At this point, the "Fast/Furious" movies pretty much take place in a superhero universe.
"Fast Five" and "Fast & Furious 6" -- the newest, nearly-as-much-dumb-fun sequel -- play more like "The Avengers" than they don't. Switch out "superpower" for "ability to drive and customize cars," and you still have outcasts of varying abilities joining forces from around the globe to bicker and take down villains while navigating complex relationships with government employees.
Under director Justin Lin, "Five" and "6" also reinvented the series as heist comedy; blew the cast up into a giant ensemble blessed with charm and obsessed with the notion of "family"; and started a divorce from the laws of physics that just gets funnier as it goes along.
And because I don't believe in "guilty" pleasures, I'll just flat-out say these last two movies have been awesomely, ridiculously, goofily entertaining pop trash -- in ways I never would have imagined possible when this series kicked off a dozen years ago with a far more concrete approach to stunts and then followed up with some shabby middle sequels. The series has evolved into car-porn fan service that plays like a TV series with a nine-figure per-episode budget.
"Fast 6" kicks off with the heist team from "Fast Five" enjoying their respective retirements after stealing hundreds of millions in Rio (and towing the occasional giant safe through the streets). Brian (Paul Walker) has a new baby with Mia (Jordana Brewster) and Dom (Vin Diesel) is settling in with the previous film's love interest (Elsa Pataky).
This slide into adulthood is blessedly stopped in the first ten minutes by supercop Hobbs (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson), who drops by to beg Brian and Dom to help him catch another team of heist criminals using cars as weapons.
This other team is eeeeevil, you see -- they're a crack military unit gone rogue, led by Luke Evans, and they're stealing parts for a doomsday weapon. With their cars. And with the help of Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), who is apparently back after dying two movies ago. Because, again, superhero universe.
From there, the filmmakers reunite most of the "Fast Five" cast -- including Tyrese Gibson, Chris "Ludacris" Bridges, and Sung Kang, whose megacharismatic character Han still spends nearly every scene casually munching on a small bag of snacks. And everyone takes the lunacy of the last movie and launches it into the stratosphere.
Kit-cars with hydraulic ramps on their hoods to flip approaching police vehicles? Tanks hurtling the wrong way down a Spanish freeway? Our heroes driving down a 50-mile-long runway using tiny harpoon guns to keep a military cargo plane from escaping? Rodriguez and Gina Carano of "Haywire" (playing, essentially, The Rock's Mini-Me) beating the hell out of each other while tumbling down a stairwell? An out-of-nowhere subplot that puts Brian in an American prison for 24 hours? The script adding "heart" by having each character say the word "family" roughly 547 times each? A '50s-soap-opera-level understanding of how amnesia works? Why not.
As Dom says at one point after flying through the air like Tony Stark: "Sometimes you gotta have faith" -- not in Isaac Newton, but in the ability of Lin and his special-effects oarsmen to sell nonsense with hurtling momentum and a confidence that skirts insanity.
Back in 2011, I described "Fast Five" as "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." That's nearly as true this time around; whatever weird charisma lightning struck "Five" more or less strikes again here.
While the hitman biopic "The Iceman" can be accused of a certain drama-undermining remove from its subject, the actor playing that subject is still fascinating to watch.
Michael Shannon ("Bug," "Take Shelter") is one of cinema's great seethers. He takes the art of glaring to its theoretical limits as Richard "The Iceman" Kuklinski -- a real-life hit man who may have killed 100 or more men during his career in and around New Jersey.
Imagine an entire movie built around "The Godfather"'s gigantic enforcer Luca Brasi and you're getting an idea what it's like to spend an entire movie following around Shannon as Kuklinski. Director/cowriter Ariel Vromen deliberately kicks off the movie in a way designed to make a mystery out of the man -- who lived quietly with his wife and kids in the Jersey suburbs when he wasn't dispatching men for the mafia using a dizzying array of methods ranging from guns to cyanide aerosol.
We meet Kuklinski -- old, bearded, reflective -- in what seems to be a prison interview. Then the movie jumps back to 1964, where he's doing his best to charm his future wife (played by Winona Ryder) with as few words as possible while shrugging off the Grim Reaper tattoo on his hand.
Then the movie cuts to Kuklinski murdering a man in a fit of rage, duping porno movies, going home to his happy marriage, and getting roped into work as an enforcer for Roy DeMeo (Ray Liotta) -- and passing Roy's kill-a-total-stranger audition with flying colors.
This opening establishes a narrative pattern, and questions, that linger for the entire film: Is Kuklinski a monster, a family man with astonishing powers of compartmentalization, a hothead backed into a corner by life, a guy desperate to make ends meet with his lone marketable skill, a survivor twisted by abuse, a professional with a code, a serial killer who turned his passion into a profession, or all of the above?
Upon learning Kuklinski is married, Roy asks him, "So why do you act like you don't give a shit?" Kuklinski doesn't answer, or can't. Roy changes the subject, and that's sort of "The Iceman" in a nutshell.
It's probably some sort of superfeat that Shannon pulls a coherent performance out of the contradictions (and scene-to-scene changes in wardrobe and hairstyle) handed to him by the character and filmmakers. The movie as a whole is maybe less compelling than the actor. It's competently crafted; solidly acted by the likes of Liotta, Robert Davi, James Franco and Chris Evans (as a rival killer who geeks out on his work and drives an ice-cream truck); and it's lit in a style I'd describe as "a big brown memory of '70s cinematography." It's also perversely amusing to watch David Schwimmer throw on a ponytail and a mustache, playing Liotta's dopey protégé and screwing with his nebbish TV persona.
But at some point mid-film, the refusal to dig deeper into what makes Kuklinski tick starts to grate.
There are single, disconnected scenes well into the film -- a prison visit with a homicidal estranged brother (Stephen Dorff), a flashback of abuse, and a scene that suggests Kuklinski will start bringing his own abuse home if he can't heap it on his contracts. But for some hard-to-pinpoint reason, these moments don't gel into anything like a deeper understanding of what turned this guy into a walking sledgehammer.
I'd imagine this was by Vromen's design. But one reason we go to the movies is so we can safely study our monsters. The filmmakers frustrate that process here, and it keeps the audience at arm's length.
It really made me want to watch the HBO documentaries about Kuklinski, though. _______
(105 min., rated R for strong violence, pervasive language and some sexual content, playing in Portland at the Fox Tower)Grade: B-minus