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: “Spy”

Starring
Melissa McCarthy, Rose Byrne, Jason Statham, Jude Law, Miranda Hart, Allison Janney, Peter Serafinowicz
Director
Paul Feig

Director Paul Feig makes refreshingly nice comedies. There’s not a mean-spirited bone in his body. Not for a second does he ever poke fun at his characters. The creator behind one of the greatest and sweetest shows ever to grace television, “Freaks & Geeks,” loves all his characters – the screw-ups, the underdogs and even the bullies. That empathy has carried over to his feature film work. Although the laughs and appealing spirit of “Bridesmaids” was missing in “The Heat,” he’s quickly rebounded with “Spy,” a ferociously funny Melissa McCarthy star vehicle.

Susan Cooper (McCarthy) once dreamed of life as a CIA field agent. She imagined action, romance and intrigue. Instead of trotting the globe and saving the world, Susan performs her heroics behind a desk. The CIA analyst is super-spy Bradley Fine’s (Jude Law) eyes and ears. When the CIA’s top agents’ identities are exposed, though, Susan gets her chance to get out into the field. But putting the fate of the world into her hands doesn’t sit well with everybody – most notably, Rick Ford (Jason Statham), a spy who doesn’t believe he has any weaknesses. Ford and Cooper butt heads as she tracks down Bulgarian arms dealer Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne), who plans on selling a miniature nuclear weapon to the highest bidder.

As expected, Feig’s script is sharp. Never does “Spy” become parody or satire. The writer/director manages to poke fun at some genre conventions – Ford is James Bond and Jason Bourne combined, with some steroids thrown in for good measure – but never to the point where they overwhelm the emotional core and broad stakes of the film. Yes, “Spy” is a comedy, but Feig makes the action scenes have a real sense of danger. The violence is surprisingly and often comically brutal. Feig not only takes advantage of the R-rating in the language department, but also with bloodshed.

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Movie Review: “Furious 7”

Starring
Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Ludacris, Jordana Brewster, Kurt Russell
Director
James Wan

A franchise seven movies in shouldn’t be this good. The “Fast and Furious” series almost died after the dismal “2 Fast 2 Furious,” but in 2006, director Justin Lin revived the franchise with the immensely enjoyable “Tokyo Drift.” Although Lin’s follow-up (2009’s “Fast & Furious”) was a misstep, he quickly bounced back with “Fast Five,” taking the franchise to another level. The scope, laughs and characters ballooned, proving less isn’t always more. “Furious 7,” directed by James Wan, continues the series’ tradition of going big.

The sequel picks up not long after the events of “Fast & Furious 6.” Owen Shaw (Luke Evans) is still alive, but just barely, and his older brother, Deckard (Jason Statham), is going to finish the fight he started, vowing to take out Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel), Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker), Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) and the rest of the gang, including series regulars Tyrese Gibson and Ludacris. That’s the core story of “Furious 7,” but there are terrorists, a hacker and a device that can track anyone in the world that the “Fast” family must contend with as well.

These movies are almost overstuffed by design. Chris Morgan’s script doesn’t really have 127 minutes of story to tell, but “Furious 7” is so giddy and overblown that its bloated runtime is more of a blessing than a burden. Right when you think these movies are about to slow down, they keep going, especially in the action department. Do the action set pieces defy the laws of physics? Possibly, but that’s what makes them so appealing. When a car hops from building, to building, to building, it’s like something out of a 12-year-old’s dream.

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Movie Review: “Homefront”

Starring
Jason Statham, James Franco, Winona Ryder, Kate Bosworth, Izabela Vidovic
Director
Gary Fleder

Perhaps of all the genres, action fans often feel the most cheated. If you’re yearning for a post-metrosexual, non-superhero kickass character these days, well, your choices are pretty slim. It’s enough to make you wish there were more Westerns, or for the cast of “The Expendables”… before they were eligible for Medicare. So it seems only fitting that director Gary Fleder and Sylvester Stallone set out to craft a clever and engaging action flick with a Western theme starring today’s hottest star of the genre, Jason Statham, in “Homefront.”

Phil Broker (Statham) is an undercover DEA agent tasked with bringing down a major meth operation run by a ruthless biker gang. Posing as one of the bikers, the feds finally seem to have the gang right where they want them. Converging on the bikers’ lair en masse, the agents soon discover that drug lords tend not to go down so easily. The ensuing gun battle is almost at a stalemate when Statham reveals his identity and shifts the tide of the fight. Meanwhile, the gang’s leader, Lewis (Stuart Greer), makes a break for it with his son Jimmy (Marcus Hester). Broker leads the agents in pursuit and the fight leaves Jimmy with more holes than brain cells. Lewis vows revenge and Broker walks off into the distance.

Broker tries to start life over in rural Louisiana with his daughter Maddy (Izabela Vidovic), but while the little girl didn’t inherit daddy’s hairline, she definitely got his butt-kicking gene, as she easily takes down the school bully, Teddy (Austin Craig). Teddy’s mom (Kate Bosworth) enlists her meth-dealing brother (James Franco) to put a scare in Broker, which sets off a series of events filled with revenge, gun battles, meth explosions and an all new reason to avoid Bayou real estate.

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