Friday, May 13, 2011

Fast Five (Justin Lin, 2011)

A terse image from Monte Hellman's far more eloquent film

The crass and the ludicrous

Coming into a The Fast and the Furious movie expecting a tight script, good characterization and logical storytelling's like settling down to a long sit on a toilet bowl and expecting perfume, flowers, classical music. Not going to happen.

Which is funny, because classic car movies aren't known for tight scripts, good characterization, or logic. Richard C. Sarafian's Vanishing Point (1971) had car delivery man Kowalski (a largely expressionless Barry Newman) driving a 1970 Dodge Challenger from Colorado to San Francisco in a little over fifteen hours. Sarafian eschewed undercranked cameras to simulate high speed; when the script called for cars rocketing down highways at ninety miles an hour, the director had them rocket down the highway at ninety miles an hour--he didn't wait thirty years for computer technology to develop far enough that he could digitally fake it.

Why does Kowalski do it? Who knows (he makes a bet he could do it, but that barely begins to explain all the bedlam that follows). The title's suggestive--perhaps Kowalski's trying to erase himself, flooring the gas pedal to try achieve escape velocity, reach some kind of transcendence. A vague ambition, using vague tactics--but then transcendence itself is a vague goal, and Vanishing Point seems somehow all the more persuasive for it.

John Hough's Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry (1974) was a little less mysterious--Larry (Peter Fonda) and his mechanic Deke (Adam Roarke) stage a supermarket heist, blackmail the store manager for $150,000, and escape on a modified Chevrolet Impala; Larry's former lover Mary (Susan George) insists on coming along for the ride (later they switch to a '69 Dodge Charger, and play chicken with a freight train). The lovers are young, attractive, funny; they seem to be having the time of their lives outsmarting dour Sheriff Franklin (Vic Morrow) till the sudden if not totally unexpected ending. The film has a more Bonnie and Clyde vibe to it, with its pair of lovers (and a mechanic) running from the law. Hough like Sarafian is also from the ninety-mile-an-hour school of stunt driving; if the speed and circumstance aren't actually dangerous, these filmmakers seem to say, then it probably won't look all that dangerous on the big screen.

But the Holy Grail of car movies, possibly the purest, most cinematic expression of this often less-than-reputable film genre, is Monte Hellman's Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) Nameless motorheads (James Taylor, Dennis Wilson, Warren Oates) ride their classic cars (a souped-up '55 Chevy, a Pontiac GTO) across the vast landscape; the drivers challenge each other to various races; a lovely free spirit (Laurie Bird) hitches rides with one or the other, but none of this really matters--what does matter is the ride, and the illusions of self they present to each other along the way.

Two-Lane Blacktop is Hellman's poem on the loneliness of wide-open spaces, where he captures exactly that kind of macho posturing and precisely this sort of existential disillusionment, posed against the never-ending milieu of '70s America. It's so real it goes beyond real, feeding us the lowdown in bleak, bulky blocks, for us to deal with if we want to or not (Warren Oates' GTO doesn't, hence his gossamer net of self-told lies, one of the most delicately and beautifully assembled defense mechanisms ever depicted, this side of La Mancha). With alienation this absolute, who cares about tight scripts, characterization, or logic? The film told truth, which is rarely if ever tight, characteristic, or logical.

That kind of reasoning probably never entered the minds of the filmmakers who made (well, not so much "made" as slammed together) Fast Five. All too easy to point out the condescending attitude towards women: if they're not shrink-wrapped in bikini bottoms they're either incompetent (Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel) manages to disarm his ostensible love interest not once but twice, after which she promptly falls in love) or, worse, inconsequential (Dom's sister is pregnant, but it's her husband Brian O'Conner (Paul Walker) whose feelings, hopes, fears are lovingly put on display). By the time two cars on cables drag the bank vault out of the bank, you can't help but notice a slovenliness to the plotting, not to mention filmmaking (that vault is so clearly digital it doesn't even begin to look threatening). It's as if they were saying: "Uh, we've run out of ideas on how to steal this drug lord's money, so we're lighting up a pipe and using the first idea that pops to our foggy heads..."

I don't know--there's something to be said about realism. In the antediluvian days of pre-digital special effects, Hough and Sarafian (and for that matter silent film comedian Buster Keaton) actually had their vehicles come at each other at high speeds, and the only equipment they used other than automobiles were stuff that made sure the actors (in Keaton's case the writer-director-star himself) didn't get killed (didn't always fully worked; Keaton at one point fractured his spinal cord).

But that isn't even my main complaint. Sure, Fast Five is entertaining enough: some hot bikinis, some fairly funny lines ("This just went from Mission Impossible to Mission In-freaking-sanity.") but what his movie really suffers from is a terminal case of self-repression. The core relationship in this picture, the emotional heart, isn't the sister or the squeeze; it's the unacknowledged love between Dom and Brian--five movies and still going strong--threatened by the new man in town. Yes, Dwayne Johnson's Sheriff Luke Hobbs has the abs to match Diesel's, pork shoulder for pork shoulder, and Dom is definitely interested. When their eyes meet the screen lights up like a distress flare; anything wearing a skirt or bikini bottom tends to fade in the background. The filmmakers can't help but notice this, so on top of all the crashing cars and roaring engines we have Luke crashing into Dom, the two roaring like a pair of Jurassic hams. Glass is shattered, sweat flung about; Dom climbs on top of Luke and swings a heavy metal spanner in a great arc at his head. Crack! "Was it good for you too?" you could almost swear you heard him say (you don't, but their eyes speak pages and pages of unwritten dialogue). All that's needed, really, is to lie back, light up a cigarette, and take a long, leisurely puff.

Logic--of storytelling, not of psychology, physics or even basic cause-and-effect--dictates that where Dom and Luke play hot and heavy with each other, Brian should turn insanely jealous, maybe pick up a heavy spanner, start swinging. This had the makings of the most intense love triangle since Spock and Dr. McCoy vied for the attentions of Captain Kirk in the Star Trek TV series, but what do we get instead? A couple of cars dragging an oversized piggy bank. You blew it, guys.

First published in Businessworld, 5.5.11

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