Family & Fan Belts: The evolution of the “Fast and Furious” franchise

For characters that live “a quarter mile at a time,” it’s been a long, strange trip for the “Fast and Furious” franchise. Starting in the drag racing scene of downtown L.A., it has since become a global enterprise that has grown with every entry. There’s even talk now that the series may go into space, and the weirdest part is that such a concept isn’t even that strange in the “Fast and Furious” film universe. But it’s important to regard the series as a whole, and with the eighth installment (“The Fate of the Furious“) opening this weekend, now is the perfect time to chart its bizarre evolution from action film knockoff to genuine pop culture phenomenon.

Before going any further, it has to be noted that there’s a clear delineation in the series: the first four movies, and “Fast Five” onward. There’s a clear shift in narrative approach and visualization used in the latter half of the franchise that simply isn’t evident in “The Fast and the Furious” through “Fast & Furious.” But despite that separation (which will be explored below), it’s all part of a (mostly) coherent whole that has its most basic elements in place from the first film. It’s surprising how many of the themes carry through despite the films’ various permutations, but it’s also clear that audiences are dealing with two different beasts when considering the entire series.

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Movie Review: “The Fate of the Furious”

Starring
Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Charlize Theron, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Ludacris, Nathalie Emmanuel, Scott Eastwood, Kurt Russell, Kristofer Hivju
Director
F. Gary Gray

Following the untimely death of Paul Walker in 2013, it would have been completely acceptable had everyone involved in the “Fast and Furious” franchise decided to call it quits, particularly because “Furious 7” works so well as a bookend to the family saga. Despite the loss, the series has soldiered on with another installment (and two more on the way), but while “The Fate of the Furious” proves that the mega-franchise can still function without Walker’s character, it definitely suffers from a Brian O’Connor problem.

Much like how the Avengers curiously never show up to help each other in their respective solo movies, the attempt to explain Brian’s absence in this film (especially considering the personal nature of the main plot) only serves to open old wounds. It’s a void that director F. Gary Gray and writer Chris Morgan try to fill with some new additions to the team, and though it’s not entirely successful, the movie gets by on the charisma of its cast and the over-the-top action that fans have come to expect from the series.

The story begins in Havana, Cuba, where Dom (Vin Diesel) and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) are busy soaking up the culture on a much-deserved honeymoon, only to have their vacation cut short when Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) enlists their help in retrieving a stolen EMP device in Berlin. But when Dom suddenly double-crosses the team and gets away with the weapon, they discover that he’s secretly working for a cyber-terrorist named Cipher (Charlize Theron), who Letty believes must be blackmailing him. Beaten, bruised and betrayed by their friend, the team reunites under the direction of shadowy government agent Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) and is forced to work alongside former adversary Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), who has his own history with the notorious hacker and wants revenge, in order to track down Dom and Cipher and prevent them from starting World War III.

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Movie Review: “Moana”

Starring
Dwayne Johnson, Auli’i Cravalho, Jemaine Clement, Temuera Morrison, Alan Tudyk, Nicole Scherzinger
Director
Ron Clements & Don Hall

By all rights, Disney has been kicking sister company Pixar’s butt on the animated film front for the last five or six years. This is due to two unrelated events: Former Pixar chief and current Disney chief John Lasseter brought The Process with him from Pixar, where instead of putting one or two people in charge of the story, a group of writers will work on the story until they have ironed out any potential kinks. At the same time, Pixar hit a point in their release schedule where they were working almost exclusively on sequels (with only one of the non-sequels, 2015’s “Inside Out,” good enough to stand alongside Pixar’s best work). This left Pixar vulnerable, and while Pixar was by no means out, they were down, and Disney seized the opportunity. In the last four years, Disney and Pixar have each won two Academy Awards for Best Animated Feature, though if you ask us, “Wreck-It Ralph” was robbed at arrow point by “Brave” in 2012, and the real tally should be 3-1 in Disney’s favor.

This brings us to “Moana,” coming out in a year where Disney and its many subdivisions have completely conquered the box office. (They own the top four spots on the worldwide box office rankings, with the recently released “Doctor Strange” at #9 and climbing, and “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” still waiting in the wings.) One wonders if releasing three animated films in one year proved to be a strain on the brain trust, because The Process let “Moana” down. It’s fun, and it’s beautifully rendered, but it is a far cry from “Zootopia” in terms of story, a farther cry from “Frozen” in terms of musical numbers, and it pales in comparison to both in terms of emotional weight.

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Movie Review: “Central Intelligence”

Starring
Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Amy Ryan, Danielle Nicolet, Aaron Paul
Director
Rawson Marshall Thurber

There is a really good movie just within reach of “Central Intelligence.” The casting is impeccable (no joke, Dwayne Johnson has never been better), and the premise is a strangely beautiful marriage of “Grosse Pointe Blank” and “True Lies,” with a few jabs at Facebook for good measure. They even used their PG-13, one-time-only F-bomb to tell Mark Zuckerberg to, well, you know.

Unfortunately, the dialogue reads like it was written by horny tweens who are really, really into toilet humor. It also falls prey to the age-old movie cliché that the most highly skilled soldiers in the world happen to all be lousy shots. No, no, no.

It is 1996, and Calvin Joyner (Kevin Hart) is riding high as a high school senior and multi-sport all-star. In the middle of his speech at the last assembly of the year, Robbie Weirdicht (Johnson), an awkward, overweight, overlooked kid, is thrown into the gym, naked as a jailbird, by a group of bullies. Calvin offers him his letterman jacket so he can cover himself up, and Robbie is eternally grateful. Twenty years later, Calvin is an accountant but frustrated that he, in his mind, peaked too soon. A day before his 20-year high school reunion, Calvin receives a Facebook friend request from a Bob Stone and accepts it. Bob Stone turns out to be Robbie, only now he’s tall and ripped, and he hasn’t forgotten that Calvin offered to help him during the most humiliating experience of his life.

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Movie Review: “San Andreas”

Starring
Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino, Alexandra Daddario, Paul Giamatti, Ioan Gruffudd, Archie Panjabi
Director
Brad Peyton

Roland Emmerich would be proud. “San Andreas” is every bit the big, dumb and loud disaster movie that everyone expected it to be, delivering on that promise with some sensational, effects-heavy action that’s practically begging to be turned into a theme park attraction. Though some people will undoubtedly criticize the film for doing exactly what it sets out to achieve, “San Andreas” is pretty upfront about its intentions, doing no more and no less than it needs to in order to get its characters from point A to point B. This is the type of guilt-free popcorn movie that the summer blockbuster season is built around, and while it never amounts to much more than cinematic eye candy, that’s kind of the point.

Dwayne Johnson stars as Chief Ray Gaines, a former military helicopter rescue pilot who now works for the Los Angeles Fire Department saving lives alongside the same crew that served with him overseas. When a big earthquake hits Nevada, tearing apart the Hoover Dam in the process, Ray is forced to cancel a road trip with his daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario) to help with the rescue effort. But Cal Tech seismologist Lawrence Hayes (Paul Giamatti) predicts that an even bigger earthquake is going to occur along the San Andreas Fault, with San Francisco getting hit the hardest, placing Blake smack dab in the middle of the impending destruction. After rescuing his soon-to-be ex-wife, Anna (Carla Gugino), from a crumbling building in Los Angeles, the pair heads to San Francisco to save their daughter before she becomes another victim of the devastating quake.

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