Sunday, May 29, 2011
The time has come, once again, to speak of video games. We're getting to the point where the title “Movies By Bowes” (™) is a bit of a catchall, covering TV and video games as well, as audiovisual entertainment is spreading its wings, and the formerly disrespected media of television and video games are getting their due as art forms rather than reliquaries of mindless entertainment. As a sophisticated cineaste, I say come on in, y'all, the water's fine. Grab a cocktail at the floating bar.
L.A. Noire was released on the 17th of May. I was delayed a week in buying it due to being away from my trusty PS3, but bought it immediately upon my return home and made up for lost time. I'd been looking forward to the release of L.A. Noire for years: in 2004, before Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas had even come out, I heard about L.A. Noire and went “Holy fuck, a film noir video game? Tits! In a fully-reproduced 1940s Los Angeles? Bigger tits!” Then one thing led to another and the existing technology was insufficient to realize the designers' ambitions and San Andreas came out with a pretty-fucking-awesome replication of not only Los Angeles but all of California (well, Narnia California) and San Andreas was tits and then they were waiting for next-gen consoles to have hardware with enough swagger and then a few more years went by and all of a sudden “Holy fuck, L.A. Noire exists and is coming out!”
In honor of another long-awaited, just-released work, Terry Malick's Tree of Life (about which I may write more at some point if I'm feeling pretentious enough), let's flash way the fuck back for an origin story: back in the 80s when I was a much shorter Bowes, I played multiple NESs to death and even managed to be a fairly accomplished PC gamer even though I didn't own a computer (I'm still really fucking pissed that I can't play Bandit Kings of Ancient China, Police Quest, or Leisure Suit Larry on my so-called “modern” computer).
Around junior high school channel 9 started showing The Maltese Falcon nine zillion times a week, and I started watching it every single time it came on. That led to me reading the book, then seeing “oh shit another Humphrey Bogart movie, The Big Sleep, let's see how this one is,” then reading that book, and the next thing you know I was the only 13 year old in the known universe who was a Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler fan, and I had progressed to James M. Cain, Cornell Woolrich, Jim Thompson, the heads of all the five families, and watched all the movies multiple times each. Then, a few years later, when I was in high school, came James Ellroy.
For those of you who don't know, an explanation, and for those of you who do, an exaltation: James Ellroy is fucking crazy. He's also unfathomably intelligent and possessed of what some might call focus and others, running the opposite direction, call obsession. After several years of writing relatively conventional above-average cop novels, Ellroy broke through to the level of Serious American Novelist with his so-called “L.A. Quartet”: The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, and White Jazz. These four novels amount to a metafictional secret history of post-war Los Angeles, containing many of the element of classic noir but with greater verisimilitude (many real people appear as characters, too) and—seemingly paradoxically—a breathtakingly epic grandeur. Ellroy's post-WWII Los Angeles is both painstakingly specific and universally American.
It's Ellroy more than classic noir cinema and fiction that influences L.A. Noire. The double entendre of the title makes its intent clear: it alludes to both Los Angeles and noir but literally just means “the black” in French. It's about darkness as specifically found in post-war Los Angeles and the crime fiction set there, but also universally, carrying the idea of moral ambiguity beyond the classically defined parameters of noir. Thus, the writing, plot, graphics, and gameplay attempt a greater naturalism than normally found in noir (a decidedly non-naturalistic form).
And here's where L.A. Noire's ambitions as a game come to the fore: it uses new technology to create human faces that transcend the stereotypically hollow-eyed emotionally blank ones that populate games. Specifically, this comes into play in the interrogation scenes, where as the cop, the player has to figure out whether the interviewee is telling the truth, holding back, or outright lying. Most of the time the difference between “holding back” and “lying” is hard to parse, but in those instances, the player has the advantage of all the collected evidence to date in the given case, so a quick perusal of same should yield the right answer. At worst, it yields some silent-movie-villain broad acting, but silent-movie-villain broad acting is fun. At best, it makes the interrogation scenes feel real.
The same ratio between ambition and realization is maintained throughout the game. L.A. Noire has its problems—the gameplay is a little repetitive, and I for one didn't even notice there was an overarching narrative until a little over halfway into the game—but overall its flaws are outweighed by its successes. For one, it looks fucking incredible. The people look like people, and really well-dressed people at that. The large-ish navigable chunk of Los Angeles at the player's disposal not only looks exactly like photographs of the period, it looks and feels like a living city. Sure, the traffic is laughably light for Los Angeles (which had its first massive traffic jam approximately five minutes after the invention of the automobile), and the people on the street one encounters outside of cutscenes seem to only know two sentences, one of which is “Hey, isn't that the cop from the papers?” But these are minor distractions. The awesome outweighs the problematic, throughout.
Once it becomes clear that there's one story unifying the whole thing, that story is a real grabber. I'm about to spoil the fuck out of it, so I'll put this here first:
You play for the vast majority of the game as policeman Cole Phelps, a decorated WWII veteran with a wife and kids. Cole's a Stanford grad prone to quoting Shakespeare; this erudition comes in handy later when a clue involving Percy Shelley leads to the discovery of a murderer. Starting as a patrolman (which basically serves as an introduction to the gameplay mechanics), Cole quickly rises up the ranks, first to plainclothes traffic duty, then quickly to homicide. Cole's cases in traffic serve to give him—and the player—experience with police work, and also to reveal his ambition as a character.
Upon being promoted to Homicide, Cole and his drunk I-don't-give-a-fuck fat guy partner (who, for obvious reasons, I loved) stumble upon what initially appear to be Black Dahlia copycat killings. The murdered women all kind of sort of resemble Elizabeth Short, and in each instance a very neat trail of evidence leads to a killer with a plausible motive. After about four of these, you start noticing a couple things: one, the evidence against the killers, no matter how solid, is circumstantial. Two, the narrative asides provided by newspapers one can find at various places throughout the game relate directly to Cole, his WWII tour, and the men he served with. Three, one dude is killing all the women and framing patsies each time.
Far-fetched? Sure. But that's noir for you. A little melodrama never hurt anyone except civilians. It turns out that all these Black Dahlia copycat killings are being done by the fucking Dahlia perp. This plot arc concludes with the Dahlia killer leading Cole and the fat man on a grand tour of Los Angeles landmarks, many of which are booby-trapped in some way—my personal favorites were when you lay waste to the chandelier in the Hall of Records, that apparently they repair in like five minutes and never bust your balls about it at all, and a straight-up no-bullshit labyrinth I totally had to cheat to get through because, well, put it this way, in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade when they talk about Marcus getting lost in his own museum, I was like, “finally, my people are represented in cinema”—and which ultimately lead you to a confrontation with the killer, who in classic movie psycho tradition is all on this “I'm smarter than the cops, so much so that I can give them clues that will lead them right to me because there's no way they're smart enough to figure this out.” And this is why bad guys are fucking stupid: if you're capable of committing a series of murders and successfully framing dudes for each one, why the hell would you lead a trail of breadcrumbs for the cops to nosh? Also, I mean, come on dude, if you really were an erudite urbane man of culture you could pick someone less banal than Shelley to use for your poetry clues. Fuck's wrong with Gerard Manley Hopkins, fancypants?
Anyway, once the killer—whom you've encountered a few murders ago as a bartender—announces his master plan, you chase him through the spooky catacombs of this abandoned church and you have to light his ass up before he blows you in half with his shotgun. Upon successfully sending the killer to the great freshman English class in the sky, Cole's Irish-accented superior officer (h/t Dudley Smith) shows up to tell the detectives, who are expecting commendations up the yin-yang and celebrity status and all that jazz, that the dead guy has massive political connections (just like the real Black Dahlia killer, who was never officially identified, and Jack the Ripper, among others; of course, non-civilians know that Jack the Ripper did the Black Dahlia, but that's a matter for after James Lock & Co. send me my new tinfoil hat). And because the dead guy was Earl Warren's nephew or whatever, the case is buried, all the framed perps are going to quietly get off on technicalities, and Cole is getting a lateral transfer to Administrative Vice.
Ellroy fans know what Ad Vice means: dope, hookers, and lots and lots of jazz. Cole and his sleazy, heavily-connected new partner investigate some OD deaths caused by too-pure morphine, being sold out of a popcorn stand called Black Caesar's (one of my favorite touches in the game is that the stand's sign totally fucking says SPQR, which is fucking awesome, and that's that). A bit of investigating, and proper adherence to the Law of Evil White Guys In Suits (“Behind every crime is a white man waiting for his cut.” —Chris Tucker) reveals the connection between the parallel narrative we've been piecing together through the newspapers and Cole's cases. It looks like the dudes in his old unit stole a fuckton of military-issue morphine and tried to sell it to Mickey Cohen, only Mickey's dipshit brother-in-law fucked everything up. Cole finds all this out as he succumbs to temptation and shtups the mysterious German jazz singer he's been crushing on since almost the beginning of the game. Of course, once Cole's investigation leads him too close to the actual evil white guys in suits, his extramarital cocksmanship is plastered all over the newspapers, and his ass is booted right the fuck out of Ad Vice.
In disgrace, Cole is shunted over to arson investigation, where he's partnered with the game's narrator (voiced by the one and only Keith Szarabajka, whom the anointed remember from being awesome as Mickey on The Equalizer, speaking of great TV shows from the 80s) and quickly stumbles onto a massive eminent domain scheme involving many of the richest and most powerful Evil White Guys In Suits Los Angeles has to offer, which is also tied into the drug business in which the guys in Cole's old unit are involved. It's a criminal conspiracy to make James Ellroy proud, dwarfing even the admittedly epic one concocted by Robert Towne in Chinatown. Shit, there are even shades of Judge Doom's “fuck the world and everyone in it” scheme in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
The parallel narrative gets really interesting around this time, as we start seeing enough stuff from WWII to see that Cole didn't really do all that great a job and got his Silver Star under slightly false pretenses. And, on top of that, we see that supporting player Jack Kelso, who came up with Cole through OCS before flunking out, rises to sergeant via field commission and actually fucking totally owns and is awesome and a paragon of stubborn rectitude and all kinds of interesting shit.
Right when you realize Kelso is actually a good guy and Cole is kind of a dick, the game shifts and you start playing as Kelso. Cole sends his German jazz singer girlfriend—with whom he's now living since his wife 86'd him post-scandal—to go be Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity and convince Kelso to be Fred MacMurray, only without the whole getting him to kill people thing. Kelso does a little digging into the case and soon realizes “Holy fucking shit, evil white guys in suits are having people killed so they can make millions of dollars building a freeway!” and throws in with the good Fräulein, and Cole, though he's fucking pissed at Cole for not having the stones to just be like “Hey, Jack, help me take on the evil white guys.”
Kelso and Cole team up to take on the evil white guys, and there's a massive action climax where the evil white guys kidnap the German girlfriend (and oh hell yes a love triangle has formed; this story puts both m's in melodrama) and, because it's really dramatic and Rockstar Games has developed a massive boner for downer endings over the last few years (cases in point: Grand Theft Auto IV where you either have your cousin or your girlfriend die, and Red Dead Redemption where the protagonist lets the evil white guys in suits kill him so his family can escape), Cole sacrifices himself to save Kelso and the German girlfriend. The whole last mission, it's been raining like hell (because it's noir and subtlety is for limpdicks) and Cole drowns in a flooded tunnel after lifting Kelso to safety. He's given a modest funeral, but when the sleazy Ad Vice partner (who's up to his neck in the conspiracy) starts eulogizing smarmily, the German girlfriend calls him out and dramatically stomps out, leaving Kelso to muse on the inscrutability of man. Then, post-credits, there's a cinematic cutscene that clarifies the WWII morphine conspiracy and Kelso's non-role in the whole affair, tying the whole plot up neatly.
Once the totality of it becomes apparent, the story's a knockout. It invites replays, during which a lot more things will make sense. The first time through, things only really start to cohere in retrospect, which is a function of the narrative being a little clunky and opaque at first. Like I said earlier, I didn't even realize the game had a story beyond the individual cases until way late; I don't think it even fully dawned on me until Cole was in Ad Vice, and that was way over halfway through. Needless to say, that's a problem. If the game's going to have a story, it'd be nice to let the player in on it, especially when it's as interesting as this one. The cutscenes are all gorgeously composed and edited, and well-acted; those new-school facial expressions add a lot.
The gameplay is of lesser concern to me that the visuals and sound (which is stunning; the music score is great, but the effects, editing and mixing are just terrific), and just as well, because it's a little awkward in places. In any given crime scene, there are a number of clues to be found, and these can be investigated by pressing a button on the controller, which doesn't always respond unless Cole or Kelso is standing in just the right spot. And the interrogations, with their “truth/doubt/lie” trichotomy, don't always lend themselves to the nuance one might like as the player; not to mention anyone who's read L.A. Confidential and remembers the way Ed Exley went to town on motherfuckers can't help but be like, “this is all I get to do?” in places. It must be said, though, that in each of these cases, for every moment where the game reminds you of its limitations, there are several others where you're like, “Yeah, fuck you man, YOU'RE LYING! I CAN PUT YOU AT THE SCENE OF THE CRIME, SUNSHINE, NOW UNLESS YOU WANT TO HUFF GAS AT QUENTIN I SUGGEST YOU GIVE ME SOME FUCKING ANSWERS!” Cuz, ya know, it's damn easy to get caught up in this world.
And that's what L.A. Noire succeeds, in solid A minus fashion, in doing: creating a world. It's PG-13 James Ellroy (well, with the violence, bad language, and nudity, it's objectively a fairly hard R, but Ellroy sexually violates his murder victims with wolverine teeth, okay? A couple “motherfuckers” is The Muppet Show compared to Ellroy), which is to say it's a great big epic that casts a powerful spell. Considering that I waited seven years for this game, the fact that it exceeded my expectations was a truly pleasant surprise. I'll certainly be replaying this one a lot, even if to just throw it on to hang out in the 40s for a bit. A time when men were men, cars were awesome, and thirty pedestrians in a row say “Hey, isn't that the cop from the papers?”
Friday, May 27, 2011
"Hammett was the ace performer... He is said to have lacked heart; yet the story he himself thought the most of [The Glass Key] is the record of a man's devotion to a friend. He was spare, frugal, hard-boiled, but he did over and over again what only the best writers can ever do at all. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before." ---Raymond Chandler, The Simple Art of Murder
Dashiell Hammett was born 117 years ago today. Completely aside from setting the bar impossibly high in the "write what you know" stakes (seriously, dude was a fucking Pinkerton agent before retiring to write crime novels drawn largely from his real-life experiences, that's just unfair for the rest of us), and being married to Lillian Hellman (herself a chronicler of her own massively badass feats), Dashiell Hammett gave much to the cinema. First, the obvious:
John Huston's The Maltese Falcon, one of the greatest movies ever made and one of the most important progenitors of film noir, was the third version made of Hammett's third novel (numerology hippies are advised to shut the fuck up, but quelle coincidence, non?). The other two, the Ricardo Cortez one and the Bette Davis one, are pretty good, but the Humphrey Bogart/Mary Astor/Peter Lorre/Sydney Greenstreet one sings. It captures the feel of Hammett's book perfectly, and that feel is fucking awesome.
Hammett's fourth novel, The Glass Key, has an equally impressive cinematic legacy. There were a couple direct adaptations made that were okay, but Akira Kurosawa really got shit crackin' with his unofficial adaptation, Yojimbo (often incorrectly called an adaptation of Hammett's first novel, Red Harvest):
One of the great classics of world cinema, Yojimbo makes the very intelligent decision to feature Toshiro Mifune owning the crap out of people with samurai swords, and while most of that is Kurosawa, he himself always attributed the Hammett influence.
Then, legendarily, Yojimbo begat A Fistful of Dollars, wherein Sergio Leone made the incredibly wise decision to make Clint the star:
Clint is Clint, and this was the first picture where it was made clear that Clint is Clint, and is thus historically very important, and while the reflected glory on Hammett is small by percentage, its albedo was fucking blinding, so take another bow, Mr. Hammett.
The Glass Key inspired another cinematic classic, this one based far more closely on the source material. I speak of course of Miller's Crossing.
While still more inspired by than a direct adaptation of The Glass Key, Miller's Crossing nonetheless captures the period atmosphere perfectly, and features original dialogue every bit Hammett's equal (and Hammett was one of the gods).
Hammett's last novel would inspire one of the most deliriously fun movies ever made (and several almost-as-enjoyable sequels), The Thin Man.
Nick and Nora Charles are fucking rad. The degree to which they're based on Hammett and Hellman is debatable, but the degree to which they rule is not. Sure they dress beautifully and can drink any mammal discovered by science under the table, but the greatest thing about them as a couple was that they were both massively in love (emotionally and physically, though the degree to which the latter was permitted to be shown was limited by censors) AND, most impressively, actually liked each other. It's a vividly portrayed relationship, beautifully written by Hammett, perfectly adapted by the filmmakers, and wonderfully played by William Powell and Myrna Loy.
Hammett spent most of the last three decades of his life involved in politics rather than writing. As a real-life character, he was interesting enough to inspire a not-bad fanfic novel called Hammett by Joe Gores that was turned into a not-as-not-bad Wim Wenders picture (like with most Wim Wenders pictures, the degree to which it doesn't suck depends on how much you like Wim Wenders). And then, in Julia, the 1977 movie adaptation of part of Lillian Hellman's Pentimento, Dashiell Hammett was played by the one, the only, Jason Robards.
Here's to Dashiell Hammett. Writer, activist, mensch. One of a kind.
Thursday, May 26, 2011
I've got a bunch of cool stuff planned for this place, but while we wait for that, here's a bunch of stuff at other quality destinations around the Internet:
1) There's always Tor.com, where I'll be covering the summer's biggest SFF releases (except for Green Lantern because every time someone says the words "Green Lantern" to me I lose consciousness; this aside took me eight hours to write) as well as a thrilling, multi-part series on a movie franchise that shall not be named. Expecto critique-um. Okay, yes, that may be the worst joke that ever appeared on this site. Moving on.
2) I've written a couple pieces over at TruTv.com's Dumb As A Blog. All you sports fans out there, my pieces on the dumbest trades in the history of sports, and the dumbest attempts to cheat in sports. More musings on dumb stuff are sure to follow, not exclusively on sports.
3) Because it ain't always just about me (shocking, I know) I present you with Our Beloved Armond's ghastly, almost hauntingly shitty review (by which I mean it's a really terribly done piece of film criticism) of Terrence Malick's newly-minted Palme D'Or winner Tree of Life.
4) To close things out, and a bit of a palate cleanser after Armond's weird bullshit, the great Roger Ebert on lazy-ass movie theaters doing more to destroy the movie business than lazy-ass movie studios. Rog, I love ya.
So, soon as I finish L.A. Noire (which is a fucking humdinger, boy, lemme tell ya) and a couple other extracurricular things, I'll be back posting on a more consistent basis. Hope y'all are good. (Oh, and happy birthday to friend of the blog Steve Gilpin, who just turned the big 3-0. Go get yer fuckin wheelchair, old timer).
Monday, May 23, 2011
Fortunately, he won't have to go through life as just "that guy who was responsible for the awesomest fucking long-take cinematography ever in Children of Men" anymore. Lubezki was Terry Malick's DP for Tree of Life, which just won the Palme D'Or and drops in the US this Friday. And he also DP'd this gorgeous Jim Beam ad:
Who knew a guy with a preternatural gift for making things look good with a movie camera would find himself in such demand? Keep it up, baby.
Sunday, May 22, 2011
“Damn, TV has changed.” --Eddie Murphy, 48 Hrs.
One's own personal neuroses should, for their lone redeeming quality, entertain oneself, otherwise what the fuck good are they? Among mine—which are legion—the one that amusexasperates me the most is my inability to follow more than one TV show at any given point in my life. I get overloaded trying to follow more than one of these massive serial narratives at once; I guess this is half my own glitchy intellect and half every fucking show nowadays is this massive epic. Right now I'm giving Game of Thrones a longer chance than I thought I would a couple weeks ago. The first episode—with the major exception of that rape scene that apparently wasn't a rape scene in the book—I liked. The second and most of the third I spent wondering who the fuck all these people were and whether the blonde chick with the eyebrows was going to have to have a sex scene shoehorned into every episode (I mean, come on, she's attractive, and looks great with her clothes off, but every time she shtups Conan the Barbarian I'm like, “oy, I guess rape trauma is a 24 hour bug in Westeros . . .”). The fourth and fifth eps won me back a bit, enough so that I think I'll make it to the end of the season. The scene where Cersei and Robert took time out from their zillions of nefarious schemes to have a husband-and-wife glass of wine is what did it: it was such a well-written and acted scene that even though the goddamn story of this show is still a brain-buster, I feel like I owe it my full attention. It has its problems, but it also has people cutting each other up with swords and Peter Dinklage fucking owning everything in sight. Especially since the supernarrative is starting to cohere, I'll give it another month and a half.
As much as it make me sound like a cementhead old person saying this, I kind of miss the days when TV shows were like, if you missed one episode because you were out having sex and another one because you were winning at poker you could tune in on the odd slow Monday night and the show would still make sense. And yes, I know everybody except me has DVR, rendering this largely moot. But I still think some TV writers—and you best believe I'm tsk-tsking at those Game of Thrones dudes—get too comfortable with the whole “people are gonna be watching this over and over on DVR anyway” thing and end up jerking off to themselves for being clever and oblique and stuff. I do long for the halcyon days when it was not thus. But I also have to admit I'm a fan of the very first show to start this trend. And I'm not talkin about The Sopranos. Or even OZ. Or even you wiseasses in the back row who said Twin Peaks. I've got plenty of love for all three of those (well, the first two and a half seasons of The Sopranos, anyway), but I'm talkin about a show that predates 'em all: Wiseguy.
Wiseguy was the brainchild of prolific TV writer-producer Stephen J. Cannell, who created and presided over a staggering array of popular television shows in the 70s and 80s, most notably The Rockford Files, The A-Team, and 21 Jump Street. Wiseguy is his most ambitious show, eschewing the autonomous episode format in favor of multi-episode “arcs,” which is basically what all television dramas are today. Other shows might have tried this before, but none on the scale Wiseguy did.
The show's protagonist was Vinnie Terranova, a deep-cover agent of a fictional FBI organized crime unit. As played by Ken Wahl, Vinnie was a deeply compelling protagonist, managing to have enormous internal conflicts without ever becoming too emo (well, at least until the end of the fourth season, but that might have just been because Ken Wahl wanted to go do movies), plausible as both tough and smart. Vinny Terranova's a mensch. A stand-up guy. This is what leads to his massive internal conflict, as his job requires him to be the very antithesis, underlining how much easier it is for actors and undercover cops to do their jobs if they're total sociopaths. But hey, if it was easy, there'd be no story. Look at Limitless.
Vinnie is in the extremely difficult position of not being able to tell his friends and loved ones that he's not a gangster. He's able to tell his brother the priest, Father Pete (Gerald Anthony), but only in confession, and it's a long, agonizing time before he's able to tell his motormouth mother (Elsa Raven). Father Pete and Mama Terranova are series mainstays, though they each got enmeshed in fucktarded subplots as the series went on; Father Pete gets killed, which is dumb, and especially sucks because he's one of the only four priests in the universe who never fucked a kid, and Mama Terranova goes from sanctimonious gangster-hater so stressed out that her Vincenzo became a gangster that she has a heart attack to marrying an elderly Mob patriarch in one of the later, stupider seasons.
As for his professional life, Vinnie has two constant colleagues there as well. His bureau handler Frank McPike (Jonathan Banks) is dour, vindictive, and not above being massively immature when he's pissed off, but Frank is a good egg when you get right down to it and due to the nature of his character gets to have all kinds of good wisecracks, the general tenor of which are summarized hilariously by a tightass superior the first season as “dry . . . biscuit . . . humor” (it makes less sense the more you analyze it, so just take it at face value as fucking funny).
The other is the Lifeguard (Jim Byrnes), with whom Vinnie checks in via payphone (ah, the 80s) to convey and receive information. Their relationship evolves rather quickly from business into a deeply personal, almost familial bond; Vinnie is initially given the code phrase “Uncle Mike” to use when in trouble, but The Lifeguard quickly becomes an uncle to Vinnie, and the two become quite good friends despite almost never meeting face-to-face (this was rarer before the Internet). The Lifeguard helps Vinnie deal with the isolation inherent to the job, and the Lifeguard is himself quite lonely. He's missing both legs, as is the actor who plays him. Jim Byrnes lost both legs in an auto accident when he was quite young; if the role wasn't written for him, it certainly could have been (in a happy epilogue, Jim Byrnes has gone onto quite a successful career as a voiceover actor, so he can make that paper without having to do all that stupid walking shit or play a dude in a 'chair every time he wants to work).
The pilot begins with Vinnie getting out of prison, where he's been establishing his cover as a gangster badass. He proceeds to infiltrate the organization of Atlantic City mobster Sonny Steelgrave (Ray Sharkey, who chews scenery like a Great White) and make the acquaintance of the high-level East Coast underworld. The way the show is written, directed, and acted is very much 80s TV drama—this is to say, a bit more stylized and presentational than the cinema verité camerawork and self-aware snarky dialogue one sees on so many modern shows. By the standards of its time, Wiseguy was an ambitious, terrifically executed show. It suffers slightly in comparison to similarly-themed TV shows produced since, but those shows had far superior resources and didn't have to euphemize for the censors.
This is a particular handicap for a gangster show, because gangsters fucking curse. Wiseguy features a number of unfortunate turns of phrase mandated by the fact that the show was on network TV, but this is just about the only aspect in which the show's world fails to compel completely (well, the first season, at least). Vinnie develops a deep, incredibly complicated relationship with Sonny, and when events inexorably lead to Sonny's arrest, Vinnie legitimately feels as though he's betrayed Sonny. This kind of moral ambiguity, let us not forget, did not fucking happen on TV in 1987. The last episode, concluding with Vinnie and Sonny beating the shit out of each other after Vinnie reveals his FBI status, then slumping to the ground and staring at each other while “Nights in White Satin” plays on the soundtrack, is as powerful a piece of filmmaking as anyone achieved in the 80s. Sonny eventually electrocutes himself rather than be taken alive by the police, achieving a kind of mythic outlaw stature.
Wiseguy's first ten episodes, constituting the Steelgrave Arc, hold up against just about anything put on television in 80s. It feels like both more and fewer than ten episodes, due to the incredibly strong character relationships, and the economy of the writing leading to every episode feeling full and substantial, yet zooming forward. The supporting cast is excellent, featuring a young Annette Bening as another undercover agent Vinnie encounters, and the immortal Joe Dallesandro as the smooth New York Don Paul Patrice, known as “Pat the Cat” due to reasons related in a vivid, disturbing anecdote by Sonny. The Steelgrave saga almost feels too good; how the fuck are they going to get the audience involved in a story about Vinnie bringing down another gangster?
The answer is simple: up the stakes. After one intermediary episode about Vinnie trying to come to grips with the guilt he feels about bringing down Sonny Steelgrave, Frank McPike comes to him with a new assignment: get next to an independent operator named Roger Lococco (William Russ), about whom things don't seem to add up. Vinnie accepts the assignment reluctantly, and liaises with a wisecracking, stereotype-busting Japanese-American agent named Kenny (Clyde Kusatsu, who's fucking awesome). They stage a scene for the purposes of getting Lococco's attention, poolside at a hotel in Stockton, CA at 9am, where both Roger Lococco and Vinnie order Bloody Marys and Vinnie pretends to be buying a gun from Kenny.
This is both fucking ridiculous and kind of awesome, as it posits a world where dudes are so badass that they need to be buying guns at 9 o'clock in the morning over Bloody Marys. Even more ridiculous (and awesome) is that Vinnie's charade works: after Kenny splits, Roger offers an opinion about his favored armament and he and Vinnie proceed to nerd out about guns and do one seriously funny alpha-tough-guy testosterone verbal pas de deux. They hang out a bit; Roger and Vinnie party with some European blondes who're flown in on a private jet by someone named Sue. Vinnie starts getting the sense that there's more than meets the eye, though McPike's superior at the FBI is going to pull the plug. Then Vinnie makes a joke about Nazis (based on nothing more than the blondes speaking German, and the mechanic who installs machine guns in a hunk of shit unmarked cop car-looking car for Roger—the demonstration of which is great fun, by the way—having a thick accent), and even though Vinnie's clearly kidding, suddenly the FBI's throwing massive resources at the thing and the CIA gets involved.
Before Vinnie or McPike can get the idea that a mountain is being made out of a molehill, Roger whisks Vinnie off to a party on a yacht where there're all kinds of massively rich people and coke all over the place and girls with big tits running around in bikinis. Oft spoken of but not yet glimpsed are a shadowy pair—to whom everyone at the party, no matter how rich, looks up—named Mel and Susan Profitt. And, lo and behold, it turns out these two basically control organized crime on planet Earth.
Holy shit, what a pair. Susan, whom we meet first, is played by Joan Severance, at the time about 30 and simply reified sex (albeit in a very 80s, big hair sort of way, but still, gotdamn). She projects both cool competence and irresistible seduction. Mel we meet at the top of episode 2. And he, ladies and gentlemen, is played by Kevin fucking Spacey.
That's right, Wiseguy gave us Kevin Spacey, and without Kevin Spacey, are the 90s really even the 90s? Glengarry Glen Ross, The Usual Suspects, Se7en (if that's still a spoiler and you're pissed, whoops), L.A. Confidential, American Beauty . . . and it all began back in 1988 when he looked kind of like Bill Hicks' over-caffeinated brother. He hams it up so much as Mel Profitt the show needs a “Parental Advisory: the following show contains treyf” warning. He chews so much scenery he was still picking it out of his teeth ten years later. But, make no mistake, he fucking rawks as Mel Profitt.
Mel Profitt is just barely in control of himself, though he controls crime worldwide. He and Susan only function together, and she only seems sane because he's so epically nucking futs. There isn't incestous subtext, it's text. Susan shoots up Mel with mysterious drugs, he operates on a blend of whim, nut-flexing, and garbled Malthusian theory (though I gotta say, a villain ranting about Thomas Malthus on network television warms the heart), and they basically scare the shit out of everyone, up to and including their sergeant-at-arms/favored hitman Roger Lococco.
Vinnie quickly gains Mel's favor, largely because Vinnie has the balls to stand up to him. Susan is also taken with Vinnie, which Mel tries to be okay with except his jealousy ends up getting the better of him, especially after Vinnie trips on his dick and “accidentally” fucks her. Mel resultantly ends up spiraling, which leads to Susan having to kill him with a hotshot. After this, Susan herself goes hopelessly, irrevocably batshit without her other half to ground her. She tells Vinnie that she's pregnant, and that it's his, which freaks Vinnie out—evidently he was hitting it raw—but even freakier is the fact that the pregnancy is hysterical. Eventually, Vinnie has to have Susan committed and thrown in the bughouse, since she isn't competent to stand trial.
As if all that shit wasn't enough . . . it turns out Roger Lococco is a Fed too. He's with the CIA, under even deeper cover than Vinnie. Vinnie and Roger develop a deep bond, with much of the moral ambiguity that characterized his relationship with Sonny, only with the added wrinkle of Roger being a “good” guy in spite of all the people he kills. In a way, Roger is the anchor of the Profitt Arc, a fascinating antihero who does unspeakable things and yet maintains a code of ethics.
Certainly, without an anchor, the Profitt arc would spiral off into the ether. The plot is feverish horseshit, the stakes so melodramatically grand that without a really firm tether it'd float away. But the conviction of the writing, the terrific performances (Wahl, Banks, and Byrnes are still excellent, and grow even further into their roles as the series goes along, and nearly all the baddies and “baddies” are great), and the novelty of the show's form sustain it throughout the first season, making it one of the finest debut seasons in the history of TV.
Subsequent seasons failed to ever reach those heights, but a below-average season from a great show is still better than the best season of a shitty show. In seasons 2 and 3, the arcs got shorter and the targets more esoteric; anything was going to seem anticlimactic after Mel Profitt (not to mention Susan Profitt), but Fred Thompson's huckster faux-white supremacist was a little fish (though Paul Guilfoyle's crazed true-believer character was scary and well-played). There was another Mafia arc-let that just seemed like an attempt to recapture the Sonny Steelgrave mojo, but it didn't work.
The show hit a major snag when Ken Wahl broke an ankle in an accident while filming, and had to be written out of the show while he recovered. Unfortunately, this was in the middle of a potentially interesting arc about corruption in the garment industry with Ron Silver and Jerry Lewis, both of whom were awesome on the show (Ed. Note: don't front on Jerry Lewis just because he was a geeked-out doofball when he was young, he was fucking great in The King of Comedy and he was rock-solid on Wiseguy). That couple months unfortunately ended up just killing time til Ken Wahl got back to be Vinnie again.
His next assignment upon return was an investigation of corruption in the music business, in what was by far the funniest plotline on Wiseguy. Its sense of what “real” music is is only marginally more refined than that of Eddie & the Cruisers II: Eddie Lives, but the lower stakes also create a light tone, and the guest stars are all massively clutch: the great Paul Winfield's degenerate gambler character was awesome because he was played by Paul Winfield (Ed. Note: Paul Winfield was awesome), Patti D'Arbanville rules as his wife, Tim Curry is Tim Curry for shit's sake (he plays the oily Brit main baddie, perfect casting if there ever was), and the late, great, Ron Taylor was particularly fun as dissolute songwriter Monroe Blue. Who's Ron Taylor? This guy:
Because the game is the game, Ron Taylor was usually billed as something like “Big Black Guy,” which fucking sucks—I mean, come on, at least “Biggest Black Guy,” come on, people, fucking focus—but we who are truly up on our shit know better. Not only was he part of one of the funnier bits in Trading Places (as one of the two guys who try to intimidate Eddie in jail), he was the voice of Lisa Simpson's saxophone mentor on the motherfucking Simpsons, people. Bow head in reverence, then continue.
Glenn Frey and Debbie Harry were also solid in this storyline, with Glenn Frey (as Vinnie's Virgil in the infernal music biz) a particularly pleasant surprise since we already knew Debbie Harry could act from Hairspray. Paul McCrane (“You're dead . . . WE KILLED YOU!” guy from Robocop as well as, regrettably, Jack Bauer's evil brother on the second-shittiest season of 24) turned in a memorable performance as an ephebophile record producer who was bizarrely kind of an all right guy. All in all, the music arc was the best since season 1.
Then, concluding Wiseguy's run as actual Wiseguy and not the bullshit half-measure that the last, incomplete season was, an arc-let set in a town in Pacific Northwest where weird shit happens and there are serial killers and shit. What's that, you say? Cynical attempt to cash in on the popularity of Twin Peaks, sayest thou? Well au contraire motherfuckers, the first episode of this arc aired two months before Twin Peaks' debut! How's that for some forward thinking on Wiseguy's part, huh?
Actual Twin Peaks similarities are a stretch, at best. Vinnie gets sent to a town in Washington called Lynchboro (part of the confusion), which is being ruled by an autocratic eccentric, who's obsessed with the William Castle picture Mister Sardonicus. (Ed. Note: *pure movie nerd bliss*). He buys the girls he likes at the town brothel Corvettes (no, his name is not Ben Horne, knock that shit off). And the local law enforcement is eccentric to say the least. The town sheriff is David Straithairn—that's right, David Fucking Straithairn, one of the finest American thespians ever to breathe air; man? Nay. LEGEND—who seems to be an all right cat. Vinnie actually gets to infiltrate Lynchboro as a cop for once, and he goes to work for Sheriff Straithairn, only to find out Straithairn's the one who's been killing people, and when cornered he electrocutes himself, just like Sonny Steelgrave. Vinnie has a PTSD meltdown, and a bunch of other stuff happens, none of it terribly plausible (though some things, like Roger Lococco showing up out of nowhere to say what's up, admittedly rule), and the season kind of fizzles out, with Vinnie depressed in Seattle and Frank McPike getting shot. Still, it started out pretty well.
That anticlimax would unfortunately be the end of Wiseguy as a watchable show. Between seasons 3 and 4 Ken Wahl said, “I want this much money,” and held up his hands six feet apart. The evil white guys in suits said, “We want to pay you this much money,” and held their hands up four feet apart. Ken Wahl said “Fuck you evil white guys in suits, I'm going to go be a movie star” (Ed. Note: the historical record now reflect this as the most fucktarded decision by the lead on a series in the history of TV, because David Caruso, once the world-record holder, eventually came back with a memorable-but-not-good performance in the otherwise shittastic Proof of Life and then found new life with a memorable-but-fucking-terrible performance on CSI: Miami; Ken Wahl never had a second act to his career, which sucks, because he's a talented dude, he just had a whole lot of bad luck and some major health problems). And the evil white guys in suits said, “We're going to cast Steven Bauer as a new OCB operative and stay the course.” Only it didn't work. Steven Bauer's awesome—when I finally do a post about Wild Side, I'll expand on that—but Wiseguy is not Wiseguy without the Vinnie-McPike-Lifeguard triad, and the apex of that triangle is Vinnie. Manolo from Scarface is a pale shadow.
And so Wiseguy died the death, but not before being a consistently entertaining series that in its first season was admirably ambitious, and succeeded well enough that it gives Stephen J. Cannell legit credit as an artist. The fact that the last half of that last sentence was written by a human being will make highbrow motherfuckers grow ulcers, so even though it's a slight exaggeration, I'll stand by it.
Thursday, May 19, 2011
Lars von Trier has learned the hard way that there's a difference between press conferences at Cannes and a thread on 4chan. At least he didn't break Rules 1 & 2 . . .
The fact that ol' Lars was clearly kidding around doesn't make anything better. I personally don't think there's any subject about which jokes are forbidden but certain subjects have a very high difficulty curve. And Lars von Trier isn't fucking funny. Poor Kirsten Dunst.
Anyway, let that be a lesson. If you're going to compare yourself to a dictator who destroyed millions of lives, stick with Harvey Weinstein. (Ayyyyyyyoooooo!!! Sorry, Harv, that was a joke.)
Tuesday, May 17, 2011
It's a little long, but it's pretty funny. Listen to me (and Filmi Girl, Asim Burney, and Martin Cawley, sophisticated cineastes all) discuss Fast Five, Thor, and Game of Thrones. If you're prepared for how terrifying I sound at 8am with only two cups of coffee in me, venture forth.
Monday, May 16, 2011
The release this weekend of Bridesmaids, from the Judd Apatow comedy factory, started a lot of discussions about whether or not men will go see movies starring and created by women. That a lot of dudes stood up and went “yeah, I'm a dude and I'll go see that movie” may be more a function of it being a Judd Apatow factory movie than an outbreak of gender progressivism, but fuck it. Rome wasn't built in a day, dudes went to see a movie written by women, Bridesmaids made money. All the hand-wringing turned out to be for nothing. But let us, for fuck's sake, retire the phrase “chick flick.”
It's a problematic term because it's so nebulous and, for lack of a better word, broad. Everyone's got a different definition, be it the “yah bro” backwards-baseball-cap-with-red-plastic-drink-cup version (roughly “anything with chicks as anything other than a trophy or sex fantasy”) or the one this girl I went on one date with proffered defensively/defiantly: “I don't really care about movies, I like chick flicks” (I was polite, but there was no second date). Depending who you ask, it's restricted to movies with Kate Hudson or Katherine Heigl in them, or it's any movie with a woman in the lead. It's nearly always a diminutive, and almost certainly owes the longevity of its use to the fact that it rhymes. “Chick flick.” It's snappy. Sharp consonants, two syllables. And utterly devoid of meaning.
There are a few reasons I hate the phrase “chick flick” so much. I almost never personally use the word “flick” to talk about movies, just like I almost never use the word “film” (the latter is something I'm trying to reintegrate, because there are whole conversations you can't have without using, for example, the phrase “an Ingmar Bergman film,” because there's no other way to describe what that dude made, he made films, just like Robert Bresson, Satyajit Ray, and a handful of other people . . . anyway, enough of that shit, back to the world “flick.”) That's not the problem with the phrase, though. I can get over my personal shit. It's the shortcut to thinking, jettisoning nuance and specificity for the sake of simplicity. It'd be one thing if this was an actual term any two people were able to actually define the same way. But in this case it's like, “Huh huh huh, fuck that shit, that's a chick flick,” and not only do you sound like a fucking retard, you haven't conveyed anything.
Most of the time, I'll grant, people are talking about a couple specific kinds of pictures:
1—a romantic comedy where the boy-crazy, materialistic, pratfall-prone pathological liar heroine gets some dude to de-nut himself and fall in love with her.
2—tragic melodramas where everyone dies at the end
3—revenge things where the chick wins and the dudes lose
4—anything with lesbians in it that isn't porn
5—anything with subtitles in it that doesn't feature Asian people beating the fucking shit out of each other.
The problem with these archetypes is that with the exception of 1) and maybe 4) these end up describing lots of things that aren't “chick flicks” and I'd submit that chicks shouldn't have to take the blame for 1). That description is of a bad movie, irrespective of gender. Those kinds of pictures, which nearly every actress between the ages of 18 and 40 gets talked into doing by her lizard fuckface agent, get made because they reinforce all kinds of shit that's convenient for multinational corporations to reinforce: materialism, heteronormativity, hewing to tradition, etc. Audiences go to see them because they don't challenge anything about the way they see the world, and studios keep making them because audiences keep going to see them.
That one specific, cynically motivated, utterly fucking horrible kind of movie is what passes for a romantic comedy nowadays, which is a goddamn shame because there have been some truly wonderful romantic comedies made over the years. It's why it's very difficult to get a lot of guys to admit that they like “romantic comedies” and at best they'll cop to liking one or two as aberrations. You could make the argument that this is typical regressive dude bullshit, insecurity about masculinity and blah blah blah, but the actual reason for this is that in every single crappy romantic comedy ever made, the guys are all either total pussies, the sassy gay best friend, or one-dimensionally evil. Or all three.
Now, men being marginalized isn't exactly the same as women being marginalized/objectified in “male” movies, because of power dynamics and privilege and all that, and if we're to correct this problem in movies marketed to women, there needs to be a similar correction in movies marketed to men. Ideally, we'd have movies where the men and women alike are three-dimensional, exist for their own purpose rather than as a function of another's necessity, and are recognizable as human beings. It's okay, I'll give you a second to stop laughing.
But really, why the fuck do all movies have to be “for” only one type of person? Women go see movies with dude protagonists all the time. And dudes will go see movies with women protagonists: Aliens didn't exactly flop, nor did Kill Bill, nor did Salt, which I just saw a couple days ago (I greatly enjoyed it, it's glorious horseshit). True, those are all action pictures. But by the broadest definition of “chick flick,” all three qualify. They feature women in the lead, and Kill Bill and Salt both feature those women killing the fuck out of guys who screwed them over (Aliens, of course, features Sigourney Weaver killing the fuck out of aliens). “But they're not chick flicks! They're good!” Well, if being good stops something from being a chick flick, maybe there's no such thing as a chick flick. Maybe movies are either good or bad, and that's the only important thing.
Men and women are different. But each man is different from each other man, and each woman different from each other woman. I know dudes who like movies where shit blows up, I know other dudes who prefer Guy Maddin “everybody's in Canada and only has one leg” pictures. I know chicks who rave about how fuken awesome and metal Game of Thrones is and catch me up on who's who and how the names are spelled and shit, I know others who can't watch it because of the way the female characters are portrayed. Flip the genders and each four of those examples is true of at least one other friend of mine on the other side. The point is, generalizations are for fucking retards. Including that one.
So what of Bridesmaids? As your slide rule no doubt told you, I don't give a fuck whether it's a “chick flick” or not. From all accounts Kristen Wiig and her co-writer were just trying to write a funny script. That's all I care about this movie, or any other for that matter. Is it good? All that other divisive bullshit, who it's “for” and so forth, doesn't interest me at all. If you build it (with “build” meaning “make” and “it” meaning “a good movie”), I'll come (with “come” meaning “enjoy it,” and by “enjoy it” I mean achieve orgasm). Fuck “chick flicks.” Fuck “bro movies.” Let's just go to the fucking movies and enjoy ourselves. Is that too much to ask?
Wednesday, May 11, 2011
No, movie stars will be with us as long as pretty people can squint into a camera and pretend to feel emotion. The movie star who's gonna die is Will Smith if he keeps acting like a fucking jerkoff in New York City. Seriously, you've got a $25,000 a month apartment less than a mile away, and this is necessary? This trailer is like some shit in a movie about a jerkoff egomaniac movie star, one of those exaggerated slapstick comedies where the guy eventually marries a humble village supermodel and learns the "important" things in life while "Solsbury Hill" plays on the soundtrack. In other words, the movie this thing is from isn't even a good movie. Xenu has not been good for Will.
Friday, May 6, 2011
Happy 50th birthday to George Clooney: actor, writer, director, producer, activist, lover of many women, envy of many men. A lot of people will tell you I'm nuts/retarded for claiming his two best pictures are Ocean's Twelve and The American, and they'll be right too, since his best picture (so far) is Out of Sight. Whatever the truth may be, let's raise a glass. It's sure been a long time since he woke up from that hangover in the ER pilot and every [straight] woman [and a lot of the gay men] in America went "Hello . . . what's this, then?" And damn near all of it's been great. Except for fucking Batman. But hey, can ya really blame the guy?
Tuesday, May 3, 2011
"GO H.A.M. OR GO HOME": WHY THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS SERIES IS THE GREATEST THING IN THE ENTIRE UNIVERSE
The antihero occupies a very special place in America's heart. Sure, we claim to be all about the guy in the white hat, and the stereotypical American to many is a meathead incapable of processing nuance, but we're really drawn to moral ambiguity. This addresses a number of programming issues in America's code from its origins (a democratic republic with unprecedented civil liberties for all enfranchised citizens . . . but only dudes had the franchise and half the country's economy depended on slavery to function; that's some moral ambiguity for your ass) to its mythic adolescence (outlaws and gunfighters, many of whom were little more than psychopathic murderers, were folk heroes in the Old West) to its early adulthood (gangsters fascinated us throughout the 20th century), to the modern day, where many kinds of transgressive behavior are thought of fondly, romantically, titilating in their forbiddenness. The concept of the victimless crime is one man's rationalization, another's justification for cathartic desire to be just that little bit bad. The very word “bad” means “good” in certain contexts. And this, of course, leads us to Dominic Toretto, the charismatic axis of the Fast and the Furious series.
Of course, a biiiiiiig part of Toretto's charisma is the fact that he's played by the incomparable Vincenzo Gasolina, whose talents—having big muscles and a voice so low-pitched at moments it can only be described as the “Vin Diesel octave,” not to mention an ability to make women go “holy Jesus I want to fuck the shit out of this guy but I have no idea why” (though many of them know exactly why)—fit the character so perfectly that it's hard to tell sometimes where Vincenzo ends and Dominic begins. And really, it doesn't fucking matter.
I saw Fast Five yesterday, which consists largely of Vincenzo's dick dragging the ground, when he isn't bludgeoning bad guys—or The Rock, who also appears—with it, or using it to shift his insanely customized Dodge Charger into “fuck you” gear. The movie is fucking great. This whole series is one of the great pleasant surprises in popular culture: an ongoing movie series where each installment builds on the already existing story, that delivers the goods without pandering, is executed with great skill, and unites moviegoers of all ages, genders, races, and levels of cineastic foofery in smiling very wide and going “Wow, that fucking owned.”
It was not always thus. I saw the first movie on cable once, maybe 2003 or 4 or something like that and enjoyed it, but didn't really think one way or the other of it once it was done. I was already an avowed Vincenzo fan, and Rick Yune was fucking great as the villain and everything, and Paul Walker did the whole tango with moral ambiguity fairly gracefully, and the car stunts were rad, and the girls were hot . . . I mean, I enjoyed it. It was just a busy time, I guess, and in any case whenever I needed a Vincenzo fix I had xXx on DVD.
Years later, I was having one of many squabbles with an ex-girlfriend about what movie to watch (I can be undiplomatic, and she could be a bit insular; c'est l'amour, entre les immatures) which she won, and we sat down to watch The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift. About thirty seconds in I totally forgot my objections to watching it and succumbed to its wiles.
What made Tokyo Drift so much fun was director Justin Lin's self-aware sense of humor about the kind of picture he was making, and ability to imbue the entire picture with a crooked smile and swagger without mocking the movie or its characters. Lin was both smart enough (watch his debut, Better Luck Tomorrow, for evidence) and a good enough director (see previous) to make a movie that is less “brainless escapism” than “viscerally stimulating.” The plot is simple, the characters similarly so, and you know the good guys are going to win in the end, but the picture is well executed, its attitude toward multiculturalism is refreshing and subtly, matter-of-factly conveyed, and most importantly, it has a massively fucking on-point sense of what's cool.
While the fact that neither Lucas Black's gaijin-in-Japan nor Bow Wow's motormouthed sidekick to same are annoying is cool enough, neither can hold a candle to Sung Kang as Han Lue (the same name as his apparently unrelated character in Better Luck Tomorrow). Han is a thinking man's badass: lounging upside shiny, expensive, ludicrously fast cars, surrounded by shiny, expensive, ludicrously fast women, rarely smiling because, well, shit, that'd take effort but also—as we find out over the course of the picture—he's haunted by his past and despite what lazy Westerners might think, as a Korean he's just as much an outsider in Tokyo as Lucas Black and Bow Wow (these fine “we don't all look alike, motherfucker” distinctions are the benefits of having a Taiwanese director in the driver's seat).
Then there are those car stunts. Now keep in mind, I'm not saying this as a bad thing at all—especially in light of the horrible fuckin shit Japan's dealing with these days—but they do love really strange, dangerous things that look awesome, and “drifting” qualifies as all three. Lucas Black shows up in Japan, having basically been kicked out of the United States for LARPing Smokey and the Bandit, thinking “yeah, I'm badass.” Drifting is a whole other ballgame, though, as he soon finds out, and he successfully masters this exotic discipline, leading to some fucking dope car chases, though one of them unfortunately kills Han. (Ed. Note: actually, in light of certain other “deaths” in the series, there's a chance Han made it out of the flaming wreck and there's some awesome explanation why).
Next step was watching The Fast and the Furious again on cable and finding it to be fucking rad, if lacking Justin Lin's directorial flair (Rob Cohen is possessed of a little less subtlety, but that's what makes xXx so magnificent). I even went as far as to watch the second picture, 2 Fast 2 Furious, which despite its many charms (Ludacris, Tyrese and especially Eva Mendes are all massive goddamn fun in it) does, sadly, suffer from a lack of Vincenzo (whose cameo at the end of Tokyo Drift was fucking killer). Still, 2 Fast 2 Furious benefits as the latter three pictures in the series do from having a very talented director at the helm, in this case John Singleton. Like Lin in Tokyo Drift (and, credit where credit's due, Cohen in the first one), Singleton managed to make the interracial friendships plausible, and non-shticky while also not dwelling on them at all; the lack of being beaten over the head with “MESSAGE” makes the message so palatable one doesn't even realize it's there.
This is the best thing about the way race is dealt with in the Fast and the Furious movies: it's not. White, black, East Asian, Latin, undecided (Vincenzo and Jordana Brewster, who fittingly play siblings; their parents must have each been from every continent on Earth), none of it matters in the slightest. All are bonded by their deep and abiding love for cars that go extremely fucking fast. Family is decided by choice, though biological family is still very important.
The fact that Vincenzo and those he regards as family commit crimes only serves to deepen their bond. It sets them apart from society, which fails to recognize Vincenzo and retinue's shared moral code, though it is a legitimate one, if founded on a different set of premises than mainstream society's. Vincenzo may occasionally have to wild on motherfuckers, but not at random and never without justification. This perspective is shared by all his “family” (which includes Sung Kang in Tokyo Drift, of course, as he shows up in the following two, earlier chronologically, movies) and sets them apart not only from civilians but also the bad guys, who are also criminals but ones who behave cruelly and court power for power's sake, rather than as a means to an end.
Now, this may seem a bit high-minded for a series of movies where people drive really fast and blow shit up, but it's all there. It's not spelled out, it's not dwelt on at any length, it's simply as fundamental a fact of life as Vincenzo's muscles. And the fact that if you cross him, Vincenzo Gasolina will fuck you the fuck up. If you're lucky he'll just beat you in a race and take your pink slip.
This is the appeal, in a nutshell of The Fast and the Furious. The title alone is most of the explanation. Americans love cars. Shit, everyone loves cars. Driving really fast ranks in very exalted company in the “most fun things to do with your clothes on” category. Speaking of clothes staying on, that's another reason for the popularity of the series: the relatively chaste PG-13 sexuality. People might get pregnant (Jordana Brewster in Fast Five), but the conception happens off-screen. Men may leer at women (who may be randomly making out with each other for no reason) but those women are always clothed. This is another example, and possibly the weirdest, of the Fast and the Furious series getting to have it both ways: the sex is never repressed, but never so open that it'd offend.
As much fun as the first three pictures (especially Tokyo Drift) are, this really became a series with Justin Lin's follow-up Fast and Furious, where—as hinted in the final scene of Tokyo Drift—Vincenzo is back. And is he ever.
Fast and Furious is a prequel to Tokyo Drift, as evidenced by the fact that Han is still alive. It opens with Vincenzo, Han, Michelle Rodriguez, Tego Calderon and Don Omar pulling a rip and run on a fucking oil tanker in the Dominican Republic (one love Wages of Fear/Sorcerer! What's good?) in a simply goddamn tremendous opening sequence. The car stunts are shot and cut as well as anything outside the Mad Max pictures, and if you can keep up with Australians in anything involving ripshit insanity, you deserve a salute. (Ed. Note: that assessment of Australians as ripshit insane people is tendered with love, respect, and awe, FYI).
We then discover that Paul Walker has somehow managed to not get fired by the FBI yet, and he's hot on Vincenzo's case at the behest of superior Shea Whigham (one of the modern cinema's most underrated Evil White Guys in Suits, but not for long if he keeps owning at it like this). After the bad guys kill Michelle Rodriguez—in a truly surprising twist—Vincenzo returns to the US with an even more menacing glower and a growl an octave lower than the Vin Diesel Octave (the scariest aspect of his quest for revenge), and because it's a Fast and the Furious movie, Paul Walker and Vincenzo end up both trying to infiltrate the bad guy's elite squadron of superfast drivers.
Some people checked out at this point, claiming (heretically) that this was retarded. These people, after they go fuck themselves, are advised to recall the prime directive of the Fast and the Furious universe is “All Else Is Secondary to Driving Incredibly Fucking Fast.” You might as well say the Harry Potter movies are retarded because people use magic. If the villain didn't need people to drive incredibly fucking fast, there would be no movie. So yes, Paul Walker and Vincenzo need to race cars against a couple loudmothed retards under the foolish misconception that the race will end in any way other than Vincenzo and Paul Walker within a tenth of a second of each other. What purpose does this serve? Fuck you, that's what purpose it serves.
The bad guy responsible for all this shit is John Ortiz. Civilians may not have that name on the tip of their tongues, so as a reminder, he played Jose Yero in the movie version of Miami Vice (a picture of which no blasphemy be spoken, ever, lest Godmother Manohla Dargis be forced to send me to break your fucking legs). John Ortiz achieved godhood in that picture with his stylized readings of lines like “maybe we could grab a bite,” pronouncing the latter part like “grabbabiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiite.” He's one of those guys who'd been doing theater for a million years in New York and suddenly started getting cast in above-average roles as the drug dealer/villain guy. This is a rough thing for a lot of Latin actors, as once upon a time, those were the only roles they could get, but Ortiz's apparent approach—jump in with both feet and use the caricature of the over-acted bad guy as a means of redeeming the stereotype and turning it on itself—is not only not that hard to rationalize as a positive artistic statement, but a lot of fun to watch. He always looks like he's having fucking huge amounts of fun playing those roles, and it's just as fun for the audience when they see clips of him actually talking and he's totally just a New Yorker (this shouldn't be underestimated as a factor in my enjoyment of his acting, being a New Yorker myself).
It's paradoxically totally obvious that John Ortiz is actually the real bad guy instead of just the front man and handled so well by Justin Lin and screenwriter Chris Morgan that even though it's not a surprise it feels like one. There's also the fact of his mano derecha, Fenix, being not only a lousy speller but the guy who killed Michelle Rodriguez, meaning that Vincenzo has to fuck him up. This is something no rational being would want visited upon himself, and proof that Dark Helmet had it backwards in Spaceballs when he said “[e]vil will always triumph because good . . . is dumb.” Fuckin villains, always with the hubris.
Part of Vincenzo's larger-than-life (and even larger, amazingly, than his muscles) outlaw mystique is that he totally has to be arrested at the end of the picture, and they send his ass to the clink for life—I mean holy fucking shit at this point Vincenzo is basically a character in a fucking folk song—before Paul Walker proves that he's finally come over to the “good” side by leading a daring raid alongside Jordana Brewster and two of the biggest stars in reggaeton (Ed. Note: when staging a prison break, the fact that you would think to make sure the soundtrack is tight is an indication of the highest motherfucking level of style). Like Tokyo Drift, it points the way to the obligatory sequel, but in such a way that makes you totally want to see the sequel. But even in this, admittedly awesome, regard Fast and Furious can't hold a candle to . . .
Fast Five is, thus far—there are two further sequels in the works, according to both Vincenzo and Justin Lin—the culmination of everything the series has come to be: a refutation of every apparently fucktarded thing about it. It's a movie that only exists because of the car stunts? Yeah, but those car stunts are fucking awesome. It's got a simple, derivative plot that coasts on its actors' charisma and chemistry? Yeah, but that charisma lends greater resonance to the pulp plot and eventually (shockingly) coheres into a compelling pulp supernarrative that poses a profound question about what it truly means to be an outlaw. It's verging on the “more is better” conundrum of adding apparently unnecessary elements (in this case, having The Rock be the elite Fed after Vincenzo et al)? Yeah, but The Rock fucking owns in this, to the degree that calling him Dwayne Johnson, as he's billed, doesn't really do him proper justice, whether that's his own name or not.
Fast Five opens with a brilliantly concise, perfectly tuned recap of where the previous picture left off, with Paul Walker and everybody springing Vincenzo from custody. We then pick up with happy couple Paul Walker and Jordana Brewster (having gotten Vincenzo's grudging approval in the last movie) heading down to Rio in the midst of lean times (to top it all off, she's preggers), when they run into one of the dudes from the first movie, Matt Schultze, who's living in Rio with his wife and young kid in the middle of the set of City of God (Fast Five being under the impression that there are three places in Rio de Janeiro: the statue of Jesus, the favelas, and a couple blocks along the beach that look like Miami; this isn't a flaw or anything, pretty much the only parts of Rio where they have enough guns and illegally modded cars to hang out in a Fast and the Furious movie are the favelas). The moment Matt Schultze mentions that he's got a line on a job, stealing a couple high-end cars, everyone in the audience goes “YES! CARS! FUCK! GO!” and Paul Walker and Jordana Brewster are like “awwwwwww yeeeeeahhh.”
Turns out the cars they're stealing have been impounded by the DEA and the doodz who threw Matt Schultze the job are baddies in the employ of one Hernan Reyes (Joaquim de Almeida, one of South America's finest villainous character actors), who, because this is a Fast and the Furious movie is the ONE GUY who controls all of organized crime in Rio and maybe all of Brazil (somewhere Lil' Ze and Knockout Ned are rolling their eyes, sighing, and muttering “Se apenas fosse esse o caso . . .”)
Vincenzo—who joins the job by swaggering on screen in one of the greatest fucking intros ever—and Paul Walker send Jordana Brewster off with one of the cars and stay behind to kill the bad guys and do extremely well-edited things with cars. Only problem is, the bad guys kill some DEA agents (for which Vincenzo and Paul Walker take the blame) and Joaquim de Almeida and his dudes capture Vincenzo and Paul Walker, who are unimpressed. After JDA monologues at them and leaves the room, Vincenzo and Paul Walker escape, having learned that JDA is looking for something in the car Jordana Brewster fucked off with.
They discover that what JDA's after is a chip that, conveniently, has every byte of data about JDA's illegal activities (which calls to mind Stringer Bell's classic rhetorical ode to forethought and caution: “Nigga, is you takin notes on a criminal fuckin conspiracy?”) But before they can get too comfortable figuring out what to do next, a challenger appears, hopping off a plane from sweet home Estados Unidos with about a half a dozen dudes who between them have exhausted the Western hemisphere's anabolic steroid supply. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you The Rock:
“Alright, listen up. The men we're after are professional runners. We find them; we take them as a team and we bring them back. And above all else, we never ever let them get into cars.”
This is a clear indication that ol' Rocky's been beefing up his intellect along with his biceps: as a rational man he knows that if you get Vincenzo Gasolina get into a car, ownage is a foregone conclusion. Rock liaises with the local cops, who are choads and furthermore in JDA's pocket (the exception to both is Rock's knuckle-gnawingly hot translator, who joined the force to avenge her cop husband's death and is subsequently the only honest cop on the Rio PD), and tries to stage a nice, clean raid to bring in Vincenzo except JDA's thugs fuck everything up and the good guys get away after a rooftop chase scene that's almost as cool as the one in District B13 (but neither Vincenzo, Jordana Brewster, nor Paul Walker, alas, are as limber as David Belle).
Vincenzo, whose balls have a gravity well, decides that the thing to do, with every cop and gangster in a notoriously violent country after him, is to rob JDA of over $100 million in cash, which is going to be stored in a state-of-the-art vault inside a fucking police station. Hey, why the fuck not, go H.A.M. or go home, that's what I always say. Paul Walker, in response says, “Good idea, Vincenzo. Let's get every single surviving supporting character from the whole series to help us out.” (Ed. Note: paraphrase) and Vincenzo, in response, expresses his assent in the Vin Diesel Octave.
This is how Tyrese, Ludacris (both from 2 Fast 2 Furious), Sung Kang (from Tokyo Drift), Don Omar, Tego Calderon, and the mouth-watering Gal Godot (all from Fast and Furious; and no, the last is an Israeli model-actress, not a high-concept “His Girl Friday written by Samuel Beckett” joke I made when stoned) all end up coming down to Rio to form the world's most tuneful, most decorative, most speeding-ticketed heist team. They get to work and put together a plan that requires awe-inspiring balls, fancy driving, and a couple brief variances in the laws of physics to pull off, but these formulate the trinity of the Fast and Furious universe, thus making it the perfect plan.
Fate intervenes in the form of excessive competence on the part of The Rock—who is quite fucking badass in this, and just about the only worthy police adversary left for Vincenzo—who totally busts Vincenzo (after Vincenzo beats the fucking shit out of him in a fight scene that's actually kind of scary) and Paul Walker, only to have JDA's doodz show up and ambush them, killing all The Rock's doodz, leaving he and his translator no choice but to join forces with Vincenzo.
The monkey in the wrench, however, is that Vincenzo is dead set on going through with the heist. Everybody's like, “dude, I know the sun revolves around your balls, but seriously, this is fucking suicide,” but Vincenzo's hearing none of it. Until a very manly voice chimes in:
Dwayne motherfucking Johnson, reporting for duty. This moment was sufficiently awesome to elicit an almost awed “WORD!” from the gentleman sitting next to me (Ed. Note: this was an afternoon show on a Monday and the theater was fucking packed. This one ain't stoppin with the $86 mil opening weekend folks, this picture's gonna make a lotta money) and an immediate change of heart from Mr. Paul Walker and subsequently everyone else in the room. I mean, this one's a no-brainer. Following Vincenzo into battle is one thing; sure, you still follow him but he's the kinda guy who might get killed in a movie someday, he just has that Beowulf/Beat Takeshi/existential roid-martyr vibe, know'm sayin? But Vincenzo AND The Rock? Fuck outta here, you might kill one of them but you couldn't kill both of them without Arnold Schwarzenegger and even then you'd need twelve movies.
So our outlaw squadron swaggers into the breach and totally fucking house JDA's vault. Every cop in Brazil pursues, including JDA and his mão direita. Vincenzo and Paul Walker drag the vault behind their two heavily reinforced, awesomely fast cars through the streets of Rio; naturally, lots of shit gets destroyed (including, to Jordana Brewster's great amusement back at the command center, a bank), but because they're the good guys (and somehow this is justified through their driving ability; don't ask me how, it just is, and legitimately, no less) no innocent bystanders get killed.
As the terrific chase sequence draws to a conclusion, Vincenzo has one last “fuck this, I'm going to take one for the team” moment, and goes and plays chicken with JDA, using the vault like it's his car's tail to destroy cop and bad guy cars, concluding with JDA's. Paul Walker, because he's got Vincenzo's back til the end, shoots JDA's mão direita. The Rock and his translator drive up, and Rock passes JDA's broken, mumbling form on the ground. Rather than any big dramatic “YOU BETRAYED ME!” histrionics out of Mr. Johnson, he just puts two in JDA's head as he walks past like it ain't even a thing (a move that elicited a “HOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO SHITTTTT!!!!!!!!” from the audience). Rock then pulls some straight up Western shit on Vincenzo: the old “I'm keeping the vault, I'm still gonna chase you, and I'll be coming for you in 24 hours” routine, where it's heavily wink-wink-nudge-nudged that you get the fuck out of Dodge, as when I come for you in 24 hours and you're not there I guess it's God's will or something. THIS IS HOW MEN DO THINGS. Naturally, Vincenzo and team have pulled a switcheroo and made off with the $100 mil, and vanish into thin air, and Rock smiles: “Yes, Vincenzo, you are a worthy adversary.” The whole “two sides of the same coin” thing between cop and crook is as old as time, but never has it been executed with such large muscles as it is here. The team-up of Vincenzo and The Rock could not have gone better, in any possible universe.
Then, during the credits, a surprise scene. First, Eva Mendes is back! Looking muy caliente, by the way. She walks into Rock's office at The Government and tells him, I got somethin' for ya. She hands Rock a dossier . . . HOLY FUCKING FUCK MICHELLE RODRIGUEZ IS STILL ALIVE IN GERMANY! Stay tuned for The Fast and the Furious Part Six! HELL yes.
This series defies every typical expectation for a movie franchise. Starting with a not-bad but unremarkable crime picture with a vivid, palpable obsession with cars, it's become—and yes, I'm serious—an epic pulp narrative that defines a very real aspect of our time: a plausibly post-racial, international society of adrenaline addicts who don't take orders from The Man. They believe in nothing but each other and the moment, living their lives, as Vincenzo says in the first movie: “a quarter mile at a time.” These movies are fast. They're furious. They're fucking awesome.