I Hate Mondays Chapter 1 (John Wick, 2014)

John_Wick_PosterJohn Wick is having a bad day.  A really bad one.  This is the gist of the film.  John Wick is mourning the death of his wife.  He is gassing up his car one day when some punks express interest his car.  That night, they break in, assault John, hurt his dog and steal his car.

One little thing…John Wick is a notorious hitman.  He is the boogeyman hitmen tell each other about.  Wick had retired, but now he has a mission.  That mission is to get his car back…but that means a whole lot of people are going to meet untimely ends.

John Wick is an action film with no aspirations to be anything else.  Wick is a very simple character in a post-Taken world.  He has a very special skill set and connections to a very dangerous community. This works in the film’s favor, as it makes it pretty easy to go along with the outlandish action sequences.

I have long argued that the key to a good Keanu Reeve performance is a character who might be smart, but is generally clueless about the plot.  And admit it…most of his most memorable performances involve kind of clueless characters.

Not John Wick.  Wick knows who he is, what he wants and how to do it.  And it is pretty exciting to see him do it.  The fights are tightly choreographed and eye catching.  Reeves maintains a strong presence considering the fact that there is not much to the character.  This is a lean action film full of characters with no real complexity.  Each character has a specific role and they play it well.  The film does not give you a lot of background to many characters…instead it allows the actors to bring a certain amount of their own presence.  Ian McShane gives the “Overlord” Winston instant gravitas, while Lance Reddick’s Charon carries a real weight of quiet authority.

This is director Chad Stahelski’s directorial debut.  He was primarily a stunt coordinator/choreographer who has done some assistant director work…but for a debut film, Stahelski does a pretty solid job.  Probably the biggest knock against the film is the choice to view the entire film through a blue tint, which can get annoying at times.

John Wick is a strong debut for a first time director and a good start to what has become a franchise.

Speed Racers Pt 8 (The Fate of the Furious, 2017)

fast_and_furious_008_posterIf prizes were awarded for the most inconsistently named franchise?  Pretty sure this franchise would own that.  If George Lucas was involved, they would all get renamed something like Dom Toretto and the  Fast and The Furious (Who care if Vin is in every film or not).

By this time, our heroes have gone from criminals to underdogs to helping the authorities.  But after saving the world last time around, Dom has apparently switched sides and is helping Charlize Theron take on the world.  She is an evil hacker with big plans…and so Mr. Nobody calls in The Fast and Furious team and a surprise guest…the last film’s villain (Jason Statham).  Has Dom truly gone bad?  Is he really turning his back on his family?

This is the first film in the franchise not directed by Justin Lin, and it definitely loses some of that cohesiveness.  It feels less like a continuation and more like a flat out sequel from the…uh…sequel factory.  F. Gary Gray is a strong director and has some definite “action/Car movie” cred with the 2003 remake of the Italian Job.  But the story itself feels like it was conceived months after the last film was released and worked to fit their latest idea together.  The previous films felt more “organic” with Lin at the helm.

I cannot pinpoint exactly why this is, as the guy who wrote this film (Chris Morgan) wrote every film since Tokyo Drift.  Maybe Gray connects with the characters differently.  But one thing that stands out is that there is a big plot point that comes pretty much out of nowhere as Dom’s motivations.  There is no point in a prior film to see it coming. It feels purely invented for the film, like a last minute idea to solve a problem they were having.

Fate is certainly not lacking for action, though they may finally be hitting that point where it is hard to top the big set piece of the previous film.  The massive race across the ice and attempts to outrun a massive submarine feel more like they cobbled together ideas from the previous film, so instead of giving us an impressive and new sequence it highlights cooler moments of past films.

While Fate of the Furious is not terrible (and not by the standards of the franchise itself, it has its moments), it does feel like the franchise is finding it harder and harder to sustain itself.

Speed Racers Pt 7 (Furious 7, 2015)

fast_and_furious_007_PosterThe seventh film in the series that has not apparently run out of gas (and fifth film directed by Justin Lin) finds the team no longer on the run and being a family.  Dom and Letty are working on their relationship, as she has not regained her memory.  Brian and Mia are enjoying parenthood.  Everything is going smoothly…well, except the fact that somebody is trying to murder the crew…and not just the crew, but anyone connected with the take down of Shaw in the previous film.  Which means Hobbs needs to team up with the family once more.

The big threat here?  Shaw’s big brother… uh… Shaw.  Well, this brother gets a first name as well.  Overseeing our intrepid clan is Mr. Nobody…played by Kurt Russell.  Because if your films are full of familiar faces and names… you cannot go wrong adding Kurt Russell to the mix.

Seven ups the stunt ante again…”Gee, we had a tank last time?”  How about skydiving cars?  Cars driven from from skyscraper to skyscraper…via the top floors?  In this film, they crash cars and use pieces of the cars in hand to hand combat.  The Rock picks up a giant gun and starts to shoot down a helicopter.  And then?  It gets nuts.

Overall, it is a pretty solid effort, though false a bit short of the sixth entry.  Part of this is due to the film having been faced with an unexpected tragedy before they were done filming.  After leaving an awards ceremony Paul Walker (Brian O’Conner) and a friend were killed in a car wreck (the friend was driving).  It was very clear from the response of the cast and crew that they had all gotten very close, and were crushed by the loss of their friend.

But this forced some story alterations.  I doubt their plan was to send Brian out of the series.  But now they had to adjust the story to do that.  With help from Paul’s twin brother they filmed some final shots.  The final moments are full of heavy comments about not saying good-bye and how things are never going to be the same.  They are clearly paying their respects to Walker, which is both understandable and touching.  But it does make things a little awkward.

Paul Walker has passed away, but Brian and Mia are just done with adventuring and are going to raise their kids.  Yet, each character speaks as if they will never see Brian and Mia again.

Overall, while not quite as strong as Fast Five or Fast & Furious 6, Furious 7 is still a lot of fun…and it could have made a nice finale for the franchise.

Speed Racers Pt 6 (Fast & Furious 6, 2013)

fast_and_furious_006_posterThe sixth film throws in a twist for Dom, Brian and their family.  Letty is back, but now she appears to be their competition.  Hobb’s has let the gang be, seeing as how they have stayed out of the heist scene since their last encounter…but a new crew of high precision vehicle themed criminals.  Hobbs knows he needs help and seeks the skills of Dom and the crew.  The carrot he dangles before them is the discovery that Letty is, in fact, alive and working with this group that is a threat to free nations everywhere.

The core of the story is Dom’s desire to get Letty back, but she seems to have lost her memory.  This allows the film to have some playful and competitive flirtation between the two, but also gives the villain, Shaw, something to use against the crew.  This is fairly effective.  For Brian, he and Mia have a child and are looking at their future.  What this means for Mia is that she is sidelined from the story, which is a bit disappointing for the character, however, the franchise’s cast tends to grow as fast as it loses characters.

And this is a big cast.  The regulars are back and they are all in regular form, firing quips, arguing, and driving real fast.  This film is as fun as the previous entry, with no fear to go big.  For example?  There is a big chase at the end that involves a giant tank.

This series has benefited from having a single director for the past few entries.  The films feel like the story advances and was actually planned, rather than assembled backwards.  Plenty of franchise sequels simply feel like they have the idea and try to fit it in…but it seems like Lin and the writers planned things out in advance.

Fast & Furious 6 continues the upward tick of the franchise, and makes for a fun adrenaline fueled time.

Speed Racers Pt 5 (Fast Five, 2011)

fast_and_furious_005_posterAnd uh…here is where things get a little weird for the franchise.  Because, uh, the fifth film?  It is probably the best film of the franchise at this point.  This film embraces the absurd and becomes a full on heist film.  Brian has joined Dominic as a fugitive after he and Mia free Dominic from a prison bus.

The three go to Rio where they join in an attempt to steal some cars from a train, which goes horribly wrong.  Dominic, Brian and Mia decide they need to get back at the man behind the failed heist…who is one of the most connected men in Rio.  They assemble a team which brings back cast members from the second, third and fourth films.  This means Roman, Han  and Gal Gadot’s Gisele are all back.

To put a wrinkle in their plans?  Dwayne the Rock Johnson.  He is the unstoppable  Government Agent Hobbs.  Hobbs is determined to bring the fugitives in at all costs.  This results in several reversal of fortune moments for the fugitives and Hobbs that keep the viewer on their toes.

The group they have assembled make for a lot of fun.  While Roman and Tej provide a lot of the comic relief, the film has a lot of fun with the flirtation between Gisele and Han.  The core relationship of Dominic, Brian and Mia hold this group together.

Lin provides multiple exciting sequences, both in and out of cars.  The cat and mouse with Hobbs culminates in an exciting chase through the streets of Rio with cars pulling a giant safe.  I mean, like a vault.  And even that has a giant twist.

Like I said, this film embraces the absurd, not worrying if anything is to over the top.  The end result is a fun bit of action based escapism.

Speed Racers, Pt 4 (Fast & Furious, 2009)

fast_and_furious_004_posterFor the fourth film, they dropped “The” from the title.  Because…saving space on the poster?  I guess?  This film brings it back to the original.  O’Conner is working with the Feds again, while Toretto and Letty are pulling heists.  When Letty is murdered, O’Conner and Toretto’s paths cross again.  Admittedly, it is a bit of a strained relationship.  Dominic is seeking revenge on Letty’s killer, but Brian wants to bring her killer in.  Brian also finds his relationship with Mia rekindled.

In the first film, O’Conner ultimately remained aligned to the side of the law.  His devotion was challenged, and while he did not walk away, he made a choice that cost him the job, but he also stayed on the side of good, so to speak.  This film challenges his faith in the law to make the right choices.

In the hopes of getting Toretto off the wanted list, Brian cuts a deal with his boss…but when the agency jumps the gun and messes up a planned bust of villain Campo, it falls on Brian’s head.  He and Dominic set out to get Campo on their own.

This film is the turning point for the series, it also sets the stage for each film trying to really top the big spectacle of the previous film.  This one opens with a pulse pounding attempt to steal some tankers.  It closes with a high speed chase through narrow tunnels.

Director Justin Lin (who directed Tokyo Drift) can put together a compelling action scene and keep it exciting.  This time around, he has a much moire entertaining film, closer in spirit to the first film.

Speed Racers Pt 3 (the Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, 2006)

fast_and_furious_003_posterThe name is derived from a style of racing called Drifting.  It involves the driver over-steering and losing traction of the tires.  It is more elaborate than that, but I am not a car guy.  And that is pretty much all there is for a viewer in this film.  Some cool racing scenes with cool looking cars.

Tokyo Drift opts to leave the country and focus on people other than our previous regulars.  We follow white rich kid Sean who hopes to break into the Tokyo street racing scene, but finds it is tough, cause racism.

The film is a convoluted plot that involves the Yakuza and family drama and mean rich kids…but it never gels together.  The characters are not particularly interesting and therefore it becomes hard to not get bored when there is no racing.

Because that is one thing this film has…pretty cool looking race scenes.  But the film tends to feel overwhelmingly inconsequential, especially as part of a franchise.

That last line is kind of unfair, the film has a dramatic turn for the entire franchise, but that also creates a lot of confusion for the timeline of the series (a few of the films technically take place before Tokyo Drift).