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Review: ‘Fast X,’ Making You Suffer

Vin Diesel leads the all-star cast. 

Loudly proclaiming, early and often, that’s it ‘all about family,’ Fast X proceeds to dismantle that bromide, bit by excruciating digital bit. Calling back to and revolving around key events in Fast Five (2011) from the adult perspective of Dante (Jason Momoa), the son of the earlier film’s principal antagonist, drug lord Hernan Reyes (Joaquim de Almeida), the film imagines that Dante has been plotting revenge ever since and now intends to executive his vengeance upon them by MAKING THEM SUFFER (cue evil laugh). 

By “them,” of course, the vengeful Dante plans to attack Dom (Vin Diesel) and his extended family of blood relatives and close criminal associates, who now number into the thousands, or at least to the point that Dom embraces every survivor of his kooky driving, shooting, and killing exploits as a member of his family and thus deserving of the kind of protection that only he can provide (cue 1,000-yard stare). 

What follows is a blitzkrieg of images, hasty assembled into something resembling a narrative, and clearly meant to be taken dead serious, judging by the tone set by Vin Diesel, who exudes the same hulking menace, whether he’s crouching over his young son or ignoring the property damage he has caused or the enemies he has murdered to protect those that he loves. 

The decision to circle back to Fast Five as a jumping-off point for the story is just the first in a series of bad decisions. Directed by Justin Lin, the film was the first in the series to leave behind entirely the constaints of time, space, common sense, and the laws of gravity. By embracing its entirely ridiculous excesses and having fun with them, acknowledging its own Looney Tunes mentality, the film simultaneously declared it would henceforth be making up its own rules and establishing its own (un)natural laws. 

The films that have followed, especially after Lin departed the franchise after Fast & Furious 6, steadily embraced that wildly individualistic style with diminishing effect, especially noticeable after writer Chris Morgan departed after The Fate of the Furious (2017). Even with Lin’s return to the helm in F9 (2021), the series was reduced to treading water and felt desperate and ever more outlandish and untethered to any sort of guiding narrative throughline.

That continues under the direction of Louis Leterrier, a journeymen helmer who has made seven previous action movies, none that are especially memorable. (Lin before work on this film before departing shortly after production began due to “creative differences.” Note that Lin co-wrote the script.) From the outside, Leterrier appears to be a hard-working sort of filmmaker who gets the job done, on time and on budget, but without much noticeable flair or hint of personal style. (He also claims to have re-written substantial portions of the script on his flight to begin work.) As to the acting, well, the franchise is a graveyard for Academy Award-winning actors (Rita Moreno, Helen Mirren, Charlize Theron, Brie Larson) who, like Leterrier, get the job done (i.e. say their lines) without leaving any discernible marks. 

At the public preview screening I attended, Jason Momoa’s performance as a supremely flamboyant metrosexual villain played extremely well with the crowd. Personally, I could not quite fathom the reason for his character to lean heavily on behavior that I thought was outdated and (borderline) offensive. He practically twirls his moustache. (Cue evil laugh again.) 

Perhaps I’m missing the point (or the humor) entirely. In any event, it’s in an entirely different style from all the other performances, which makes it stand out; it’s as though Momoa thinks he’s in a comedy, while everyone else plays it as a family drama.

At best, he’s a distraction from a lessening spectacle. More does not always mean better, as painfully demonstrated in Fast X. 

The film opens in Dallas, Fort Worth and surrounding cities on Friday, May 19, via Universal Pictures. For more information about the film, visit the official site.

Review: ‘Bloodshot,’ Give Me a Double Shot of My Baby’s Love

Vin Diesel, Eiza Gonzalez, Lamorne Morris and Guy Pearce star in the action vehicle, directed by David S.F. Wilson. 

A confusing, and often bewildering, mishmash of narrative ideas, Bloodshot is filled with a near-constant barrage of senseless violence, a near-total absence of heroic behavior, and an overabundance of villainous characters. 

It’s no surprise that the movie is adapted from a comic book series. Created by Kevin VanHook, Don Perlin and Bob Layton, and published by Valiant Comics, the titular character made his first appearance in 1992. In the film, Ray Garrison (Vin Diesel) is a U.S. Marine who has been killed in action and then sold to a secretive bio-technology company, whose mission is to create the ultimate super-soldier.  

Before that happens, we see the Marine in action, leading a successful mission and then spending the night in the comfort of his beloved wife, Gina (Tallulah Riley). In the morning, however, Ray wakes up to an abduction and is promptly whisked away to an underground bunker for torture at the hands of the odious Martin Axe (Toby Kebbell), who dances to Talking Heads “Psycho Killer” and laughs manically before shooting Gina dead. And then he shoots Ray dead, whereupon the screen cuts to black, the credits roll, and I wonder why I spent my own money to rent a movie that is so hateful and nasty. 

Unfortunately, the credits do not roll at this point. Instead, for reasons that never overturned the sick feelings in my stomach that the torture scene generated, the film continues. 

Scientific genius Dr. Emil Harting (Guy Pearce) heads the bio-technology company mentioned previously, and patiently explains everything to the disbelieving Marine, telling him that he is the first soldier brought back to life and empowered with the new technology. Neither Ray nor myself believe that, really, and so, again, it’s no surprise when Ray soon takes vengeance into his own two, well-muscled hands, and seeks REVENGE!!!

Attributed to Jeff Wadlow and Eric Heisserer, the screenplay is very difficult to follow, which makes me wonder how it got that way. Certainly, there is some indication that the plot is intended as a mystery, with narrative traps aplenty waiting to be sprung in order to shine more light on an international conspiracy of some sort. Perhaps the underlying intention was to tease out periodic surprises, revealing the true motivations that drive different characters? 

I don’t know. The drama is dire and the action sequences are difficult to follow, even at home, where it is theoretically possible to rewind a scene to see what happened and to whom. By the time Lamorne Morris appears, emitting a lighter comic tone that might have been welcome much earlier in the film, it’s too late to do more than hang on and try to pay attention to how everything plays out. 

As an optimistic person at heart, I’d like to believe that something entertaining might have resulted from all the honest, hard work undertaken by hundreds of people behind the scenes. Alas … not really. 

On the positive side, I enjoyed the performances by Lamorne Morris and Eiza Gonzalez, who both put forth considerable dramatic effort to suggest that their respective characters have something more complex brewing within their souls than might be initially apparent. On the very positive side, I very much enjoyed Guy Pearce, who brings his full range of talents to the screen, bringing the most complex character in the film to believable life. 

What went wrong? Just like the plot of this movie, we may never know. 

The film opened theatrically in Dallas, Fort Worth and surrounding cities on Friday, March 20, 2020. It is now available to watch via various Video On Demand platforms. Screened for review via FandangoNOW on Saturday, June 20, 2020. 

For more information about the film, visit the official site.

Review: ‘xXx: Return of Xander Cage’

dfn-xxxreturnxandercage-300Explosions! Gun battles! Dead bodies galore! Smug, self-righteous quips!

Yes, xXx: Return of Xander Cage has all those things, as well as a great number of scenes that resemble action sequences. All that “action” is shredded into bite-sized bits that go down easily and never catch in the throat — or memory.

The long-delayed third installment in a series that originally aimed to replace supremely-confident secret agents with supremely-confident extreme sports athletes, xXx: Return of Xander Cage can certainly be commended for employing a great number of stunt people. The movie can also be commended for employing an extremely diverse cast of good-looking people in what we laughingly called “acting roles” in another life.

All cast members here are equally at sea, whether because of their own inexperience in acting or due to their limited command of the English language or because the “dialogue” is so inelegant and witless. None of that would matter, however, if the action sizzled in compensation. Far be it for me to criticize a b-movie that knows it’s a b-movie and focuses almost all its energy on delivering high-intensity, high-velocity action sequences.

We may never know if xXx: Return of Xander Cage ever had such sequences because the finished product more closely resembles a ‘cut and paste’ fan edit of the trailer, stretched out (somehow) to 107 minutes. Director D.J. Caruso moved from television to feature films with the somber drama Salton Sea in 2002 and followed that up with the dark thriller Taking Lives and the sports drama Two for the Money.

After that, Caruso made three thrillers aimed at young adult audiences, Disturbia, Eagle Eye and I Am Number Four before shifting to a younger audience for Standing Up, which was well-received critically, though it didn’t make much of a popular fuss. All that to say xXx: Return of Xander Cage is his first attempt at this sort of ‘blam blam’ project, one that is utterly without logic or grace and, one suspects, guided more by the artistic taste of producer and star Vin Diesel than anything else.

Indeed, the movie feels like a big wet kiss to Diesel, returning after 15 years to the role of Xander Cage. Perhaps feeling the onset of age — he turns 50 later this year, though he looks younger — and finding comfort in familiarity, he has nudged the xXx franchise toward the Fast and Furious series. Other than the opening sequence, extreme sports are rarely showcased. And rather than killing off all the characters, only a few select cast members get the axe, the better to lay the groundwork for a continuation of the series.

Donnie Yen rises above the other players who support Diesel. Surprisingly, it’s not because of his physical abilities as a martial artist and on-screen fighter, where he has always excelled. No, it’s his acting that enables him to stand out. He’s learned that the right facial expression is worth a thousand words, and that body language speaks louder than weak jokes.

The others? Well, Deepika Padukone and Ruby Rose look good as professional killers and Nina Dobrev works hard to manufacture comic relief. His hair dyed blonde, Tony Jaa makes funny faces and shrieks. Kris Wu tries to stay out of the way. Toni Collette recites her lines adequately, though without much menace. Samuel L. Jackson portrays Samuel L. Jackson.

The appeal of the movie is summed up in its title: xXx: Return of Xander Cage. If that sounds good, help yourself.

The films opens wide in Dallas theaters on Friday, January 20.

Review: ‘Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk’

dfn-billy_lynns_long_halftime_walk-300Much ballyhooed for director Ang Lee’s fight to shoot it at the high frame rate of 120 frames per second in 3D at 4K, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk arrives in Dallas movie theaters at the standard 24 frames per second in 2D. (* Except at one location in Addison; see below.)

As things worked out, only a few theaters in New York and Los Angeles are set up to present the film as Lee desired, so for those of us who live elsewhere, we must wrestle with it as it is: a major disappointment that looks very much like it was made for television. In 2D, all its shortcomings are plain to see.

The anti-war storyline, adapted by Jean-Christophe Castelli from Ben Fountain’s award-winning 2012 novel and set on a single day in 2004, is entirely conventional. Specialist Billy Lynn (newcomer Joe Alwyn) is a soldier in Iraq who has gained fame because a news photographer captured a moment when he came to the aid of a fellow soldier. Lynn and his fellow Bravo Squad members are sent home for a two-week press tour, culminating in a presentation during halftime of a football game in Dallas on Thanksgiving Day.

Lynn is suffering (most likely) from post-traumatic stress syndrome, and so are most of his fellow soldiers. They are spooked by any sudden or loud sounds and react as they would on the battlefield. Lynn’s sister, Kathryn (Kristen Stewart), has planted the idea in his head that he should remain home, rather than returning to Iraq, and so he is wrestling with that as well on the final day of Bravo Unit’s leave.

Ang Lee established himself in the 1990s with a series of films — from Pushing Hands through The Ice Storm — most notable for their convincing characterizations. Beginning with Ride with the Devil and quickly cresting with the elegant Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Lee sought to expand his horizons, sometimes reaching bruising personal heights (Brokeback Mountain) and sometimes allowing visual ambitions to overwhelm all else (Hulk, The Life of Pi).

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk feels like the latter type of ambitious failure. Presented in 2D at 24 frames per second, one is struck by a surfeit of close-ups, often featuring the characters looking straight at the camera. The profusion of talking heads resembles how a documentary filmmaker might approach the material. Combined with a reliance on lighting that looks overly bright on a movie screen, it looks more like it belongs on a small screen.

None of that would matter as much if the characters were more distinctive or if the narrative weren’t so well-worn. Some of the plot devices are tiresome. The unit has hired an agent (Chris Tucker) to try and sell the movie rights to their story, demanding that it be accomplished during their brief trip to the U.S. The football team owner (Steve Martin) is a fatuous representative for all clueless business people who know nothing of war.

Just to make sure we get the point, another fatuous businessman (Tim Blake Nelson) tries to strike up a conversation with the unit, a representative for all clueless business people who know nothing of war but don’t own a football team. Billy Lynn catches the eye of a fatuous cheerleader (Makenzie Leigh) who immediately falls for him and wants to make out with him. Oh, Billy is a virgin, too, and thus (presumably) pure of heart.

Despite its anti-war inclinations, the movie is respectful toward all military personnel, as opposed to the often dumb and insulting civilians who dare to mouth off to them. Once the rusty plot engine cranks up, though, piloted by well-meaning and entirely heroic soldiers like Billy, Dime (Garrett Hedlund) and Shroom (Vin Diesel), the narrative putters along like a golf cart in a cornfield before harvest.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk fails to engage at the most basic levels, pushing away rather than intriguing or enveloping audiences in its message.

The film opens in theaters throughout Dallas on Friday, November 18.

* Late word is that the film will screen in 120fps/Dolby Vision 3D at the AMC Highland Village on the Parkway 9 in Addison.

Review: ‘Riddick’ Cheerfully Accepts Its Self-Imposed Limitations

Vin Diesel in 'Riddick' (Universal)
Vin Diesel in ‘Riddick’ (Universal)

A goofy programmer that morphs from a science-fiction version of Jeremiah Johnson into a back-alley riff on Aliens, David Twohy’s Riddick barely holds together as a movie, but its joie de vivre cannot be denied.

As the titular character, a fearsome warrior left for dead on a planet uninhabited by humans, Vin Diesel brings his personal charisma and physical agility to the role, which is left largely undefined beyond the aforementioned qualities. Lip service is paid to the idea that Riddick has been abandoned because he has lost his ‘animal spirit,’ perhaps a reference to the first two films that featured the character, 2000’s Pitch Black and 2004’s The Chronicles of Riddick, both directed by Twohy, who has written or co-written all three installments.

Twohy has a strong understanding of genre dynamics, as evidenced by his track record (as a writer/director, his credits include Below and A Perfect Getaway), so the screen is kept filled, showing off a motley collection of CGI beasts that are constantly trying to eat Riddick. Roughly the first third of the action is devoted to a solo survival tale, accompanied only by Diesel’s gravel-voiced narration. Unlike Robert Redford’s Jeremiah Johnson, however, Riddick’s life is continually in peril; he barely has time to take a breath from one animal attack before another dangerously fanged, sharp-toothed, seemingly invincible animal is trying to take a bite out of him.

Finally he decides that his only hope for survival is to set off a beacon that will alert bounty hunters to his location, which is also a signal for the movie to shift into Aliens mode. Very, very quickly, a mangy team led by the oily Santana (Jordi Molla) arrives to pick up their target; Santana thinks Riddick will be easy pickings, but his #2 man Diaz (Dave Bautista) isn’t so sure. Shortly thereafter, a second, more disciplined team lands on the planet, this group headed by Boss Johns (Matt Nable) and featuring his #2, Dahl (Katee Sackhoff, looking even more lethal than she did in Battlestar Galactica).

The combined manpower and firepower of both teams are no match for the mighty Riddick, of course, who starts to lay waste to them. And then an approaching storm forces everyone into an easy truce that will prove to be no less deadly for the humans than the all-out war that preceded it.

Despite the accumuluation of dismembered corpses, no serious tension is ever generated — it’s really, really hard to make computer pixels look threatening — and the action sequences are the usual junkpile of quick cuts and odd angles and bodily fluids. Yet the film rolls along at a snappy pace and Twohy provides the requisite macho wisecracks and rejoinders, spit out by the game cast with the appropriate level of disrespect and disdain.

Diesel is sufficiently convincing as a bad-ass, while Molla and Nable are solid leaders, and Bautista and Woodbine, as well as Raoul Trujillo, Conrad Pla, Nolan Gerard Funk and the rest of the cast, including Karl Urban, are appropriately buff, gruff, and tough. Kate Sackhoff acquits herself best of all, her self-confident swagger a treat to watch.

Unaccountably, Sackhoff’s character is sometimes left behind while the men head out to do battle, but she’s a loyal soldier and never questions the authority that has left her on the sidelines. In that respect, she’s a good stand-in for the movie as a whole: Riddick is loyal and never questions the creative authority that has determined it should be nothing more than an extremely straightforward search-and-destroy mission.

The film opens wide throughout the Metroplex on Friday, September 6.

Review: ‘Fast & Furious 6’ Flies Confidently and Absurdly Into Superhero Territory

'Fast & Furious 6' (Universal Pictures)
‘Fast & Furious 6’ (Universal Pictures)
Dispensing with the boundaries of time and space — and breaking loose from the shackles of gravity and logic — allows the latest installment in the Fast and Furious franchise to bound confidently, if absurdly, into superhero territory.

Consider: superheroes can fly through the air; ordinary mortals cannot. Superheroes can return from the dead; ordinary mortals, even ones driving wicked fast motor vehicles, cannot.

Fast & Furious 6 is based on the absurd proposition that Letty Ortiz (Michelle Rodriguez), who died several sequels ago, has returned from the dead and is now a member of a gang of thieves who drive very, very quickly and are quite angry to boot. She has amnesia, of course, and no longer recognizes Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel), the former love of her life, who has moved on reluctantly and learned to love again, or at least allowed Brazilian model / some kind of armed agent Elana (Elsa Pataky) to warm his bed.

Dominic and his driving / thieving pals Brian (Paul Walker), Han (Sung Kang), Roman (Tyrese Gibson), and Tej (Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges) are living in retirement, reaping the reward of the millions of dollars they stole / earned by liberating a steel safe, tearing up the streets and businesses of Rio de Janeiro and pretty much ensuring that the Brazilian government would be happy to lock them up forever. The fugitives consider each other to be family, though, and they all come running when Dom whistles at the possibility that Letty is really, actually alive; after all, ‘you don’t leave family behind,’ which is a very popular sentiment among moviegoers and driving / thieving / rich people alike.

The gang has been reconvened at the behest of Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson), a lone guerilla in camouflage pants who represents the government in some behalf, somehow still gainfully employed after the disaster that was the previous episode of the series. Well, not quite “lone” this time, because he’s joined by his newly faithful sidekick Riley (Gina Carano), and I do mean sidekick; she can punch and shoot guns as well as anybody in camouflage pants, but her distinguishing skill is her capacity to kick people into submission.

The rival gang of villains mirrors the heroes in appearance, as one of the good guys helpful points out, and is led by the shady Shaw (Luke Evans), who wants to steal a computer chip worth billions from the government and/or quasi-governmental entity. The chip’s theft would be devastating to the nations of the world and upset the balance of power and/or would put Apple and Microsoft out of business; the explanation is tossed off quickly and is really not germane to this discussion, because mainly what the movie wants and needs are excuses for people to fight and wisecrack and drive stylish cars very quickly and blow things up and smash vehicles and destroy property and make some more jokes and maybe flirt a little and kill people without dwelling too long on the dead bodies and maybe quite possibly and casually kill innocent civilians but not acknowledge anything more than — wow! Doesn’t that look cool! And, hey! Isn’t that funny? And, oh no, he didn’t! Snap!

As popcorn entertainment, Fat and Furious Sex — or whatever it’s called, the main titles reduce it to Furious 6 — is a lot of hot air, recyles far too many shopworn cliches, and is faithful only to the modern action insistence on cutting in harmony with the chaos method, which prevents easy comprehension of geography and danger. On the other hand, that’s all it wants to be; despite the repeated references to family and the yearning to return home expressed in the script by franchise stalwart Chris Morgan, this is a movie that is built around the action sequences, and director Justin Lin fully exploits the budget that has been accorded to him.

It’s a knowingly absurd film that always keeps a straight face. Fast & Furious 6 doesn’t need to wink at its audience; it’s not a secret that action junkies crave bigger and more boundless experiences, and so much the better if they’re delivered with a friendly sense of humor and a reckless disregard for reality.

Fast & Furious 6 opens wide across the Metroplex on Friday, May 24.