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Furious 7

Few things in the world of film perplex me more than the popularity behind “The Fast and the Furious” franchise. It’s not so much that people enjoy them—they can indeed be mindless fun—but the passion those fans exert seems like it could be used on something of more substance. Still, one can’t deny the franchise’s effectiveness, at least in the last couple entries. What started as a mediocre (at best) street racing story with poor dramatics and thin characters turned into an over-the-top, jet setting action extravaganza. The franchise retained its poor dramatics and thin characters, but it began to realize what it was, downplaying the things that didn’t work while increasing the action with each successive entry. But this seventh entry has a very been-there-done-that feel to it. They try to up the ante, and do, but the last two films were so exaggerated that it’s a marginal increase at best. “Furious 7,” despite some fun moments, shows pretty clearly that this franchise is running out of steam.

The story this time, as inconsequential as it may be to the overall picture, sees the gang getting back together to collect for a shady government agent (Kurt Russell) a device called God’s Eye that allows them to track down and find anyone on the planet using every technological resource available to them. If they do this, they’ll be able to use it to find Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), who is on the hunt to take them all out after they severely crippled his thought-to-be-dead brother, the antagonist of the sixth film.

And that’s pretty much all there is to it. Despite a lengthy set-up with lots of cringe worthy dialogue—including speeches about finding oneself and an extremely poor exploration of Letty’s (Michelle Rodriguez) PTSD symptoms—there isn’t much filler. In fact, after this set-up, there’s barely a moment to breathe at all, as the film jets from here to there and does things with cars that only a screenwriter in Hollywood could think up.

And boy, are those sequences stylish. Director James Wan, the man behind horror films “Saw” and “The Conjuring,” brings his usual flair to the film, even if he allows the camerawork to get too shaky for its own good; long gone is the fluidity of “Fast and Furious 6” where you could actually see what was going on, a concept that has become novel as action films have tried to up their excitement through manufactured stylistic techniques.

Yet one can’t help but appreciate what Wan brings to the table—you’re not likely to have seen a body slam portrayed in quite the way he does here—but, unfortunately, some of that style is misplaced. Taking a page out of the late Tony Scott’s book, Wan tries to make even the calm moments more interesting with unnecessary camera movements, like when it rapidly rotates around characters as they’re doing nothing more than standing there and talking. It’s an understandable addition; when the rest of the film moves so fast, attempting to mask the boredom with something resembling action makes sense.

But this tactic comes off as silly, similar to how subtitles zoom on and off the screen with a ridiculous sense of urgency. Perhaps worse is its egregious use of slow motion and brooding stares. There’s more macho posturing here than the bro-est of bro-dude movies, particularly in the half a dozen times Jason Statham and Vin Diesel gaze at each other with a strange, almost homoerotic hate.

The reason to see “Furious 7,” however, isn’t due to its highflying antics, explosions or car chases. No, it’s to see the beautiful tribute to Paul Walker at the end, who died before filming was completed. Not only does this tribute work within the context of the story up to this point, but it’s a fitting sendoff to a man who was said to be one of the kindest, gentlest people in Hollywood. The final shots are enough to make even the most jaded moviegoer shed a tear, as the fictitious film ends its run and the realization that someone very real lost his life far too soon.

In a way, though, it almost makes you appreciate the movie more. The franchise has gone on for so long that each successive film is actually becoming a generic copie of its forebears, but even with a far-too-long runtime of two hours and 20 minutes, “Furious 7” managed to end on the best five minutes it has ever produced. And no, there wasn’t a fight or an explosion or any gunfire whatsoever. It was a quiet moment, with a poignancy few other films, even the best dramatic ones, fail to achieve. I may not be the biggest fan of this franchise, but these final moments alone, as it remembers a friend it has sadly lost, makes “Furious 7” worth seeing.

Furious 7 receives 2.5/5



To once again quote the late film critic Pauline Kael, “Movies are so rarely great art that if we cannot appreciate great trash, we have very little reason to be interested in them.” That, in a nutshell, is the approach one should take when viewing the new Jason Statham action movie, Safe. It’s so bad on so many levels that one can’t help but appreciate it. It features a hackneyed script, downright terrible acting and so many laughable lines of dialogue, it manages to reach the “so bad, it’s good” level. Great art it isn’t, but Safe is one of the most entertaining pieces of trash I’ve seen in a long time.

Luke Wright (Statham) is down on his luck. He’s an ex New York cop who is hated by the current police force for snitching on them back in the day and he is now relegated to cage fighting to get by. He has just won a match after one punch, but there’s a problem: he was supposed to take a dive. He didn’t think one punch would knock his opponent out. Now he has the Russian mob on him and they’re angry about the money they lost. They strip him of everything and explain that if he gets close to anybody, they’ll kill them. He’ll never be happy, so he decides to end it all. While standing on the edge of a subway platform, however, he spots a young girl named Mei (Catherine Chan) hiding from some pursuing Russians. It turns out she’s actually a genius, able to memorize anything by looking at it for a few seconds, and she has a string of numbers in her head that, when deciphered, give the combination to a safe with lots of money in it. Deciding he’d rather fight than give up, Luke rescues Mei and decides to take them on, along with the Triads and a corrupt police force that are also looking for the girl.

Good bad movies are no phenomenon. We had one only two weeks ago with the absurd Luc Besson produced Lockout, but the difference between the two is that Lockout had some amount of polish to it. It sported some moderately clever writing, decent performances, snappy dialogue and some witty one-liners. Its laughs were intentional and its thrills calculably ridiculous. It knew it was stupid. Aside from the self parodying ending, Safe doesn’t. It thinks it’s cool. It thinks it’s smart. It thinks it’s clever. It thinks its story is full of interesting twists and turns when, in the back of the viewer’s mind, it’s hard to understand why the Triads would go to so much trouble of having Mei memorize that number when they could just write it down and perform the task of grabbing the money themselves.

Although the action is solid and likely to put a smile on the average adrenaline junkie’s face, the bulk of the film’s entertainment is unintentional. The humor comes from scenes with a serious intent that simply fail and the juxtaposition of a supporting cast who overact every scene they’re in working opposite Statham’s understated “hardly trying” approach. These moments lead to some hilarious dialogue exchanges and macho posturing that tries to be cool, but is really just silly.

Safe is one of those movies that’s better seen than described, because it’s hard to describe a movie that fails in nearly every regard, yet is still fun to watch. The cinematography is ugly, complete with poor framing and shaky camerawork, the acting is weak and the story is inconsequential drivel, but it’s enjoyable drivel. Safe feels like a B-movie, one that probably should have gone straight to DVD, but wound up in the theater due to the lead star, so one should accept it as such. There’s no need to overanalyze what you’re seeing; just go with it. You might not respect yourself when it’s over, but you’ll admit you had a good time.

Safe receives 3.5/5


Killer Elite

Speaking to colleagues that had already seen Killer Elite, I was told to lower my expectations. I was told that, despite the promising trailers and impressive cast, it’s little more than another routine Jason Statham movie and only if I approached it with that in mind would there be a chance of me finding enjoyment in it. Having now seen it, I’m not so sure any mindset would have made it work. It’s not terrible, but it is a slow, plodding watch. Its admittedly impressive action scenes provide the occasional burst of entertainment, but it’s the stuff surrounding them that doesn’t work.

The film is based on a supposed true story (though that claim has been disputed) detailed in Sir Ranulph Fiennes’ book, The Feather Men. In it, Danny (Jason Statham), an ex-hitman who has retired from killing, is, you guessed it, pulled back in for one last job. His old partner, Hunter (Robert De Niro), is being held captive by a Dubai sheikh who will only release him if Danny kills the men who killed his son. The targets are members of the British Special Air Service, which makes killing them very dangerous, but Danny decides he must make an attempt nevertheless. However, a group of vigilante SAS members, led by Spike (Clive Owen), is determined to protect their comrades at whatever cost, which means getting to Danny before he gets to them.

Killer Elite begins with a bang, opening with an exciting and violent, but not over-the-top, action scene that demonstrates the expertise of Danny and Hunter, showing them as professionals who approach their targets in an intelligent, calculated way. It works as a set-up for future scenes, so when Danny is later able to somehow elude capture and death after finding himself in a number of sticky situations, we’ll be able to buy it. It’s an action scene with meaning, but, unfortunately, it’s the only one. The film follows this up with a scene of little consequence—one that exists solely to please the action fans in the theater—an attempted breakout that is predetermined to fail because, as most viewers will be able to realize, there is no movie if Hunter escapes.

Then it hits a lull. Danny goes about finding and eliminating his targets, but a sense of urgency is missing; it’s easy to forget why he’s even doing it. He runs into the men, all of whom have names and faces, but might as well not, he makes them disappear and that’s that. The problem is the targets are integral to the story, but are too often passed over in favor of a tired cat-and-mouse chase between Danny and Spike, similar to that of a Bourne movie, only boring. We are supposed to accept their demises, but their personalities and motivations needed expansion for that to happen.

Killer Elite is not a movie to bother with details. It worries not about how it gets from scene to scene, just as long as it keeps on moving. At one point, Danny decides he needs to score a lethal drug to administer to the next target so as to make it look like an accident. The next thing you know, he’s in a doctors scrub signing off for it, but how did he manage that? This film doesn’t care. It even goes so far as to set itself in 1980, but skimps on the details. Aside from some high riding shorts and older model cars sitting in the streets, the time period is indistinguishable from today.

To make itself even less interesting than it already is, Killer Elite throws in an underdeveloped love story between Danny and Anne (Yvonne Strahovski), told mostly through flashbacks because, one can only assume, the filmmakers couldn’t figure out a smoother way to fit it into the story. The romance exists only as a means to end, to flip our perception of Danny from a cold-blooded killer to a hero. It doesn’t work because the film is trying to be something it’s not. It works best when it pits the men on the poster against each other, not bogging itself down in trite courtships, but even that proves to be a lie. While it’s certainly fun watching Statham and Owen go at it, De Niro is barely a presence thanks to his incarceration, despite his prominence in the marketing. Because of these things and many more, Killer Elite is not what you expect, and it isn’t good enough to make up for it.

Killer Elite receives 2/5


Gnomeo & Juliet

How many times can you tell a story and keep it fresh? That’s a question with no definitive answer, but it’s one that needs to be asked. After countless adaptations of Romeo & Juliet across film, television and theater, is there a point when we can officially retire it and say that enough is enough? It has been performed, written out and translated to screens big and small so many times that I’m not sure much else can be done with it. The newest, kid centric adaptation of the popular story, Gnomeo & Juliet, takes the two star-crossed lovers and makes them garden gnomes—a novel concept, if not exactly sustainable.

To its credit, Gnomeo & Juliet doesn’t try to pretend like it’s completely original. In fact, before the story even starts, a random gnome steps onscreen, addresses the audiences and tells us we've already heard this story—“a lot.” It’s a great beginning, humorous and appealing, and it sets the lighthearted tone for the rest of the film. It begins with feuding neighbors, Montague and Capulet (a nice touch) who believe the other is sabotaging their garden. The truth is that when they aren’t around, their gardens come to life. The red hatted gnomes, known simply as “the Reds,” and the blue hatted gnomes, “the Blues,” have been at war for an unspecified amount of time. Gnomeo (voiced by James McAvoy), a fighter for the Blues, hates the Reds, but ends up falling in love with one of them, Juliet (voiced by Emily Blunt). Her reciprocation delights Gnomeo, but they must keep their love a secret because their respective families would not approve.

Essentially, this is Romeo & Juliet to a tee, except cuter, brighter, funnier and with a key plot point changed to appease the young ones in the audience (and given the age demographic of the film, the change shouldn’t be difficult to figure out). That’s not necessarily a bad thing because the story of Romeo & Juliet is a great one, but by toning it down for children, it loses much of its appeal. The drama lands like a thud because that is not its focus, a clear separation from the source material.

Instead, Gnomeo & Juliet works the comedy over hard, rarely pausing to allow the theoretical emotion to seep through. At its worst, the jokes come off as childish, but at its best, it’s laugh out loud funny thanks to some incredibly clever adult references and top notch voice acting. The voices behind the characters in this thing work like a Pixar movie in that you aren’t always aware of who is actually speaking and if you are, as is the case with Jason Statham in his first animated role (unless you count Crank), they’re so good it doesn’t matter. Some of the funniest moments, however, come from the talented animation team (the same one behind the beautifully macabre 9). Even though only one visual gag works for every three or four you see, they come at such a rapid pace that the misses in between the hits are forgivable.

Still, Gnomeo & Juliet is primarily a kids movie and although it will certainly work for them, after a while the adult brains in the crowd are going to begin wishing they were being worked a bit more. It’s a pleasant diversion, if insubstantial, and yes, that’s good enough to recommend.

Gnomeo & Juliet receives 2.5/5


The Expendables

Those that know me will tell you I like to joke around. Maybe they’re pity laughs and I’m just too full of myself to notice, but I think I amuse people. As my screening for The Expendables approached, I joked that I would fall into a deep depression if it were bad. I stated how its failure would only be evidence as to the nonexistence of a god. Others said the film was so manly that if you went in clean shaven, you’d walk out with a full beard. With a cast that includes Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Mickey Rourke, Terry Crews, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger and more, these statements are more than jokes. They transcend into fact. So it’s with a happy heart that I say I’m not depressed, there is a god and my beard is awesome.

Barney (Stallone), Lee (Statham), Ying Yang (Li), Hale (Crews), Toll Road (Couture) and Gunner (Lundgren) are the Expendables. They’re mercenaries for hire and when we meet them they are in the process of overtaking a Somalian pirate boat and rescuing their captives. However, Gunner goes a little berserk, prompting his removal from the team prior to their next mission where they are tasked with overthrowing the island of Vilena's evil dictator, General Garza (David Zayas). But things get complicated when they learn that Garza isn’t actually the prime target.

The Expendables, more than anything, is a love letter to action fans. It has runaway helicopters, car chases, fisticuffs, gun battles and all manner of explosions. Its whole reason for being is summed up in one late shot, directly after destroying a helicopter, where fire and carnage encompasses the entire screen. It knows what we’ve come for and it gives it to us.

Plain and simple, The Expendables is tons of fun. If 2008’s Rambo is any indication, Sylvester Stallone knows action. He’s the type of guy who should be handling these types of movies. He has lived and breathed them throughout his career and, although he’s no master behind the camera, he knows what gets the adrenaline pumping and pushes it to its limit.

But let’s be honest. It’s not a particularly great film. The idea behind The Expendables is a novelty at best—combine the best action stars of today with those from years past and make things go boom—but really, that’s all we need. I grew up with Dolph Lundgren (I must have watched Universal Soldier 50 times as a kid). I’ve missed Arnold Schwarzenegger and, although he’s only in the movie for a brief time, I loved seeing him back onscreen. The dialogue is basic and the story is routine, but I didn’t come for that. I came for the action and the nostalgia. That’s why, despite all its problems, it works.

As a fanboy, I can overlook those problems, but my requirements as a film critic say I cannot, so allow me to deviate from my textual nerdgasm. There are many side plots in The Expendables, all which feature exhaustive dialogue inconsequential to the overall narrative, like Lee’s girlfriend’s infidelity and pretty much any scene with Mickey Rourke, but my biggest reservation comes from how poorly the characters are juggled. It’s called The Expendables, but it seemed like it should have been called Sylvester Stallone and Friends because it sometimes felt like a vanity project for the aging star, focusing too much on him and not nearly enough on everybody else. Stallone brings together this legendary group of guys and then splits them all apart, taking the potential of the opening scene where they all work together and squandering it in favor of aloof admiration.

Could The Expendables have been better? Absolutely, but it delivered exactly what I expected: blood, bullets and lots of stuff blowing up. Based on those descriptors, you know whether or not this movie is for you. All I can tell you is that it was for me and I ate it up.

The Expendables receives 3.5/5