The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift

2006 | dir: Justin Lin | 104 m

It’s easy to conceive of a universe where The Fast and The Furious franchise simply dissipated into the ether like a puff of exhaust from the tailpipe of a 1970 Dodge Charger. The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift had all the hallmarks of a direct-to-video release and a total lack of any confidence in its success on the part of Universal. With none of the stars from the first two films returning, Tokyo Drift appeared to be an attempt by a major Hollywood studio to capitalize on whatever shred of popularity they could sink their greedy little claws into. On paper, it seemed to be a Fast and The Furious movie in name only: it featured all new characters in an all-new setting with a narrative completely divorced from the movies that had proceeded it. All signs pointed to Universal trying to squeeze the last few drops of profitability from a (at the time semi-) recognizable brand name before discarding its desiccated rinds into the gutter like so much scrap metal.

Tokyo Drift might very well have sealed the series’ fate as a string of unrelated D-list, bargain-bin fare were it not for one unanticipated variable: director Justin Lin.

At the time he was tapped to helm Tokyo Drift, Lin had five directing credits to his name, only three of which were feature-length, and only one of which would likely to have been known by any Western audiences, the oft-overlooked Annapolis (which I highly recommend you check out). Annapolis and Tokyo Drift were likely intended as auditions by studios to see if the director could handle a lower-risk, mid-budget movie before being given the reigns on something with larger price tag attached. This is similar to the way Christopher Nolan was handed the Insomnia remake or Zack Snyder was given the Dawn of the Dead remake essentially to prove they had the chops to manage a project of a certain size.

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Captain America: The First Avenger

2011 | dir: Joe Johnston | 124 m

If I didn’t care about The Avengers in my youthful comic book collecting days, then I cared even less for Captain America. I would write him off as a relatively flat, simple and boring hero that was completely boring to my younger self; it’s no secret that when I pictured myself as a Marvel hero on the playground and in my imagination, it was a Wolverine-esque indestructible mutant with cool cybernetics that pulled from my favourite sci-fi films. Or maybe that was a secret. Either way, I never once picked up a Captain America comic, allowing only his cameos in other books and his depictions in pop culture as my basis for my (poor) opinion. When the film was announced, I did not approach with any excitement save that this was the next entry in the great experiment that was the Marvel Cinematic Universe and a lead in to the properly gigantic Avengers film.

So when I came out of the theatre, I gave my head a shake and realized this was not the boring character I thought of as a child, but a film that boils the age-old battle of good versus evil to the basics to produce a compelling adventure. If there’s a fault here to be explored, it could be the films rather simplistic themes, but I’m not willing to go down that road: like a pizza with just one or two toppings, The First Avenger excels at what it does without getting bogged down with too much flavour. The only real negative I’ll throw at the film is the miniscule screen time that Captain’s Howling Commandos receive.

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 1990 | dir: Ron Underwood | 96 m

The moment I saw that a new 4K, special edition of Trmors was announced and coming out, I was online securing my preorder. It’s not often a film announcement gets me excited, but here I was, plunking down a relatively serious amount of money for a boxed edition of a film that I had honestly kind of forgotten about. Obviously, my childhood love for the film rushed forward and took charge: sometimes there are just those films that spur you to action, and Tremors is – apparently – one of those.

Does anyone remember Betamax? The alternative format to VHS in the 80s and early 90s, Beta certainly had a comfortable spot in my families home: the basement television. Along with that top, spring loading player came a library of verifiable 80s movies and dubs, including a deep library of Looney Tunes cartoons, random Godzilla movies, a few films like Firebirds, and of course: Tremors.

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2 Fast 2 Furious

2003 | dir: John Singleton | 107 m

What 2 Fast 2 Furious lacks in story, plot, and character, it nearly makes up for with swagger. 2 Fast 2 Furious marks the low point in The Fast and the Furious saga, which isn't to say that it's not without its certain charm. It's a fun ride, even if it doesn't nearly reach the heights of the first movie, and it doesn't quite fit with the later evolution of the series when it truly came into its own as an ongoing story of mercenary spies / borderline superheroes on globe-trotting adventures to save the world and protect their "family." 2 Fast 2 Furious does, however, add several important elements to The Fast and the Furious lore, including Tyrese Gibson as Roman Pearce and Chris "Ludacris" Bridges as Tej, who would become series regulars, and Eva Mendes as Agent Monica Fuentes, who would also show up for a cameo in a later entry. There's just a hint of some of the technological ridiculousness that would be fully embraced by later movies in the franchise with the "electric darts" the police use to disable the electronics of speeding vehicles. (Or maybe this is real tech, and I'm neither fast nor furious enough to have ever been worth the effort from local law enforcement.) 2 Fast 2 Furious also began the grand tradition of increasingly confusing and nonsensical titles for movies in the series. Though I suppose, at least, nobody could accuse them of being boring.

Also of note, 2 Fast 2 Furious is the only one of The Fast and the Furious films not to feature Vin Diesel in his iconic role as Domenic Toretto. He has appeared in every other movie in the main series, even if just squeaking in a cameo for the third entry in the series, The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift, which was a fortuitous bargain for Riddick fans, as it allowed Diesel to secure the rights to the Riddick character and franchise paving the way for the eventual production of the third film in that series, Riddick, released in 2013.

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Underworld: Blood Wars

2016 | dir: Anna Foerster | 91 m

So in the previous Underworld film (Awakening) we advance the story along by the fact that humans have now discovered that both vampires and werewolves are a real thing, and with that, a number of doors open to some interesting antagonists. But Awakening didn’t even fulfill that, instead using the human factor as a catalyst for the events that went down. That’s fine. What’s not so fine is that Blood Wars completely disregards humanity. With this being the fifth entry, I would have hoped that there was a little more focus and foresight into either ending the series or expanding the world beyond the “simple” war between vampires and lycans. With Resident Evil’s fifth entry coming out around the same time (I think it was in the same month as Blood Wars, actually) I can’t help but draw a simple comparison in our protagonists journey: Alice’s (Resident Evil) story starts off with a lot of mystery and is neatly (and I use that word dubiously) explained and wrapped up the literally titled Final Chapter. Selene’s backstory is seemingly explored to its extent within the first two films and diminishes thereafter in each entry. Instead, those later Underworld movies introduce Selene’s daughter and other characters which would presumably carry on the journey, but both father and daughter pull the same disappearing trick in Awakenings and Blood Wars. I wish they would just resolve Selene as a character and allow the universe to move forward, but here we are. 

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The Fast and the Furious

2001 | dir: Rob Cohen | 106 m

Though The Fast and the Furious has left an indelible mark on the cinematic landscape as the progenitor of one of the most successful and well-known action blockbuster franchises in the world, when it was released in 2001, it was simply a fun movie about street racing, a criminal underworld, undercover cops, and the shameless promotion of undying brand loyalty to Corona. I use "simply" here not in the pejorative sense but in the nostalgic. Now that the franchise that The Fast and the Furious spawned - seven sequels, a spin off, an animated show, and an eighth sequel being released this year - has become so ubiquitous in pop culture, it has become increasingly difficult to separate The Fast and the Furious the movie from The Fast and the Furious the cultural phenomenon. It's nearly impossible to watch the movie now without seeing it through the filter of the incredible success of its sequels and the iconic status the entire series currently enjoys among audiences who watch these movies with the right eyes. It's also so far removed narratively from what its sequels have evolved into, and the connective tissue between this and later entries in the series is so malleable, that it's also still entirely possible to enjoy the film on its own merits. Watching The Fast and the Furious now is almost like watching two different movies simultaneously, which, depending on your point of view, is either incredibly tiring or worth its weight in nitrous oxide.

The first version of The Fast and the Furious is an early-2000s action/crime movie, and one that can legitimately lay claim to the descriptor "high-octane." The parallels to 1991's Point Break are painfully apparent, but the similarities in the stories fall squarely in the camp of homage, and never cross the line from inspiration to plagiarism. The Fast and the Furious is the story of undercover police officer Brian O'Connor (Paul Walker) who infiltrates the high-octane (See? It fits perfectly.) world of street racing as part of an investigation into a gang of thieves who conduct precision, high-speed robberies of transport trailers in souped-up sports cars. As part of this undercover operation, Brian is able to befriend one of the gangs involved in the street racing scene, led by the no-nonsense Domenic Toretto (Vin Diesel), whose skills at driving are matched only by his propensity for violence and his loyalty to his friends, family, and Corona beer. Things are complicated by Brian's growing emotional connection to the crew, which includes Dom's equally talented girlfriend Letty (Michelle Rodrigues), and his romantic connection to Domenic's sister Mia Toretto (Jordana Brewster), that call into question where his true loyalties lie, both to the people in his life and to his choice of brew.

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Red Planet

2000 | dir: Antony Hoffman | 106 m

If you had to choose a movie to aggressively push out the door from the party that was the 1990’s, then I guess it would have to be Antony Hoffman’s Red Planet, starring Carrie-Anne Moss, Tom Sizemore and Val Kilmer in a perilously blundered trip to Mars. With this much nineties star power fueling the trip, I could see myself and friends eagerly going to see this on a crisp November evening, expecting high stakes sci-fi adventure, featuring the latest special effects and near-future fantasy of humanity’s quest to step foot on our planetary neighbour. Indeed, the poster hints at a silhouetted menace awaiting our crew, as our fearless Kilmer drags his crewmate across the arid landscape toward a multi-legged monster, all drenched in blood red, speaks volumes for intriguing poster design and an action packed thriller at hand.  

Just as quickly as I can envision us heading into that theatre, I can imagine the group of us solemnly leaving the multiplex with, scratching our heads, while somebody said “at least we got to see Carrie-Anne Moss topless” while the rest nodded slowly in agreement, still in shock at the misfire of a film we just took in. Indeed, it’s pretty easy to take Red Planet apart. From the beginning moments of Moss’ narrative where her character gives a brief bio of the assembled crew, including such scathing hot takes including: “a hot head, but a fine copilot,” “soul of the crew” and “world’s greatest bioengineer, his own greatest hero”, our expectations for the film are immediately lowered for the remaining 100 minutes. Red Planet immediately tells us the type of film it’s going to be by telling us who everyone is instead of showing us and right after this narration, reaffirms that you won’t be caring about any of these people when they start acting like rude creeps. I was thinking maybe this was the backup crew but nobody told them this before taking off. 

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Underworld: Awakening

2012 | dir: Björn Stein | 88 m

After taking a little break, Kate Beckinsale drops in from a rooftop to fill in the role of Selene again for this series fourth iteration, and I couldn’t be more excited. While I had some fun with Rise of the Lycans, it was ultimately a letdown as it retreads familiar story, so I was eager to pick up Selene’s story for Awakening. As the film’s prologue played out, I tried very hard to stop myself from questioning the direction that the filmmakers decided to take things, and by the end of the film I found surface level overall satisfaction, yet I couldn’t stop wondering if they had done things a bit differently. To be fair, I hate doing that. I hate thinking and advocating that the filmmakers could make a better story, or an entirely different film: I’m no screenwriter (nay, barely a writer at all) so I certainly couldn’t do any better, but that doesn’t stop me from spewing forth some my “better” film ideas. It also makes me feel icky in this day of age where the fandom stumbles into creating online movements toward studios to release director cut versions of films that may or may not exist; sometimes it’s just better to accept that the film is bad and move on – it is after all, how I manage to sit through and actually enjoy many of these series. 

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Message from the King

2016 | dir: Fabrice du Welz | 102 m

I had never heard of Message from the King until it popped up randomly in my Netflix feed, and despite the track record of random movies recommended by the streaming service, I still haven't learned my lesson. I have to say that one of the main reasons I decided to watch this movie late one Friday night not too long ago was specifically because it starred Chadwick Boseman, who sadly lost his battle with cancer last year at the age of forty-three. I don't mean to imply that I watched the movie solely as a way of honouring Mr. Boseman's legacy, though that certainly came into play. It was mostly because he was a master of his craft and a truly captivating screen presence. And also partially because the plot description of a single man on a personal vendetta seeking righteous retribution and beating up and straight up killing a bunch of bad guys who obviously deserve it is like the comfort food of cinema. Watching an action hero walk into a room and lay the smackdown on a bunch of mooks is the cinematic equivalent of sitting down with a big bowl of mac and cheese (Kraft Dinner for my fellow Canadians) or a bucket of fried chicken.

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