Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

The gang is back with a few new faces this time around in Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2, with director James Gunn returning to the helm of the weirdest series in the MCU franchise. Although there are a few missteps this outing, including a lack of screentime for some of your old favorites, violence that is at turns disturbingly unexamined in its brutality when it’s not cartoonish, and hit-or-miss emotional resonance, this second installment reminds us that Guardians is still the funniest and most charming Marvel property currently being produced.

After a flashback opening sequence that shows a CGI de-aged Kurt Russell planting a strange alien plant on Earth in 1980s Missouri while romancing Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt) mother, the film finds the team performing a mission to protect the extremely powerful batteries of a race known as the Sovereign from theft by a gross, fleshy tentacle monster (its essentially Caucasian flesh tones and stubble make the thing quite nauseating to gaze upon, as it looks like a scrotum come to life). This first action sequence felt a little off to me, as the obsession Rocket (Bradley Cooper) has with getting Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt) music ready before they fight seemed a rather on-the-nose tip of the hat to the popularity of the first movie’s soundtrack. As the action primarily occurs in the background, the camera follows Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) around the platform in a one-shot that’s impressive despite being largely CGI.

We then meet our decoy antgonist, the High Priestess of the Sovereign (Elizabeth Debicki), as she presents the Guardians with their payment for the successful defense of their batteries, a captured Nebula (Karen Gillam), who is to be taken back to Xandar by her sister Gamora (Zoe Saldana) for the bounty on her head. The team is pursued by the Sovereign as Rocket, unable to control his kleptomania, made off with Sovereign tech; as a result, the team is forced to crash land in a forest after taking heavy damage and ultimately being rescued by Ego (Russell) and his servant Mantis (Pom Klementieff), an empath who helps the powerful being sleep. After revealing his familiar connection to Peter, Ego offers to take him, Gamora, and Drax (Dave Bautista) to his planet to explain his abnormal existence, and present Peter with a unique opportunity.

Elsewhere, Yondu (Michael Rooker) faces an existential dilemma when it is revealed that he and his squad are outcasts in the greater Ravager community, in a way that ties back to his essentially having raised Peter after abducting him, moments after the boy watched his mother die. He accepts a bounty for the Guardians from the Sovereign, but when his crew learns that he did so in order to protect them rather than hunt them, they mutiny, taking over his ship and freeing Nebula, who goes after Gamora in pursuit of revenge. Rocket, Groot, and Yondu must then attempt escape, with a little help from everybody’s favorite Stars Hollow weirdo (Sean Gunn, whose character’s name is irrelevant, and we all know it).

There’s no Infinity Stone MacGuffin here, and it’s a real break from the MCU’s usual storytelling machine that the narrative of GotG 2 isn’t motivated by set pieces, action sequences, or even plot, but by character. The only real example of this in the franchise thus far has been Winter Soldier, which was motivated by Cap’s desires to save one friend and avenge another, but even that film was organized around the plot of a conspiracy thriller as much as (if not more than) character motivation. Here, however, every choice and conflict is about character. The conflict between Peter and Rocket centers around Rocket’s insecurities about whether or not he deserves to be part of a family, even if that family is a group of outlaws who found each other. The violence Nebula seeks against Gamora comes from an obsession with besting her sister out of misplaced jealousy and rage, without realizing that they are both survivors of the same abuse but who have allowed that past to push them in different directions. The interaction between Peter and his father gives rise to the film’s climax (although it feels the weakest to me, despite being the primary conflict). Yondu’s desire to right the moral failings of his past give him the longest character arc of the film, and even the comedy bits between Mantis and Drax, both fish out of water but from very different worlds, is display of character, rather than the needs of pushing the narrative forward.

This is an elegantly constructed movie, and it moves with such precision and humor that you’ll never feel bored. Still, it is odd that this is a movie with a protagonist character who readily admits to a lust not only for violence, but specifically of killing others, and he’s never really called out on it. I’m not necessarily opposed to the whimsical way one particular scene of what’s essentially a mass murder is treated, since this is a James Gunn movie that we’re talking about, but it feels odd, if not exactly wrong. The fact that this sequence follows another that has a distinct Looney Tunes feel to the violence simply makes it feel like something is out of place.

I’ll save my thoughts on the more spoilery content and the way that this film interacts with the rest of the MCU for our Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. review, but Guardians 2 gets an endorsement from me. It’s still the weird sci-fi comedy that you can recommend to your friend who doesn’t like superheroes. Also, be on the lookout for a cameo from Ben Browder, who portrayed the protagonist of Farscape (which was mentioned as a spiritual predecessor of Guardians in our Agents review), playing a member of the Sovereign and using his best Peacekeeper voice.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

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

xXx: Return of Xander Cage (2017)

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three star

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Grab your cargo shorts and flash art tattoos, folks. Nu metal cinema is back in a big, dumb way. Vin Diesel has briefly stepped away from his long-time role as a Corona-swilling patriarch in the Fast & Furious franchise to resurrect his other embarrassingly dated late 90s action vehicle, xXx. Diesel selflessly returns to his role as Xander Cage, “the rebel the world doesn’t know it needs,” to save the human race with such heroic acts as collecting high-fives while skateboarding downhill, gliding across jungle dirt on snow skis, and bravely bedding entire rooms full of Nameless Babes so that he can turn to the camera and mumble, “The things I do for my country,” like a pilled-out Bugs Bunny. xXx: Return of Xander Cage may not feature a Rammstein concert like its first installment or Family Values Tour ’98 vet Ice Cube like its second, but it is comfortably seated in that same X-treme Attitude nu metal cradle. It’s as if the film acknowledges its status as a far-too-late action sequel by dialing the culture clock all the way back to the early 2000s to accommodate its own wallet chain macho inanity. The results are oddly endearing, even if persistently ugly. Its soundtrack may have been swapped out for dubstep, but Return of Xander Cage still shines as a small scale nu metal miracle, an abrasive rap rock nightmare preserved in the foulest amber.

Does it matter exactly why Xander Cage returned to the international spy game? Actual-talent Toni Collette chews scenery as a menacing G-man/humanoid IKEA monkey who drags Cage back into action by informing him that his former mentor (played by Samuel L. Jackson, naturally) has been murdered via espionage technology that can strategically down orbiting satellites. Cage reluctantly agrees to retrieve this nefarious device, but refuses to do so with the team of untrustworthy supersoldiers Collette’s Evil Bitch government stooge assembles for him. When Cage grills the G.I. Joes about their experiences with X-Treme sports like base-jumping & snowboarding, they retort “We’re soldiers, not slackers.” Wrong response. He nukes the team in what plays like a sincere version of a MacGruber spoof, but decides to forego his past life as a lone wolf, instead borrowing some of his Daddy Dom character’s obsession with “family” in the Fast & Furious franchise to build his own X-treme, rag tag crew of crazed stunt men, EDM DJs, computer geek Millennials, and lesbian snipers. Everything that follows is a loud, dumb blur of shoot-em-up action cinema inanity, with occasional touches like dirt bike/jet ski hybrids and Godsmack-reminiscent nipple tats distinguishing it from any other borderline competent example of its genre. They get the device. They save the day. They put the government in its place and walk away with their collective rebel status intact. There’s even a ludicrous last minute cameo that makes the whole thing feel like a real movie instead of a hazy, bullet-ridden nu metal daydream. It’s all in good fun.

As much as Return of Xander Cage likes to pretend that its team-building exercise is actually important to the plot, the movie is still largely just a loving prayer at the altar of Xander Cage (and, by extension, Vin Diesel himself). It’s right there in the title. No one else truly matters. Entire villages cheer his presence. Little kids look up to him in awe. He delivers every one-liner with a JCVD-style lethargic drawl, as if he’s so pleasantly relaxed in the role that he’s half asleep. When someone hands him a bomb he mumbles, “Oh boy, here we go again,” rising to twirl in a lazy circle while firing a machine gun, yawning, and literally checking his watch. His entire crew is qualified to save the day, but they’re asked to hang back as his cover. Everyone is visibly horny, but only Xander Cage gets to fuck. It’s super cool and totally worth mentioning that this dumb, spiritually-backwards action film has a mostly POC cast (including an over-qualified Donnie Yen among its ranks) and the only scene dominated by white male faces involves an evil boardroom of business pricks threatening to tear the world down. It’s just also funny that the diversity in the crew is mostly for naught, as they’re ultimately no more significant than any one of Xander Cage’s many Tough Guy clip art tattoos.

It may sound like I’m being a little tough on Return of Xander Cage, but it’s a tough customer; it can take the pressure. This is actually a pretty fun version of what it is: mindless shoot-em-up action cinema with a fetish for X-Games style stunts. It’s just impossible not to poke fun at every leering shot of tight leather mini-skirts, every dumb objective like “Get there fast and take this guy down,” and every stupid one-liner like “It’s like finding a needle in a stack of needles.” At this point in modern taste & decency, X-treme action cinema has no comfortable, legitimate home and the xXx franchise addresses that concern by bullheadedly avoiding giving a shit about taste or decency. It’s a nu metal hangover stuck so far out of time that it had to abandon its angst rock roots for an EDM soundtrack that’s also hopelessly outdated, just by a narrower margin. It’s in this overgrown bro cultural faux pas that Return of Xander Cage emerges as cute & oddly quaint in its ironically mild brand of “X-treme” entertainments.

-Brandon Ledet

The Iron Giant (1999)

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fourhalfstar

I was a little surprised last year when Brad Bird’s live action Disney sci-fi epic Tomorrowland failed to find an audience, but I probably shouldn’t have been. For some reason, atomic age sci-fi throwbacks have an iffy history among moviegoing audiences, which has played to the detriment of films like Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and The Rocketeer, despite (in my mind) the genre’s easy likability. Given this track record, I guess what should more surprising than Tomorrowland’s lackluster response would be Brad Bird’s past success with making an actually popular atomic age throwback in the late 90s. The problem is that success was entirely critical & the movie financially flopped.

Brad Bird’s directorial debut, The Iron Giant, has earned a glowing reputation in the years since its release, but it bombed hard in the theaters, losing more than half of its production budget. I don’t know what it is about atomic age sci-fi that lends itself to slow-building goodwill instead of immediate success. Perhaps the era’s clean-cut suburban earnestness suggests a hokey aesthetic people associate with microwave popcorn on the couch VHS rentals instead of large group family outings to theater. Whatever the cause, Bird’s two stabs at the genre have both proven to be gambled-and-lost endeavors financially for major studios who’ve backed him. The difference between them is that The Iron Giant has had a consistently strong critical reception since its release, one that’s only grown as the children who did happen to catch it in the VHS rental era of their lifespan have grown up remembering it fondly. No word yet on if Tomorrowland will enjoy a similar kind of longevity in the public imagination, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.

The Iron Giant is an animated tearjerker about two out-of-place misfits who form an all-too brief friendship in the face of a world hellbent on tearing them down. One friend is a loner nerd middle school student who fills his days with adopting strange pets & his nights with watching 50s sci-fi schlock on television broadcasts. The other is a seamless combination of those two interests: a physically damaged space alien robot with the mind of a child. The unlikely pair form a sort of dual coming of age story while hanging out in a beatnik’s junkyard & evading persistent inquiries from the NSA. The human boy learns to take on responsibility & to adopt a “Who cares what those creeps think?” attitude towards his bullies. The gigantic robot learns to hate the very thing he’s designed to be (war & weaponry) & to exercise free will in a way that allows him to overcome his nature. Their greatest enemy is a warmongering G-Man just drooling to see the alien “invader” destroyed & their story plays out against a Cold War suburbia backdrop that contrasts the innocence of carefree youth with details like a duck-and-cover nuclear bomb scare film titled ATOMIC HOLOCAUST. Perhaps the film’s greatest accomplishment is how it provides a satisfying arc for both the boy and the robot, as well as an emotionally taxing climax, all while feeling like a relaxed hangout film about two buds being buds.

There’s a lot of interesting technical aspects to The Iron Giant that suggest Brad Bird came out of the gate as a strong directorial talent. First of all, the film knows the source material it’s evoking quite well, cobbling together plots from other sci-fi fare like Superman comics, giant robot stories, and alien invasion features into a single, The Day the Earth Stood Still-style parable that makes great use of its various influences. The film also looks like a feature-length adaptation of a toy raygun, perhaps the most accurate evocation of the era’s style since Joe Dante’s Matinee. I’m not a huge fan of CG animation, but the way The Iron Giant‘s computer graphics mix with its hand drawn style actually serves the mechanical nature of its subject matter quite well. Even the sound design is on point, pulling great period setting authenticity from The Coasters song “Searching” & utilizing a rusted metal vocal performance from a Groot-mode Vin Diesel as the titular robot without overworking the gimmick. Bird’s first feature is an amazingly balanced work that impresses both in its narrative & technical proficiency as well as its ability to inspire a genuine emotional response. It’s downright bizarre that it didn’t immediately strike gold at the box office, but it’s also no wonder that it eventually found an enthusiastic audience once it hit home release.

Having only seen The Iron Giant & Tomorrowland once a piece, I can confirm that the former is the better work & totally deserving of its reputation as such. I’d like to think that there’s enough room in the world’s heart for both atomic age children’s epics to earn long-term success, though, and I hope Tomorrowland eventually joins The Iron Giant’s ranks as an initially-overlooked crowd favorite. If nothing else I’d just like to see its esteem grow so Brad Bird could maybe, just maybe, find funding for a third product within the genre, despite its reputation as box office poison. He’s damn good at making these things & I honestly believe his two entries in the genre are his best, most personally distinct work to date (no offense to the diehard Pixar crowd who’d likely stand up for The Incredibles or Ratatouille in that regard). We don’t have many directors working who still understand the appeal of the genre as Brad Bird & it’d be a shame to let something as pedestrian as money stop him from making more.

-Brandon Ledet

Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.: Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

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Superhero Watching: Alternating Marvel Perspectives, Fresh and Longterm, Ignoring X-Men, or S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X., is a feature in which Boomer (who reads superhero comics & is well versed in the MCU) & Brandon (who reads alternative comics & had, at the start of this project, seen less than 25% of the MCU’s output) revisit the films that make up the Marvel Cinematic Universe from the perspective of someone who knows what they’re talking about & someone who doesn’t have the slightest clue.

Boomer: There was a great deal of consternation in the nerd and mainstream communities when Guardians of the Galaxy was first announced. Eagle-eyed viewers (and readers of Wizard) had already spotted an appearance by the Infinity Gauntlet in Odin’s weapons locker in Thor, and many had correctly guessed that the Tesseract that appeared in Captain America was one of the Infinity Gems, meaning that an adaptation or re-imagining of Marvel’s Infinity War storyline would eventually be on its way. With that in mind, there had to be a way to incorporate more of Marvel’s cosmic mythology into the MCU, but no one was certain which form this would take. Within the comics, space-based plotlines generally revolved around either the Shi’ar Empire or the Kree-Skrull War; neither of these two elements lent themselves to the MCU, however, because of the rights issues surrounding each. The Shi’ar are mostly linked to the mythology of the Phoenix Force (and thus the X-Men) and the Skrulls were a longtime recurring enemy of the Fantastic Four; with the film rights for both of those teams tied up at Twentieth Century Fox, there was much debate as to how the MCU would be able to address interstellar plots. Notably, Avengers had taken the Skrull stand-ins from the Ultimate books, the Chitauri, and made them the alien invaders in that film. Ultimately (no pun intended), the Kree play a role in this film, although the Skrulls go unmentioned.

Kevin Feige hinted in 2010 that a film bearing this title could be on its way, and confirmed in 2012 that the film was in production. Initial announcements named Peyton Reed as the director, although at that point his biggest successes were over ten years behind him, having helmed a few episodes of the last season of HBO’s terrific Mr. Show with Bob and David and 2000’s underrated Bring It On. Writing/Directing duo Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden (the team behind Ryan Gosling vehicle Half Nelson) were also in talks to create the film and its world, but the project eventually found its way into the capable hands of James Gunn. Gunn only had two features under his belt as director, horror satire Slither and Rainn Wilson’s superhero pastiche dramedy Super, but the majority of his work was in writing, including the 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake. Joss Whedon, director of The Avengers, was kept on by Marvel as a consultant for the films leading up to the (then untitled) sequel to the team-up film, and he was vocal in his excitement about Gunn’s hiring, citing the director’s enthusiasm and cinematic eye.

A virtual unknown, Nicole Perlman, was later announced as the film’s screenwriter. She had previously acted as an uncredited script doctor on a draft of Thor, and she was given free reign to choose which Marvel property she wanted to draft a script for, choosing Guardians because of her fondness for space opera. Although Disney’s screenwriting program no longer exists, Perlman was one of the last to graduate from it, and her script for Guardians was the only reason the film ended up being made, according to Variety in 2012; Senior Editor Marc Graser wrote at the time that Marvel “was high on” her initial script treatment. Since then, Perlman has admitted that she’s also written a draft of a potential Black Widow script that has yet to see the light of day, and she has also been announced as the screenwriter for the upcoming Captain Marvel film due out in 2019. Perlman’s name is also frequently banded about as the potential writer of a rumored reboot of Jim Henson cult classic Labyrinth (although talk of a reboot has largely died down in the wake of David Bowie’s recent passing). In the meantime, however, she has not one single IMDb entry that does not relate to the MCU, which is heartening considering what a boys club the franchise can seem to be at times.

Casting for the film’s default lead, Star Lord, began in September 2012, with a laundry list of people who tested or read for the role: Eddie Redmayne, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Joel Edgerton, Jack Huston, Michael Rosenbaum, and many, many others. Lee Pace also auditioned for the role, ending up instead slotted into the role of Ronan, the film’s main antagonist. Five months later, Marvel finally announced that they had found their man in Chris Pratt. Jason Momoa auditioned for the role of Drax, but he was passed over in favor of Dave Bautista (Momoa, of course, is slated to appear as Aquaman in DC’s upcoming attempted franchise). The nature of this new film meant that none of the MCU’s previously appearing characters could not reasonably make cameos in this film, although Buffyverse alum Alexis Denisof reprised his role as The Other, Thanos’s emissary who gave Loki his marching orders in Avengers. There was little publication surrounding other roles and testing for them, but the film’s cast was finalized by mid-2013 (minus Vin Diesel, whose vocal acting for Groot was only confirmed after the end of principal photography), and filming began in July of that year.

For those of you who have forgotten everything about the film except for a wisecracking raccoon and freshly-buff Chris Pratt being hosed down while flouncing about in underwear, a quick refresher: Young Peter Quill fled the hospital where his mother was dying in 1988 and was picked up by an alien ship. Years later, Quill (Pratt) acts as a scavenger in a fleet led by Yondu (Michael Rooker), a blue alien with an inexplicable Southern accent; he finds and takes a valuable item from a space tomb and ends up on the run from Kree radical Ronan (Pace). Multiple bounty hunters are sent to apprehend Quill, including Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and his partner Groot (Diesel) and assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), who was kidnapped from her home by intergalactic warlord Thanos (Josh Brolin) and trained as a killer. These four untethered people are eventually captured and detained in a space prison; when they escape, they are joined by fellow inmate Drax (Bautista), who has his own axe to grind with Ronan and Thanos. They are opposed by Ronan and Gamora’s warrior “sister” Nebula (Karen Gillan) and the police-like Nova Corps, led by Nova Prime (Glenn Close). These decidedly-not-team-players reluctantly accept that no one else is in a position to save the galaxy from total annihilation and rise to the challenge.

Brandon, what did you think about Guardians of the Galaxy? If I remember correctly, this was one of the MCU flicks that you had seen before starting this project; does it fare better or worse now with more of a background in this world? Or, given that this film that lies outside of the MCU’s reach for the most part, does that context change your opinion at all?

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Brandon: I’m starting to feel extremely foolish about how I received Guardians of the Galaxy at the time of its release a couple years ago. I liked the film well enough as a loud, vibrant action comedy that provided a much-deserved starring role for America’s affable older brother (or boy toy sex symbol, depending who you are) Chris Pratt. However, I remember buying into the idea that the Marvel “house style” had significantly put a damper on the over-the-top exuberance of madman schlock director James Gunn. Gunn was familiar to me as the dark soul behind depraved camp titles like Slither and Tromeo & Juliet, so it was weird to see his style somewhat homogenized into a Luc Besson-style space epic. The truth is, though, that Gunn’s version of an uninhibited MCU entry probably would’ve turned out more like the grotesquely asinine Deadpool film I’ve spent the last month brooding over. In fact, Gunn already directed a nastily misanthropic superhero film, simply titled Super, that I generally enjoyed, but also found difficult to stomach at times due to the lighthearted way it depicts sexual assault. I don’t know if this is me getting increasingly sensitive with age, but another The Fifth Element, Star Wars-style space epic with Kevin Feige & company keeping Gunn’s sadistic id in check actually sounds preferable now to what might’ve been delivered otherwise. It might also be the case that the act of catching up with the rest of the MCU’s output in recent months has helped me realize just how unique Guardians is as a modern superhero popcorn flick & just how much of Gunn’s personality is noticeably present on the screen.

In any case, returning to Guardians of the Galaxy with fresh eyes was a revelation. This is a fantastic work of crowd-pleasing action cinema, the exact kind of delirious spectacle I look for in blockbusters. In that respect, the only film that might‘ve topped it in the year or so since its release is Mad Max: Fury Road & I mean that with full sincerity. The film’s detailed, lived-in version of space opera is literally worlds away from the rest of the MCU. Its superheroes aren’t truly heroic or even all that super. They’re mostly thieves, murderers, aliens, and the bi-products of cruel science experiments. Something that largely got by me the first time I watched Guardians of the Galaxy was just how emotionally damaged its central crew of space pirates are. Their families are dead. They’ve never known true friendship. They’re sometimes prone to drunkenly curse their own very existence. The film’s tendency for 80s nostalgia & crowd-pleasing action set pieces are really fun in an overwhelming way that I think often distract from just how devastatingly sad its emotional core can be. I never knew an anthropomorphic raccoon grimly complaining, “I didn’t ask to get made!” could make me so teary-eyed, but Guardians has a way of making the emotional pain of its damaged, nonhuman non-heroes feel just as real as the physical space they populate looks. That’s no small feat.

That’s obviously not to say that all of Guardians is deep-seated emotional pain. The film is mostly a riotously fun action comedy with broken hearts & bruised egos only peppering its blockbuster thrills. I love how inane its outer space worldbuilding is. Blue people, green people, purple people, and purple people eaters all roam about as if they are on a silly 60s sci-fi television show. Villains are known to say absurd things like “Nebula, go to Xandar and get me the Orb.” The MCU’s ultimate MacGuffin, the Infinity Stones, actually feel at home in this kind of space age gobbledy gook. It’s also fun to watch this atmosphere clash with Pratt’s womanizing bro humor as Star Lord, as I feel like I’ve lived in this kind of space adventure before, but I’ve never met anyone I could describe as a “space bro” as comfortably as Star Lord. I particularly enjoyed the line when describing the filth of his space ship/bachelor pad he confesses, “If I had a black light these walls would look like a Jackson Pollock painting.” The kicker is that Guardians not only has the most successful humor of the MCU’s output so far; it also has some of the most exhilarating action sequences in the franchise. The Kyln prison break in particular is a beaut & watching Rocket Raccoon operate his homemade weaponry gives me the same thrill I caught watching primates operate automatic machine guns in 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

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I could probably prattle on about how my favorite two MCU entries so far, Guardians of the Galaxy & Captain America: The First Avenger, thrive on their own strengths by distancing themselves from the rest of the franchise, but I don’t believe that best captures what makes Guardians so special. Honestly, the film’s own mixtape gimmick is a better access point to understanding its wide appeal. A mix of crowd-pleasing songs like “I Want You Back” & Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” and offbeat essentials like “Cherry Bomb” & “Moonage Daydream“, the film’s mixtape soundtrack mirrors its larger mashup of action comedy marketability & cult film tendencies. In retrospect the marriage of James Gunn’s mean nerd exuberance & the MCU’s action comedy accessibility is a match made in blockbuster heaven. It delights me to no end that you can actually purchase a copy of Star Lord’s beloved mixtape cassette. That piece of comic book movie ephemera actually seems more to the heart of the film’s appeal than a Rocket Raccoon figurine or even a Blu-ray copy of the film could ever be.

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fourstar

Boomer: Last time we were here, I mentioned how much Captain America: Winter Soldier reminded me of Star Trek VI and how that only made me love the former all the more. I have to admit that I was one of the naysayers with little hope for Guardians. By the time it came out, I was sick to death of the endless stream of advertisements for the movie; in every commercial break and before every YouTube there was a clip of Chris Pratt slowly flipping off John C. Reilly. But what I found when I saw the film was that I actually loved it, but mostly because it was the closest I felt we would ever come to having a Farscape feature.

The parallels don’t track perfectly, but they are obvious. We have the wise-cracking American thrust into an interstellar society made up of various societies and factions (Peter Quill/John Crichton), who has a relationship with a woman who was taken at birth and trained to be a deadly soldier and assassin (Gamora/Aeryn Sun). They’re joined by a large warrior with ritual scarrification and tattoos (Drax/D’Argo), a pint-sized wiseass (Rocket Racoon/Rygel), and a living plant (Groot/Zhaan). Farscape’s premiere episode even involves a prison break in which many of the main characters escape captivity, and both ragtag crews eventually find themselves drawn into the greater war going on around them in spite of their individual desires to simply overcome the traumas of their past. Both Drax and D’Argo have lost their wife and child (although D’Argo’s son is still alive, albeit enslaved), and both Gamora and Aeryn slowly warm to the human crewmate that helps them feel closer to their (in)humanity. The sequence in which the titular Guardians visit a mining colony inside of a once-living giant is even reminiscent of the episode in which the crew of Moya find a mining colony inside of the budong, an ancient spacefaring being of humongous proportions.

For the most part, the similarities end there, however. Although Groot and Zhaan are both plant people, the former lacks the metaphysical wisdom and spirituality of the latter. Although Rocket is full of himself, he lacks the imperial pomposity of the dethroned Rygel. Still, once can’t help but feel that Guardians is a spiritual sequel to Farscape, and that greatly contributes to my enjoyment of the film. I have to admit, however, that this rewatch wasn’t the thrill ride that I remembered fro my first few viewings. Guardians is undoubtedly the coolest of the MCU flicks so far, but the repetition of the jokes from the film in the real world has stolen some of the luster from their enjoyment. There’s still a lot to enjoy here, but Guardians doesn’t hold the endless rewatchability for me that Winter Soldier does, despite being much more fun than the comparably dour Captain America sequel. It was a smart move on Marvel’s part to follow up a somber MCU installment with a film that was exhilarating in a different way and for different reasons, but Guardians has a problem that the other films don’t have.Whereas the previous ensemble in The Avengers had the luxury of multiple individual films to flesh out the members of the team (minus the characters who were supporting players in previous installments, with Hawkeye never being fully realized as a character until Age of Ultron), Guardians has the unenviable task of introducing all five of its mains as well as their world and the ramifications thereof in a very short amount of time. The script is excellent in that the film doesn’t feel overloaded, but reflection upon the movie does lead to some questions that feel unanswered. We know that the Kree and the Xandarians have recently reached a peace accord, but what was their relationship beforehand? Are many of the Kree fanatics like Ronan, or is he an outlier, and, if so, why does Nova Prime have such difficulty getting the Kree ambassador(?) that she contacts late in the film to make a political statement decrying Ronan? And why wouldn’t the Kree condemn a terrorist anyway? This scene and others blow past so quickly that viewers may not realize just how much information is needed, but scenes like this have a way of niggling the subconscious.

Still, Guardians is a lot of fun. When I first saw it in theatres, I would have given it five stars, but time and distance have made me a bit more critical of it. Maybe I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind this time around, but the film just doesn’t have the magic for me that it did in 2014.

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Brandon: It’s impossible to talk about Guardians‘ likability without addressing the absurd strength of its cast. Besides the appeal of Chris Pratt’s affable bro humor & “pelvic sorcery”, watching James Gunn regulars like Michael Rooker & Lloyd Kaufman appear among Hollywood heavyweights like Benicio Del Toro & Josh Brolin is a strange delight. Goofball comedic actor John C. Reilly interacting with Glenn Close is equally enjoyable as novelty. Bradley Cooper appears as a CG raccoon wearing people clothes. Vin Diesel outs himself as a huge D&D-oriented nerd as a talking tree. Bautista & the much-hated (among cinephiles, anyway) comic book prankster Howard the Duck both make a massive impact, which combine to make it feel as if this film were aimed to please my own particular nerdy obsessions: bad movies & pro wrestling.

The only complaint I might have about Guardians‘ insanely stacked cast of always welcome faces is the way it largely wastes the eternally-underutilized Lee Pace. I enjoyed Pace’s turn as impossibly cruel Ronan the Accuser more than I did the first time around but I do still think it was a huge mistake to cover up his luscious eyebrows with the alien makeup. Those might be the most handsome eyebrows in Hollywood. They deserve to run free.

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Boomer: For anyone reading this who is still mourning the loss of Farscape, I recommend current sci-fi series Dark Matter. It has fewer obvious commonalities with Farscape than Guardians, but its tone is the closest thing to Farscape’s that I’ve been able to find in a long time, even if it lacks the older series’s humor.

When joking in our earlier review about the fact that the Ninth Doctor appeared in Thor 2 and that the Tenth Doctor had played the villain of Jessica Jones, I had completely forgotten about the fact that Karen Gillam, who played the Eleventh Doctor’s companion Amy Pond, played Nebula in this film. There’s also the fact that Tobey Jones, who portrayed a nightmare version of the Doctor a few years back in “Amy’s Choice,” portrayed the evil Doctor Zola in both Cap flicks. Were it not that Jenna Coleman (who portrayed Clara Oswald, companion to the Eleventh and Twelfth Doctors) played a minor role in Captain America, all the Doctor Who alums who have thus far appeared in the MCU would have portrayed villains.

Regarding how the film plays into the larger mythos of the franchise, the plot elements from Guardians have largely only been important in how they affect Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Just as one of the main characters on the program was revealed to be a Hydra mole near the end of the first season, the second season featured major developments in the form of the revelation of the existence of the Inhumans and that another member of the squad was one such being. The Inhumans, for those who understandably gave up on Agents early on, are a subspecies of humanity who possess abnormal physiological traits as the result of a Kree genetic engineering campaign in Earth’s distant past. It’s also an easy way for the MCU to introduce large numbers of super-powered individuals despite not having the right to use the term “mutant,” what with the rights to the X-Men franchise still tied up at Fox. For those of you playing along at home, there is also a planned Inhumans film slated for release in 2019.

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Combined S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. Rating for Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

fourhalfstar

-Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.

The Last Witch Hunter (2015)

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three star

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So a witch, a priest, and an assassin walk into a bar . . . And if you want to see the punchline of that joke play out, you’re going to have to lend two hours of your time to The Last Witch Hunter. I guess the question is whether or not the movie is funny enough to be worth that effort. How do you even critique a film like this, really? Do you judge it based on its merits as a self-serious action fantasy ostensibly aiming to build a franchise that certainly isn’t coming? Or do you enjoy it for what it truly is: a trashy throwaway trifle you enjoy once & then immediately forget? I’ll admit to enjoying the film well enough as a one-time-use trifle, but your own personal mileage may vary by how much enjoyment you automatically derive from bloodthirsty witches & an immortal Vin Diesel wielding a flaming sword (an image so inherently metal I could practically hear Slayer playing in my head both times it appeared onscreen). For me, that’s a pretty easy sell.

I will say this much on The Last Witch Hunter‘s behalf: it’s cartoonish inanity is far from half-assed. The movie’s sense of self-mythology is amusingly complex, as if it were trying to squeeze in volumes of source material comic books into a single feature film. In fact, since the movie is flopping hard enough to guarantee that no sequels will follow (despite its desperate wishes), a comic book adaptation might not be the worst future for this property. The story begins in The Dark Days of the Witch where Vin Diesel’s titular witch hunter gets his start by stabbing his flame sword into the chest of The Witch Queen, an evil hag made of tree roots who plans to wipe out the human race with The Black Plague in order to make room on Earth to expand her personal garden (seriously). In her dying breaths, she curses the newly crowned witch hunter to live forever, which eventually leads to a truce between witches & witch killers and the establishment of The Axe & The Cross, a spooky UN-type organization meant to ensure that “The peace endures” (a phrase that serves as the movie’s version of “May the Force be with you.”). Of course, this all leads to Diesel’s witch hunter being Double Axed & Double Crossed in modern day NYC when a strange figure similar to WWE’s Bray Wyatt or an extra from the first season of True Detective upsets the status quo by reintroducing black magic into the world,  a force explained to be “beyond evil.”

I’m getting exhausted trying to capture everything going down here & I haven’t even touched on ideas like “dreamwalkers”, “The Witch’s Council”, “The Witch Prison”, or the fact that folks like Michael Cain & Elijah Wood somehow got involved in this silliness. And I’m pretty sure I’ve mostly just included concepts introduced in the first act. As a whole, the movie has the convoluted mythology of a years-old game of D&D (something Vin Diesel is reportedly a huge fan of). The film also has a somewhat complex visual palette depicting a magical version of NYC with the general ambiance of a metropolis-sized absinthe bar. This is sharply contrasted with the old world witchcraft of insects, tree roots, fire, and endless voids. It’s all too easy to root for the witch’s side of the equation here (as if it’s ever not), since their evil queen’s dream of a worldwide garden is much more appealing than modern magic’s much more frivolous uses of selling cupcakes & promoting witchy fashion shows. Also, when The Witch Queen reminds the witch hunter that since witches pre-date humans, “You are trespassers on our world,” it’s a very convincing argument.

In a way, that’s what’s wrong with The Last Witch Hunter in a nutshell: too much witch hunting, not enough witches. Instead of constantly depicting witchcraft in action, the movie is much more interested in serving as a temple to Vin Diesel’s awesomeness as a mumbly action movie god the same way films like Commando used to do for Schwarzenegger in the past. It’s a lot of fun in this way. Diesel plays the part as a buff, action hero David Blane. He seduces witchy women, winks at curious children, rocks a Cracker Jack decoder ring, and uses MacGyver-esque tools like a glass of water & a floating staple in his leisurely witch hunts. In a lot of ways his cursed immortality undercuts a lot of the film’s potential conflict, but The Last Witch Hunter cheats enough on that detail to make it work. This is a hopelessly dumb film, to be sure, but it’s also complexly, ambitiously dumb, making for a mostly amusing trip to the theater. If you’re into Vin Diesel, wicked witches, D&D, and flaming weaponry, I’d definitely recommend giving it a shot, but I’d also recommend bringing booze.

-Brandon Ledet

A Newcomer’s Guide to the Fast & Furious Franchise

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As I have previously explained, I am a recent convert to the Fast & Furious universe. Despite the 15 year run of the franchise’s cultural ubiquity, I’ve somehow managed to avoid ever seeing a Fast & Furious movie in full until a few weeks ago. Sure, I’ve seen them playing as background noise in various bars & living rooms over the years, but I’ve never bothered to watch a single picture from front to end. When the series first got started I was a gloomy teenage snob who wouldn’t be caught dead watching such mindless machismo, but something happened in the years since: I grew a sense of humor. And while I was working on that, something else happened: the series seemingly got exponentially ridiculous with each sequel. It’s rare these days for any genre film outside of slasher flicks to earn six sequels, but here we are in 2015 with a car racing movie reaching its seventh installment this month: Furious 7. The ads for that seventh installment finally brought me to my tipping point. Furious 7 promised to be so deliciously over the top that when I first saw the ad in the theater I finally felt compelled to catch up with the entire series, an urge I followed voraciously in the past few weeks.

It turns out that the story of the Fast & Furious franchise is the story of an ever-ballooning budget. The 2001 debut installment cost $38 million to make, while in 2015 a Fast & Furious movie costs $250 million. The first three or so Fast & Furious movies serve mostly as cheap cultural relics, time capsules of bad taste in the early 00s. As the budget continued to expand (along with Vin Diesel’s delightfully long winded musings on the nature of “family”) so did the scope of the action sequences and the feeling that the franchise had actually started to pull its own weight as a unique intellectual property. During this transition the focus of the films also deviated from its street racing roots and instead pursued what it self-describes in the latest film as “vehicular warfare”. The street racing of the early films are mostly gone, but far from forgotten as the series has become completely wrapped up in its own mythology, pretending that the past was more significant than it was and pushing what it can do in the present to any & all ridiculous heights allowed by the strengths of an ever-sprawling cast & budget.

Listed below, in chronological order, are all seven feature films in the Fast & Furious franchise as seen through my fresh, previously uninitiated eyes. Each entry is accompanied by brief re-caps of its faults & charms, but also has its own individual full-length review, which you can find by clicking on the links in the titles themselves. If you are also looking to get initiated into the Fast & Furious world yourself, but wanted to skip the franchise’s humbly trashy beginnings, I highly recommend watching the fifth, sixth, third, and seventh installments (curiously enough, in that specific sequence).

The Fast and the Furious (2001)EPSON MFP imagethree star

The very first installment of the Fast & Furious is mostly effective as a baseline measurement for the series. It was exactly what I had expected from the franchise as a whole: rap-rock era machismo way more concerned with cartoonishly fast cars, gigantic guns, and impressively elaborate action sequences than its superfluous plot about an undercover cop. It features such macho trademarks as rap metal, backyard grilling, lipstick lesbianism and, of course, extensive street racing. In this earliest installment the cars move so fast that light warps around them like spaceships in old-line sci-fi, their roaring engines overpowering the sound design & the inner workings of their nitrous oxide systems becoming a fetishistic focus for the CGI. The Fast and the Furious is entertaining enough as a mindless action flick & a trashy cultural relic, but it doesn’t even approach the peak ridiculousness achieved in later installments. It does have its campy moments, though, even if they never reach a fever pitch.

MVP of the cast: The stunt-casting of Ja Rule, who’s neither fast nor furious enough to earn a threesome in a street race.
Most curious detail: The fact that somehow no one on the California street racing scene seems to think it’s fucked up that their drag race competition is called “Race Wars.”

2 Fast 2 Furious (2003) EPSON MFP imagethree star

2 Fast 2 Furious isn’t necessarily much better or worse than its predecessor, but functions more like an echo. It hits the same plot points as the original (undercover policing, sports cars reaching warp speed, Paul Walker’s half-assed modes of seduction, etc.) with just a few basic casting substitutions distinguishing the two films. The strange thing about it is that the repetition doesn’t feel like much of a problem. It’s okay that both The Fast and the Furious and 2 Fast 2 Furious share so much in plot & sentiment because plot & sentiment are inessential to the films’ central draws: absurdly intricate action set pieces, a fetishistic love of sports cars, and charmingly dated ideas of cool. 2 Fast 2 Furious may be an exact structural photocopy of the first Fast & Furious installment, but it has such a deliriously lighthearted approach to the intense violence of its reality (a quality that made 80s action films the golden era of the genre) that it’s difficult to be too hard on it critically. Nearly all of the actors except Walker are substituted for new faces (an appropriately shirtless Tyrese Gibson & a Chicken-N-Beer era Ludacris make their welcomed debuts here, though their comic dynamic isn’t fully developed until later installments,) and there’s a complete absence of rap rock, lipstick lesbianism, and backyard grilling, but 2 Fast 2 Furious is still essentially a shameless retread of its precursor. However, it’s one that finds a way to make its more-of-the-same formula entertaining despite the familiarity.

MVP of the cast: The wise-cracking, often-shirtless sex god Tyrese Gibson.
Most curious detail: A not-so-sly reference to Ludacris’ hit song “Move Bitch” is made during a street race, but by a character who is not played by Ludacris.

The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006) EPSON MFP imagethreehalfstar

The third installment in the Fast & Furious franchise is not a particularly unique film when considered on its own merit, but it is very much an outlier in the series it’s a part of. The first two Fast & Furious films are undercover police thrillers about trust & family and the criminal world of California street racing. Tokyo Drift, on the other hand, is about a high school reprobate’s struggle to find The Drift within. The Drift, in case you somehow didn’t already know, is the ability to more or less drive sideways, something Japanese teens are apparently very good at. The Drift also serves as some kind of metaphor for growing up or taking responsibility or something along those lines (with a direct reference to The Karate Kid for full effect), but one thing’s for damn sure: it has nothing to do with the world of the Paul Walkers, Vin Diesels and Tyrese Gibsons of the first two films. There’s a hilarious last minute cameo that attempts to tie it into the rest of the series, but for the most part Tokyo Drift is a free-floating oddity, just sort of . . . drifting out on its own, disconnected. It was more than fair that die-hard fans furiously asked “Who are these people?!” upon its initial release, since the answer to that question doesn’t arrive until a post-credits stinger four films later. However, even though it was hated in its time, it’s a genuinely fun bit of trash cinema about the spiritual virtues of sideways driving, one with almost no regard for rest of the franchise at all.

MVP in the cast: The stunt casting of (Lil) Bow Wow, who plays a wisecracking sidekick that winks at the camera, delivers one-liners like “Japanese food is like the Army: don’t ask, don’t tell,” and refers to the Mona Lisa as that lady who’s smiling all the time.
Most Curious Detail: I’m pretty sure that during the opening race a smashed porta potty splashes digital feces on the camera lens.

Fast & Furious (2009) EPSON MFP imageonehalfstar

The fourth Fast & Furious film attempts to pull the series’ act together by working as retroactive franchise glue, bringing back characters that had been absent since the first film & connecting them to Sung Kang’s Han, a very important player from Tokyo Drift who (spoiler) is supposed to be very dead. The problem is that after these first ten minutes of retroactive narrative, Fast & Furious loses its sense of purpose. Setting the undercover police intrigue in the Dominican Republic, the film offers the franchise a new location, but not much else. For the most part, the action is standard stuff you’d expect in any action franchise: Vin Diesel hanging dudes out of windows by their ankles, Paul Walker chasing criminals down back alleys in his tailored federal agent suit, lots of tumbling cars, etc. The best moment, action wise, is when Diesel does a controlled slide (Tokyo style) under a tumbling 18 wheeler, but that takes place during that saving-grace opening set piece. The main thing it’s missing, however, is a sense of fun. Fast & Furious is just so unnecessarily dour, especially after the cartoonish excess of Tokyo Drift. After herding the narrative cats of the first three installments, the movie becomes exceedingly difficult to love. It does serve as a necessary bridge to better movies down the line, but when considered on its own, it’s not really worth its near two-hour runtime.

MVP of the cast: Han, resurrected through a receding timeline, not-so-seamlessly (but very much amusingly) sets up the franchise’s ever-shifting chronology in an exchange where he answers the line “Time for you to do your own thing,” with “I heard they’re doing some crazy shit in Tokyo . . .” They’re doing some crazy shit indeed, Han. First of all, they’re driving sideways.
Most curious detail: The film seems to have a strange fascination with GPS displays. The GPS imagery plays well into the series’ video game aesthetic, but really, it’s GPS; who cares?

Fast Five (2011) EPSON MFP imagethreehalfstar

There’s a lot of killer action movie surface pleasures scattered all over Fast Five (especially in its opening train heist set piece), but that’s not what makes it special. What distinguishes the film from its pedigree is Vin Diesel’s Dominic’s sudden conviction that his gang of ragtag criminals and former cops is a “family”. As far as the franchise goes, the “family” in the first four films act like distant cousins who might see each other once a decade. Suddenly, in Fast Five it’s genuinely moving when Dominic talks about how his father taught him about the importance of backyard grilling, how a family always sticks together, and so on. It’s not a perfect film; it could’ve allowed more screen time for newcomer The Rock & (I can’t believe I’m saying this) more street racing, not to mention that a ludicrous post-credits stinger has the gall to bring the dead back to life without explanation, but it was a huge step forward for the Fast & Furious series as a collective. Five films in, all the separate elements are finally clicking as a cohesive action movie unit. Where most extended franchises gradually unravel over the course of their sequels, this is one that took that time to find itself and cull its own “familial” mythology.

MVP of the Cast: Here we are introduced to Hobbs, played Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who could only serve as a improvement to virtually any motion picture, because he is a perfect human being.
Most Curious Detail: An all-star crew of the gang/”family” members from the first four films are assembled here in the single best team-building montage outside of MacGruber. There’s some truly over the top, jaw-dropping spectacle in the opening train heist and a closing sequence involving a bank vault, but something about that montage feels like the first moments of the series coming into its own.

Fast & Furious 6 (2013) EPSON MFP imagefourstar

Fast & Furious 6 plays right into the franchise’s ever-increasing concern for tying the series together into a cohesive whole. The gang started properly functioning as a unit (or a “family,” if you will) in the fifth film, but this is where individual members of the Fast & Furious family become eccentric cartoon versions of themselves. They begin to get wrapped up in their own distinct mythologies the way the series as a whole got wrapped up in itself in the start-of-a-new-era Fast Five. Now that the “family” has come together as a tight unit, they’ve finally found a way to go truly over the top. The ridiculous caricatures and ever-expanding budget for the action sequences (which include a return to extensive street racing here, which had become surprisingly absent) are what make Fast & Furious 6 feel like a far cry from where the series began, but it’s not what makes the film important. As Vin Diesel’s Dominic would put it, it’s all about family. “Family” is what matters. If you’re on board with the series at this point it’s strangely satisfying to see the film’s major triumph be the gang coming together for a climactic backyard cookout, Coronas proudly lifted in the air. Fast & Furious 6 makes the audience feel like part of the “family”, like we’re all in for the silly ride together. Everyone involved has seemingly gotten comfortable with how ridiculous the series is and found their own ways to make it work as its own unique action franchise, with Vin Diesel standing tall as the most comfortable of them all. It’s adorable.

MVP of the cast: The heart really is in those “family”-obsessed Vin Diesel pep talks. Part of what makes it so convincing is that it feels like he truly believes it.
Most curious detail: The film’s central conflict is with a rival gang who, as Tyrese Gibson describes in an especially hilarious monologue, poses as the gang’s doppelgangers, because they do not believe in family and instead treat their criminal schemes like a business.

Furious 7 (2015)EPSON MFP imagefourstar

Furious 7’s charms depend greatly on the six films that precede it (this marks the first time that the Tokyo Drift storyline is firmly in the temporal rearview), but it uses that well-established history to its advantage as a launching pad for its larger-than-ever set pieces and relentless fan service. To a newcomer the barrage of seemingly insignificant callbacks could feel superfluous at best and grotesque at worst, but for a fan (even a recent convert such as myself), they’re pleasantly familiar. That’s not to say that a pair of fresh eyes would have nothing to enjoy here. At a remarkably brisk 137 minutes, Furious 7 is packed to the gills with action movie surface pleasures that reach new heights in its “vehicular warfare” that will dazzle even the uninitiated. However, anyone who has made it this far into the Fast & Furious ride (or at least tuned in after the not-so-great fourth one) is likely to feel an affinity for the series that not only excuses, but emphatically embraces its trashy, trashy charms as well. It’s sure to please the franchise’s established fans as well as gather some new ones along the way. There really is just so much movie here that anyone who enjoys loud, obnoxious action films in any capacity is likely find something to latch onto.

MVP of the Cast: Paul Walker’s transformation from a “sandwich crazy” undercover cop to an action movie legend was a gradual one that has now sadly come to a close. It’s always a bummer to watch a family member go, but Furious 7 does a great job of giving him a proper send-off.
Most Curious Detail: Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson puts his pro wrestling past to good use in a moment that includes him reviving his signature “Rock Bottom” move from the Attitude Era.

Lagniappe

The Fast and the Furious (1955) EPSON MFP imagetwohalfstar

A 1950’s car racing cheapie from Movie of the Month vet Roger Corman, The Fast and the Furious is far from the legendary director’s most interesting film, but it is only the second title (out of hundreds) that he produced and the first title ever produced by American International Pictures, the film company that helped make him a b-movie powerhouse. The film has very little connection to the much-more-infamous Paul Walker series outside of the purchase of its title rights, but that purchase was most certainly worth every penny. It’s a damn good title. Good thing they decided not stick with the much less compelling original name for the film, Crashout. Filmed in just ten days, The Fast and the Furious is one of many examples of Corman’s superhuman ability to make a surprisingly watchable picture on a tight budget, even if it isn’t a particularly memorable one. It does share some incidental similarities the Paul Walker franchise of the same name, like felons getting mixed up in car racing, racers inspecting/admiring each other’s gear, the featured inclusion of female racers, and (most incidentally of all) mentions of Coachella, California. Both Corman’s film and the 2000s franchise also have a tendency to mix corny comedy in with their criminal intrigue as well as an over-reliance on dated effects (whether they be CGI or driving scenes filmed in front of a projector). Corman’s The Fast and the Furious is by no means essential viewing, but it is an interesting footnote to the trashy cultural powerhouse that followed nearly 50 years later.

Better Luck Tomorrow (2002) EPSON MFP imagethree star

An MTV-produced slice of Asian-American ennui & teen criminality, Better Luck Tomorrow is the feature film debut of director Justin Lin, who made a cohesive whole out of the Fast & Furious franchise with his take on the third, fourth, fifth & sixth titles. The connection to the Fast & Furious universe is mostly tangential here, depending solely on the presence of a high school age Han, who first entered the picture in the oddball entry Tokyo Drift. Han is played by Sung Kang in both Better Luck Tomorrow as well as every Fast & Furious film directed by Lin. Although the connection is tenuous, it’s amusing to watch Lin’s debut and imagine the character’s origins here, not to mention that the film itself is an enjoyable indie crime drama with a killer soundtrack that features Le Tigre, Bonfire Madigan and Emily’s Sassy Lime. There are obviously no direct references to Fast & Furious to be found in the film, but there is the coincidental inclusion of this throwaway line: “We had the run of the place. Rumors about us came fast and furious.”

Turbo-Charged Prelude (2003) & Los Bandaleros (2009) EPSON MFP imageonestar

There have been two officially-released “short films” meant to serve as primers in-between the Fast & Furious features. The nearly dialogue-free short Turbo-Charged Prelude follows Paul Walker’s Brian through an evading-the-law montage that adds essentially nothing of value to the series, but instead plays like a music video for an overlong rap instrumental. I did like that it ended with the phrase “2 Be Continued . . .”, but that was its sole bright moment. The Vin Diesel-penned & directed short Los Bandaleros was a slightly more significant, portraying a Dominican getaway for Dominic & Letty in a sequence that doesn’t involve fast cars or explosions and even misses an opportunity to plug Coronas during its backyard cookout. There are some interesting musings on the prison system as the new slavery and yet another attempt to bridge Tokyo Drift to the rest of the series through Han, but the short is mostly a sweet, low-stakes tryst between Dominic & Letty that receives a vague callback in Furious 7, but really isn’t worth its 20min runtime for that connection.

-Brandon Ledet

Fast & Furious 6 (2013)

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fourstar

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Surprisingly, it wasn’t until the fifth film in the Fast and Furious franchise when the series cracked the code and found its own distinct voice. That voice just happened to be Vin Diesel’s increasingly slow, gruff droning about the importance of family. Fast Five had an infectious way of making the central “family” bond feel truly important, despite the disconnected quality of the first three films that made the same characters feel entirely unrelated. Fast Five solidified that Dominic Torreto (Vin Diesel) and his ragtag gang can actually function as a cohesive unit. That gang’s-all-here vibe, paired with a ballooning budget, made the film one of the highlights of the franchise so far, right up there with the driving-sideways oddity Tokyo Drift.

Fast & Furious 6 plays right into this increasingly intense concern for tying the series together by kicking things off with a plot-summarizing montage (complete with a Wiz Khalifa rap) over its opening credits. If the gang started properly functioning as a unit in the last film, this is where they individually become eccentric cartoon versions of themselves. The Rock has essentially transformed into a flesh-tone version of The Hulk (putting that pro-wrestling background to good use early & often), Sung Kang’s Han is pretty much an anime character, Ludacris rigs an ATM to literally “make it rain”, etc. The series starts to get wrapped up in its own mythology the way the individual characters are wrapped up in theirs. Han’s threat that they might actually tie the storyline into Tokyo Drift continues for the third film running now with the exchange “We always talk about Tokyo.” “Tokyo it is.” (a promise they finally make good on in a ridiculous post-credits stinger). Paul Walker wistfully remarks upon how much the gang loves cookouts and Corona in the line “We got everything, down to the beer & the barbeque.” Most absurdly, the series continues its blend of policing & criminality by recruiting Vin Diesel as an honorary cop, which is a hilarious development at this point in the series. Now that the “family” has come together as a tight unit, they’ve finally found a way to go truly over the top.

The ridiculous caricatures and ever-expanding budget for the action sequences (which include crumbling buildings and a return to extensive street racing here) are what make Fast & Furious 6 feel like a far cry from where the series began, but it’s not what makes the film important. The heart really is in those “family”-obsessed Vin Diesel pep talks. If you’re on board with the series at this point it’s strangely satisfying to see the film’s major triumph be the gang coming together for a climactic backyard cookout, Coronas proudly lifted in the air. The film’s central conflict is with a rival gang who, as Tyrese Gibson describes in an especially hilarious monologue, poses as the gang’s doppelgangers, because they do not believe in family and treat their gang like a business. There are some returns to the hallmarks of the early films in the franchise: new toys that hack into power-steering systems to cause crashes, brutal fistfights (between women this time), new vehicles like a Batmobile knockoff and a goddamn tank, etc. The film also finds more room for street racing & driving-related set pieces, something that had faded to the background in the last couple pictures. What’s most impressive here, however, is that in addition to these trashy surface pleasures Fast & Furious 6 makes the audience feel like part of the “family”, like we’re all in for the silly ride together. Everyone involved has seemingly gotten comfortable with how ridiculous the series is and found their own ways to make it work as its own unique action franchise, with Vin Diesel standing tall as the most comfortable of them all. It’s adorable.

-Brandon Ledet

Fast Five (2011)

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threehalfstar

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In my review for the bottom-of-the-bucket sequel Fast & Furious (despite the misleading title, that’s the fourth film in the franchise), I called the film “unnecessarily dour”, which remains true, but that doesn’t mean it was entirely unnecessary. Fast & Furious worked as retroactive franchise glue, culling the scattered pieces of the first three films into a cohesive whole for the first time ever. While the first three installments seemed increasingly disinterested in constructing a consistent narrative as a set (with Tokyo Drift being the most hilariously detached of the bunch), the fourth was hell-bent on pretending that there was a grand purpose all along. It was not a pleasurable experience (there’s no reason it couldn’t have been fun while still being functional), but it did serve a purpose: setting the stage for Fast Five.

Fast Five picks up immediately where the fourth film left off, with newscasters (including Perd Hapley!) reporting on the disappearance of Vin Diesel & Paul Walker that concluded the last film, completing Walker’s transition from undercover cop to wanted man. Replacing Walker on the dangerous policing side of the occasion is a supercop played by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. This is essentially the perfect role for The Rock, as he is allowed both to show his chops as a legit actor (his natural charisma is undeniable) and also as an action-film-ready superhuman muscle god. More importantly, an all-star crew of the gang/”family” members from the first four films are assembled here in the single best team-building montage outside of MacGruber. Tyrese Gibson & Ludacris return as a genuinely hilarious comedy duo, playing off of each other’s personalities expertly. Jordana Brewster is finally allowed behind the wheel again (speaking of natural charisma, I can’t explain exactly why I like her so much). Han (Sung Kang) again teases just when Tokyo Drift will occur in the chronology, just like last time. When a character asks him about this directly, saying “I thought you wanted to get to Tokyo?” Han responds “We’ll get there. Eventually.” That’s just gold. Diesel & The Rock’s onscreen interactions are pure gold as well, especially in a especially brutal fistfight that almost results in a bare-fists murder. There’s an overriding vibe of “the gang’s all here” that makes the film a fun, over-the-top ride of campy action.

Giving the cast a narrative reason to coexist was a somewhat important development, but what’s really important is that they’re firing on all cylinders as a group here. This is apparent as early as the opening heist, which is easily the most absurd action set piece of the series so far. It’s a glorious spectacle of a high speed train robbery that includes flying cars, flying Paul Walker, and a grand entrance in which Vin Diesel rips the wall off the side of a train. There’s a second over-the-top action sequence at the end of the film featuring an oversized vault being dragged behind a car like a wrecking ball, but even that scene has a difficult time topping the jaw-dropping opening minutes. In between those two points of widespread, car-driven mayhem, there’s a return to the torture scenes of the first couple films, a callback to the on-the-lens fecal splash of Tokyo Drift, and the highest kill count by gunfire of any film in the series so far, just endless scores of dead Brazilian cops & criminals left by the wayside.

There’s a lot of killer action movie surface pleasures scattered all over Fast Five, but that’s not what makes it special. What distinguishes the film is Vin Diesel’s Dominic’s sudden conviction that his gang of ragtag criminals and former cops is a “family”. Why is it suddenly so stirring when Diesel talks about family in Fast Five, so much more so than it was in previous installments? It’s because it feels like he truly believes it. As far as the franchise goes, the “family” in the first four films act like distant cousins who might see each other once a decade. Suddenly, in Fast Five it’s genuinely moving when Dominic talks about how his father taught him about the importance of backyard grilling, how a family always sticks together, and so on. It’s not a perfect film; it could’ve allowed more screen time for The Rock & (I can’t believe I’m saying this) more street racing and a ludicrous post-credits stinger has the gall to bring the dead back to life without explanation, but it was a huge step forward for the Fast and Furious franchise. Five films in, all the separate elements are finally clicking as a cohesive action movie unit. Where most extended franchises gradually unravel over the course of their sequels, this is one that took that time to find itself and cull its own “familial” mythology.

-Brandon Ledet

The Fast and the Furious (2001)

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three star

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Despite the 15 year run of the franchise’s cultural ubiquity, I’ve somehow managed to avoid ever seeing a Fast & Furious movie in full. Sure, I’ve seen them playing as background noise in various bars & living rooms over the years, but I’ve never bothered to watch a single picture from front to end. When the series first got started I was a gloomy teenage snob who wouldn’t be caught dead watching such mindless machismo, but something happened in the years since: I grew a sense of humor. And while I was working on that, something else happened: the series seemingly got exponentially ridiculous with each sequel. It’s rare these days for any genre film outside of slasher flicks to earn six sequels, but here we are in 2015 with a car racing movie reaching its seventh installment next month: Furious 7. It’s with the ads for that seventh installment that I’ve finally reached my tipping point. The trailer for Furious 7 is so deliciously over the top that when I first saw it in the theater I finally felt compelled to catch up with the entire series.

It turns out that the very first installment in the Fast & Furious franchise was a very effective baseline measurement for the series. It was exactly what I had expected: rap-rock era machismo way more concerned with cartoonishly fast cars, gigantic guns, and impressively elaborate action sequences than its superfluous plot about an undercover cop. The movie opens with a dangerous, in-motion highway robbery, then moves on directly to a fistfight, then a drag race, then a feud with a biker gang and so on. In addition to fistfights, armed robberies, motorcycles, and sports cars, The Fast and the Furious features such macho trademarks as rap metal, backyard grills, and lipstick lesbianism. The film also features Vin Diesel in his early 2000s prime (he had a prime, right?), Ja Rule (unmistakably in his prime) as an early sign of the series’ unique interest in rappers-turned-actors, and the strikingly sexy Jordana Brewster as the designated trophy girl for face-of-the-series Paul Walker to lust after. Above all of these macho hallmarks stands what I suppose is the film’s main attraction: fast cars. Cars so fast that light warps around them like spaceships in old-line sci-fi, their roaring engines overpowering the sound design & the inner workings of their nitrous oxide systems becoming a fetishistic focus for the CGI. The series, of course, is all about furiously fast cars, with plot & dialogue taking a very distant second.

The Fast and the Furious is entertaining enough as a mindless action flick & a trashy cultural relic, but it’s nowhere near the peak ridiculousness promised in the Furious 7 trailer. It does have its campy moments, though. The dialogue is often laughable. For example, early in the film when Paul Walker’s character suspiciously patrons a subpar sandwich shop, a hooligan asks, “What’s up with this fool? What is he, sandwich crazy?” In addition to the nonsensical vocal posturing, there’s the hideous detail of someone being force-fed engine oil as a torture tactic, the fact that somehow no one seems to think it’s fucked up that their drag race competition is called “Race Wars”, and a straight-out-of-a-girl-group-song moment when Paul Walker screams “Don’t do it, Jesse!” while trying to convince a reckless teen not to race. Also, as a lazy Louisiana nerd who barely leaves the house, I have no idea exactly how over the top the depictions of widescale California street races that result in thousands of people running from the cops are, but they felt pretty silly to an outsider. The campy charms never reach a fever pitch, however, and the film mostly serves as a baseline measurement for the sure-to-come shameless retreads inherent to sequels as well as the cartoonish absurdity promised in the ads for Furious 7 (and hopefully elsewhere in the five films in-between). It was a decent start to the series, but I doubt it’s the best or the worst that it has to offer. We’ll see.

-Brandon Ledet