aka Fast & Furious 8
D: F. Gary Gray / 136m
Cast: Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Michelle Rodriguez, Charlize Theron, Tyrese Gibson, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Nathalie Emmanuel, Scott Eastwood, Kurt Russell, Elsa Pataky, Helen Mirren, Kristofer Hivju
And so we come to episode eight in the ongoing Fast and Furious franchise, the series that just keeps on giving and giving… and giving and giving and giving and giving. This is a movie, one of several that we’ll see this year, that will do incredibly well at the international box office, and which will be hugely successful no matter what critics or bloggers or anyone and their auntie says about it. It’s a movie that exists in its own little cinematic bubble, oblivious to movie making trends, advances or developments. If you live in the UK, it’s the equivalent of those Ronseal adverts that state, “It does what it says on the tin”. And if you don’t live in the UK, then try this comparison: it’s like going to McDonalds and ordering a Big Mac, fries and a Coke. You know exactly what you’re getting, and it doesn’t matter if you’ve had that particular combo more times than you can remember, that’s also kind of the point. Here, familiarity breeds expectation, and the makers of the Fast and Furious movies know exactly how to satisfy that expectation.
All the familiar elements are here: exotic locations (Iceland, Cuba, New York?), Diesel being taciturn and glowering a lot (he even shouts a few times, which is new), Johnson looking like a poster boy for steroid abuse, Rodriguez glowering a lot like Diesel, Gibson acting unconscionably stupid, Bridges giving nerds a fairly good name for once, over-the-top action sequences that regularly and deliberately challenge the laws of physics, and cars, lots of shiny, sleek, expensive cars. Relative series newbies Russell, Emmanuel and Statham slot in neatly amidst the rest of the cast, while complete newbies Eastwood (good guy) and Theron (bad guy) add little and a lot respectively. Throw in some old faces from previous entries, and a storyline that’s been built on the back of the last two outings, and you have another patchy, under-developed crowd-pleaser that does enough to keep its audience interested while at the same time giving said audience very very very little that’s new. And it’s the opener for a closing trilogy of movies that will see the franchise come to an end in April 2021.
If there’s anything interesting about the movie, it’s the way in which it harkens back to earlier entries, and tries to incorporate the look and feel of those earlier movies. The opening sequence, set in Cuba, is a throwback to the approach and feel of the first and third movies, with its street-level, underground racing vibe, and beautiful hangers-on to some of the ugliest drivers ever seen on screen. There’s a car up for grabs, a sneering minor villain who thinks he can outwit Dominic Toretto (foolish man!), and some very impressive stunt driving. But it’s a measure of how far the series has come in terms of its tone and style, that this sequence – which starts off well – soon descends into the kind of ridiculous, credibility-free, and excessive action set-piece that the series has become known for. Seeing Toretto winning the race in a stripped-down junker, in reverse, and with the engine on fire no less, serves as an acknowledgement that while the series wants to honour its more scaled-back origins, it’s grown too big and excessive to be able to.
Much has been made of this movie’s main storyline – Toretto betrays his “family” – but as a plot device it’s one of the weaker ideas in the series, and all because we know that there’s no way it’s “for real”. As expected, there’s a reason for his “betrayal”, and while it’s played out with as much sincerity as returning scribe Chris Morgan can instil in his by-the-numbers screenplay, it shows a complete disregard for the character of Letty (Rodriguez) and the trials she’s endured since “dying” in part four (and especially in relation to a scene between Letty and Toretto early on in Cuba). Worse still, the whole thing leads to a scene involving Statham’s returning nemesis Deckard Shaw, and the complete reversal of his character from murderous psychopath to genial funster. It’s as if the makers have seen his performance in Spy (2015) and thought to themselves, how can we exploit this?
Character assassination apart, the movie follows the tried and tested formula of the previous three movies, and never deviates from its cookie-cutter approach. It’s no secret that the franchise thinks up its action sequences first and fits a story and plot around them later, but this time the obvious nature of such a design is even more noticeable than before. An attack on a Russian minister on the streets of New York occurs at the halfway mark, and includes the appropriation by über-villain Cipher (Theron) of any car in the area that has an on-board computer system. Why she has to activate all of them makes no sense, but it does lead to mass collisions and vehicles falling from multi-storey car parks and no end of unconvincing CGI. Far better? The scenes predceeding this where Toretto has to escape Cipher’s surveillance in order to put his own plans into action. Short, simple, and so much more effective.
One thing The Fate of the Furious does get right – finally – is its choice of villain. Stepping out of the shadows no one knew she inhabited, Cipher is played with chilling conviction by Theron, and if as seems likely, she’s going to be the villain for the last two movies as well, then her involvement could be the best thing about them – as it is here. With Statham’s character now reformed, the movie needed someone to be a real villain, and Theron comes through in spades. She’s icy, mad, and bad to the core. Theron shares most of her scenes with Diesel, and every time it’s a no contest: she acts him off the plane Cipher uses, and off the screen as well (which is a shame, as away from all his franchise movies, Pitch Black (2000) excepted, he can be a very good actor indeed).
But what about those action sequences? And what about that submarine smashing through the ice? And all those explosions? Everything we’ve seen in the various trailers? Well, they’re all as slickly produced and homogeneously exciting as those in previous entries, and they’re fine examples of modern day action heroics, but even so they remain curiously thrill-free. A prison riot does Statham and Johnson no favours thanks to having been shot in a jerky, shaky style that makes focusing on the various punches and kicks both actors dish out quite difficult to follow. It’s a sequence that could have benefitted from having a few more bone-crunching sound effects thrown in as well. The submarine sequence is reminiscent of the ending to Furious 6 (2013) (justly famous for its neverending runway), but is surprisingly restrained for all that, while the movie’s biggest explosion – naturally saved for last – also gives rise to the movie’s most ridiculous and risible moment.
But none of this matters. Not Helen Mirren’s awful Cockney accent, not Hivju’s distracting resemblance to a young James Cosmo, not even the sight of Johnson manhandling a torpedo as it races across the ice. The Fate of the Furious can do what it likes and audiences will lap it up regardless. Does this make it a bad movie? On the whole, yes, it does. But for all that, is it entertaining? Weirdly, yes, but in a subdued, stopgap kind of fashion, as if this entry in the series was a bridge between previous episodes and the ones to come, ones that will (hopefully) up the series’ game considerably. After eight movies the franchise has reached a kind of tipping point: the final two outings need to be much stronger and more focused on what they’re trying to do. The series hasn’t quite run out of mileage yet, but it’s running perilously close, and if the makers aren’t careful, the remaining movies will most likely be running on fumes.
Rating: 5/10 – fans will lap this up, but The Fate of the Furious, with its tangled ideas about family and betrayal, doesn’t add up to much, and relies too heavily on its action sequences to prop up its awkward script; the cast have to make do with the same character beats they’ve been given in previous movies, and franchise first-timer Gray isn’t allowed to do anything different with the formula, making this a movie generated and made by committee, and as a result, lacking a distinct identity to make it stand out from the rest of the series.
Action, Animation, Ariel Schulman, Auli'i Cravalho, Chester Morris, Chris Wedge, Chris Williams, D.J. Caruso, Dave Franco, David Yates, Disney, Don Hall, Donnie Yen, Dwayne Johnson, Eddie Redmayne, Emma Roberts, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, George Sherman, Gerry O'Hara, Guy Hamilton, Heart of a Dog, Henry Joost, Horror, Howard Lovecraft and the Frozen Kingdom, Ian McShane, J.K. Rowling, January 2017, John Musker, Laurie Anderson, Lolabelle, Lucas Till, Moana, Monster Trucks, Monthly roundup, Movies, Nerve (2016), Oliver Reed, Rat terrier, Ray Enright, Reviews, Richard Conte, Ron Clements, Sean Patrick O'Reilly, The Party's Over, The Pleasure Girls, The Sixties, The Sleeping City, Tomorrow at Seven, Vin Diesel, xXx: Return of Xander Cage
Nerve (2016) / D: Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman / 96m
Cast: Dave Franco, Emma Roberts, Emily Meade, Miles Heizer, Juliette Lewis, Kimiko Glenn, Marc John Jefferies, Colson Baker, Brian Marc
Rating: 6/10 – an online game of Truth or Dare quickly escalates into something more dangerous than expected when Vee (Roberts) decides to escape her comfort zone and take on the game’s challenges; less than subtle criticisms of the Internet and social media can’t hide the fact that this kind of scenario – teens (mostly) take risks to become “cool” in the eyes of the world – lacks immediacy and a real sense that its characters are in any actual danger, leaving Nerve to flirt with its ideas but never really take them out on a first date.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016) / D: David Yates / 133m
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Colin Farrell, Alison Sudol, Samantha Morton, Ezra Miller, Faith Wood-Blagrove, Jenn Murray, Jon Voight, Ronan Raftery, Josh Cowdery, Ron Perlman, Carmen Ejogo
Rating: 5/10 – in New York in 1926, young wizard, Newt Scamander (Redmayne), arrives with a case full of fantastic beasts (what else?) and finds himself in the midst of an evil plot to boost Warner Bros.’ take at the box office; despite being written by J.K. Rowling, Fantastic Beasts... is littered with characters we never get to know, clumsy demarcations between the wizarding world and that of the Muggles (or No-Maj’s as they’re known here), features another tedious series of destruction-porn episodes, and fosters the overwhelming sense that, despite protestations to the contrary, this is a franchise cash-in and nothing more.
Moana (2016) / D: Ron Clements, John Musker, Don Hall, Chris Williams / 107m
Cast: Auli’i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Rachel House, Temuera Morrison, Jemaine Clement, Nicole Scherzinger, Alan Tudyk
Rating: 6/10 – when a curse threatens the island she lives on, chief’s daughter Moana (Cravalho) goes in search of the one person who can put things right: the cause of the curse, demi-god Maui (Johnson); following on from the delightful (and fresh) Zootopia (2016), it’s shocking to see just how lightweight Moana is in comparison, with little depth to the characters, and a plot so flimsy it’s almost see-through, all of which leaves the movie’s stunning animation as the only thing that makes an impact.
The Party’s Over (1965) / D: Guy Hamilton / 94m
Cast: Oliver Reed, Clifford David, Ann Lynn, Katherine Woodville, Louise Sorel, Mike Pratt, Maurice Browning, Jonathan Burn, Roddy Maude-Roxby, Annette Robertson, Alison Seebohm, Eddie Albert
Rating: 7/10 – an American businessman (David) comes to London to persuade his fiancée (Lynn) to return home and get married, but he finds himself battling against her friends (led by Reed’s anti-Establishment poser), and her sudden disappearance; seen today, The Party’s Over has all the hallmarks of a Sixties curio, but at the time it pushed quite a few boundaries, and fell foul of the British censors, forcing Hamilton to remove his name from the credits – but not before he’d made a fascinating and striking movie that’s only let down by a handful of weak performances and an ending that matches them.
The Sleeping City (1950) / D: George Sherman / 85m
Cast: Richard Conte, Coleen Gray, Richard Taber, John Alexander, Peggy Dow, Alex Nicol
Rating: 6/10 – the murder of a doctor at New York’s Bellevue Hospital prompts the police to place three undercover officers there in an attempt to flush out the killer; beginning with an awkward endorsement of the Bellevue staff by Conte (whose inability to read from cue cards is obvious), The Sleeping City soon settles into its film noir trappings but while it’s diverting enough, it doesn’t know what to do with Conte’s lead detective, or how to make its central plot more interesting than it is.
Heart of a Dog (2015) / D: Laurie Anderson / 75m
With: Laurie Anderson
Rating: 8/10 – a tone poem, an essay, a treatise on the unconditional love a dog has for its owner, and a wider examination of grief and loss allied to the events of 9/11 – this isn’t just about Laurie Anderson’s relationship with her beloved rat terrier, Lolabelle, but about the various ways that love and loss can affect us; at its core, Heart of a Dog is not a documentary, but a collage of distressed film stock, abstract sound and sound effects, Anderson’s performance persona, visual memories, heartfelt imagery and reminiscences, poetic reality, and Anderson’s own unique view of the world and the essential poetic nature of it all, all of which combines to provide the viewer with one of the most intriguing and thought-provoking movies of recent years.
Tomorrow at Seven (1933) / D: Ray Enright / 62m
Cast: Chester Morris, Vivienne Osborne, Frank McHugh, Allen Jenkins, Henry Stephenson, Grant Mitchell, Charles Middleton, Oscar Apfel, Virginia Howell
Rating: 7/10 – the Black Ace is a master criminal/murderer who predicts the time he’ll kill each of his victims, and he never fails, but crime writer Neil Broderick (Morris) is on his trail, and with the help of Black Ace expert, Thornton Drake (Stephenson), is determined to catch him; an old dark house mystery that features light relief (or major annoyance – take your pick) from the double act of McHugh and Jenkins as two of the stupidest cops on the force, Tomorrow at Seven does a good job of playing cat and mouse with the audience, but with so few suspects on display, the identity of the Black Ace is, sadly, all too obvious.
The Pleasure Girls (1965) / D: Gerry O’Hara / 88m
Cast: Ian McShane, Francesca Annis, Mark Eden, Klaus Kinski, Anneke Wills, Tony Tanner, Rosemary Nicols, Suzanna Leigh, Colleen Fitzpatrick, Carol Cleveland
Rating: 6/10 – Sally (Annis) comes to London to be a model, and soon falls in with a like-minded group of young women looking to find their way in the world – and have a lot of fun at the same time, even though it doesn’t always work out like that; though the focus is in on Sally, her friends, and the various relationships they form, The Pleasure Girls makes more of an impact thanks to its male cast, with McShane, Eden and Kinski (very good) all standing out thanks to strong characterisations and having less soap opera-style dialogue than that of the female cast, and O’Hara’s direction appearing to wander whenever two or more of the girls are on screen.
Monster Trucks (2016) / D: Chris Wedge / 105m
Cast: Lucas Till, Jane Levy, Thomas Lennon, Barry Pepper, Rob Lowe, Holt McCallany, Amy Ryan, Danny Glover, Frank Whaley
Rating: 7/10 – an oil-drilling operation leads to the release of three “monsters” that live deep underground, but while the oil company captures two of the creatures, the third ends up befriending high school senior, Tripp (Till), who in turn helps it to avoid being captured as well; an innocuous throwback to the kind of fantasy movies made for kids in the Eighties, Monster Trucks is a lot of fun if you let yourself just go with it, and though its message of tolerance and understanding of “foreigners” seems at odds with current notions of US nationalism, it’s still a message we can all stand to hear one more time.
Howard Lovecraft and the Frozen Kingdom (2016) / D: Sean Patrick O’Reilly / 83m
Cast: Kiefer O’Reilly, Sean Patrick O’Reilly, Jane Curtin, Ron Perlman, Christopher Plummer, Alison Wandzura, Tyler Nicol, Doug Bradley
Rating: 5/10 – young Howard Lovecraft (Kiefer O’Reilly) finds himself transported to a strange kingdom of ice which is inhabited by equally strange creatures, and where he finds himself searching for both a way back, and a way to reassure his father (Nicol) (who’s locked up in an asylum) that his ravings about other worlds and said creatures are all true; a curious blend of children’s animation and H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, Howard Lovecraft and the Frozen Kingdom is quite straightforward in its approach, but is let down by poor production values, an animation style that makes it look like a video game from the Nineties, and a script that juggles motivations and dialogue like a one-handed man in a chainsaw-catching competition.
xXx: Return of Xander Cage (2017) / D: D.J. Caruso / 107m
Cast: Vin Diesel, Donnie Yen, Deepika Padukone, Toni Collette, Ruby Rose, Kris Wu, Tony Jaa, Nina Dobrev, Rory McCann, Michael Bisping, Samuel L. Jackson
Rating: 4/10 – the world is in peril from yet another technological McGuffin, and it’s up to extreme sports enthusiast/secret agent Xander Cage (Diesel) to save the day; with Diesel unable to get The Last Witch Hunter (2015) off the ground as another franchise earner, it’s no surprise that he’s returned to a character he left behind fifteen years ago, but this is as uninspired and as predictable as you’d expect, and only Yen’s (always) impressive physicality makes any kind of an impact.
D: Rawson Marshall Thurber / 114m
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Amy Ryan, Danielle Nicolet, Jason Bateman, Aaron Paul, Ryan Hansen, Tim Griffin, Timothy John Smith, Thomas Kretschmann
An action comedy that doesn’t take itself, or its raison d’etre, seriously, Central Intelligence is the kind of buddy movie that lives or dies depending on the chemistry between its two leads. It’s a relief then that the pairing of Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart – this decade’s answer to Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito perhaps – works so well, and the pair are able to riff off on one another with an ease that belies the fact that this is their first movie together.
It all begins twenty years ago at a high school rally that sees put-upon fat kid Robbie Weirdicht grabbed from the school showers and sent sprawling across the floor of the gymnasium where everyone is gathered. While everyone else laughs, only Calvin Joyner, the most popular kid in school, helps Robbie to cover up. Robbie runs away and is never seen again. Fast forward twenty years and the class of 1996 is preparing to attend their high school reunion. Calvin (Hart) is now an accountant whose initial promise seems to have petered out: he’s just been passed up for promotion. He’s married to his childhood sweetheart, Maggie (Nicolet), but they don’t have any kids and she’s more successful than he is. Then, out of the blue, Calvin recieves a friend request on Facebook from someone called Bob Stone (Johnson). Stone persuades Calvin to meet him for a drink, and when they do, Calvin is amazed that Bob is actually Robbie, and that Robbie has changed so completely from the fat kid he remembers from school.
The pair end up back at Calvin’s home, where Bob asks him to look at his payroll account as there’s a problem with it. But the account is actually a list of bids for an unknown item at an auction due to finish the next night. Bob stays over, but the morning brings a surprise visit by the CIA in the form of Agent Harris (Ryan) and her fellow agents, Mitchell (Griffin) and Cooper (Smith). They’re after Bob who, it transpires, is a CIA agent who is apparently wanted for the theft of spy sateliite codes and the murder of his partner. Bob has left, however, and only catches up with Calvin later at his office. A firefight with the CIA ensues and the pair narrowly escape. Bob explains he’s trying to find the location where the codes will be bought, and needs Calvin’s accounting skills to help him do so. Calvin balks at the idea however, and takes off at the first opportunity.
Pressure from the CIA is brought to bear on Calvin and he’s forced to give up Bob’s whereabouts. But with Bob in custody and being interrogated “the hard way”, Calvin has a change of heart and helps him escape. They use another high school alumni, Trevor (Bateman), to help them find the location of the buy, and head off to Boston to crash the meeting, and discover just who the buyer is and if he’s a shadowy figure called the Black Badger, also the man responsible for the death of Bob’s partner, Phil (Paul)…
From the above synopsis you can guess that Central Intelligence doesn’t have exactly the greatest of scripts, but that wouldn’t be entirely true. Yes, it has several painful moments where the basic plot rebounds against the constraints of credibility, and the storyline surrounding Calvin and Maggie’s relationship takes the movie off into odd areas that slow the movie down and feel like padding, but overall it’s a movie that provides solid laughs, both visual (Bob’s dislocated finger) and verbal (“And you’re still shorter than my cat” – Trevor to Calvin). For once, Hart doesn’t overdo his usual schtick and delivers his best performance for a while, making Calvin’s eventual, committed, partnership with Bob more believable than expected. Meanwhile, Johnson reminds viewers just how good he can be in a comedy role, playing Bob as an over-exuberant man-child whose enthusiasm for pretty much everything is expressed through a variety of gushing excitement and childlike wonder.
Indeed, it’s the inspired pairing of Johnson and Hart that makes Central Intelligence work as well as it does. Unlike, say, Hart’s pairing with Ice Cube in the Ride Along movies, here he displays a genuine chemistry with the former WWE Superstar that makes watching the movie far more enjoyable than it appears at first glance. And while, as mentioned above, Hart employs his trademark cowardly, fast-talking movie persona on several occasions but perhaps in deference to Johnson’s cleverer, less in-your-face approach, refrains from going as over the top as he’s done in the likes of Get Hard (2015). This makes for one of his better performances, and in his scenes with Johnson you can see and feel him upping his game, something he hasn’t done since co-starring with Stallone and De Niro in Grudge Match (2013).
Without Johnson and Hart’s sterling performances, however, Central Intelligence would be even more derivative and lightweight than it looks, thanks to its piecemeal plotting, obvious villain, and low-key action sequences (they’re well choreographed but aren’t that memorable when all’s said and done). There’s an awkward subplot involving bullying that is resolved in typically inappropriate fashion, and the secondary characters are practically cardboard cutouts, leaving the likes of Ryan and Bateman little else to do but recite their lines and hope for the best once the movie’s cut together. Thurber, whose last movie was the wickedly smart and under-appreciated We’re the Millers (2013) makes light work of a screenplay that could have been filed under “fluffy nonsense” and no one would have complained, and shows an aptitude for the buddy movie – and showing these characters in a good light in particular – that hopefully will keep him retained if a sequel is ever greenlit (which is likely).
Rating: 6/10 – there’s plenty of silly fun to be had in Central Intelligence, but while it’s amusing enough, it doesn’t excuse the waywardness or clumsiness of the script; Hart and Johnson make a great double act (though Johnson proves to be the better comic actor), and there’s enough merit to the action scenes to keep genre fans happy, all of which adds up to a surprisingly entertaining viewing experience – if you don’t expect too much.
D: Brad Peyton / 114m
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino, Alexandra Daddario, Paul Giamatti, Ioan Gruffudd, Archie Panjabi, Hugo Johnstone-Burt, Art Parkinson, Will Yun Lee, Kylie Minogue
Ray Gaines (Johnson) is a helicopter rescue pilot with the Los Angeles Fire Department, separated from his wife Emma (Gugino), but on very good terms with his daughter, Blake (Daddario). He plans to take a few days off to spend some time with her in San Francisco, but he has to shelve those plans when an earthquake destroys the Hoover Dam, and he’s called back to work. In apologising to Blake, he learns that Emma is planning to live with her new boyfriend, property developer Daniel Riddick (Gruffudd). Daniel suggests taking Blake to San Francisco himself and they leave soon after.
While Ray takes part in various rescue missions, seismologist Lawrence Hayes (Giamatti) – who was at the dam when it broke – is becoming increasingly worried that that earthquake was just a precursor to a series of much bigger, much more devastating ones. When one such earthquake strikes Los Angeles, Emma finds herself in a high rise building having lunch with Daniel’s sister, Susan (Minogue). As the quake hits she’s talking to Ray on the phone; he tells her to get to the roof and he’ll come and rescue her. Further quakes strike towns and cities up and down the California coast, including San Francisco. With Emma safe on board his helicopter, Ray receives a call from Blake: she’s trapped in a car in the basement of Daniel’s office building and it’s about to collapse.
Ray and Emma decide they have to try and rescue Blake, but the helicopter they’re in develops a fault and they crash land in Bakersfield. Managing to commandeer a plane, they continue on to San Francisco. Meanwhile, Blake has been rescued by a British engineer she met earlier at Daniel’s offices. Ben (Johnstone-Burt) and his younger brother Ollie (Parkinson) stay with Blake as she works out a way to let Ray know she’s okay. When she does he tells her to meet him in a particular place that has a special meaning to both of them. But it’s not possible for her to get there, so she heads for Daniel’s latest high rise development instead. Ray and Emma parachute out of the plane and land in San Francisco; when they realise Blake can’t get to the rendezvous site, they also discover that a tsunami is coming that will swamp the city. And when it does, Blake, Ben and Ollie find themselves trapped in Daniel’s building with the waters steadily rising, and Ray and Emma having no idea of where they are…
A disaster movie – the moviegoer’s guilty pleasure – should always favour spectacular destruction over coherent plot, story or characterisation. It should feature enough devastation to leave the viewer slack-jawed in admiration at what the special effects wizards can achieve. It should cater to that part of us that slows down to look when we pass a road accident. And above all, it should show us something that we might all experience some day, regardless of how safe we might feel in our own little corner of the world.
San Andreas should give us all that and more. But instead it’s a curiously bloodless affair, full of moments where the cast look awestruck at some fresh new aspect of the disaster around them, and where Hayes’ doom-laden dialogue hypes the destruction to near-apocalyptic levels. There are some impressive shots it’s true, but some – such as the awkward destruction of the Golden Gate Bridge – seem too absurd to appear feasible, or are rendered in such a way that the wow factor plays second fiddle to any plausibility. This might not be too much of a concern though if what we’re witnessing is something new, but the devastation wrought in the movie, while impressively mounted, has been done elsewhere already, and San Andreas, while promising the mother of all earthquakes from very early on – one that will be felt “on the East Coast” – actually falls short of doing so.
Instead, what we have is a tale of a family’s determination to survive against all the odds, and in Ray’s case, without regard for the job he does. Once the earthquake hits Los Angeles and all points Californian, Ray becomes a solo pilot, where before he’s been part of a four-man team. He rescues Emma and then jettisons any notion of helping others with a quick “we have to find our daughter” (not that anyone’s trying to contact him with any instructions or requests for help). He’s reckless as well, putting himself and Emma in harm’s way time after time: let’s crash the helicopter in a clothing store, let’s parachute out of a plane, let’s head into the swell of an oncoming tsunami – the more dangerous the action, the more determined he seems to tackle it. In a different kind of movie, Ray would be an adrenaline junkie with a death wish; here, he’s a big-hearted father who’s doing the best he can (gosh darn it!).
It’s a good thing then that Johnson is more than capable of helping the viewer ignore or forget these contradictions, putting in an emotive performance that sees him remind everyone why he’s the go-to guy for this kind of big-budget nonsense. Whether he’s ripping car doors off their hinges, or holding his breath underwater for minutes at a time, Johnson’s amiable muscularity fits the needs of the script admirably, even when Ray is called upon to relive a past tragedy. As a chip off the old block, Daddario provides an earnest counterpoint to Johnson’s grim-faced determination, while Giamatti bleeds sincerity as the tormented seismologist who saw it all coming. Spare a thought however, for Gugino – along for the ride and little else – and Gruffudd – asked to become a prick in the space of a nano-second. Both actors are ill-served by Carlton Cuse’s ill-focused screenplay, as is Johnstone-Burt, who’s called upon to play the kind of stereotypical good-natured bumbling Brit who sounds like minor royalty.
Behind the camera, Peyton orchestrates all the mayhem with a good eye for packing the frame with as much incident as possible, and there’s an effective score from Andrew Lockington that supports the action without overwhelming it. Fans of the disaster genre will particularly approve of the many building falling into/against/onto other building shots, and the refreshingly practical effects work used to show that a movie of this sort doesn’t have to be all digital. Others, though, may look at all the devastation and wonder, why does a lot of it have problems with scale?
Rating: 6/10 – while it’s enjoyable in a big dumb leave-your-brain-at-the-door kind of way, San Andreas has a script that features enough fault lines to warrant a warning sign all its own; a movie where the spectacle never quite inspires the awe or wonder it needs to, it fits neatly into the category of guilty pleasure but without really doing too much to earn its place there.
Action, Avengers, Black Widow, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Crime, Deckard Shaw, Dominic Toretto, Drama, Dwayne Johnson, Hulk, Iron Man, james Wan, Jason Statham, Joss Whedon, Mark Ruffalo, Marvel Cinematic Universe, Paul Walker, Reviews, Robert Downey Jr, Sequels, Superheroes, Thor, Thriller, Ultron, Villains, Vin Diesel
Furious 7 (2015)
aka Fast and Furious 7
D: James Wan / 137m
Cast: Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Michelle Rodriguez, Jason Statham, Jordana Brewster, Dwayne Johnson, Tyrese Gibson, Ludacris, Kurt Russell, Nathalie Emmanuel, Elsa Pataky, Djimon Hounsou, Tony Jaa, Ronda Rousey, John Brotherton, Lucas Black
Having bested Owen Shaw and his gang in the previous instalment, now Dominic (Diesel), Brian (Walker), Letty (Rodriguez), and what seems like every main character from the series, have to pull together – with the aid of the mysterious Mr. Nobody (Russell) to take down his vengeful brother, Deckard Shaw (Statham). Throw in the hunt for a software programme, and its creator (Emmanuel), that can track anyone anywhere in the world, a trip to Abu Dhabi, and the usual amount of hyper-realistic cartoon violence, and you have the most successful entry in the franchise to date with, at time of writing, a worldwide gross of $1,352,724,000 (making it the fourth highest grossing movie ever).
Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
D: Joss Whedon / 141m
Cast: Robert Downey Jr, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, James Spader, Samuel L. Jackson, Don Cheadle, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Cobie Smulders, Anthony Mackie, Hayley Atwell, Idris Elba, Stellan Skarsgård, Linda Cardellini, Claudia Kim, Thomas Kretschmann, Andy Serkis, Julie Delpy, Henry Goodman
In an attempt to retire the Avengers from group duty, Tony Stark (Downey Jr) creates a robot that comes equipped with artificial intelligence. Only there’s a flaw: the robot, named Ultron (Spader), sees the best way of carrying out his peacekeeping mission is to wipe out the human race (and thereby ensure a peaceful world). With internal conflicts hampering their efforts to combat Stark’s creation, the introduction of Quicksilver (Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Olsen) to the mix, a showdown between the Hulk (Ruffalo) and Iron Man in his Hulkbuster suit, and Ultron planning an extinction level event, you have a sequel that has made $424,460,000 at the box office in just over a week.
And so we have the first two candidates for 2015’s Mega-Blockbuster of the Year Award. In the red corner we have the testosterone-fuelled, carmageddon-inspired Furious 7, and in the blue corner we have Avengers: Age of Ultron, the latest juggernaut designed to increase Marvel’s grip on the world and its wallet. The inclusion of their box office takes is deliberate, as this is really what both these movies are about: making as much money as possible off the back of a heavily marketable idea. That the idea is becoming stale (Furious 7) or showing signs of running out of steam already (Avengers: Age of Ultron) is neither here nor there. These movies are guaranteed crowd pleasers, and all the studios that make them have to do is give the fans enough of what they like most to ensure those big box office grosses.
It’s a well-known fact that recent entries in the Fast and Furious franchise have been built around the action sequences: the stunts come first and then a story is created around them. Such an approach isn’t exactly new, but as the series continues, it appears that the writer, Chris Morgan, is fast running out of ways to keep it as real as possible given the absurd, physics-defying world Dominic and his family live in. Morgan has scripted every movie since The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006), and this time round the law of diminishing returns has clearly set in with a vengeance. With its dodgy timescales, crude attempts at characterisation, and action sequences that go on and on and on without ever changing pace (or should that be, gear?), Furious 7 is a movie that believes in its hype so much that it’s forgotten it still needs to make an effort beyond what’s expected of it.
Of course, script revisions had to be made due to the untimely death of Paul Walker, but like so many of the cast, he’s marginalised in a movie that has too many characters and too little time to do much with them apart from put them in continual jeopardy. Brewster is sidelined in the Dominican Republic (admittedly, not so bad), Johnson winds up in hospital until needed at the end, and Walker’s contribution seems reduced to fighting Tony Jaa. But with the script showing more interest in the villains (Statham, Hounsou, Russell maybe) than its heroes, it comes as a bit of a shock to realise that the main characters have nowhere to go – everyone, even Letty with her amnesia, is still the same as they were when they first appeared. Maybe this kind of familiarity is what the fans want but ultimately it just means that future entries – and there are three more planned for release – will continue to mine the same formula and with less satisfying results.
The same problem that occurs in Furious 7 occurs in Avengers: Age of Ultron, namely what to do with so many different characters, especially the new ones. Writer/director Whedon doesn’t appear to be as sure this time round as he was on the first Avengers movie (and it may be why he won’t be helming the two Avengers: Infinity War movies). While he does effective work exploring the personalities and idiosyncrasies of the Avengers themselves – Stark’s continuing egotism, a burgeoning relationship between Bruce Banner and Black Widow (Johansson), where Hawkeye (Renner) spends his downtime – he’s less successful when it comes to the villain, the villain’s sidekicks, and the whole let’s-level-a-city-and-cause-as-much-destruction-as-possible angle.
With so many characters to deal with, it’s inevitable that some of them don’t receive as much attention as others. The introduction of Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch is a case in point, with Taylor-Johnson reduced to asking people he’s knocked over if they saw that coming (and not just once), and Olsen saddled with a perma-frown as she casts spells on people. They have a back story but it doesn’t impact on how they behave in the movie, and their teaming up with Ultron seems convenient rather than a well thought out plot development. Likewise, we have appearances by Kretschmann (dispensed with too quickly), Serkis (as an intro to his character’s appearance in Black Panther), and Delpy (as Natasha Romanoff’s childhood instructor). All great actors, and all reduced to walk-ons in the service of the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe.
But all great superhero teams need a great villain, and while Ultron seems to pass muster, the main problem with him is the actor cast to play him. Now it’s not that James Spader is a terrible actor – far from it – but what’s clear from his performance is that, rather than come up with an entirely new characterisation, he’s gone for a slight deviation on Raymond Reddington from The Blacklist… and it’s been encouraged. As a result we have a robot that often sounds whimsical rather than destructive, and petulant when he should be megalomaniacal. Whedon is good at injecting comedy into his movies – here, the throwaway line “No it wasn’t” is used perfectly – but when he tries too hard, as he does with Ultron, the effect is lost, and the viewer could be forgiven for wondering if Ultron is meant to be so eccentric.
On the action front, once again we’re treated (if that’s the right word) to another massive showdown where buildings are levelled, the Avengers fight off an army of attackers (last time the Chi’tauri, this time Ultron’s robots), and the special effects budget goes through the (recently blasted) roof. The whole massive destruction approach is a huge disappointment, having been done to death already in movies such as Man of Steel (2013) and the previous Avengers outing (and even Furious 7 with its car park demolition). (If anyone is listening, please let Thanos take on the Avengers on his own when he finally “does it himself”.)
Furious 7: 6/10 – overblown (though no surprises there) and lacking a coherent story, Furious 7 has all the ingredients the fans love, but as a tribute to the late Paul Walker it falls short; a triumph of hype over content, someone seriously needs to look under the hood before taking this particular baby out for another drive.
Avengers: Age of Ultron: 7/10 – overblown and lacking in any real drama, Avengers: Age of Ultron skates perilously close to being Marvel’s first dud since Iron Man 2 (2010); saved by Whedon’s attention to (most of) the characters, it lumbers through its action set-pieces with all the joy of a contractual obligation.
D: Brett Ratner / 98m
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Ian McShane, John Hurt, Rufus Sewell, Aksel Hennie, Ingrid Bolsø Berdal, Reece Ritchie, Joseph Fiennes, Tobias Santelmann, Peter Mullan, Rebecca Ferguson, Isaac Andrews
Having completed his legendary Twelve Labours, Hercules (Johnson) is now a mercenary for hire, accompanied by seer Amphiaraus (McShane), childhood friend Autolycus (Sewell), child of battle Tydeus (Hennie), archer Atalanta (Berdal), and nephew Iolaus (Ritchie). Together, this motley band of friends in combat are approached by Ergenia (Ferguson), the daughter of Lord Cotys (Hurt), to rid Thrace of a local tyrant called Rhesus (Santelmann). When they reach Thrace, Hercules finds that Cotys’ army is comprised mostly of farmers with no combat experience, and even fewer martial skills. Aided by his companions, Hercules sets about moulding the Thracians into an army that will be able to defeat Rhesus’ greater force, and restore peace to the kingdom.
After defeating a force of mesmerised villagers, Hercules is apparently ambushed by Rhesus and his men, but he turns certain defeat into triumphal victory, capturing Rhesus and taking him to Cotys’ palace. Here, though, suspicions arise that Hercules and his companions have been used in a power play orchestrated by Cotys to seize the Thracian throne, which is rightfully due to Ergenia’s young son, Arius (Andrews). Unwilling to let this betrayal stand, Hercules sets out to put things right. He finds Cotys more than ready for him, though, and is swiftly captured. In chains, and with Cotys threatening to kill Arius if it means his keeping the throne, Hercules must use all his strength and fighting prowess to restore peace to the kingdom.
2014’s third Hercules movie – along with The Legend of Hercules and Hercules Reborn – this version certainly boasts a bigger budget and a more focused script than the other two, as well the better cast, but it still stumbles trying to maintain a consistent tone, its Braveheart-lite battle scenes offset by an admittedly acerbic line in humour, a darker back story involving the death of Hercules’ wife and children, and a plot so predictable that you can guess way, way in advance which one of Hercules’ companions doesn’t make it to the final credits.
Adapted from the Radical Comics series The Thracian Wars by Steve Moore, the movie does its best to provide a fun, light-hearted romp, but in its attempts to add some depth to a story that doesn’t really need it, it flits from one approach to the material to another without deciding on any one in particular, leaving the movie feeling a little disjointed and formed from various elements that haven’t quite gelled together. A good example of this is the way in which Hercules’ fame through his Twelve Labours is open to question: did he really do all those things alone, or did he have help from his comrades, and are the tales surrounding these feats mere hyperbole? Initially, it’s a neat touch: when presenting his patron King Eurystheus (Fiennes) with the heads of the Hydra, they are revealed to be the heads of men wearing serpent disguises; later, his visions of the three-headed dog Cerberus are revealed to have a more banal explanation, but this jarring of myth and reality is one of the few aspects of the movie that are effectively done (and despite a prologue that clearly states that Hercules is the son of Zeus).
Elsewhere, it’s little more than an excuse for much macho swaggering (even from Berdal), and as mentioned above, an often trenchant line in visual and verbal humour, with Sewell given all the best lines and relishing the chance to be the trusted friend rather than his usual role as the shallow betrayer. Johnson is given occasional moments in which to really act, but for the most part remains a somewhat stoic presence, just managing to overcome the plainly ludicrous requirement of wearing a lion’s head on top of his own. The largely British cast all treat their characters and dialogue with an awareness of ultimately how silly it all is, and make it all the more enjoyable for doing so, Hurt in particular tasked with switching from anxious patriarch to murderous tyrant in the same scene and yet still keeping it all entirely credible. And there’s intense support from the Scandinavian contingent, with Hennie almost unrecognisable as the same actor who appeared in Cold Lunch (2008) and Headhunters (2011).
Behind the camera, Ratner oversees things with energy and confidence but there’s still too many moments in the movie where the visuals take centre stage for the effect they create than for what they do in service to the story (the final confrontation on the steps of Cotys’ palace is spectacle for spectacle’s sake, and leaves the characters the movie’s spent so much time with reduced to mere bystanders). Some of this is to be expected – this is an action/adventure movie, after all – but it seems a shame that Ryan Condal and Evan Spiliotopoulos’s script couldn’t have been more tightly focused on Hercules himself rather than the b-movie plot it fails to enliven or make more interesting. That said, the movie is splendid to look at thanks to veteran DoP Dante Spinotti, and there’s a stirring score provided by Fernando Velázquez that enhances the battle sequences vividly, and provides some unexpectedly emotive support in the quieter stretches.
Rating: 6/10 – like so many peplum movies, Hercules‘ strongest suit is in its action sequences, which are well-staged even though they don’t offer anything new; a pleasing performance from Johnson may help see in a sequel but at this stage, it might be a few more years in coming – if at all.