POSTED ON MAY 29, 2013:
Fast Cars and Furious Farmers
Without a strong script, you totally need explosions
There was a time when the musclehead charms of the Fast & Furious films were lost on me, when I never would have believed that the 2001 original, The Fast and the Furious would spawn five increasingly popular sequels that would (over time) start to grow on me.
That largely had to do with director Justin Lin, who has been guiding the franchise since 2006's Tokyo Drift and has since overseen a series whose cinematic and narrative scope has expanded, evolving from its speed freak, action-fueled potboiler roots into big, cinematic crime thrillers that just happen to involve copious and physics-defying vehicular mayhem.
I Go Fast. Paul Walker and Jordana Brewster practice their looks of surprised consternation in Fast and Furious 6. Yes, they made a sixth one.
After making the best film of the franchise with 2011's Fast Five, Lin and the gang return with a follow-up that taps into a lot of the same charms that made Five work, while changing the game yet again.
Following the successful Rio heist that made multi-millionaires of Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel, Saving Private Ryan), former cop Brian O'Conner (Paul Walker, Running Scared) and their band of speed junkies, the wanted crew has scattered to the four corners to enjoy the quiet life. O'Conner has just had a baby with Dom's sister, Mia (Jordana Brewster, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning) while Han and Gisele (Sung Kang, Bullet to the Head and Gal Gadot, Date Night) have relocated to Hong Kong to slurp ramen and plan for the future. Roman (Tyrese Gibson, Transformers) and Tej (Ludacris, No Strings Attached) are living the single life as any guy with millions of dollars would, with wine, women and Lear jets.
But then a former British Special Forces officer, Owen Shaw (Luke Evans, Immortals) goes rouge with his own squad of military badasses, knocking over government installations looking for the pieces of the Nightshade device, a weapon that can disable power grids. Using cars to pull off their heists in much the same way as Dom and his crew did, and seemingly always one step ahead of the law, they attract the attention of Diplomatic Security Service Agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson, making me wish there actually was a movie called Samoan Thor), who tracks down Toretto, offering full pardons for him and his friends if they help DSS capture Shaw before he can sell the completed device to the highest bidder. Just to insure their participation, Hobbs reveals that Dom's long-thought-dead ex-girlfriend Letty (Michelle Rodriguez, Lost) is actually among the living and working with Owen.
What used to be a check your brain at the door series still isn't long on smarts, but Fast & Furious 6 continues the trend of expanding the franchise's scope while confidently relying on the chemistry of its cast to humanize what amounts to an oft-told story. The fact is, something as rote as this wouldn't work nearly as well with strangers.
With shades of Die Hard and 007 seeping into the mix, FF6 isn't reinventing the wheel, by any means, but it is changing course and ups the ante on its predecessors to ridiculous heights, to the point of turning our charismatic crew into superheroes of sorts. In the unmasked vigilante sense they're a bunch of Bruce Waynes, all rich playboys (and girls) who slide behind the wheel instead of into a Batsuit to stop the villain. In the supernatural sense, physics and bodily harm are damned in the service of an unbelievable stunt or a last minute escape. Toretto and his gang are essentially crime fighters now. It's a great evolution which opens up more possibilities instead of just rehashing what worked before.
Though there is plenty of that. It wouldn't be a Fast & Furious flick without cherry, tricked-out muscle cars, ripped biceps, and outrageous vehicular destruction. Justin Lin, with returning screenwriter Chris Morgan (Wanted) deliver on that promise adeptly and with Lin's now trademark look. Be it the obligatory, crotch shot montage of gyrating, firm flesh leading to the film's only straight up race scene, the razor edited, cross-cutting during the vehicular battles -- under Blade Runner-like, neon skylines -- or the sweeping establishing shots of the globe-trotting locales. From London to Russia, Spain and L.A., FF6 wears its ambition to go big or go home on its sleeve.
Lin keeps the chaos visually comprehensive and sells the bigger set pieces with enough aplomb to get even jaded action fans a little excited and get regular audiences to suspend disbelief far past the point it should break. Where I kind of snorted with vague approval at Dom turning into Spiderman all of a sudden (you'll know the scene when you see it) the guy behind me could only utter an awestruck, "That was fucking awesome."
Because it really is the cast that keeps us going with the film's popcorn vision: letting those plot holes, lame jokes about Tyrese's forehead and improbable stunts slide. Vin Diesel sardonically growls his lines with his typical, warbling basso delivery and sarcastic humor. Paul Walker has the desperate competence of a man working his ass off to win the game -- constantly thinking things through.
Michelle Rodriguez strikes a nice balance between tough and vulnerable; contrasting newcomer Gina Carano's flat, yet weirdly watchable turn as Riley, another DSS agent (a trait she exhibited in her film debut, Haywire but she does kick much ass, so who cares?).
Tyrese, Kang and Ludacris are all reliably charming, and Dewayne Johnson is typically great. The dude looks impossible, with proportions straight out of a comic book but with a charisma and screen presence as massive as his latissimus dorsi. When Diesel and he go up against a giant Russian guy and Shaw you can practically hear the audience cracking their knuckles with Smackdown anticipation. Make no mistake, the Fast & Furious films are audience movies, meant for the grandeur of a huge screen and cheering crowds. To see them any other way dilutes them. But in their natural environment they re-define the term "guilty pleasure."
And the post-credit tease involving another bald dude who is well known for driving fast and beating the shit out of everything has me wishing Fast 7 were already here.
At Any Price
Issue advocacy films seem to work better (for me at least) as documentaries. When they go narrative, as with Gus Van Sant's strangely flat fracking drama, 2012's Promised Land, they tend to marginalize their cause, at best. At worst, they can seem disingenuous, trying to rope in an audience with a pedantic morality play. A straight documentary might be preachy, but the format itself is focused on the subject. What you see is what you get.
At Any Price doesn't quite fall into any of those categories, though for reasons that are no less problematic.
Which Crazy Quaid Brother Do You Mean? Dennis ups the ante and gives nutjob brother Randy a run for his wacky money in At Any Price, now playing.
Directed and written by Ramin Bahrani (Goodbye Solo) with Hallie Newton (in her scripting debut), At Any Price's subject is Monsanto -- represented here as Liberty Seed -- and their habit of suing farmers into oblivion if they engage in the age-old practice of cleaning and re-planting their seeds. It's a real problem.
Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid, Footloose) is a farmer and seed salesman for Liberty and who is trying to keep the family farm, founded by his grandfather, from being overwhelmed by the agri-industrial big boys.
Henry has a cloistered wife, one son who has disappeared from Iowa entirely in lieu of travelling the world and another son, Dean (Zac Efron, The Paper Boy) who only dreams of becoming a stock car driver. Henry has no one to take up the mantle of the family business. When Liberty Seed goons begin investigating Henry for re-planting their product, he is forced into a spiral of desperation and deception that blooms out of control.
There's a darkly matter-of-fact tone to At Any Price that is oddly compelling despite almost every character being unlikeable and shallowly written. Henry makes land deals at a funeral, treats his wife like a sister whom he cheats on with Heather Graham (as the most unredeemable female character of 2013), a character who only exists to bone Henry and eventually Dean, too. The film treats their conflicts and its own themes with earnest obviousness, be it with lines like, "These guys copyrighted life!" to actually having Dean screw his dad's mistress in a corn silo. It's weird shit like that, so creepy and Oedipal, that makes it hard to know where to begin with how improbably weird and terrible At Any Price gets.
Channeling more than a little Coen Bros. into its plot, while possessing the visual simplicity of a Hal Hartley movie and without either filmmakers' deadpan humor, At Any Price is confounding in what it wants to say and how it says it. Dennis Quaid is amazing, because I can't decide if he's awful or playing an asshole that is so richly real that it's blowing my mind. Clancy Brown (Starship Troopers) plays a competing seed salesman who is somehow completely non-threatening. Even worse, the plot winds up with him murder-cuckolded while being none the wiser for it, played for sick irony. I know that sounds vague (and weirdly worded), but the end of this film left me angry. And, sadly, not at Monsanto. Efron is wallpaper.
Bahrani shoots an attractive-looking film that is often cinematic. There's nothing technically wrong with the way At Any Price looks or sounds. But with characters as generally bland as this (despite Quaid turning up the Jack Nicholson on his performance) the family drama tends to feel as unearned as its political conflicts, counterproductively burying an important issue in a ham-fisted tragedy -- one that comes off like a black comedy with no laughs. Kind of a bummer since there is probably a good movie in here, somewhere.
Watching a documentary about agribusiness in general (and Monsanto in particular) would be more compelling, educational and deeply unsettling use of your time.
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