The Best Movies of 1998

1998 logo

Now it’s time to go to take a look back at the movies of 1998, the same year when California started the ban on smoking in bars and restaurants. What else happened that year? John Glenn became the oldest astronaut to go into space, and it gave us a reason to watch the space shuttle launch on television for the first time in years. The Denver Broncos became the first AFC team in 14 years to win the Super Bowl when they beat the Green Bay Packers (I’m so glad I didn’t bet on that game). The whole controversy of President Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky exploded, which the President’s enemies seized upon like teenagers going through their dads’ Playboy magazine issues while he is out of town. And, most ironically, a court in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan ruled Osama Bin Laden was “a man without a sin” in regard to the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. Well, we knew better.

As for myself, I was in my second year at UC Irvine and my fourth year in college. I still had a dorm room all to myself, and I was busy with school work and appearing in plays like “Enrico IV,” “The Scarlet Letter” and “Twelfth Night.” Of course, I tried to get out to the movies as much as humanly possible. Many of the movies on this list were ones I actually didn’t get around to seeing until years later, so it’s probably best I am giving you this list now.

10) There’s Something About Mary

Theres Something About Mary poster

Bobby and Peter Farrelly gave us one of the most gut bustlingly hilarious movies ever made with “There’s Something About Mary.” I was dying with laughter while watching this, and I wasn’t expecting to. In retrospect, I should have though since this came from the same directors who gave us “Dumb and Dumber” as well as “Kingpin.” On top of having so many funny moments, the movie also has a lot of heart in the way it portrays the two main characters played by Ben Stiller and Cameron Diaz. Those of you who think Diaz can’t act need to revisit this one because she is so good at playing a teenager who we later see as a well-meaning adult with a few too many stalkers.

9) American History X

American History X poster

So much has been said about the making of “American History X” and the bitter disagreements between director Danny Kaye and actor Edward Norton. Regardless of whoever deserves the majority of the credit, there is no denying this is a powerful and unforgettable motion picture. Norton gave one of his very best performances as white supremacist Derek Vineyard, and the look he gives the camera after killing two people is a very chilling moment which is not easily erased from the conscious mind. Norton also gets great support from Edward Furlong who plays Danny, Derek’s brother, who threatens to tread down the same hateful path Derek has. Kaye, even if he didn’t get final cut, gives the movie an amazing look in black and white which captures the escalating tension of Derek’s journey from a world of hate to a place of compassion.

8) Dark City

Dark City movie poster

Alex Proyas followed up his brilliant adaptation of “The Crow” with this visionary sci-fi epic about a man who wakes up not knowing who he is, and of those who seek to capture him for their own twisted experiments. Like many great sci-fi movies “Dark City” was a box office flop upon its release, but it has since found an audience to where there’s no denying it is a cult classic. You’re along for the ride with Rufus Sewell as he tries to understand his place in a world ruled over by the Strangers. This movie remains suspenseful to the very end, and the look of the movie feels like no other I have ever seen. Jennifer Connelly also stars in the film and looks beautiful as always, and it is interesting to watch Kiefer Sutherland play a complete wimp after watching him for so long on “24.”

7) Out Of Sight

Out of Sight movie poster

Here’s the film which brought Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney together, and it also serves as one of the very best adaptations of an Elmore Leonard novel. With “Out of Sight,” Clooney proved without a doubt there was going to be life for him after “ER” with his performance as Jack Foley, the most successful bank robber in America. When Jack escapes from jail, he ends up sharing some trunk space with Federal Marshall Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez). “Out of Sight” also marked the beginning of a career resurgence for Soderbergh, and he got to work from a truly great screenplay written by Scott Frank. Also starring is the fantastic Catherine Keener, Ving Rhames, Steve Zahn, Dennis Farina, Isaiah Washington, and the always reliable Don Cheadle. This movie was a lot of fun, and Clooney and Lopez had such great chemistry together.

6) Rushmore

Rushmore movie poster

This was my introduction to the highly creative world of Wes Anderson. “Rushmore” is an instant comedy classic with more depth to it than many others of its genre at the time. Max Fischer is an original eccentric character; a young man involved in just about ever extra-curricular activity at school, all at the expense of his report card. Jason Schwartzman is great fun to watch as Max, and Bill Murray gives a performance which damn well should have earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. With Anderson, his comedy is fueled by the sadness and isolation of his characters, and of the things they desperately want in life. “Rushmore” is filled with as much meaning as it does laughter as both Schwartzman and Murray battle over the same woman played by Olivia Williams. It also owes a lot to the late Mike Nichols’ enduring classic “The Graduate.”

5) Happiness

Happiness movie poster

Todd Solondz’s follow up to “Welcome To The Dollhouse” may very well be the most ironically titled film in cinema history. Controversy followed “Happiness” all the way to its release, and the MPAA of course just had to give it an NC-17 (it ended up being released unrated). One of the blackest of black comedies ever, it follows the lives of three sisters and the various people who are a part of their fragile lives. The late Philip Seymour Hoffman gives a frighteningly memorable performance as an obscene phone caller, and it was one of the first real examples of the brilliant character actor we came to see him as. But the bravest performance comes from Dylan Baker who plays Bill Maplewood, a psychiatrist, husband and loving father who, unbeknownst to his family, is a pedophile. Baker ends up making you empathize, but not sympathize, with a man who we would instantly despise once we discovered his terrible secret. As unappealing as these characters may seem, Solondz makes us see ourselves in them and to where we cannot see we are not all that different.

4) The Big Lebowski

The Big Lebowski movie poster

I didn’t get to see this when it first came out in theaters, but my parents did eventually strap me down in a chair to watch it, and this should give you an idea of how much they love it. The Coen brothers follow up to “Fargo” did not get the same reception when originally released, but it has since built up an amazing cult following. Much of this is thanks to Jeff Bridges’ brilliant performance as Jeffrey Lebowski, aka “The Dude.” What could have been a performance built on stereotypes of the slackers we know in life turns out to be perhaps the most memorable character in Bridges’ long and underappreciated career. It’s an ingenious comedy with not so much a plot as a connected series of events which start with the theft of Lebowski’s carpet which he says “tied the whole room together.”

3) The Truman Show

The Truman Show movie poster

It still seems criminal how Peter Weir’s film was surprisingly, and infuriatingly, snubbed for a Best Picture nomination. Jim Carrey gives a truly astonishing and powerful performance as Truman Burbank, a man who slowly becomes aware he is the star of a reality show about his life. Yes, he should have been nominated for an Oscar alongside his co-star Ed Harris, but there will always be the unforgivable snubs. “The Truman Show” has become a prophetic movie of sorts as reality shows are the norm in today’s culture, and this obsession we have over them remains very strong to this day. Andrew Niccol’s screenplay was a brilliant examination of how we might view our own life if we found out it was based on a lie, and that everything we know is actually wrong. This stands as one of Weir’s best American movies in a long and justly acclaimed career.

2) Shakespeare In Love

Shakespeare in Love movie poster

While it may have gotten overwhelmed by Miramax’s Oscar campaign, there’s no denying “Shakespeare In Love” is a brilliant and highly entertaining romantic comedy. The film tells the story of how Shakespeare goes about writing “Romeo & Ethel The Pirate’s Daughter” which eventually evolves into “Romeo & Juliet.” Gwyneth Paltrow gives a most entrancing performance, and I loved watching her every second she appeared onscreen. Joseph Fiennes is perfectly cast as Shakespeare himself, a passionate writer who is hopelessly enamored with Paltrow’s Viola. I also got a huge kick out of Geoffrey Rush’s performance as theater manager Philip Henslowe, a brilliant comic creation who steals every scene he is in. “Shakespeare In Love” serves as not just a great story of how Shakespeare may have written one of the most immortal plays ever, but also as a great satire of the film industry and how it deviously profits from unsuspecting participants.

And now, drum roll please…

1) Saving Private Ryan

Saving Private Ryan movie poster

It would be so easy to put this as my top choice thanks to some of the greatest and most vividly realistic depictions of war ever put on film. Steven Spielberg’s depiction of the landing on D-Day is nothing short of amazing, and it was one of the reasons why I saw this film five times before it came out on DVD. But moreover, it is a deeply respectful salute to those war veterans who served in the armed forces during World War II. “Saving Private Ryan” is filled with great performances from a great cast of actors including Edward Burns, Jeremy Davies, Giovanni Ribisi, Tom Sizemore, Adam Goldberg, Vin Diesel, Matt Damon, and Barry Pepper among others. But it also has one of Tom Hanks’ best performances ever as Captain John Miller, a military man who leads his men to find Private Ryan and bring him back home to his grieving mother. Just when you thought Spielberg had peaked with “Schindler’s List,” he gives us yet another astonishing piece of filmmaking which shows him at the height of his powers.

Honorable Mentions:

Primary Colors – Great Mike Nichols movie based on the book by Joe Klein. It features great performances from John Travolta, Emma Thompson, Kathy Bates as well as an extraordinary cameo from Mykelti Williamson.

Bullworth – Warren Beatty’s scathing political satire may be a bit too broad, but it is a very effective indictment of how the Democratic Party let the American people down.

Elizabeth – Definitely worth mentioning for the brilliant breakthrough performance of Cate Blanchett as Queen Elizabeth.

Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas – Terry Gilliam’s adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s crazy novel is a true acid trip nightmare with Johnny Depp channeling the reporter all the way to what he was famous for wearing and smoking.

God Said, Ha! – Wonderful concert film of Julia Sweeney’s one-woman show which deals with the time her brother got cancer, and of how she later got cancer herself.

Hurlyburly – Film adaptation of David Rabe’s play dealing with Hollywood players and their dysfunctional relationships with one another. Features a great cast which includes Sean Penn, Chazz Palminteri and Anna Paquin among others.

Affliction – Another emotionally bruising movie from Paul Schrader which is based on the novel by Russell Banks. Features career high performances from Nick Nolte and the late James Coburn who deservedly won an Oscar for his work.

Next Stop Wonderland – An eccentrically unusual kind of romantic comedy which helped introduce actress Hope Davis to a wider audience.

Ronin – One of the last films from the late John Frankenheimer which stars Robert De Niro, Jean Reno, and Jonathan Pryce among others. It also features some of the very best car chases of the 1990’s.

Run Lola Run – Kinetic German thriller with Franka Potente that views her attempts to save her boyfriend’s life in three different ways. This was a great teaser for what would come in 1999, when movies of different kinds proceeded to change the rules of where a story could go.

The Thin Red Line – Terrence Malick’s first movie in over 20 years threatened to be more meandering than anything else, but it is filled with such powerful imagery and to where many considered it more anti-war than “Saving Private Ryan” was.

John Carpenter’s Vampires – It was advertised as a horror movie, but it is really a more of a western and the closest John Carpenter has ever come to making one. James Woods’ performance alone is worth the price of admission as he plays the most badass of vampire hunters, Jack Crow.

Star Trek: Insurrection – Much better than its reputation may suggest, being an odd numbered Star Trek movie and all.

 

 

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‘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 Five

Fast Five movie poster

This review was written in 2011.

With “Fast Five,” the fifth movie in “The Fast & The Furious” franchise, the filmmakers have seemingly run out of ways to include both “fast” and “furious” together in the same movie title. Does this mean this sequel is less furious than others? Granted, this franchise started a decade ago, but you’d think they would still find a way to put those two words together in such a clever fashion. What, “2 Fast 2 Furious” wasn’t clever enough? How about these?

“Fast & Furious Times 5”

“Faster & Even More Furious”

“Fast & Furious to The Fifth Power”

“Infinitely Fast & Furious”

“Ocean’s Fourteen”

Well, while only “fast” made it onto the marquee this time, this movie is most definitely not lacking in any fury. “Fast Five” is gloriously mindless entertainment, filled with one preposterous action sequence after another. It won’t be mistaken for any cinematic classic and much of what’s on display is very improbable, but it’s so much fun so who cares? This was to the Summer 2011 movie season what “The A-Team” was to the Summer 2010 movie season; an over the top blockbuster unapologetic in its quest to entertain action movie fans. You can complain about its flaws, but that would just be taking all the fun out of the proceedings.

Now I did put “Ocean’s Fourteen” on the list for a good reason. Whereas the previous movies dealt with car racing, “Fast Five” is more of a heist film as Vin Diesel, Paul Walker and company work out a plan to steal $100 million from a corrupt businessman. If they succeed with their destructive cleverness, they will be able to buy the freedom they can no longer afford.

This one starts where “Fast & Furious” ended as Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) is being hauled off to prison in a bus to serve a 20 plus year sentence, but his sister Mia (Jordana Brewster) and Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker) end up breaking him out after making the bus he’s on crash in such spectacular fashion. Seriously, the bus crash here puts the one from “Another 48 Hours” to shame, and it’s designed to let audiences know just how bad the car crashes are gonna hurt this time around.

From there, the story moves to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil where Dom and company choose to hide out from the law. But since being on the run sucks your wallet dry, they take a job to steal three very valuable cars from a moving train. This heist, however, goes awry when it turns out the cars are the seized property of the DEA, one of which has important information regarding this sequel’s main bad guy, businessman Hernan Reyes (Joaquim de Almeida) and all the cash he has saved and probably doesn’t pay taxes on. From there, the heist is on even as a relentless DSS agent, Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson), arrives to take Dom and his elusive team down for good.

Justin Lin returns for his third movie as director in this series. I still haven’t gotten around to checking out “The Fast & The Furious: Tokyo Drift,” but I felt he did good work with the previous entry. But this time he really outdoes himself with stunts which, while highly improbable, have us feeling their dramatically LOUD impact to where we’re saying to ourselves:

“WHOA!”

“DAMN!”

“OUCH!”

“MAN!”

If Lin made any mistakes in the last two sequels, he has certainly learned his lessons from them. Even if its characters are stealing cars from a train which is moving as fast a bullet, he’s got the audience enthralled as he moves the story along at a rapid pace, preventing us from examining the logistics of what we’re seeing. Many will look at “Fast Five” as your basic guilty pleasure, but something this entertaining should not make you feel guilty about enjoying it at all. “Troll 2” on the other hand…

I’m also glad to see Brian Tyler back as “Fast Five’s” music composer. His combination of symphonic music and electronic elements matches the maximum propulsion of what’s speeding past us onscreen. However fast the cars are traveling, Tyler’s film score matches their velocity and gives those OUCH moments some extra oomph.

It’s great to see the gang back once again, especially Vin Diesel who made a welcome and much-needed return to this franchise in “Fast & Furious.” While his style of acting hasn’t changed much, he owns his role as Dom like no other can. Trying to substitute another actor in his place has already proven to be a mistake, and his presence alone infuses Dom with a “don’t mess with me” attitude which is irreplaceable.

Even Paul Walker is a welcome presence here, long after many called him bland and unconvincing as undercover cop Brian O’Conner. I don’t know, maybe it’s all the stubble on his chiseled face, but he has long since grown into the role whether critics like him or not. If his presence ever bothered me in previous installments, it didn’t this time around.

I was also glad to see Jordana Brewster get more to do this time around as Mia Toretto. While her character was underused the last time, she has a much more central part to this movie in ways I’d rather not get into, but which will become obvious to the audience in no time. She gets to drive a little more in this one, and she looks out for everyone whether or not they are behind the wheel.

“Fast Five” acts as a greatest hits collection as it brings together characters from the other films. Joining this crazy heist film are Roman Pearce (Tyrese Gibson) from “2 Fast 2 Furious,” Vince (Matt Schulze) from “The Fast & The Furious,” Han Lue (Sung Kang) from “Tokyo Drift,” Gisele Harabo (Gal Gadot) from “Fast & Furious,” and Tej Parker (Ludacris) from “2 Fast 2 Furious.” Seeing them interact with each other is a kick, especially when Gibson and Ludacris keep busting each other’s’ balls over who is better at what. With these two, it’s like they’re in one rap battle after another without the mics in their hands while the audience cheers them on.

But the big addition this time around is Dwayne Johnson as DSS agent Luke Hobbs. With his bulging muscles and pronounced tattoos, Johnson hasn’t looked this badass since “The Rundown.” Watching him drowning in all those dopey family movies like “The Tooth Fairy” got increasingly depressing over time. While he still ain’t no Laurence Olivier, his relentless presence in “Fast Five” gives Dom and company one of their toughest adversaries yet.

The series overall (specifically Parts 1, 4 and 5) has kept a solid longevity not just because of the spectacular action, but also with strong characters who, despite their law-breaking ways, make you want to root for them even after they pass the finish line. Even while we may not buy two muscle cars driving at high speed while towing an enormous metallic bank safe through the busy streets of Brazil, we care about them enough to see them get away with it.

Having watched “Fast Five,” it feels like it’s been forever since I have seen so many cars get gleefully destroyed. Is this the end of this franchise? Well, all I can tell you is to make sure you stay through the end credits as it should easily answer your question. Of course, they need to come up with yet another clever title. Somehow “6 Fast & 6 Furious” doesn’t make much sense, but how about these?

“Fast & Furious to the 6”

“6 Times as Fast, 6 Times as Furious”

“Still So Damn Fast & Furious”

“Beyond Fast & Furious”

“The Furious Six”

“Faster Than 6”

“Faster and More Furious Than 60”

“Sexy Six” (a guy sitting next to me in the movie theater suggested this one).

Or how about “The Toretto Brothers?” Jake and Elwood Blues may outdo these guys in the music business, but not in racing a quarter mile at a time!

* * * ½ 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 * * * *