THE LAST PICTURE BLOG

OCCASIONAL NOTES ON FILM


While watching the first half of this latest film by director J.C. Chandor – who had previously made the kinda-sorta Hollywood outliers Margin Call, All Is Lost and A Most Violent Year – I wondered whether he had taken Richard Ayoade’s recent book The Grip of Film as straight-faced gospel, given that book’s amusing obsession with 80s trash action movies, their heroes and the men who played them. On the face of it, and certainly during the opening hour, that’s what Triple Frontier is: a slick, modern take on those hi-octane, ultra-macho 80s flicks (with a slight homage to the more esoteric Sorceror) in which a tooled-up dude or team of tooled-up dudes performs some sort of task or undertakes some sort of journey, usually in a foreign land that the US government has a vested interest in.

The retrograde plot of Triple Frontier involves Oscar Isaac’s former special ops bro putting together a team of other former special ops bros (Pedro Pascal, Ben Affleck, Charlie Hunnam, Garrett Hedlund) for that fabled ‘last job’, which will make them all rich beyond their wildest dreams – a story that, quite frankly, has been done to death. Affleck becomes the de facto leader, partly because he was the group’s main man when they were performing nefarious badness for the CIA, US military et al in the past, and also presumably because he’s the most famous actor in the picture, while each of the characters is (poorly) fleshed out with a minimal backstory establishing their motivation (bored with job, daughter’s college fund needed, etc etc).

While the characterisation and plotting early on is as half-arsed as it is regressive, it does at least let you know that each man has given a lot in dubious service to their country without really receiving the kind of above-board fiscal compensation they should have, considering their actions and the risks involved. Having been conditioned to think in a certain way by Hollywood for decades, we therefore hope that each man succeeds in the film’s mission – a daring, non-government-sponsored heist carried out on foreign shores – and will thus be set for life. They crack jokes and seem likeable. They’re even robbing a South American cartel head who executes people and has made a shit ton of cash, just to make sure there’s a recognisable ‘big bad’ with plenty of disposable, killable employees to hang the first and second acts on.

Without wishing to give too much away, Chandor takes ‘that’ film and gradually whittles away at what usually tends to underpin such fare, making a far more interesting and morally complex movie as a result (ie one that’s as fascinating as his first three). The final hour of Triple Frontier still has its fair share of well-shot and extremely gripping action sequences, all of which see our expert team handling things expertly and in a team-like fashion, but suddenly we start to feel differently about them as individuals and a group: we see that they are robbing a family home in which children live; their greed becomes ever more unpalatable, as does their ruthlessness; and soon they’re not just facing Evil Anonymous Cartel Henchmen, but opportunistic (and barely-trained, but still anonymous) farmers or young teenagers who have presumably been pressed into cartel service on account of their poverty (a move which really does suggest the power and the reach that the most sizeable racketeering organisations have). Our empathy drains away, which is very much an ‘anti-Hollywood’ move.

What Chandor has done is worth admiring, I think: on the one hand this is a slick, good-looking ‘heart-of-darkness’ actioner with serviceable-to-good performances (Affleck is probably the standout, Isaac is decent but can be and has been better) and an easy-to-follow plot, and the film can absolutely be enjoyed on that level alone. It’s also rather deft at debunking the myth of the American hero – let’s just say that the mission isn’t a success, some rather nasty things happen in the name of it and very quickly you begin to side just as much with the people whose lives this band of bros are affecting. It’s a shame that the supporting characters are given short shrift and that there’s a terribly cheesy, uplifting coda to emphasise the inherent nobility of the American criminals (after the time spent undermining such cliched bullshit), but overall this is a tense heist thriller that, enjoyably, asks more questions than most other genre flicks. (3.5)

Before I begin, I probably ought to admit that this kind of documentary is like catnip for me. Although some of the things seen or said within it are objectionable, I’m afraid that I do get a little tingle of pleasure whenever I watch anything featuring rich people attending exclusive events or buying expensive things (and, indeed, when said rich people are so brazen and proud and shameless in discussing such matters). And The Price of Everything, a 2018 documentary about art and commerce, features lots of very rich people buying lots of very expensive things, and making sure that you know exactly how much of their money was spent – the bastards!

Made by Nathaniel Kahn and released in 2018, the film mostly concentrates on the American art scene and American-based collectors, though there are some voices from other countries, such as that of a Russian or Eastern European collector living in New York – she cries when discussing the Damien Hirst hanging in her apartment, and it’s one of the few surprisingly disarming moments in a documentary that often feels slightly, but not transparently, cynical. (It’s interesting to note as an aside that we also hear from British employees of auction house Sotheby’s, an American multinational that still trades heavily on its British heritage.) Kahn also focuses on the people – dealers, artists etc. – who benefit directly from the largesse, and whenever any of these interviewees betrays their smugness with a little smirk Kahn is there, leaving micro-pauses so that the moment is noted by the viewer.

Such moves suggest that the director finds this mega-commercialisation of modern art fascinating but disgusting, and that he’s ‘out to get it’, though in truth this is a fairly even-handed examination of ‘big’ commercial art; even those who make huge profits are able to look at the situation objectively and question whether a bubble is about to burst, or whether it’s a healthy state of affairs (of course it isn’t). Kahn devotes plenty of screen time to those who feel that the astronomical prices attached to work by the chosen few (George Condo, Jeff Koons, etc) are damaging for modern culture more generally. Critics and people employed by big city galleries and museums, for example, lament the fact that works purchased by the super-rich are then lost to the world, hidden away in luxurious apartments or ultra-secure basements, as opposed to being on public display. I tend to agree with them – that it is a shame – but it’s also worth saying that there’s something refreshingly open and honest about several of the wealthy collectors here that I appreciated; they’re not necessarily always being boastful, and although one or two of them aren’t particularly articulate when describing the art they have bought and enjoy seeing in their homes, their lack of erudition shouldn’t be misread as a lack of passion, or used to suggest that they’re somehow not deserving of these works. I’ve seen that kind of reverse snobbery in reviews of this film, and it strikes me as being pretty ugly.

It’s intriguing to see the different artists at work. Most are still directly involved in the production of their own artwork, laying paint on canvas themselves, as it were, while Koons is emblematic of the famous artists who have developed a factory of sorts, employing studio-based staff to produce pieces that will later have the artist’s name attached to them. (He is unashamed and open about his methods, explaining that if he did everything himself he’d only be able to make one work a year. I don’t think he is driven by a need to exploit his own popularity for commercial gain, it’s more to do with finding a way to get all of the ideas in his head out into the world; at least – giving him the benefit of the doubt – that’s how I read it. But his working practices do seem crucial to a film that is asking why certain works sell for millions of dollars and why others do not.)

It’s a shame that The Price Of Everything always feels like a gentle, 90-minute discourse into the commercialisation of modern art, as driven by the super-wealthy. It neither fully skewers its intended targets (if indeed there are any) nor reels in horror at some of the practices depicted or the astronomical figures that are bandied about in auctions; so it feels to me that Kahn is at times sitting on the fence a little too comfortably, and that taking a side or having an opinion that is expressed more clearly would have been welcome. Many of the artists featured feel awkward about or bemused by the prices their work can command, though they also cosy up to the commercial movers and shakers, posing for pictures and answering questions in a sort of dutiful manner that I don’t think is necessarily driven by a sense of politeness; more about playing the game. It is a shame that Kahn – perhaps out of politeness himself – doesn’t directly ask the artists who feature about this. But, as a glimpse into a world I’ll never be a part of (and don’t wish to be a part of) this is often fascinating viewing. (3.5)

Like many other film fans I like to take stock at the end of the year, and in this post I’m going to discuss the previous twelve months in a general, rambling fashion, with reference to my ‘blind spots’ (yup, still doing that) and other notable works that I saw for the first time during 2018. The second part of the round-up – which may be as late as March – will include my annual selection of 50 favourite feature films released in the UK and 20 favourite documentaries. At the time of writing I still want to watch some highly-rated titles that I missed in cinemas, including the likes of Burning, Shoplifters, Cold War and The Rider, and will spend a month or so doing that before making a final list.

My cinema-going in 2018 was mostly limited to my local multiplex, for which I have an annual pass that allows me to see as many new releases as I can stomach; I still only go around once a week, on average. Sadly the multiplex tends to pass on a lot of arthouse-friendly fare, foreign language films and independent productions, and I can’t say I blame them; when they have taken risks (if ‘risks’ is the right word) I’ve found myself sitting in crowds as small as four or five people, whereas like most places in the world the heavily-marketed blockbusters, family films and familiar franchise entries are still putting bums on seats and dominant.

For those smaller releases I’ve tended to wait for the DVD release – Luddite that I am – and have generally eschewed paying full whack to stream films on platforms like Curzon Home Cinema and BFI Player, which I used regularly in the past. I don’t feel the same urgency to see films during the week or month of release any more, but it’s also partly because I already pay out for three subscription services on a monthly basis, so I’ve always got plenty to watch without paying £10 a pop to see a new release in the comfort of my own home. Anyway, I had some fun times at the cinema this year, and even most of the dross I checked out wasn’t too bad.

David Lynch in Twin Peaks: The Return

I’m told by Letterboxd that I logged 487 entries in 2018, with probably around 20 of those being for TV series (2017’s Twin Peaks: The Return being the standout) and short films. I’m pleased with the total, though inevitably watching so many titles means that there are some films I can barely remember anything about – for example I know that I watched Pompeii, but I couldn’t give you a synopsis (I freely admit my attention repeatedly diverted towards my phone while it was playing); even some of last year’s awards season favourites are fading from memory.

My blind spot list last year was varied, and despite a couple of delays I managed to watch all twelve much-admired movies for the first time before the year-end. My favourites from the dozen were Rashomon and Sunset Boulevard, although in truth all the others impressed. Vivre Sa Vie contains a terrific performance by Anna Karina, whose character is perhaps unfairly treated by vindictive puppeteer Jean-Luc Godard. High Noon is a tense examination of the decent Old West lawman and Stalker is a magnificent, moody and thought-provoking work that I will certainly watch again. Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanours is a career highlight, while Georges Franju’s Les Yeux Sans Visage is still a vibrant, unsettling horror decades after it was first released; the same can be said of Poltergeist, I guess, though it is a very different beast. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is a hugely enjoyable slice of kitchen sink drama as well as being a landmark in British cinema on account of its depiction of working class characters, and for the Woodfall Films production company, while for very different reasons the production and grand scale of Brazil and Doctor Zhivago impressed. Had I seen Terry Gilliam’s Brazil as a teenager I imagine it would have become a favourite that I subsequently returned to over and over again, but as I was watching I had a sense that that particular boat had sailed. Fun movie, though, and great looking. The only ‘blind spot’ selection that didn’t really resonate deeply was Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour. I probably didn’t concentrate hard enough and as such failed to see its supposed greatness, but I still liked it; I have a DVD copy so perhaps I’ll watch it again someday.

Édith Scob in Les Yeux Sans Visage

The idea of doing a blind spot list is becoming increasingly pointless, as during any given year I’ll watch a great many other films for the first time that could easily qualify. I’m not sure there’s much point in listing all of them, but I guess I’d just like to register the fact that the following films were all new to me and each one made a big impression. I recommend them all highly if there are some you haven’t seen yourself. (Directors’ names in brackets.)

Man With A Movie Camera (Vertov)
Life Is Sweet (Leigh)
Like Father, Like Son (Koreeda)
The Consequences of Love (Sorrentino)
The War (Burns, Novick)
In The Mood For Love (Kar-Wai)
Blow Out, Carrie (both De Palma)
The Lovers On The Bridge, Mauvais Sang (both Carax)
Moolaadé (Sembène
Café Lumière (Hsiao-hsien)
A Separation (Farhadi)
Oslo, August 31st (Joachim Trier)
Dogville (Lars Von Trier)
The Red Balloon (Lamorisse)
Hunger (McQueen)
Meru (Chin, Vasarhelyi)
Fragment Of Fear (Sarafian)
Get Carter (Hodges)
The Conformist (Antonioni)
Bringing Up Baby (Hawks)
Unforgiven (Eastwood)
Birth (Glazer)
The Green Ray, Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle (both Rohmer)
The Beaches of Agnès (Varda)
M (Lang)
Irma Vep (Assayas)
The Pianist (Polanski)
Bicycle Thieves (De Sica)
All The President’s Men (Pakula)
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Weerasethakul)
The Headless Woman (Martel)
The Arbor (Arnold)
Starred Up (McKenzie)
Cool Hand Luke (Rosenberg)
Whatever Happened To Baby Jane (Aldrich)
The Player (Altman)
Point Blank (Boorman)
Soylent Green (Fleischer)
The Misfits (Huston)
The Day The Earth Stood Still (Wise)

My 2019 blind spot list is made up of the following: The Elephant Man, Last Year At Marienbad, Marathon Man, The Right Stuff, Lawrence Of Arabia, Monster, Some Like It Hot, Young Frankenstein, Aguirre, Wrath Of God, Videodrome, The Philadelphia Story and The Night Of The Hunter. On we go!

I very much like the series of films that have been put together using the BFI’s vast archive, of which this 2018 release – by Paul Wright – is the latest. There’s something about the historical aspect, and the general strangeness of some of the footage (particularly from the earlier half of the last century) that appeals, as well as the fact that they serve as illuminating guides to British life and highlight some important 20th century social change, with regard to class, gender politics, leisure time, war, immigration, declining industry, etc.

Kim Longinotto’s Love Is All was a spirited run-through of romance in British cinema (scored, aptly, by crooner Richard Hawley); Benedikt Erlingsson’s The Show Of Shows examined circuses and other similar forms of entertainment with a soundtrack from Sigur Rós and Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson; and Penny Woolcock’s From The Sea To The Land Beyond was a powerful illustration of life lived at the coast, with British Sea Power re-purposing some of their earlier songs for the occasion. Wright’s film is, roughly speaking, about the countryside, and he uses the setting to explore aspects of the British psyche and society, pointedly depicting both a bucolic Utopia – indeed ‘Utopia’ is one of several intertitles used to split the film into specific segments or chapters – and a more nightmarish, psychedelic space that’s characterised by folk horror, disturbing or bizarre rituals, huge class and economic gulfs and plenty more besides. This one has been scored by Adrian Utley of Portishead and Will Gregory of Goldfrapp, though some traditional and atmospheric folk music makes the cut too.

I liked the score, overall, as it shifts and encompasses different styles of music, depending on the chapter, but it does begin to affect your interpretation of the footage a little too much for my liking. For example, the ominous-sounding thrum that accompanies film of Morris men dancing suggests a dark, menacing undertone to the action that is taking place, and while such dancers are certainly seen as being quirky today, I’m not entirely sure they represent British folk tradition at its weirdest or most threatening. But still, the music certainly helps to tie all of the assembled footage together, so I’m wary of complaining too much about it; it’s a soundtrack I would like to buy, but haven’t got round to yet.

While watching the film, I found that some of the dots that Wright joins together are a bit of a stretch; one example would be a section in which punk – really something I’d say was a preserve of more urban areas, particularly during its heyday – is linked to the underground raves and festivals that became emblematic of British outsider culture, and were later turned into massive cash-generating enterprises by some rural landowners. I guess there is a wider point being made here, perhaps about the way in which culture more recently has tended to trickle outwardly from cities, but it does seem a little unclear to me; and while there’s certainly a theme here about people escaping to the countryside to let themselves go – nude hippies and naturalists feature regularly throughout – any footage here that looks like it was made in a town or city seems oddly intrusive and out of place.

That said, part of the appeal of Arcadia is its oddness, the times when its rambling looseness and the accumulation of footage seems to build into or generate something greater, some repeated point about how strange British people are; although there is a coherence and organisation too, mostly thanks to the chapter-based structure. It is a restless work that is packed with ideas and there are many successfully forged links, while there is definitely a thrill to be had in going along with it and simply enjoying the sheer variety of archive material that Wright has uncovered and used. Perhaps it doesn’t matter all that much if some aspects are tied together more tightly than others.

I thought Arcadia is at its best when it is suggesting an underlying oddness existing within the countryside, but there is real breadth to the included footage: fox hunting, the beauty of the landscape and nature (as well as its harmfulness), farming, cheese-rolling, the gradual removal of services from village life – there is much to ponder in this deliciously offbeat amalgamation. It probably lands better with those who have experience of living in the UK and who will therefore pick up on some of the subtler suggestions, but I dare say if you have a more general interest in life anywhere there is something for you to enjoy. As it stands, it probably just about edges Frederick Wiseman’s thorough paean to the community services of the New York Public Library, Ex Libris, and Agnès Varda and JD’s warm study of art, ageing and people, Faces, Places, as my favourite documentary of 2018. (4.5)

While watching Kelly Reichardt’s 1994 road movie – her debut – you can sense the influence of other independent filmmakers who were firmly ‘established’ by the mid-1990s. There are echoes in this film, which tells the story of two untypical criminals on the run, of landmark pictures such as Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train, Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy and Terrence Malick’s Badlands in terms of the tone, cinematography, locations, production design and plot, although there is also enough evidence of Reichardt’s own voice and early self-confidence to ensure that River Of Grass is more than mere pastiche and to indicate that she wasn’t timidly in thrall of those earlier works.

In fact, there is much to distinguish this film from the road movies and crime dramas written and/or directed by men (it’s rare that a woman tackles either genre today, and it was doubly so in 1994). As per much of the director’s subsequent output, the pace of River Of Grass is decidedly unhurried, and therefore completely at odds with the breakneck speed regularly employed in most crime movies of the mid-1990s. Additionally, any scenes of sudden, sporadic violence – and there are a few here – are underplayed, and that also distances Reichardt from any contemporaries she had at the time – with regard to bloody acts of cruelty, other (male) indie filmmakers of the era were going big at every available opportunity.

Where the likes of Quentin Tarantino celebrated the murderers and criminals on the lam who appeared in his screenplays (turning at least four of them into notable early-1990s antiheroes), the two main protagonists of River Of Grass hit the road after shooting a man while they are trespassing on his property, and spend a lot of the subsequent running time in motels, stores and cars, unsure as to whether they’ve actually killed him. There is no revelling in their combined baseness here: you couldn’t describe the duo as ‘cool’, and their shared self-doubt courses through the film, as does their vague lack of direction and inability to escape the area of Florida that they live in; the highway should offer a way out, but here it just seems to send the couple round and round in circles. By way of contrast, the outlaw couples of, say, Badlands, True Romance and Natural Born Killers all seem to be going somewhere at pace, and seem more sure of their respective relationships and shared short-term and long-term goals.

A gun features prominently in Reichardt’s film, but it is handled in such a way as to suggest that both characters are either fairly unfamiliar with firearms or completely inexperienced. Again, unusual for the period. (Clarence Worley, in Tony Scott’s Tarantino-scripted True Romance, by way of comparison, seems a natural shooter despite being a comic store clerk with, presumably, very little experience of guns – the implication being that comics and movies can teach you everything you need to know about weapons and how to handle them, or that some kind of innate masculine know-how is unlocked when fingers first wrap around cold steel.) Only near the end is the gun of River Of Grass used with real intent and purpose, and when it is fired it’s a surprising act – the two characters have been making their way across unremarkable Floridian landscape for most of the movie, never really getting anywhere, and then suddenly the plot veers off in a pleasingly unexpected way. There’s a very Reichardtian sense of new hope by the end, though typically it’s just left hanging for the viewer to contemplate, rather than explicitly followed up on.

Elsewhere in this film there’s innovative deployment of montages, a formal decision that also helped to distance Reichardt from the pack in the mid-1990s and marked her out as a talent whose career would be worth following. (Something that’s easy to say in hindsight, admittedly.) That said, there is also plenty here to date the film, from some of the events that unfold and the dreamily-delivered narration to Jim Denault’s cinematography, which has a certain sun-bleached indie aesthetic that I associate with the era. The lead performances by Lisa Donaldson and Larry Fessenden also seem very typical of the early 90’s to me: less cartoonish and overt a Kit n’ Holly homage than Patricia Arquette and Christian Slater in True Romance, but still kind of harking back to the American New Wave and actors like Spacek, Sheen, Nicholson or Dunaway when they were young. None of this is intended as a criticism: it’s an indie film made in the mid-90s and that’s exactly what it looks and feels like. However, it was also a very promising, intriguing debut that successfully undercut some of the tropes of the increasingly predictable and successful crime films directed by men at the time. (3.5/5)

Peter Jackson has been busy of late. The New Zealand director’s steampunk-inflected adaptation of the fantasy novel Mortal Engines will land this Christmas, while cinemagoers lucky enough to live close to a screening have recently been treated to his moving, fascinating documentary They Shall Not Grow Old, for which he has assembled and retouched archive footage of British soldiers that was recorded during the First World War.

The film was jointly commissioned by 14-18 NOW, an organisation set up to commemorate the centenary of Armistice Day, and the Imperial War Museum, the holders of the visual footage (audio recordings, made by the BBC after the war, also feature). As well as restorative work such as sharpening the images and conversion of the archive material to 3D, the director and his team have also colourised much of it, the switch from black and white to colour that occurs around ten minutes in being one of a few coups de cinema here; otherwise, little attention is drawn to the technical achievements that have taken place, which allows the viewer to focus more on the subject matter instead of the obvious prowess of Jackson’s team.

I’m not much of a fan of artificial colouring (though a black and white rendering of the world in the first place is no less artificial as a process) and I’m ambivalent about 3D more generally, but here it undoubtedly brings the men to life. We see them eagerly signing up to go to war, taking part in training exercises and then confronting the horrors of trench life at the Battle of the Somme. It is – was – a harrowing journey.

The conspicuous cameras that trundle before the men are often trained on large groups or smaller clusters, as opposed to individuals, and the camera operators were particularly drawn to the now-sharply-rendered faces of the soldiers, lingering in front of them. Typically, the men stare back at the lens, the result of their own fascination with a nascent technology; presumably most of the people we see here were being filmed for the first time in their lives. To bring the footage to life even more, Jackson’s expert lip-readers have figured out what the soldiers were saying, and actors have been employed to add their voices to the soundtrack; apparently much care has been taken on getting the right accents to tally with the regiments that are shown on screen. This is augmented by the aforementioned testimonies by soldiers that were recorded later, when the men had some literal and figurative distance from the events.

Such striving for authenticity – along with the technical prowess – makes this a fine attempt at enhancing a historic record, though of course the colouring will turn off some people, the 3D will turn off even more and its worth pointing out that the recollections of the soldiers cannot ultimately be relied upon (stress and time may mean that their testimonies are not 100% accurate).

That said, there is valuable insight here into the lives of British combatants (we only see dead or captured bodies of German counterparts, and never hear from survivors). The footage of life in the trenches is startling: the camera captures the nameless dead strewn around on the ground in No Man’s Land, shells constantly exploding nearby, rats everywhere and terrible unsanitary conditions (though there is something amusing about the line of men using the long-drops together, the ideas of privacy and comfort having long disappeared); but the awfulness of war contrasts considerably at times with the often upbeat mood of the men, who were eager to fight for their country. The film ends, oddly and ironically enough, by addressing their dismay at the end of the war. Many were unemployed and lost the sense of purpose they had while serving in the military; some men speak of the general lack of understanding when they returned home, with the general public unable to understand what they had been through. It may be 100 years too late, but this gripping, vital work does at least begin to address that issue. (5/5)

Cinemas in the UK have been – and still are – showing They Shall Not Grow Old with a recorded Q&A between critic and broadcaster Mark Kermode and Jackson, but the BBC is screening a 2D version on Sunday evening for those in the UK. (BBC2, Sunday 11 November, 9.30pm).

This is the first entry in a new and irregular series of posts about film marathons I’ve undertaken that follow a certain theme (directors, actors, franchises and so on). For the inaugural effort I decided to pick The Fast and the Furious series, as up until a fortnight ago I’d never actually watched any of these movies before, unless you count the 1955 B movie The Fast and the Furious written by Roger Corman (which obviously you shouldn’t). I wanted to find out what I’d been missing, so set off on a journey with perma-serious Dominic Toretto and his fellow high-speed drivers, his seemingly endless supply of expensive, fast cars and his rather annoying habit of extolling the virtues of la familia every ten or fifteen minutes…

Who would have thought that a garish, poorly-written Point Break rip-off set amid Los Angeles’ illegal street racing scene – a screenplay inspired by a Vibe magazine article about New York-based racers of imported Japanese cars – would become one of the world’s most financially reliable movie franchises, with not only eight blockbuster films made to date (and at least three more in development at the time of writing) but also associated theme park rides, tie-in books, video games and mountains of promotional vehicular tat?

Had I watched The Fast And The Furious upon its release in 2001 and asked myself that very question, I doubt I’d have predicted that a ninth film would be in production by 2018, let alone a spin-off featuring characters who didn’t even join the series until 2011 and 2015 respectively (next year’s Hobbs & Shaw will concentrate on the semi-comic interplay that has developed between characters played by Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham). In 2001 I would have probably underestimated the sheer amount of desire that exists among cinemagoers for ultimately vapid films that are filled with fast cars, bodies that conform to a certain widely-held notion of sexiness, simple dialogue and risible plotting, but I should point out here for the uninitiated that the longevity of this series is mostly due to the decision made around the time of the fourth film to bring back certain characters and to gradually phase out the street racing in favour of globetrotting espionage, slicker action and crazy stunts, the kind of multiplex-friendly material that has reliably drawn big crowds for decades. Over the course of a decade and a half, these films have deliberately been moulded in order to appeal to a wider audience, one whose primary interest doesn’t really lie with pricey supercars, though there are still enough lingering shots of brightly-painted, curvy bodywork in each entry to slake the thirst of any hardened petrolhead.

ff1

Vin Diesel and Paul Walker

It’s a series that is partly defined by its moments of transition; what’s interesting to me about The Fast And The Furious isn’t so much the movies themselves – some of which are very, very entertaining – but what has happened in-between releases, i.e. the decisions that have been made prior to and during production. All of them adhere to a certain formula associated with three-act Hollywood action cinema, but a severe re-working and then a gradual honing of the product – and we are very much talking about ‘product’, here – has taken place between films four and eight, with one director in particular (Justin Lin) making his mark on the series as it moved from boy racer wet dream to a more muscular action extravaganza.

Lin made the third film, and is also responsible for the fourth, fifth and sixth; soon, he will return to the fold to make the ninth and tenth iterations. Screenwriter Chris Morgan has probably been just as important, writing seven of the films to date (if you include Hobbs & Shaw). Today, as a result of this consistency, and a desire not to stray too far from the successful model Lin and Morgan established ten years ago, everyone who follows the franchise knows what will be in the next film, much in the same way that those who watch James Bond or Mission: Impossible films know that certain boxes in those movies will be ticked for as long as they are made.

While you’re watching the Fast and the Furious films, it’s impossible to escape the sense that the studio tightly controls the life of this cash cow, and that we’re not necessarily seeing one director’s vision, but that of several directors past and present combined, who have all had to manage the input of power-wielding stars, producers and, no doubt, entire marketing departments. Of course filmmaking is a necessarily collaborative process, but it’s obvious that during the past seventeen years or so owner Universal Pictures has managed to slowly shed everything that doesn’t quite work, or isn’t popular enough, and has kept in everything that tests well with audiences and puts bums on seats. It’s not rocket science, I guess, but woe betide the director who comes in and tries to Last Jedi the fuck out of a future installment – because people expect certain things from this franchise, and thanks to the studio, the public gets what the public wants. (As I watched one film after another during this marathon I started to experience the same feeling I get when I go into a McDonald’s or buy a Coke; familiarity can be comforting at times but it can, eventually, also become boring.)

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Michelle Rodriguez

The notion of a series that has regularly found itself in periods of transition also applies to the actors, and their characters. Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the franchise is that no-one has really managed to appear in all of the films. Vin Diesel – who plays Dom Toretto, a man who starts off as a small-time hijacker and street racer leading a crew of fellow criminals before later evolving into some sort of godlike, injury-avoiding, stunt-driving superhero – has had a good stab at it, but I don’t count the archive footage that’s used briefly in second film 2 Fast 2 Furious or the cameo at the end of the third, Tokyo Drift (which happens to be the third in terms of release date, but not the third chronologically); still, Toretto’s total of six appearances shows Diesel’s enduring box office appeal. Paul Walker, who sadly died in a car crash during the making of the seventh film, also made it into six of them; his undercover cop/former undercover cop Brian O’Conner being the only familiar face in 2 Fast 2 Furious, which is the worst of the bunch. Other mainstays include Michelle Rodriguez as driver Letty Ortiz (five films), Jordana Brewster as driver/love interest/Dom’s sister Mia Toretto (six films but pretty much sidelined with a baby for the past couple), Tyrese Gibson as loudmouth wheelman Roman Pearce (five films), Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges as mechanical wizard Tej Parker (five films), Sung Kang as enigmantic driver Han Lue (four films), Johnson as US agent Luke Hobbs (four films) and Gal Gadot as ex-Mossad operative Gisele Yashar (three films). More recently Nathalie Emmanuel, Statham and Luke Evans have had recurring roles, while Charlize Theron’s hacker villain Cipher will surely be back in the future.

Cast members come and go, but teamwork and the importance of family are always emphasised as Toretto and his crew battle some kind of megalomaniac (usually a gangster, drug kingpin or simply a classic headcase who wants to get their hands on a nuke to start World War Three). However, many of the principal characters are in a constant state of flux, usually exhibiting criminal behaviour of some sort but switching sides at a whim, co-operating with law enforcement forces one minute but being hunted by the police and other authorities the next. Throughout they remain anti-heroes, usually morally in the right, beneficiaries of the skewed movie logic that makes characters seem ‘good’ because the person they’re battling is ‘badder’.

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Dwayne Johnson, Vin Diesel, Paul Walker

Walker’s Brian spends a few of the films as an undercover agent, but the lure of the family becomes too strong and his conflict of interest eventually ends; he becomes part of the gang on the run. Toretto – perhaps the most code-driven movie character we’ve ever seen – has to turn his back on the group in one film, becoming a kind of villain of the piece. Statham’s Deckard Shaw is the seemingly indefeatable big bad in one film only to have an abrupt about-turn in the next, his skill-set being of considerable value to Toretto and co as they take on a different enemy. In an arc spreading across three films Letty Ortiz is presumed dead only to reemerge – without any memories of her past– on the side of another enemy. And so on. The films stay the same, yet change is everywhere.

I watched them in order (ie by release date), knowing that I’d probably begin to enjoy them more as the stunts became more outlandish and everything became sillier. Rob Cohen’s original (2/5) is a serviceable action drama, in which O’Conner tries to infiltrate Toretto’s crew as part of an investigation into hijacking operations, and while doing so he earns the respect of Dom and co while falling in love with Mia. It lurches from one plot or dialogue cliche to the next, but it does have its moments, particularly the Mad Max-esque truck chase near the end. However, whenever we and the characters leave the insides of the vehicles the shortcomings are painfully obvious; as I said earlier it’s a fairly tepid Kathryn Bigelow rip-off and I began to worry about how I would feel after watching so many Vin Diesel movies in a row, as here he exhibits all the charisma and acting ability of a baked potato.

If the first one is basically Point Break with cars, 2 Fast 2 Furious (1.5/5) is a thinly-disguised homage to Miami Vice, with Walker and newcomer Gibson doing passable impersonations of Crockett and Tubbs as they zoom around trying to outwit a gang of rote Floridian gangsters. It did at least instantly change my opinion on Diesel; he is sorely missed here, if for no other reason than the second movie needed another strong link to the original (alongside Walker). As acting rappers go, Ludacris is very much a step up on Ja Rule, who is in the first one, but John Singleton’s effort is very weak overall, and even a week or so after watching the movie it’s hard to recall much of the detail.

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Lucas Black and Nathalie Kelley

I’m not sure what happened in the lead-up to The Fast And The Furious: Tokyo Drift (2.5/5), but it’s the best of the first three (ie the ones that tend to concentrate on street racing). With no returning cast members (aside from Diesel’s brief cameo at the end) this detour could easily have been a disaster, but I think it has a fair bit going for it, not least the excellent race sequences that were put together by Lin and his crew (the ‘drift’ through the Shibuya Crossing that takes place here is probably the highlight of the first three movies). Again the plot is a bit by the numbers and the performances are generally uninteresting and uncharismatic (with the notable exception of Kang, making his debut here), but shifting the action away from the US injected a bit of ooomph.

If Universal has concerns about Walker and Diesel as leading men prior to Tokyo Drift, any such fears will surely have been put to bed with the advent of fourth film Fast & Furious (2.5/5) – by this point Walker in particular had really improved as an action hero. I liked this one – with the usual reservations about acting, plotting and the script – and you could argue that it’s the most important film of the series, as it represents the point that the studio moved away from the street racing and car culture side of things in favour of more robust and outlandish action, plus the most important established characters return. It’s all very macho, and often very silly, but the stunt driving is typically excellent once again, and Lin really does excel at the big set pieces. By this point I’d watched half of the franchise in the space of a day and started to get a headache from the heady mix of fast cutting and engine revving. It was time for a break, but as the fourth one drew to a close I realised I’d finally warmed to Vin Diesel – an actor of limited ability but a likeable, earnest trier – and I was looking forward to the arrival of Dwayne Johnson, who joined the franchise in Fast Five.

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Gal Gadot and Sung Kang

I carried on the following day, slightly weary of car porn and risible acting but still eager to watch what many feel is the high watermark of the series. They definitely upped the ante with the fifth entry (3.5/5), which is set in Rio, bringing back a number of old characters for a ridiculously stoopid but hugely entertaining heist movie. In terms of the big set pieces I’m less of a fan of the one involving a safe being dragged through the streets than I am of the earlier train sequence, which is terrific fun – it’s so over the top that I was chuckling away to myself by the end of it. Once again my opinion of Walker had improved by the end; by this point in time purely in terms of his physicality he was on a par with quite a few of Hollywood’s bigger names, and the rooftop dash across the favela seen here is the equal of similar, more lauded scenes featuring Daniel Craig and Matt Damon in the Bond and Bourne franchises. Johnson is a fun addition, though his Hobbs is evidently less cuddly here than in later instalments (the actor has gradually taken on more likeable roles outside of this franchise, too), but I enjoyed the ultra-macho rivalry Hobbs has with Dom, which culminates in a wall-pounding fist fight. Over the top and frequently hilarious, Fast Five is a total blast and it’s probably the film that really converted me into a fan.

The problem with watching them back-to-back – certainly from the fifth movie onwards, anyway – is that it becomes harder to distinguish one from another; what marks them out is the appearance of a name actor, such as Theron, or a particularly memorable stunt – and Fast & Furious 6 (3/5) has two of the latter, both of which are as silly as they are entertaining: a crew vs tank showdown culminates, hilariously, with Vin Diesel flying through the air like Superman, while the crew vs aeroplane set piece includes bone-crunching fights, the death of a notable character and Diesel flying through the air again, albeit this time in a car as it exits an exploding jumbo jet via the flight deck and nose cone. The rest of the London-set material here pales a little, by comparison, but is still enjoyable in and of itself. There’s terrible dialogue yet again, and there are times when you feel there isn’t enough space or time for all of the characters to actually do or say something important, but obviously these films stand or fall on their car chases, stunts and races, and number six delivers in that regard.

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The cliff-edge stunt

As does Furious 7 (3/5), which is both The Jason Statham One and Paul Walker’s swan song, the actor’s tragic death in a single vehicle accident occurring mid-production. Memorable stunts this time feature a synchronised car parachute drop, a car smashing through the glass upper floors of three separate Abu Dhabi skyscrapers and – my personal favourite – a rather tense escape by Walker’s O’Conner from a precipitous, cliff edge bus just before it falls (filmed using a stuntman and without CGI). Walker’s brothers stepped in to help complete the late actor’s scenes and the movie includes a touching tribute to the actor as its finale, very much a ‘goodbye’ from the cast and crew that could easily have been cringeworthy but is instead genuine, heartfelt.

Walker might have started out as one of the two lynchpins of the series but in the later films he was sharing screen time with a much-expanded cast, and arguably was less integral to the franchise than he was, say, two or three films earlier. I say this not to denigrate the man but instead to explain why it’s no surprise that Universal and it’s employees carried on without him (well, there’s also the small matter of a billion dollars profit per film, but I’m trying to link these paragraphs together here, cut me some slack). There’s the briefest of mentions of his character in the eighth film – he supposedly retired at the end of the seventh – and that’s it. Joining the remaining performers for The Fate Of The Furious (2.5/5, released as Fast & Furious 8 in the UK) are Charlize Theron, Helen Mirren and Scott Eastwood, while Kurt Russell – who first appeared in number seven – reprises his role as Mr Nobody, a government agent with considerable reach. Statham also returns, this time in cahoots with the Toretto crew, though the gang are actually trying to take down their old chum and de facto leader due to some rather dubious plotting. It’s all a bit soap opera, and there’s perhaps a little too much emphasis in this one on the importance of family, but it does at least culminate in a gloriously silly submarine and car chase across an ice field, and Statham, Johnson, Mirren and Russell seem to be having a lot of fun.

‘Fun’ is the operative word with regard to this series. It got much better when it stopped taking itself too seriously and ditched the street racing in favour of silly, high-octane chases featuring astonishing stunt driving. Around the same time, the cast became more stable, with characters played by Gibson and Ludacris in particular adding some comic levity through their interplay, a tone that was later enhanced by the addition of the Alpha Male bromance between Hobbs and Shaw, as well as Russell’s knowing, confidently-delivered quips. Few people, I imagine, would wish for a return to the days of the early films, in which there was more emphasis on the frowns of Letty Rodriguez, Dom Toretto and Brian O’Conner.

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Tyrese Gibson flying high

Those three characters have, however, been integral for most of the eight films to date, providing the nearest thing we have here to character arcs and through storylines. By the latter stages of this marathon I felt some sort of affinity to them, particularly as Walker’s passing cast its shadow over film seven, but then that’s hardly surprising given that I’d spent around 16 hours in their company during the past two days.

At their best, the Fast and the Furious movies offer solid popcorn entertainment, with jaw-dropping set pieces that provoke as much mirth as they do admiration for those working in the stunt industry. But let’s not get carried away… the acting and scripts are often risible and there’s the danger of a formula eventually stifling creativity, which some may argue has already happened. How much you enjoy them probably depends on how attracted you are to big (and stoopid) blockbusters, or to the extent that you are able to embrace the stupidity of the series. What have I learned by watching these films back-to-back? Not a great deal, but I guess the main thing is they’ve just about persuaded me into becoming a fan… or perhaps a member of the family – ah yes, that word again – who shows up for everything but lurks on the fringes, wondering when they can leave.

Ranked, best to worst (only including those released at the time of writing):

Fast Five
Fast & Furious 6
Furious 7
The Fate Of The Furious
Fast & Furious
Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift
The Fast and the Furious
2 Fast 2 Furious