‘Alita: Battle Angel’ Introduces Us To a Hero Unafraid to Be ‘The One’

Alita Battle Angel movie poster

Alita: Battle Angel” is a movie which is at once familiar but unique. It’s another post-apocalyptic film in which Earth has been laid waste by war and where humans survive any way they can, with or without the limbs they were born with. Hovering over them is a city in the sky much like the one in “Elysium” where the wealthy survivors live in what looks like infinite luxury. Yes, there are many familiar science-fiction elements at work here, but this movie still feels unique in the way it looks and how it is told. Just when I thought it would be the same old genre film which I have seen far too many times, I was surprised at how invigorating it was as it introduces us to a heroic female character who is not afraid to back down from a fight.

This movie brings together filmmakers James Cameron and Robert Rodriguez, and you can tell the pride and enthusiasm they had in bringing Yukito Kishiro’s manga series “Gunnm” to the big screen. With all the visual effects and 3D tools at their disposal, and this is the first 3D movie I have looked forward to watching in ages, they have created an imperfect but highly entertaining cyberpunk adventure which mixes live action and computer-generated imagery to brilliant effect just like in “Avatar.”

The year is 2563, and the Earth has been devastated by a war known as “The Fall.” As the movie begins, we see renowned scientist Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) sifting through a junkyard in Iron City when he comes across a disembodied female cyborg. Her body is part of the trash thrown down from the wealthy sky city of Zalem, but what its residents didn’t take into account is this cyborg still has a fully intact human brain. Dyson ends up taking her back to his office and rebuilds her, and the next morning she wakes up with a new set of artificial limbs and a pair of eyes which look like something out of a Margaret Keane painting. From there, she goes on a journey of endless discovery which will show her enjoying the simple things and eventually embracing her true identity.

Just like with “Avatar,” it is hard to distinguish what is real and what is CGI in “Alita: Battle Angel” as both worlds mix into one another in a wonderfully creative way. This movie also utilizes 3D in a way which reminds us how the extra dimension can make us feel like part of the action instead of just letting us sit back in our comfy seats. Hollywood really burned us out on 3D as it became nothing more than a gimmick and another way to take an extra dollar or two out of our pockets. But in the hands of Rodriguez and Cameron, filmmakers who have successfully mastered the extra dimension (the jury will excuse “Spy Kids 3-D”), it is a reminder of what an effective tool it can be when placed in the right hands.

Speaking of Rodriguez, this is easily the best movie he has made in a long time. His last few films like “Machete Kills” and “Spy Kids: All the Time in the World” had him repeating himself to tiresome effect, and I was begging him to try something new. His attempts to made good-bad movies completely missed the point of why such movies were enjoyable in the first place, and his many gifts were wasted as a result. But with “Alita: Battle Angel,” he gets his biggest budgeted movie yet, and you can feel his joy at playing around with tools he never got to play with before. The look of the movie is astonishing, and his filmmaking skills get reinvigorated as a result.

And, of course, you can feel Cameron’s influence over this project as he co-wrote the screenplay with Laeta Kalogridis, and his mastery of storytelling is on display here as he weaves in various themes dealing with pollution, corruption and endless greed to very strong effect. Hugo (Keean Johnson), Alita’s love interest, is infinitely eager to buy his way into Zalem, but like John Leguizamo trying to get an apartment in Dennis Hopper’s luxury high-rise which sits high above a zombie-infested city in “Land of the Dead,” the odds will never be in his favor. The rich live in safety while the poor live in squalor and, just like in the real world we inhabit, the division between the haves and have nots is far too big.

And yes, Cameron’s weaknesses as a screenwriter are on display as well. Ever since “Titanic,” he has shown a tin ear for dialogue, and hearing the villainous characters sputter out lines such as “looking for me” is dispiriting as I have heard this phrase far too many times. Also, the arcs of certain supporting characters are not resolved in a satisfying manner, and I had to look at the movie’s Wikipedia page to figure out exactly what happened to them. I still wait for the screenwriter of “Aliens” to reappear. Remember the classic line of dialogue Cameron came up with when Sigourney Weaver talked to Paul Reiser about the difference between bloodthirsty extra-terrestrials and human beings? It still stays with me:

“You know, Burke, I don’t know which species is worse. You don’t see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage.”

As for the actors, they help breathe life into the computer-generated landscape. It’s great to see Christoph Waltz play someone other than a devious villain, and he makes his scientist character a deeply heartfelt man who is more complex than we were first led to believe at first. There’s also nice supporting work from Oscar winners Jennifer Connelly and Mahershala Ali who lend their charisma to enigmatic roles. And it is nice to hear Jackie Earle Haley’s voice as the enormous cyborg and assassin Grewishka as you can always count on him to create an ominous presence in a movie which calls for it.

But let’s face it, “Alita: Battle Angel” belongs to Rosa Salazar who portrays the title character. The actress, best known for her roles in “Parenthood” and “American Horror Story: Murder House,” gives this movie the heart and soul it deserves, and it was immense fun watching her discover the simple things in life to such a wonderfully enthusiastic degree. And when Alita embraces her role as a fierce warrior, Salazar sells it for all it is worth as she is not about to be held back by anyone. Without her, this movie would not have been anywhere as effective.

For a brief time, I thought this would be yet another movie where the main character struggles with whether or not they are “the one.” “Alita: Battle Angel,” however, is not interested in asking such time-wasting questions, and it did not take long at all for me to be fully engaged in her quest. I cannot begin to tell you how thankful I was for that.

“Alita: Battle Angel” ends on a note which serves as a set-up for a franchise filled with sequels. This will more than likely annoy many audience members as every other motion picture looks to be starting a franchise which serves to keep studio executives happy. Still, I found it to be a self-contained movie which never felt like an overlong advertisement for future installments. I am eager to see where Alita’s future adventures will take her, and I have a strong feeling we will find out before the first of several “Avatar” sequels are released. Heck, has filming on the first “Avatar” sequel even begun yet? Stop leaving us hanging Cameron!

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Widows’ is a Fiery Thriller and Not Just Another Heist Movie

Widows movie poster

It’s always cool when a filmmaker sneaks something up on you when you least expect it. On the surface, “Widows” looks like an average heist movie to where I went in thinking it would be another “Ocean’s Eleven,” but I can assure you this is not the case (and we did already have “Ocean’s 8” earlier this year). While this film provides audiences with the requisite action and violence, it cannot be boiled down into one sentence as it deals with themes of class divisions, political corruption and of the lengths many will go to just to make ends meet. What results is a hell of a thriller, and it’s a timely one as the struggles these characters face is all too real in this day and age.

“Widows” starts off with an introduction to the wives before they lose their spouses. Veronica (Viola Davis) shares an especially passionate kiss with her husband Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson), Linda Perelli (Michelle Rodriguez) haggles with Carlos (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) over money she needs for her clothing store, Alice Gunner (Elizabeth Debicki) cannot hide the black eye her abusive husband Florek (Jon Bernthal) gave her, and Amanda Nunn (Carrie Coon) is busy with her newborn baby as her significant other Jimmy (Coburn Goss) darts out the door. These scenes are interspersed with these men pulling off a robbery which goes horribly awry and results in their fiery deaths. The editing by Joe Walker is one of the best I have seen in any 2018 movie as he interweaves the different vignettes in a way which feels especially powerful.

From there, the four women attempt to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives as reality comes down hard on them in ways they are not prepared for. Things are especially precarious for Veronica when she is visited by crime boss and aspiring politician Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) who informs her Harry robbed $2 million dollars from him, and this money was lost in the fire. Jamal demands Veronica pay back this debt sooner rather than later, and the way he holds her dog during this scene will have pet owners gripping their armrests. Following this, Veronica gets together with the other widows to carry out a robbery which will net them the money they need to pay off said debt, and we watch as they take matters into their own hands in a way they never have previously.

I have a confession to make; this is the first movie by filmmaker Steve McQueen I have watched. McQueen has previously given us “Hunger,” “Shame” and “12 Years a Slave” which won the Oscar for Best Picture a couple of years ago. I certainly need to catch up on his work as his flair for filmmaking is clearly on display in “Widows.” Some of the long shots he pulls off here are amazing as the actors are forced to maintain an intensity which is not always easy to do in front of a camera, and it results in highly suspenseful and shocking moments which had the audience I saw it with gasping audibly.

At the center of “Widows” is Viola Davis who has long since proven to be a force of nature. Ever since I first saw her in “Doubt,” she has proven to be a no-nonsense actress and her performances are never less than stunning. As Veronica, she provides the story’s center of gravity as she forces the other women to join with her in a mission no one can easily prepare for, and she does this even as her heart is shattered by a grief she cannot keep inside forever. Even in moments where she doesn’t say a word, Davis makes us see what is going on in her mind without having to spell it out for us. Watching her here, I was reminded of the lethal presence she gave off in the disastrous “Suicide Squad” and of how she would have made a better Joker than Jared Leto.

One actress who really needs to be singled out, however, is Elizabeth Debicki. As Alice, she takes her character from being an abusive pawn for her husband and her equally nasty mother Agnieska (a wickedly good Jacki Weaver) to becoming a person who finds the strength and self-confidence which has eluded her for far too long. She makes Alice’s transition both natural and subtle to where she inhabits the character to where you can never take your eyes off of her.

McQueen and co-writer Gillian Flynn of “Gone Girl” fame adapted this movie from the British miniseries of the same name, one which I’m fairly certain my parents have seen. In this movie’s 129-minute running time, they manage to fit in so many different layers to where “Widows” feels much longer than it already is, but I never lost interest in what unfolded. We get a strong sense of the desperate lives each character leads as they live in a world where no superhero can save them. The two have also moved the story from England to Chicago and, as David Mamet once said, “In Chicago, we love our crooks!”

An interesting subplot which emerges in “Widows” involves a political campaign between Jamal Manning and Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), for alderman of a South Side precinct. We already got a glimpse of Jamal’s criminal activities, but Jack is not free of corruption himself. Even worse, his father Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall, great as always) does nothing to hide his racist attitudes and believes this office is theirs by blood regardless of what the voters end up saying. Farrell is terrific as Jack in showing the shadowy corners he is forced to navigate through in politics. It’s a position he doesn’t want to be in, but he is stuck in the shadow of his incumbent father who is not about to see his son lose the election, and he proves to be as morally compromised, if not more so, as his political adversary.

This also leads to a brilliant scene as McQueen follows Jack as he gets into a car with his associate, and the camera stays outside as we watch them travel from the poor neighborhood he is campaigning in over to the affluent neighborhood where he lives. Is there another scene in a 2018 movie which shows the disparity between the haves and have nots without the use of words? If there is, I haven’t seen it.

Michelle Rodriguez remains as badass as ever, and its great fun watching her hold her own opposite Davis. Cynthia Erivo, who showed us what a great voice she has in “Bad Times as the El Royale,” is furiously good as Belle, a babysitter and beautician constantly running off to the next paying gig as her desperation to keep her head above water keeps her apart from her daughter. And Daniel Kaluuya, who had scored one hell of a breakthrough with “Get Out,” is a devilish delight as Jatemme Manning, a cold as ice psychopath who doesn’t think twice about ending someone’s life, and his presence is enough to frighten the most jaded of filmgoers.

Does “Widows” have plot holes? Perhaps, but I was too caught in the story and performances to really give them any notice. Any questions this movie proved to be refrigerator questions. As for the meaning of that, look to Alfred Hitchcock. This is a thriller which digs deep into the lives of those undone by history and inequity, and it’s hard not to root for them as they take matters into their own hands in a desperate attempt to reach for the life they dreamed of but which is cruelly denied to them. It is full of surprises, many of which I did not seem coming, and McQueen holds us in his cinematic grip from start to finish.

Another thing to take into account about “Widows” is how it deals with the five stages of grief. Getting through them is never easy, but you knew this already. Seeing these characters struggle with their individual grief is not something which draws attention to itself right away, but the ending, which features a character breaking out into a smile she worked hard to get to, shows how one can get to the other side and move on. You could say this only happens in the movies, but this one does not take place in the land of superheroes and comic books. Reality can be harsh, and “Widows” never lets you forget that.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘The Fate of the Furious’ has the Franchise Running on Fumes

The Fate of the Furious poster

So here we are again in the land of fast cars and unabashedly mindless entertainment. We all know what to expect when we walk into a “Fast & Furious” movie, so we should only complain so much, right? “The Fate of the Furious” is the eighth film in this now 16-year-old franchise, and the filmmakers bring most of our favorites back including Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez, Dwayne Johnson, Tyrese Gibson, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges and Nathalie Emmanuel, and “Furious 7” co-stars Kurt Russell and Jason Statham are back to do more damage as well. And yes, there are fast cars aplenty on display here, and you can gleefully expect Gibson to pick the sexiest one even if it is not well-equipped for where he is taking it.

Still, I came out of “The Fate of the Furious” feeling surprisingly underwhelmed. What we have here is not a bad movie, but one which barely rises to the level of being okay. I didn’t get the same rush I typically get as this family of characters drive through one city after another at breakneck speeds while giving every insurance company a lot of grief. Part of me wants to blame the fact that the franchise’s last entry, “Furious 7,” was one of the best and most emotionally of the bunch, but perhaps these films are now drifting on fumes as it feels like we have finally gone too many laps around the same track.

Anyway, Dominic Toretto and Letty Ortiz are on their honeymoon in Havana, Cuba when Dom comes across the alluring Cipher (Charlize Theron), a criminal mastermind and cyberterrorist who makes him an offer he can’t refuse, and it involves betraying those closest to him. Why does Dom go out of his way to betray family? You have to watch the movie to find out, but it involves him stealing an EMP device and some nuclear codes which Cipher wants for her own nefarious purposes.

Having been betrayed by Dom, Luke Hobbs somehow ends up in prison despite all his years of service to law enforcement, and he ends up in a cell right across from his nemesis, Deckard Shaw. After an over the top prison fight which has them both escaping, they run into Frank Petty who informs him and the team they will be working together to bring Dom to justice. Yes, there is only so much plot to be found in “The Fate of the Furious,” but there is still much to take in here. In retrospect, maybe there’s too much.

When it comes to these “Fast & Furious” movies, you are obligated to suspend disbelief, and they usually move at a pace which keeps you from thinking too much about what’s going on. But with this one clocking in at over two hours, my brain was thinking a lot more about the crazy scenarios than usual to where I was taken out of the movie more than twice. For starters, having Statham become a good guy seems far-fetched considering how evil and dangerous he was in “Furious 7.” Granted, his scenes opposite Johnson make for the best moments in this entry as they bait and insult each other as they constantly threaten to beat one another to a bloody pulp. Still, the change in loyalties can only go so far even in this series.

Also, the majority of the car chases on display feel more like special effects than the real deal. There are some cool moments like when Cipher manages to hack into dozens of cars to where they rain on everything and everybody. Still, it felt more like I was watching a video game instead of a movie as the filmmakers stretch credibility beyond its limits from start to finish. In the end, they can only get away with so much.

Directing “The Fate of the Furious” is F. Gary Gray who gave us “Friday,” “The Negotiator,” “Set It Off” and one of the best biopics in recent memory, “Straight Outta Compton.” There’s only so much he can bring to the table as this franchise thrives on familiarity and cars to an infinite degree, but he lets certain scenes drag out when the pedal should be put to the metal. And when that submarine jumps out from under the ice, I couldn’t help but wonder if perhaps this franchise had finally jumped the shark as it tried to outdo itself in terms of stunts. For all I know, the next installment will have this family teaming up with aliens from Mars as they battle another nemesis who’s even worse than the previous one.

This sequel does have the invigorating appearance of Charlize Theron who portrays perhaps the coldest and cruelest villain Dom and company have ever faced. Theron gives us a deliciously evil antagonist in Cipher, and her strength comes from never having to overplay the character. She keeps a cool demeanor throughout as she makes us see Cipher is always one step ahead of her opponents without even having to show us why. Those beautiful eyes reveal to us a corrupted soul who has those in her command under in her complete control. Theron has always been great at playing a badass whether it’s in a movie like this, “Mad Max: Fury Road” or the upcoming “Atomic Blonde,” and she is a memorable addition to this franchise.

Aside from that, a lot of what I saw in “The Fate of the Furious” felt kind of worn out compared to what came before. Diesel delivers his usual stoic performance as Dom, but his veiled threats to Cipher could have felt more threatening. Even the banter between Gibson and Bridges, who can always be counted on to provide comic relief, feels tired as they constantly yell at one another as if they were in the latest Michael Bay movie. As for bad characters switching alliances, it’s a little difficult to believe Deckard Shaw would help Dom so easily after he killed off one of Dom’s best friends. People like these don’t just forgive each other easily.

Regardless, there will be a ninth “Fast & Furious” movie in the near future as this franchise shows no signs of slowing down. I just hope the filmmakers bring a fresh energy to the next installment as “The Fate of the Furious” lacks it more than I could have anticipated. Instead of trying to outdo the stunts which came before, maybe everyone can bring renewed focus to the characters and give us real stunts instead of ones generated by CGI. This isn’t a terrible movie, but it could have and should have been much better than it was.

For the record, there is no post-credits sequence, so feel free to take care of your urine ache sooner rather than later.

* * ½ out of * * * *

Furious 7

Furious 7 movie poster

Some franchises really overstay their welcome, but that’s never been the case with “The Fast and The Furious.” While it looked like this series was running on fumes by the time “Tokyo Drift” came around, the main characters from the original came back for the fourth entry which re-energized everything to a major extent. Now we arrive at “Furious 7” where the action remains top notch even as the filmmakers defy logic more than ever before, but there’s also a lot of emotion and poignancy as we are reminded of what brings us back to these films more than anything else: the characters. Deep down, we care a lot about Dom Toretto and his family and of what happens to them.

After vanquishing Owen Shaw in “Fast & Furious 6,” Toretto and company now have a new nemesis to deal with in Owen’s older brother, Deckard Shaw. Played with villainous relish by Jason Statham, Deckard vows vengeance against Dom and his crew for what they did to his brother, and he starts off by eliminating Han Seoul-oh (Sung Kang) and then obliterating the Toretto family home. This disrupts their lives as Brian O’Connor (the late Paul Walker) tries to settle down into a regular suburban life with Mia (Jordana Brewster), bur the death of one of their gang forces them to take matters into their own hands.

There’s actually something quite nice about calling “Furious 7” a sequel instead of a prequel or intra-sequel. The three previous entries took place before “Tokyo Drift,” but now we have a “Fast & Furious” film which actually takes place after “Tokyo Drift.” As a result, the fates of these characters are now up in the air more than ever, and we can’t be sure of what will happen next.

The presence of the late Paul Walker casts a heavy shadow over “Furious 7” as there is no way we can watch this film without being reminded of the fiery car crash which claimed his and Roger Rodas’ life in November 2013. It’s nice to see Walker play his star-making role one last time, and his entrance into it is very inspired. Walker died halfway through filming this movie, so the filmmakers had to use stunt doubles and CGI effects to fill in the missing blanks. Honestly, the results look seamless, and I couldn’t tell how exactly they pulled it off. Just like Brandon Lee in “The Crow,” Walker gets one last ride which is more than worth the trip.

It’s also fun to see Vin Diesel back in action even as his dialogue becomes rather cringe-inducing at times. There’s certainly no replacing him as Dom Toretto, and he has a number of nice moments with Michelle Rodriguez whose character of Letty is still struggling to remember who she once was. It’s also nice to see Jordana Brewster and Dwayne Johnson back as well, and this is even though we don’t see enough of them this time around. As for Johnson, he looks more massive than ever and has a nice little Incredible Hulk moment which will have the audiences cheering. And yes, he sure can wield an enormous machine gun just like the one Jesse Ventura wielded in “Predator.”

Among the new additions to the franchise in “Furious 7” include Kurt Russell, and it’s always great to see him in anything. Russell plays Frank Petty, a.k.a. Mr. Nobody, who heads an ultra-secret covert ops group which comes to help Dom and his crew take down Deckard. After all the law-breaking Toretto and his gang did, it only makes sense they team up with a group which bends the law as well. The “Escape from New York” star remains as cool as ever, and if they do decide to make another film in this franchise, I hope they bring him back for more.

Djimon Honsou also shows up as a bad guy named Mose Jakande, a character whose last name reminded my friend Courtney of some lyrics from the song “Iko Iko.” The “Gladiator” actor lends another strong villainous presence to a movie which already has one with Statham. Ronda Rousey, one of the few bright spots in “The Expendables 3,” makes a cameo as a character who tries to beat the crap out of Letty. And of course, you can always count on Tyrese Gibson and Chris Bridges (a.k.a. Ludacris) to keep chewing each other out with infinite glee as Roman and Tej.

“Furious 7” employs a number of stunts which defy the laws of gravity and logic among other things, but it’s our love of the characters which keep us from being bothered about that too much. This is especially the case when Dom and Brian drive an incredibly fast car from one high-rise building to another in Abu Dhabi. This moment almost tops Tom Cruise climbing up another building in the same country in “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol.”

Also, as I’m sure you’ve seen in the trailer, the gang parachutes out of a plane in their cars, and they manage to land on the ground below with relative ease (their shock absorbers may need some work though). Lord knows how you can steer a car while it is skydiving to the ground, but these drivers are all about the impossible, and they make us want to buy into their craziness.

I do have to give Diesel some extra credit here. His character of Dom Toretto ends up surviving so many car crashes and head-on collisions in this sequel, not to mention driving out of a parking garage as it collapses around him, to where I’m not sure how many other actors could pull this off and make you believe they would come out with only a few cuts and scratches (at least, until the movie’s last half). Only an actor like Diesel can sell this kind of survival to an audience these days, so it should be no surprise we are willing to accept all he endures here no matter how improbable it all gets.

With Justin Lin out of the director’s chair for this installment, James Wan of “Saw” and “Insidious” fame steps behind the camera to direct this, his first mega-budget blockbuster. This is kind of a hard franchise to bring anything new to at this point, but Wan does bring an unexpected amount of emotion to the material. Granted, a lot of this emotion comes from Walker’s tragic demise, but even Wan understands the need for the audience to be emotionally invested in these characters for a movie like this to work at all. Jumping from small budget films to a studio tent pole franchise is no easy feat, but Wan makes “Furious 7” work as a go for broke action extravaganza which never ever lets up. He is also backed up by another kick ass music score by Brian Tyler who returns to the franchise after sitting out “Fast & Furious 6.”

I have to believe there’s an eighth “Fast & Furious” movie coming our way, but if this is to be the last one, then the franchise is certainly going out on as high a note as any franchise could ever hope to. Still, I’ve got to believe there’s still some life left in this series as I am very much impressed at how long it has lasted.

At the very least, Walker gets a better and more heartfelt sendoff here than he did in “Brick Mansions.” Even the toughest guy in the audience is likely to shed a few tears at the dedication made to the actor’s memory at the movie’s conclusion. He’ll tell you he didn’t get choked up, but you will be able to tell if he’s lying to you.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Fast & Furious 6

Fast & Furious 6 movie poster

After watching “Fast Five,” I kept wondering what the filmmakers would end up calling the sixth film in the franchise. One guy told me they should call it “Sexy Six” which I thought would be pretty cool, but the filmmakers decided not to be all that creative with the title this time and they just called it “Fast & Furious 6.” Then again, you will notice during the opening credits (yes, this one actually has opening credits) that the movie is called “Furious 6.” Why they decided not to put this title on the trailers, posters and TV commercials is beyond me because it sounds perfect.

Anyway, it doesn’t matter because “Fast & Furious 6” proves to be just as much fun as its predecessor, and it delivers the kind of crazy and illogical entertainment we have come to expect from these movies. You can bitch and moan about the plot holes and the absurdity of certain stunts, but this franchise is now over a decade old and we have long since given up trying to make sense of everything which goes on. I’m just astonished director Justin Lin and company still managed to make an incredibly entertaining movie while not introducing much of anything new to this series.

After pulling off the mother of all bank heists in “Fast Five,” the merry band of car racers have retired rich and are enjoying life. Brian O’Connor (Paul Walker) and Mia Toretto (Jordana Brewster) are now the parents of a baby boy, Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) has a ridiculously beautiful estate in which he lives with Elena (Elsa Pataky), Gisele (Gal Godot) and Han (Sung Kang) have moved to Hong Kong, and Roman (Tyrese Gibson) and Tej (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) flaunt their wealth in ways both loud and generous.

But with this being a “Fast & Furious” movie, there’s no way any of these people will stay retired. Into the picture comes Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) who meets up with Dom not to arrest him, but to ask for his help in bringing down a former British Special Forces soldier named Owen Shaw (Luke Evans) who has taken down various military convoys. Dom, of course, has no interest in working with Hobbs, that is until Hobbs shows Dom a picture of one of Shaw’s crew members: his ex-girlfriend Letty (Michele Rodriguez). From there, the whole crew reassembles to take Shaw down, rescue Letty, get full pardons, and drive some super-fast cars in the process.

It should be of no surprise to anyone that Letty is alive as this was confirmed during a post-credit sequence in “Fast Five,” and it’s good to see Rodriguez return to this franchise. While the explanation of how she survived doesn’t make much sense (these movies have never been high on logic), I’m glad to see her back. Letty looks to have turned bad and is suffering from amnesia, but you’ll have to see the movie for yourself to see how far from grace she has fallen.

It’s a shame this will be Justin Lin’s last film in this long running franchise (James Wan will be taking over for the next installment) as he continues to outdo himself in terms of the stunts he gets onscreen. Even when certain stunts stretch the boundaries of what’s even remotely possible, Lin still leaves us on the edge of our seats and begging for more. He also understands that while we love the action, it’s the characters which bring us back as well as we have come to deeply care about what they go through.

We could get into a long discussion about whether or not Vin Diesel and Paul Walker are really acting in these movies, but this issue has long since been rendered moot. They are these characters, and they are key part of this franchise’s success as we root for them to get away with everything and anything. This also goes for Jordana Brewster who, while a bit underused in this one, is still a kick to watch as Mia. Recent additions like Dwayne Johnson have also given the “Fast & Furious” movies a swift kick in the butt, and we leave this movie wondering if his muscles can get any bigger than they already are. It’s like what Danny DeVito said about Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Twins:”

“You’re all swelled up and you look like you’re ready to explode!”

Actually, the best thing about “Fast & Furious 6” is watching Tyrese Gibson and Ludacris play off of each other. These two are so damn funny as they try to one-up each other as to who’s the cooler dude, and I wonder if the filmmakers would ever consider doing a spin-off series with their characters.

As for the newest additions to the “Fast & Furious” family, Luke Evans gives us the strongest villain this series has seen in a long time with Owen Shaw. This is not to say the villains in the previous installments were weak (the actors playing them were quite good), but they proved to be generic in the large scheme of things. With Shaw, we get a character bound by a philosophy as strong as it is twisted, and Evans sees to it we do not forget about this particular nemesis once we leave the theater.

Gina Carano, whom Steven Soderbergh directed in “Haywire,” is another newbie here as Hobbs’ partner Riley, and you can sure bet she puts her mixed martial arts fighting skills to good use in this movie. Her fight scenes with Rodriguez are exhilarating to witness, and those looking for a good catfight will get more than what they expected here.

Some of the craziest stunts in “Fast & Furious 6” include a tank which mows down every car in its path, regardless if the cars are imports or American made, and a cargo plane which our heroes use everything in their power to bring down. One automobile which stands out in particular is “The Flipper” which Shaw drives, and it’s a car designed to flip over any car foolish enough to get close to it. Whether you’re driving head on at this thing or trying to ram it from behind, you’re in a no-win situation as you will find yourself unexpectedly flying through the air and crashing painfully. Just look at Walker’s face as he finds this out the hard way.

“Fast & Furious 6” does have its share of plot holes which are becoming harder to forgive, and the airplane runway featured in the movie’s climax is even longer than the one in “Die Hard 2,” but it’s still a slam-bang piece of entertainment to where you can only complain about its problems so much. It’s not better than “Fast Five” which was a wicked blast, but it’s still delivers the kind of fun we have come to expect from films like this. As always, be sure to stick around for a post-credit sequence which introduces us to the main villain of the next sequel. While the identity of the actor playing this villain has long since been spoiled, you’ll still get a kick out of seeing this guy appear on the big screen.

* * * out of * * * *

Fast & Furious

Fast & Furious movie poster

This review was written in 2009 when this movie was released.

I never bothered watching either of the sequels that came out after “The Fast & The Furious.” What was the point? You have Paul Walker headlining “2 Fast 2 Furious” (clever title) which did not inspire much confidence in me at the time. Then came “The Fast & The Furious: Tokyo Drift” which had none of the original characters in it (excluding cameos). For many, including myself, this second sequel seemed to be the last gasp of a franchise trying to get by on its name only. But now we have “Fast & Furious,” a movie every bit as tight as its title. With this one, we finally have the original cast back with the clever tagline of “new model, original parts.” With this in mind, I actually found myself excited at what looked to be the first true sequel to the 2001 original.

Okay, the original was by no means a great movie. Even Rob Cohen, who directed it, didn’t try to hide the fact the story was ripped off from “Point Break.” In essence, “The Fast & The Furious” was basically “Point Break” on wheels. At the same time, it was never less than entertaining and offered us a surprisingly authentic look into the world of street racing. What astonished me most was how it brought all kinds of ethnicities together who were all in pursuit of being the ultimate racing champion. In a way, it made you look at street racing as an equal opportunity killer. Car crashes of all kinds know no prejudice.

With “Fast & Furious,” the series comes back to what Cohen originally hoped it would be; the continuing soap opera of what’s happening with Dominic Toretto, his sister Mia, his girlfriend Letty, and his friend turned nemesis Brian O’Conner. Of course, this particular sequel would never have happened without the participant of one individual: Vin Diesel. Having opted out of the other sequels, Diesel returns to his star-making role as Dom, the character all the fans desperately wanted to catch up with.

“Fast & Furious” has been described as an intersequel, as opposed to just a prequel, in that it takes place between the events of “2 Fast 2 Furious” and “Tokyo Drift.” We catch up with Dom and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez, as luscious as ever) in the Dominican Republic as they are up to their usual game of hijacking trucks, in this case oil tankers. The movie gets off to a fast start indeed as the hijacking quickly develops some rather dangerous complications. From there, Dom comes back to Los Angeles to avenge the death of a very close friend.

When the movie heads to Los Angeles, we then catch up with Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker), who is now an FBI agent. Brian starts the movie on a chase which is indeed furious as he runs after a fugitive who has information on a major drug dealer he is pursuing. It is a wonderfully executed chase scene which gets us primed for what will happen next. Of course, the real man Brian is after is the same man Dom wants revenge on, so these are forced to work together again even though they couldn’t trust one another any less.

“Fast & Furious” allows us to also catch up with Dom’s sister, Mia (Jordana Brewster), who fell hard for O’Conner before realizing who he really was. She now looks at him with disdain as she feels completely betrayed by his lies. But come on, you know these two are still hot and heavy for each other. Of course, it takes them some more time to realize this.

Is it even worth it to be critical of a movie like this? The plot threatens to be paper thin throughout, and it is there of course to hang a lot of car chases and other action sequences on. There are clichéd characters aplenty, such as Brian’s superior officer who wants results or his ass is grass. There’s also that rival agent who doesn’t trust Brian one bit, and that’s even before Brian drives the guy’s head into the marble wall at the FBI office (ouch!). Then there is dialogue which sounds like it comes out of every other action movie you have seen, and some of it will have you rolling your eyes. But seriously, it’s not like the filmmakers are trying to make “Lawrence of Arabia” here. I mean, you could compare the two to determine which is the better movie, but this is more likely to make you look like a snob rather than an objective film critic.

Truth be told, I just went into “Fast & Furious” to have a fun time, and that’s exactly what I got. This is a well-maintained action picture which has much to appreciate. I especially liked the chase scenes which, while not necessarily the best ever, are heads above a lot of the recent action movies Hollywood has churned out. I especially dug the street racing scene where Dom and Brian race two other guys for the chance to become drivers for hire. The only catch is the streets are not closed off for this one. They are being led by GPS monitors showing them the direction they need to go, but they also have to keep their eyes open for oncoming traffic which is oblivious to the reckless endangerment about to be unleashed.

There is another cool sequence where cars race across the desert to get across the Mexican border. While the chase itself succeeds in defying the laws of logic in several ways, and it does have those CGI moments which takes away from it, it was still fun as Dom and company barrel through these secret caverns with their twists and turns. This leads to an all-out furious climax as the tunnel is utilized again for more deadly results.

There is also a high volume of scantily dressed women to be found just like in other movies in this endless franchise. Very appealing to the eye, I found it to be. Still, it continues to astound me just how lax the MPAA is with movies like these. There is a lot of skin left uncovered for a PG-13 movie and then some. Very stimulating it was! Sorry to sound like Yoda, but I am not going to lie about the eye candy on display.

As for the movie’s faults, the female characters keep getting short shrift compared to the men in this franchise. Seeing Michelle Rodriguez here made me forget about all her troubles which she got into during her time on “Lost” and of how the media paid way too much attention to. She is a hottie to put it mildly, and you totally believe she would actually go out of her way to do some of the dangerous shit herself. It doesn’t matter if a stunt double did most of her work because you come out of this movie believing she would have done some of this on her own. The fact she is underused here is painful.

The same goes for Jordana Brewster whose character of Mia is left around just hoping and worrying about Dom and Brian. She’s great to watch, and she doesn’t even try to hide her character’s anger and bitterness at Brian. Still, to have her just sit around worrying about the guys instead of doing more threatens to make this a waste of her talents. She gives the movie the heart it needs though, and she strengthens the connection between Dom and Brian. The end of the movie seems to imply that if there is another sequel, she will have a bigger part in it. It would have been great if this were the case here though.

It’s great to see Vin Diesel back in this franchise. Lord knows it wouldn’t be worth doing another one if he were not participating in it. Over the last few years, Diesel had become envisioned by the media as an actor with a very over inflated ego, and many of his movies released after “The Fast & The Furious” tanked at the box office. In retrospect, this seems largely unfair as studios were quick to blame him for trying to be the next big action star way too quickly. While Diesel is not a great actor (not yet anyway), there is no denying he has a charismatic presence onscreen. Some of his strongest moments come when he doesn’t say a word. After all these years, he still has the physical confidence which spells out to the audience, “Let’s not mess with me today.”

Paul Walker is, well, Paul Walker. Every performance I have seen him give is basically the same, so his rep in Hollywood as a nothing more than a pretty face feels pretty much justified. To be fair though, he is more believable as Brian O’Connor this time around than he was in the original. That rough facial hair he has helps illustrate the years he has been on the job and of a history he still has to absolve himself of.

John Ortiz is also on board as the nefarious Campos. It’s a role very similar to the one he played in Michael Mann’s movie version of “Miami Vice,” except he has a lot less hair this time around.

The director behind the wheel of “Fast & Furious” is Justin Lin who also helmed “Tokyo Drift.” Lin is best known, however, for his brilliant 2003 debut feature “Better Luck Tomorrow” which brilliantly transcended the stereotypes many people have of Asian Americans. Ever since then, however, he appears to have gone all Hollywood with wussy studio movies like “Annapolis” with James Franco. Many still want him to come back and make another movie like his first feature, but Lin does a good job here in delivering a good old fashioned B-movie which delivers the goods. His skills as a filmmaker are not in doubt, and I expect great things from him in the future.

Lin also brings along his “Tokyo Drift” composer Brian Tyler for the ride, and Tyler gives the movie the kick ass score it deserves. A combination of thunderous guitar riffs and orchestral movements, the propulsive score he comes up with more than matches the horsepower the cars have here.

“Fast & Furious” was a lot of fun and that’s all a movie like this needs to be. Whether or not it stands the test of time, it is great to see these characters back on the silver screen. It was worth it to see these characters live a quarter mile at a time once again.

I also want to add that the movie does have that disclaimer which says, “The car and motorcycle sequences depicted in this film are dangerous.” To this, I say, duh!

* * * out of * * * *