About a minute into "Fast Five," there's a moment that pretty much sums up the last few films in this increasingly physics-light carsploitation series. Brian (Paul Walker) is helping Dom (Vin Diesel) bust out of the pen. If memory serves, Brian achieves this feat by backing a car into a moving prison bus -- which causes the bus to neatly flip over the muscle car and tumble end-over-end forever, without seriously injuring anyone. It's gleefully ridiculous, as if you're suddenly watching the climax of "The Blues Brothers."
Now. If you're capable of finding that sort of collateral-damage-disregarding nonsense amusing (and I am, in the same way I find the "Bad Boys II" car chase amusing), I have good news: "Fast Five" is kind of a fun surprise.
At minimum, "Five" is a damn sight better than the last CGI-choked entry in the "Fast and the Furious" series. The producers and returning director Justin Lin give the series a nice shot in the arm by making three tweaks. First, they set the new film amid the spectacular decay of Rio, where Brian and Dom and Mia (Jordana Brewster) are on the lam as fugitives.
Second, they build the film around an over-the-top heist plot, which I'm told is the direction they'll be taking this oddly durable series henceforth. Dom and Brian take on a crime kingpin (Joaquim de Almeida) by cherry-picking an all-star team from the previous flicks -- including Tyrese Gibson, Chris "Ludacris" Bridges, and Sung Kang (whose megasuave character, Han, still spends all his scenescasually munching on snacks).
Third, and best, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson joins the cast as a ruthless federal manhunter whose task force is assigned to nab Dom and Brian at any cost. Imagine if Tommy Lee Jones' team from "The Fugitive" spent three hours a day pumping iron and 25 hours a day glistening, and you're starting to get the idea. Between this and last year's overlooked "Faster," it's great to see The Rock re-embracing the action genre, and when his clobbering match with Diesel finally happens, it's as outlandishly room-wrecking as I'd hoped.
Let's be clear: "Fast Five" is one of those movies where any logical or end-of-narrative-storytelling critique you lob at it is valid. I enjoyed it anyway, because it so clearly enjoys itself and that enjoyment somehow becomes infectious. The action set pieces are huge and cartoonish and violent and inventive (though, again, I could do with less CGI, especially toward the end), and the movie has a hard-to-manufacture charisma that probably hasn’t been in play since the first "Fast and the Furious." This thing will kill in Portland's beer theaters. ________
"Henry's Crime" is an odd little caper flick -- an indie that takes a low-key heist comedy and mashes it up with the backstage drama in a Buffalo, NY production of Anton Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard." I'm not sure the film ever rises above a medium simmer, dramatically or comically speaking, but it deserves recognition just for trying something that pleasantly bizarre.
Henry (Keanu Reeves) is a bored, aimless toll-booth guard sent to prison for being the getaway driver in a bank robbery. (He thought he was driving the criminals to a softball game. Really.) Fresh out of the clink, he has a revelation: "I did the time -- I might as well do the crime."
He finds out there was a Prohibition-era bootlegging tunnel between the bank he didn't rob and a neighboring theater staging "Cherry Orchard." Henry recruits his former cell-mate (James Caan) for help -- and they insinuate themselves into the Chekhov production in surprising ways as they try to re-open the tunnel and rob the bank vault from underneath. Henry also meets cute with the play's very actressy star (Vera Farmiga) when she smacks him with her car.
There's pleasure to be found in the resolute offbeatness of "Henry's Crime." It's nearly as concerned with the play as it is with the heist (and with drawing parallels between the two). And the relentless Buffalo gloom is a strange counterpoint to the mostly light character interplay and quirky-indie score; Reeves' blankness is generally well-used here, and Caan's character is amusing for really not caring if he goes back to prison or not.
But at the same time, I'd argue Reeves' dedicated underplaying of his role is part of a larger problem with the movie -- it never quite fully sparks as drama or comedy, remaining low-key to a fault (save for Peter Stormare's cartoonish performance as the play's director). The film feels a bit enervated, even when the script asks it to fly off the rails toward the end. ________
(108 min., rated R, playing in Portland at the Fox Tower) Grade: C-plus
This isn't the film's actual origin story *, but "Super" plays like writer/director James Gunn ("Slither") was watching "Kick-Ass" and suddenly thought:
"You know, this doesn't go quite far enough. It needs to play more like 'Taxi Driver.' Only funny. Until it really isn't."
This unhinged little indie -- part comedy, part exploitation flick, part unnerving over-the-top revenge drama -- stars Rainn Wilson as Frank, a short-order cook whose addict wife (Liv Tyler) leaves him for a drug dealer (Kevin Bacon).
Following a vision starring a "Bibleman"-style evangelist superhero (Nathan Fillion), Frank decides to become a costumed vigilante called "The Crimson Bolt." And this is where Gunn (who previously dabbled in superheroes in 2000 with "The Specials") starts taking his comedy to increasingly uncomfortable places.
Frank's weapon of choice is a pipe wrench, and the damage he inflicts (on drug-dealers and line-cutters alike) is shockingly realistic. The film goes squickily off the rails once a psychotic comics-shop employee (Ellen Page) decides she needs to be Frank's sidekick -- and her senses of proportion and propriety cloud his mission in increasingly ugly ways.
Gunn is a former Troma filmmaker, and he revels in audience discomfort. He and his exceptional cast make no effort to smooth over his transitions from comedy to violence, and (to my thinking) the result is bracing -- the movie holds the superhero power fantasy under a nasty fluorescent bulb and finds it funny and sad and deluded and brave and scary all at once. I suspect audiences will divide sharply on "Super"'s wild tone-shifts. I found them sort of fearless. __________
* The actual origin story is that Gunn has been trying to make "Super" since about 2002. He talks about his struggle here and here. __________
(96 min., unrated, playing in Portland at Cinema 21)Grade: B
Want to know how last night's signing with David Walker went? Well, for some barmy-awesome reason, KGW sent reporter Joe Smith there to do a live TV spot from Bridge City Comics. Here's the video:
Guest appearances by Cort Webber and Bobby "Fatboy" Roberts, among others.
So yeah. Last night's signing was insanely great. And it was great from the get-go, when Fats' significant other Bobbie showed up ahead of time with a homemade Sabertooth Vampire plushie she'd made in secret:
An enormous thank-you to Michael Ring of Bridge City Comics for putting this on, and to everyone who showed up. Walker and I were gobsmacked by the turnout.
Writeups of last night here and here, courtesy of Christian Lipski and Jamie S. Rich. And Chris Walsh has a ton of photos here.