming Resident Evil centered on a widespread epidemic of generic zombie mayhem, I did the movie a huge disservice by reducing its setting to a mere underground bunker. The symbolically named Umbrella Corporation (a detail I assume was carried over from the video game), which periodically deals with very normal corporate modes of money making & privately makes most of its profit off of biochemical weaponry, is the owner of said underground bunker, known as The Hive. The bunker’s underground employees, blissfully unaware of the company’s warmongering, are transformed into the aforementioned zombie horde when one of the more volatile chemicals they work on is released through the bunker’s vents (supposedly) by mistake. As the infected, undead Umbrella Corporation employees transform into monsters, they also become moving targets for a team of leather-clad supersoldiers & a Borne Identity/American Ultra type badass who can’t remember her past but seems to know more about the facility than she should. As her memory slowly returns, our hero must piece together whether or not she’s responsible for the initial outbreak or if there’s some kind of other, larger betrayal unfolding before her. Meanwhile, The Umbrella Corporation’s surveillance cameras seem to be recording these supersoldiers’ every move as they become unwitting participants in a zombie-killing, viral experiment. Also, some strange, not at all human creatures & a childlike AI hologram pop in to push the movie past its zombie-stomping roots into some strange sci-fi horror territory. Its all a lot more fun & complex than I expected, however corny & hamfisted.

Resident Evil comes from a time when video game adaptations were attempting to move on from children’s movie fare like 90s productions Street Fighter & Double Dragon into something more violent & “adult,” like Doom. Director Paul W.S. Anderson splits the difference & lands the film halfway between PG-13 & R (not that the MPAA saw it that way) in terms of sensibility. There’s a violence & grittiness in the film’s nonstop parade of zombies on fire, exposed muscle Rottweiler demons, undefinable The Thing-type mutants, and flashbacks to a blurred sexual encounter the film appears to find very important to the plot, but something about the way they’re handled makes it play like kids’ stuff, just like Anderson’s surprising violent (and even more surprisingly competent) Mortal Kombat adaptation. This is a teenager’s sweet spot in terms of maturity level, a tone easily recognizable in the film’s choice to dress its star, Milla Jovovich, in a post-apocalyptic negligee for most of its runtime & two sheets of paper-thin hospital gauze at its climax. Jovovich’s ass kicking commitment to the role, combined with similar sincerity from Fast & Furious “family member” Michell Rodriguez, cuts down on some of that teenage boy booby-ogling, though, to the point that it mixes with the intense body horror, George Romero brand zombie mayhem, and stray notes of otherworldly sci-fi (an aesthetic Anderson accomplished a lot more with in his film Event Horizon) to make for a fairly decent, amusingly campy action cheapie I would’ve loved had I seen it when it was haunting theaters & I was 15. I appreciate Resident Evil‘s teen nerd immaturity & casual adoption of weird video game ideas in its matter-of-fact silliness. At the very least, its a far better adaptation than the Rock vehicle Doom, which aims for a similar aesthetic, and it got me curious enough about where the series could go from such a ludicrous starting point that I just might check out Anderson’s five gratuitous followups now that I’ve finally been initiated.

-Brandon Ledet