Monday, July 31, 2006

The Last and The Spurious


So it's taken oodles at the box office, but was The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (known to me and a friend as '3 Fast 3 Furious') any good?

Hmm. Huh. Well...not exactly.

Thing is, sequel success tend to be an indicator of popularity, not intrinsic quality. Popularity of what?

Well, the previous movie, actually.

It used to be said that a sequel stood every chance of making 40% of the previous film's income. They get greenlit on the numbers. Do it right, maybe you make more. And in these days of franchises, believe it or not, more are getting it right than you'd think.

Bringing back cast, writers, directors, producers - this is the way to do it. Sometimes. Dead Man's Chest is a good example. But I love what the Blade series did - same writer every time, but a new director. You want someone with an eye on the saga.

Unless you're a silly car-porn film franchise like Fast/Furious. In which case you need whoever's available.

I'm going to talk about all three films, in reverse order. Because I'm quite perverse.


Things they didn't learn from the previous films: Colour-coding cars helps audiences keep track of who's where. Heroes should be vaguely capable, and certainly not moronic. Have more than two cars per race.

So, Lucas Black. When he was a kid, he was incredible in a series called American Gothic as a creepy but basically innocent kid. Grown up, I suspect he's capable of good things. Just, y'know, not here - where he's asked to play a kid who gets into trouble for no discernably good reason whatsoever. And he isn't even GOOD at trouble!

He takes on races to win access to the knickers of a cheerleader. Only he can't drive very well. He demolishes property, shows zero control, and...well, he's crap. The guy he races against should probably have been the lead.

He's pushed from mummy's bosom to daddy's out in Tokyo, where we discover that English speaking kids are nice, Oriental ones are nasty, and black kids are sidekicks designed to provide wisecracks. Yeesh.

Now, there's a theory that the director - a Taiwanese chap named Justin Lin - is an outsider himself, arriving in the US and trying to make a name. That might almost make sense. But not quite.

So, what's up with the movie?

One-on-ones, mostly. Races between two cars, two drivers, are incredibly hard to make interesting because it's such a...binary state. Either one wins, or the other does. This is why straight boxing films are such a pain - you win or you lose. And given that we want to feel uplifted, the hero's not gonna lose at the end, surely?

(Rocky, the first one, tried to get around this. At a point slightly too late in the film to be anything OTHER than set-up, Rocky insists that he doesn't care if he wins, if only he can last that distance. That would be victory enough. Guess what happened next...)

Confrontation in fiction is like good conversation - it really fires up when there are more than two people involved.

But Tokyo Drift has other issues. The conflict in the film, the thing the climax hinges upon, is money the 'bad guy' (who's never very bad, actually) was ENTITLED to. Oh, and maybe a girl - the hero never snogs her, or has much conversation with her, but she's in the mix. Presumably he fancies her because she's the only non-Asian female in his class. To repeat: yeesh.

I briefly heard this film called 'darker' than before. That's not quite true. It's not darker, it's more pedestrian. The crashes are more realistic - more Cronenberg than Michael Bay. This does NOT fit a franchise that slides day-glo cars under trucks. A franchise like this, which carries a 'don't try this at home' warning at the end of each installment, should be flipping the vehicles 12 times over, killing only nameless extras. No moment is less appropriate than when we see a friend of the hero smash his car and blow up.

Painful scene. But dude, you're in SO the wrong film.

What else? It forgets to be a cop movie. Films one and two were, in their Miami Vice-lite way, about undercover investigations. This one's about a clearly bi-polar kid who couldn't drive cattle. It's robbed of half its genre - which takes away that Bad Boys/Beverly Hills Cop vibe and leaves you with...binary action scenes.

Oh, and the final race takes place in the dark, and fails to realise how important it is to colour-code cars so audiences can keep track.

Now, to be fair, the location is well-used (a shot of cars gliding through a dense crowd will leave you gasping); you get a real feel for the city. And the notion - tight-corner racing - is cleverly tied in to the setting. But what's next? Fast and Furious: Alaskan Snow-Chains?

For all this, though, it's the lack of memorable icons that infuriates most. Not one character you'd recognise again. Not one scene you can recall. Barely one moment you'll talk about in the pub.

Still - millions grossed. Another will follow.

And back in time we go...


Ignoring the too-cool title based on a music track in the first film, what surprised me was this: it's not rubbish. Oh, it's trashy cinema. But I happen to like a bit of trash now and again. What it does, actually, it does not-badly-at-all.

It remembers to colour-code its cars for one thing!

It also manages to throw variants into the races, keeping things more than binary. There's a tag-team thing where two cars race, then pass the baton to two others. There's a four-way. And the finale of the film hinges on chases and getaways - not 'am I quicker than him?' It leaves room for complexity. A little.

It also makes sure to have, oh yes, memorable things. There's a magical, if slightly shop-worn, trick when the police find themselves chasing 50 cars at once. There's petrol sprayed on a windshield and set fire to. Taser guns that disable cars. There's an (okay, okay) wisecracking black sidekick - but he's got a vaguely interesting grudge history, a lovely habit of eating ALL THE TIME (see also Brad Pitt in Ocean's 11), and model/singer/actor Tyrese is, get this, actually charismatic to watch.

Unlike Paul Walker, who's at least as blond and plank-like as he was the first time around - maybe even blonder and with an extra coat of varnish.

Still, we have a villain who is what they claim him to be. We know he's bad, because he tortures a cop by putting a rat on his belly inside an upturned metal bucket, then torches the bucket so the rat will dig downwards. Ian Fleming would have loved him.

The photography's good, too. John Singleton - who seems cursed by critics who think a black guy should be making black movies (therefore, presumably, keeping him away from dem white folks' films). Tough. He's a decent director of 'issues'. But, given the chance, he can get your pulse racing, too.

(I have a theory that an executive put a call out for anyone good with 'race stuff' - Singleton getting a call was the misunderstanding of an office junior.)

He fills the frame with colour and movement. Turns the camera upside-down, but keeps it tight in the edit so it works. Michael Bay wishes his camera were this inventive.

He casts smartly, too. Most characters won't stick beyond the running time, but when they pop up a second or third time, you know who they are.

Oh, and instead of the cocky little git of film three, our guys this time aren't at all sure. (Ironic, really - they're clearly better than him.) In the face of the race, cocky becomes anxious. The other car IS faster. Ulp. Basic drama.

Not art, then. But not arse, either.


Film one. And yeah, okay, you get why they wanted to carry on.

The first film remembers to do things right - start with INCIDENT (a daring hi-jack), find a style (there are some gorgeous time-lapse shots of LA, lovely focus-pulling between cars, and you actually see our stars and their explosions in the same frame at the same time), and tense up the undercover stuff.

It creates icons quickly, too. "A ten-second car". NoS injection systems. "Life a quarter-mile at a time". Spraying checkpoints across the street. The girls and the gears. Hell, I have no interest in cars, but for two hours, it's groovy.

It's a hell of a lot more ethnically balanced, as well, with gags about Latino names ("Even I can't pronounce it" says Hector of his surname) balanced with bitches right back (Brian O'Conner's name "Sounds like a serial killer").

The story pounds along, too. On the night our hero and his prey meet, they take part in an illegal street race, get caught, escape and flee, get attacked by Chinese gangsters then go back to his place for a beer and a crack at his sister.

There are some 'relationships' on show, too. Brian's boss is also his dad (likely expected to return in film two but didn't - there's a character who acts just like him, though), one of Vin Deisel's gang has ADD and a bright future in design, only he's in with the wrong crowd. Vin himself has a 'proper (movie) past'.

Oh, and okay, let's give Vin his due. He's failed to find decent films since, but for a moment here it seemed like we had something hot on the screen. Raw, masculine, not short on an era where audiences (including myself) prefer their men a little more complex and capable of emotion, Vin was kinda refreshing.

There's a mis-lead in the bad guys, some judgment calls, tough decisions...okay, it's basic, but it's something the sequels don't do at all. But both this film and the sequel put more on the line than straight victory, than first past the post.

There's only one real car wreck, and it takes place during a smashingly tense set-piece as three cars try to take down a truck and fail, painfully. One on one races - those binary bastards - are treated as perfunctory. One overtake, big deal.

It also plays smart with the obvious stuff. Vin finds out his new best mate is a cop...they look at each other, never speaking. Again, it's basic, but it shows a confidence.

People saw the second movie because they liked the first. They saw the third because they liked the second. I doubt many liked the third - though Empire seems to have gone out of its mind giving Tokyo Drift three stars having given the second film only two - so who knows whether they'll bother with the fourth.

Maybe - if Vin's in it. He has a cameo at the end of Tokyo Drift, after all (which probably cost half the budget, and actually has more verve than any other dialogue scene in the picture).

Maybe - if they bring Tyrese back. He and Vin work in my head as an on-screen pairing.

Maybe - if they ditch the binary race results.



At Fri Aug 11, 06:49:00 am, Blogger tikkles said...

Wow. Am amazed you could write so much on the F&F film series - you should be a trash film critic! (imagine introducing yrself as that).

And for my next trick... a 400 page treatise on The Matrix 2, the most boring, portentious film humanity has yet managed.

Tip of the hat to you, humanity...

At Fri Aug 11, 02:57:00 pm, Blogger sorking said...

Poor old Matrix 2. What went wrong?

Well, pretending your exposition is deeper than it really is simply by writing it with a thesaurus was a start...

Still great action and innovative ides, but wrapped in a mess of a plot that, by film 3, left us with a Great Big Climactic Battle...which had NONE of the main characters in it!


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