Fast Five begins with a replay of the final moments of Fast & Furious; by this stage, Vin Diesel’s translation of Sylvester Stallone’s career is complete. He is using the same tricks as Stallone’s Rocky (1976 – John G. Avilsden) franchise, as much as he is adopting the elder star’s screen persona. The replay also underlines that this is a franchise growing in critical and commercial appreciation; new fans are coming to series after hearing positive word of mouth (and for the record, I was one of those people.)
Even by this stage the franchise has established a huge cast of characters, both lead and supporting. It is adopting the approach of The Simpsons, which innovatively focused on producing a world of additional people, replete with distinctly drawn personalities, catchphrases and emotional ties to the main cast. This means the return of Matt Schulze as Vince from The Fast and the Furious and Eva Mendes as Monica Fuentes from 2 Fast 2 Furious – they bring with them a level of emotional complexity that would not arise otherwise. There is no exposition to explain their characters; the audience is expected to get up to speed themselves.
Additionally, each film in the series will now bring in new characters to the mix; the world grows ever bigger. Fast Five makes the frankly delightful choice to introduce Dwayne Johnson as Luke Hobbs. Taking a role originally written for an elder statesman, such as Tommy Lee Jones, Johnson hurls himself into the franchise with little consideration of its existing stars. He is eminently watchable; gruff, amusing, and physically dominant. There is no doubt in his mind that this film belongs to him. By the time Hobbs destroys Toretto’s Dodge Charger, we know we are seeing an oppositional mountain of masculinity to Vin Diesel (and their passive aggressive social media games recently only underline this). Johnson’s sense-of-humour is vital to this, bringing a charisma to his part that Diesel could never reach. In doing so, O’Conner’s role changes. He is no longer antagonistic, and instead becomes a peaceful counter-balance to the oppressive testosterone of Diesel and Johnson around him.
But what is apparent by this stage is the true multi-cultural representation of the lead cast. It is extraordinarily diverse (and Fast Five goes to great lengths to underline that even Giselle, previously ethnically ambiguous, is a former Israeli soldier). Even considering that Diesel, and to a much lesser extent Johnson, have traded on a level of racial ambivalence, the Fast & Furious cast stands in defiance against the bland Caucasian dominance of Hollywood. In an era where Marvel prides themselves on solitary female and black (but never both… god forbid….) actors, the Fast & Furious line-up stands as truly progressive, giving vital prominence to racial and ethnic groups woefully under-represented on screen, such as Sung Kang’s Korean American heritage. Indeed, this diversity becomes text, when the federal agents acting against the crew realise that their imperialist, white standards and practices won’t operate in the diverse world of Toretto’s crew. Their only hope is to integrate, as Hobbs ultimately does.
Many of the key elements of the series are still in place. Characters are repurposed (Ludacris’ Tej Parker is inexplicably repositioned as a tech expert) explained away as unseen adventures. Skeevy sexual politics continue under Lin’s direction (it is pretty shameful that Gal Gadot’s arse becomes a plot point, and the opening sequence relies on the Mission: Impossible style tension of heists gone wrong.
But there are clear new additions. The film has a bloated running time, underlining its status as a blockbuster tentpole release (essential to the running of the Universal studio). The series adopts a Bond-ian approach to locations, visiting a series of exotic locales (there are an almost impossible number of shots of Christ-the-Redeemer to emphasise just how much this film is set in Rio). And action sequences come to the fore. There are foot chases a-plenty (very much a signature style of twenty-first century action cinema after the success of The Bourne Supremacy (2004 – Paul Greengrass), physical fights between characters (the fight between Hobbs and Toretto operates as two huge pieces of meat pounding the crap out of each other) and some extraordinary car chases. The opening and losing sequences are superb, successfully balancing rapid motion and the occasional necessary physical stillness. There is a glee to the franchises’ willingness to easily annihilate physical structures. Buildings crumble, glass shatters, cars are tossed about like footballs; all this underlines the casual appetite for destruction that action cinema enjoys. The heists were always a feature of the series; now they are essential.
With this comes a reduction in some other aspects. Jordana Brewster is again shunted to the side (a movement that is shamefully continued over the next few films). Street racing is almost completely removed – Lin wittily cuts away from a sequence just as it is about to begin in this film. His direction is on occasions extraordinary – there is a long shot of assassins swarming out of the slums of Rio that is quite beautiful. And the series admits that its reliance on the tension between Toretto and O’Conner is over. At the beginning of the film, O’Conner is still very much a rookie, but by the end he is a brother. Along the way, there is a touching sequence where the two discuss their respective fathers; Toretto’s was ever-present, generous and gregarious, O’Conner’s was absent, a blot on his memory. It explains Dom’s utter conviction in himself, and Brian’s shifting, unfixed personality, a personality he ultimately finds stability in the love of Mia by the end of the film. No longer will we wonder who O’Conner is, he is now a stable, strong man.
Fast Five is an extraordinary film. One that the cemented the franchise’s reputation as one of the most invigorating action film series of modern cinema. The opening sequence with its car surfing escapades, and closing, almost half-hour police vault heist are both shot with a determination and exhilaration of style. The series is no longer relying on superfluous CGI to make its point. The current consensus is that single-take shots are essential for invigorating action sequences, but Fast Five proves that quick cutting has its place, as long as it maintains a ccoherence of motion. It is the high point of the franchise so far.
Oh, and it’s revealed that Letty isn’t dead! It’s a shame Dom has got over her, and is now fucking someone else…
Fast & Furious rankings:
The Fast and the Furious
2 Fast 2 Furious
Fast & Furious
Turbo Charged Prelude
Brian & Dom street racing scorecard:
Brian: II (though Dom lets him win to not hurt his conscience)
Heavy-‘Han’ded references to Tokyo:
2 (once emphasised in a discussion about a magazine, and once in conversation between Han and Giselle ‘I thought you wanted to go to Tokyo?’, ‘We’ll get there eventually.’ – it’s almost as if they were planning on fitting more films into the continuity slot)
‘My smile is not that great.’ Elsa Pataky’s (a woman who is a professional smiler) Elena Neves responding to Luke Hobbs sexist reason for employing her.
As much as the Rocky sequels will come to be defined by their 1980s freneticism, Rocky II feels firmly rooted in the seventies. It is made in the spirit of The Godfather Part II (1974 – Francis Ford Coppola – Talia Shire’s brother), a sequel that deepens the themes and ideas of its predecessor. For Stallone, Rocky II provided an opportunity to take full control of a movie series that he had created. In that sense (and Paradise Alley can viewed in a similar manner) Rocky II is almost a complete remake of the first film, only minus the Rocky and Adrian courtship. (Sam Raimi would pull the same trick with Evil Dead (1981) and Evil Dead II (1987)). At times, it possible to forget which of the films we are watching, so similar is the plot of Rocky II to Rocky – Italian-American amateur boxer overcomes poverty to defeat a Muhammed Ali stand-in. It could easily be read as a shameless re-tread.
However, Stallone is making an essential point. So often in life we place huge value on moments or decisions we make – ‘if I get this new job I will be happy’, ‘If this person loves me, I will feel okay’ we tell ourselves. But the happiness these outcomes give us are often only fleeting, and Rocky II demonstrates that achieving a goal – going the distance with Apollo Creed – does not bring any significant change in circumstance. Rocky is still poor, still an outsider, still unfulfilled. Stallone’s empathy for the human condition has always been underrated; I think ‘we fill each other gaps’ remains one of the purest expressions of love that cinema has ever given us. The re-tread is not out of laziness; it exists to underline how material change does not inherently lead to joy.
In his attempts to root Rocky II in seventies independent American cinema (ironically Quentin Tarantino regards Rocky as one of the death-knells for this period), Stallone employs a limited soundtrack and muted colour-palette for the first half of the film. The camera is rarely placed at Rocky’s eye-level, as if he cannot look us in the eye after failing to transform his life. Balboa is living an existence with little meaning or excitement. Only Adrian, characteristically dressed in red (a key visual signifier for Stallone), brings a graphic stimulus to the screen. It is only once Rocky starts training for his final showdown, that the film comes alive, and Bill Conti’s extraordinarily uplifting soundtrack kicks in.
It soundtracks one of Stallone’s key visual tools – his use of montage. The shift into the third act – Rocky faces Creed again – is driven by an extended montage of Balboa training for the match. It is a longer montage than we initially suspect, because halfway through, Stallone slows down one scene to show Rocky caring for his new-born child. In fact, much of the first two acts of the film feel like a moderately languid montage. Scenes feel like selections of short moments designed to emphasise a purposeless life. With his use of montage, Stallone seeks to emphasise that there are no short cuts in life, by sardonically employing a visual short cut himself. Rocky, and by extension Stallone as writer/director/highly physical performer, have had to put in hours of hard work to achieve success.
Rocky II sees Stallone continue his exploration of the Italian immigrant experience in America. Despite achieving the impossible in the first film, Rocky is still an outsider. He is unable to access employment due to his lack of education. The minor victories of marriage and childbirth are the only sources of happiness in his path. As admirable as this exploration is, it comes slightly at the expense of a fair portrayal of the African-American experience. By casting Apollo Creed (a clear Muhammed Ali substitute) as the nominal ‘bad guy’ (and Creed’s ‘sins’ of arrogance, vanity and neglect of children are relatively tame), he reduces a great sporting hero to a punchbag. But Stallone is trying to underline the values of his ancestors, a generation who never much sympathised for a man who threw off his slave name and refused to fight a phoney war. Stallone’s sympathetic choice to show Creed reading piles of hate mail, underlines the truth that success doesn’t mean shit in the Western world if you’re black.
For the confrontation between Creed and Balboa, Stallone places his camera outside the ring, choosing the shoot the match in mid and long shots. For the first few rounds, the camera only enters the ring between rounds, and only cuts to close-up of reaction shots from the two contenders and their hollering teams and family. This is a necessary choice made by Stallone due to the false perspective used to give the verisimilitude of punches landing, but Stallone cleverly drops this technique, bringing the camera alongside the actors, and using a quicker cutting style as the fight progresses. He is underlining the escalation of the match, as we watch two contenders refuse to give in.
The film begins and ends with two of Stallone’s greatest tools as a director. The opening minutes of the film are a recap of the events of Rocky. It underlines Stallone’s intent to document a life over several movies, much in the same way that Francois Truffaut followed an aging Antoine Doinel across several films beginning with Les Quatre Cents Coups in 1959. And the final moments see Stallone employ slow-motion, as the epic Balboa/Creed rematch comes to a slightly contrived conclusion. For Stallone, it is an opportunity to revel in micro-gestures, those moments where our face and limbs betray our innermost thoughts. It drives up the tension, forcing the audience to become embroiled the uncertainty of a boxing match. It is the glory of the sport, that it can be over in a few seconds, or last a seeming lifetime and that at any moment, the whole contest can turn on a dime. A boxer on his last legs can deliver a knockout punch. By finally allowing Rocky the victory, Stallone emphasises his own success; he was now a true movie star, and able to choose whatever projects he wished. It’s interesting to see what he chose to do with this power and influence.
Each week, one randomly selected film from Nicolas Cage’s career. Hopefully we can begin to figure out exactly what he’s been up to all these years.
I used to think about the apocalypse every day.
Growing up in a religious household meant that the end of days was always on the tip of the tongue. My mind couldn’t quite grasp the symbolism involved though; the promise of a new body led me to believe that my head, arms and legs would trot off to paradise to meet a new tummy, like some ecclesiastical Transformer. My parents would promise me that the afterlife was bliss – endless conversations would be held over the topic of treasure (apparently god wasn’t talking about the same things as pirates). And one day I was told that nobody would know when and where the world would end.
Now, I didn’t want the world to end. I was barely getting used the world as it was, even if it didn’t for me extend that much further than the limits of Tunbridge Wells. I realised that if I thought about the end of the world as much as possible, then I would always know the time and place, and therefore, according to god’s logic, the world could not end.
It became, as these things often do, a kind of silent obsession that dwelled within my mind. Looking back, it was a deeply unhealthy thing for a child to think about, but then again, children are always obsessed with death, such is their habit of playing dead, their tongues hanging absurdly out of their mouths.
(Years later, I realised every generation has assumed they are in the end of days, including the one which wrote the Bible. The failure of the world to end is one of the strongest evidences for the failure of religion.)
I don’t presume that these peculiarities are unique to a Christian upbringing. Every childhood has its misconceptions. But religions are particular subcultures. They have their own languages and practices and entertainments. Every now and then, some bro-dude on twitter will start laughing at the Christian film culture that exists in America. And like most performative acts, it reveals more about the small-minded arrogance of the accuser than the accused. Because, as much as I resent the indoctrination of my youth, I can’t escape the truth that the majority of people I encountered within that culture were some of the kindest, most generous people I have ever known.
So who cares if they have their bland, safe cinephilia?
(I mean, I care a little bit, because Nic Cage was in one of those films, and it popped up on the jukebox. So I had to watch it, and it’s not very good. And it curiously presents all the Christians in the film as pretty unappealing individuals, which is… odd… for an evangelistic film. It’s nearly two hours long, and for huge swathes of it, it feels like you’ve accidently stumbled into an Alpha Course.)
So the question must be posed, if heaven is a paradise, with no pain or hurt or suffering, will it have Left Behind in it?
After a couple of what were considered to be disappointing sequels, Fast & Furious reunited Vin Diesel and Paul Walker within the franchise that made them… well ‘famous’ isn’t the word… maybe ‘known’ is better. And much like Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in Heat (1995 – Michael Mann) this film delights in the cocktease of delaying their eventual meeting, and so builds our anticipation. The relationship between the two – of what is up to this point some form of grudging respect, and will blossom into some peculiar form of love – moves to become the foundation of the majority of the subsequent movies in the series.
The opening sequence, when taken alongside Los Bandoleros, feels ultimately like it is from a completely different movie. Taking its cues from the Mission: Impossible film series, it is the tale of a heist gone epically wrong. Featuring an almost apocalyptic oil-tanker robbery, Justin Lin begins to integrate CGI into the still highly physical stunt sequences that are the highlights of series. From this scene onwards, entire landscapes and vehicles are constructed within computers – a fact that deeply harms the climatic sequence of this movie set in an entirely unreal underground tunnel. Lin will later forego such overwhelming fabrication, and rely much more on his physical second unit stunt team. This opening sequence is glorious, and emphasises just how appealing a screen-presence is Michelle Rodriguez. But it feels curiously detached from the body of the film, and reminds you of those Bond films – particularly The World is Not Enough (1999 – Michael Apted) – where the pre-credits sequence is so much more thrilling than the rest of the film.
Because it is lethargic film. The messy, slightly-incoherent underground sequences are distracting and feature almost weightless cars; thus much of the remaining pleasure comes from our slightly-knowing response to lines such as Han’s reference to ‘crazy shit in Tokyo’.
One of the strongest moves of the series is placing Paul Walker with cropped hair in a smart suit, because he looks smashing, and it is a huge leap forward from the slightly adolescent short-sleeve shirts he was sporting in 2 Fast 2 Furious. In addition, the series transforms him yet again into a highly agile physical performer. His opening foot chase is exhilarating and underlines how the character has once again been repositioned… this time nominally into a reluctant, closed-down police officer. One of the most interesting retcons the series performs is when it determinedly moves O’Conner into a member of the anti-hero group that Dom’s gang represents. The series attempts to write his motivation as an act of self-recognition, where he realises that he was a bad guy all along, but there is little prior evidence for this movement.
Ultimately, Brian’s appeal is that he is an individual who is not fixed yet. He hasn’t quite figured out who he is, and his arrested development speaks profoundly to the struggles of self-identification that many of us face. His act of freeing Dom Toretto at the end of the first film is once again re-written; now it becomes a moment of self-loathing, where he realised he respected Dom more than himself. The series delights in its mercurial characters, constantly re-shifting and reconfiguring them. They are vehicles, designed to modified and upgraded.
In opposition to O’Conner stands Dom Toretto. Nominally mourning the loss of Letty (and Diesel is not particularly interested in modifying his performance to incorporate grief). Though some heavy-handed imagery, Dom becomes the arbiter of atonement, though the series neglects to underline how this represents a return to the violence he fought so hard to avoid in his first appearance. Perhaps this is how he copes with death – by becoming death himself. Delightfully, Toretto is recoded as queer; he returns to a largely asexual role in his senseless rejection of Gal Gadot. But his benign presence of strength looms over the film, and pulls everything around him into orbit. It is his kindness, his leadership, his motivation that drives the plot along.
And there are great moments to the plot. The twist of Braga being the main villain rather than a henchman is genuinely shocking. But the film suffers from some of Lin’s choices. As much as the slightly toxic environments of the street racing scene were present at the start of the series, it is once Lin starts to direct, that they move fully into the gratuitous shots of bottoms that plague the series. Add to this, the tired trope of dead girlfriends (Letty), the utter side-lining of Mia Toretto (and Letty, I suppose) and the use of ‘pussy’ as an insult, and we start to see a distasteful element of misogyny enter the series. Jordana Brewster does her best to work against this – she creates an effective performance of a woman who was hurt and betrayed by O’Conner when she was a child – but she pushed to the side of the narrative as the film progresses. Only Gal Gadot (another non-actor who becomes central to the series), making her series debut as Gisele Yashar, performs with a degree of agency, intelligence and intimidation.
But ultimately, the film lags. When one of your sequences relies on the tension of getting caught on CCTV, you know that as an audience it is a struggle to stay engaged. Fast & Furious ultimately works as a soft-reboot, and a taste of the thrills yet to come.
As an actor, Stallone has had the number-one box office film in five separate decades. As a writer, he is known for redrafting the scripts to all his films, ensuring that they explore thematic concerns relevant to him; his notion of masculinity, the immigrant experience, and the struggle to maintain integrity in the world. But as a director… Stallone is frequently ignored. In this arena, he is easily accused of the excesses of vanity, and thus, he is neglected as a canonical auteur. But Stallone has brought a unique visual style to the eight (and a bit) films he has directed across his career.
Much of Stallone’s early work seems to be a response to the diluted vision of Rocky (1976 – John G. Avilsden). Much has been made (not least by Stallone himself) of the struggling actor gambling everything on starring in the astonishing script he bashed out one weekend. Stallone realised that success would only come to him if he took full control of his career. Despite all the achievements of Rocky, Stallone seems to have been profoundly affected by his inability to direct it, and his first films of Paradise Alley (actually written before Rocky) and Rocky II (1979), seem to be driven in a large part by a response to the work that made him a cinematic icon. They employ many of the same cast and crew (here a score is provided by Bill Conti). They rephrase and revisit the story of an outsider (played by Stallone) overcoming personal adversity to achieve success in their chosen sporting field. It’s not unreasonable to suggest that Stallone was drawing on his own personal experiences when crafting the script…
Whilst Paradise Alley features Stallone as the lead character (and the movie is very much marketed on the charisma of the burgeoning star), he does not participate in the sporting events in the same way as he does in Rocky. Here he is Cosmo Carboni, fledgling manager to his hulking brother Victor’s wrestling career. Carboni, shares Balboa’s quick-witted, non-stop sliver tongue, but here, because he has no real talent of his own, he remains un-appreciated. What is charming in Balboa become irritating in Carboni. Paradise Alley is unique in the Stallone canon in that it allows us to see him in a thankless role; Stallone will come to craft roles that are, without exception, individuals at the top of their game, respected by everyone around them. Conversely, here we have an unexceptional man, despised by most (including members of his own family) and only redeemed by his integrity in protecting his savant brother.
As much as we associate Stallone with the overblown excess of action movies in the eighties and nineties, it’s important to recognise that his formative work comes in the distinct director-led American cinematic landscape of the 1970s. He establishes himself in the same decade as Scorsese, Coppola, Friedkin et. al. These films are realist, feature morally questionable protagonists and usually feature downbeat endings. Much of Stallone’s early work is dedicated to exploring the experience of Italian immigrants into America in the twentieth century, a not thematically unsimilar vein to at least two of those above directors. He demonstrates an enormous sympathy for the struggle of poverty and intolerance that they were experiencing in this time. As an actor, Stallone was dedicated to the dominant style of naturalism that was found in cinema; his mumbling and stream-of-consciousness dialogue are a deliberate choice, and not, as has sometime lazily been referred to, as a product of ineptitude.
Visually, Stallone reflects this allegiance to New Hollywood cinema in many of directorial choices. Aided by cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs, the film has a soft focus, high-contrast look. Found regularly in seventies cinema where films were set in the past, this diffused and desaturated style is used to provoke the nostalgic ‘look’ of a faded photograph. In addition, Stallone begins to employ many of the stylistic flourishes that will make his name. Slow-motion is liberally employed during moments of action, designed to make us reflect upon the emotional trauma of physical punishment as the motion is prolonged. During dialogue scenes, he employs single-shot close-ups of actors – there are very few reaction shots, for instance – he is in this regard, an actor’s director, allowing performance to take centre stage. He begins to employ elements of montage to show the passing of time; uniquely he superimposes dialogue scenes hanging in the air above some of the wrestling matches.
But there are some unique touches to the film. He shoots the matches from deliberately low angles, cutting out much of the parrying and balletic back-and-forth, and focusses on the painfully crushing body-slams. He employs elements of near-fantasy to heighten the drama of these matches – one round is filmed during torrential rain in an outdoor arena, the splashing of water only emphasising the brutality of the sport. Most affectingly, Stallone employs a significant use of the colour red throughout the film. There are scenes set in nightclubs that are entirely suffused with the colour, red lampshades appear in significant scenes, and not unexpectedly, red appears as blood during the matches. Stallone uses this disruptive colour to indicate the unobtainable – women, success, life – in the face of trauma. It is a stylistic flourish that prefigures his music-video aesthetic that will erupt in the coming eighties.
As much as Paradise Alley is Stallone’s attempt to dominate a version of Rocky that he was somewhat side-lined for, the deliberate choice to re-engage with the themes and plot of his star-making movie cause Paradise Alley to diminish in its light. Much of Stallone’ appeal comes from his extraordinary physicality, and placing himself in a supporting role in this regard, means the film loses much of his potential appeal. Rocky II will be in some ways a correction of this fault. Sometimes we expect too much for our directors; certainly, neither Scorsese, Coppola or Friedkin’s first films are masterpieces. But actors have a significant advantage over directors; they are able to observe a number of people at work, and adopt the practices that work, and disregard those that don’t. Paradise Alley is no masterpiece, but it gives an indication of the visual tools that Stallone will employ throughout his directorial career.
The next film produced in the series was Justin Lin’s first contribution, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006), but gluttony, and a love of Sung Kang’s Han Seoul-Oh character, meant that the following film in the franchise (which featured the return of Vin Diesel), was set chronologically before it. It gets increasingly entertaining to see the various heavy-handed mentions of Han going to Tokyo as they began to fit more and more films into this gap. It’s a bit like Narnia in the regard. Because I’m a masochist, I’ve decided to watch the series in chronological order, rather than production order.
But before we reach the next entry… a short film directed by Vin Diesel!
So Dom goes to the Dom(inican Republican). For a star who has relied on his racial ambiguity, it is curious that Los Bandoleros begins to tie Vin Diesel to a specific heritage. It doesn’t end there; the small touches of previous films begin to be reasserted as character traits. Meal times (a hugely pleasurable thing to watch – Hollywood neglects the vicarious thrill of watching people eat because of its industrial-strength eating disorders), Catholicism, the family unit, are all promoted to the forefront. At the same time, the series begins to recede in its use of its initial hook, that of street racing. Much like how the series has re-orientated characters in the past, it now begins to re-orientate the very texture of the film itself.
Eradicated from the previous movie, Los Bandoleros exists to reintroduce Vin Diesel’s superiority within the franchise. The twenty minute runtime is little more than an extended visual bon-mot for Toretto. Whilst Dom is sexualised (he openly flirts with several women) in a way that is quite unbecoming of his character, he is ultimately reigned in (and outshone in performance) by Michelle Rodriguez’s Letty. Little more than a supporting character in the first film, Los Bandoleros recognises the captivating intelligence of Rodriguez – one of the great, occasionally dangerous, screen presences of the modern era. The Fast and the Furious franchise relies on subtle shifts in character; histories are constantly rewritten and fresh explanations for behaviour are given for actions in each film. Dom and Letty become a wild, passionate romance… for no reason other than they are two attractive, compelling stars.
With his leap into directing, and his assertive dominance over the franchise through his role as a producer, Vin Diesel moves closer to adopting the career of Sylvester Stallone. Like Stallone, Diesel is a hyper-naturalistic, gravelly-voiced actor who relies on the sweaty thrill of the audience gazing at his body. Diesel begins to create a cinematic identity that is similar to Stallone’s too; conforming to a very specific paternal form of masculinity, where his character is unquestionably adored by the supporting cast.
Whilst the short films in the franchise have always been more visually adventurous than the main series, Los Bandoleros has some pretensions of documentary realism… if that documentary was some Jamie Oliver food tourism nonsense. Admirably, the dialogue is subtitled for much of the running time, but ultimately the short film is an elaborate set-up for the next entry in the series, with some rather reductive arthouse pretensions.
The beauty of film is that it is alive. You can watch dance sequences from The Band Wagon (1953 – Vincente Minnelli) featuring Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse, two performers both long since deceased, and feel that there is a vitality and life on screen more vivid than anything physically beside you in the room. Like all great texts, films morph and change each time you see them; not because they have altered in any way, but because you bring new obsessions and perversions and observations to the viewing process as you get older.
The Matrix is one such film for me. It’s not a film I am particularly fond of, but the memories I have of it are immediate. I remember seeing the trailer for it with my first girlfriend before some terrible Adam Sandler comedy – I wanted to see it, but to my shame then, which in the intervening years has turned to pride, we saw eXistenZ (1999 – David Cronenberg) instead. My first viewing of it came on VHS on a small telly we wheeled into our classroom at school over three successive lunchtimes. It blew my mind. After seeing the sequels at university (one in IMAX) I rewatched the first film on DVD and openly ridiculed it, laughing at the preposterousness of lines such as “No, officer your men are already dead.” Years later, I revisited the series on BLU-RAY hoping to find a redemptive reading – whilst I was entertained, one significant issue stuck in my formatively (and supposedly) progressive mind. And now I see it again, hoping to find links and patterns I have never seen before.
I wanted to write this project as a chance to look at some of the films that affected me profoundly and talk about the vitality and depth of interest to be found in an oft-derided genre. Nothing best exemplifies this, than when looking at The Matrix.
Keanu Reeves was now a star. But stars occupy a precarious place in the world. Directors are allowed to make bad films. Stars are not. If one of his films failed, Keanu would be blamed – and for an actor whose skill and talent were not immediately visible in his choice of style of acting, this was a dangerous place to be in. It was, as indeed it still is, very easy to say that Keanu can’t act. He was continuing to balance performances in big budget action flicks – the underwhelming Chain Reaction (1996 – Andrew Davis) and Johnny Mnemonic (1995 – Robert Longo), a film which is thematically similar to The Matrix, indicating the specific interests of Reeves – and smaller independent movies. But where previously he was starring in movies made by Gus Van Sant, Reeves was now working with insubstantial nobodies such as Alfonso Arau and Steven Baigelman, names that feel suspiciously close to pseudonyms. Movie stars always need hits, but Reeves needed a hit sooner rather than later.
One of the extraordinary features of The Matrix is that it is perilously close to a first film by The Wachowskis. Siblings Lana and Lilly had only one screenwriting credit to their name – the convoluted Sylvester Stallone vehicle Assassins (1995 – Richard Donner) – and one directorial credit, the supposedly salacious neo noir Bound (1996). Bound isn’t an essential film by any stretch of the imagination, and its success could be in part due to the fact that it was released before widespread use of the internet made access to sex a whole lot easier. It is usefully progressive in its depiction of gay relationships – we’re currently patting ourselves on the back for paying lip-service to them is such dross as Power Rangers (2017 – Dean Israelite) – but Bound is remarkable is its representation and honest depiction of the closets that we all hide in.
But nothing found in Bound could prepare the world for what was coming next…
One of the uncommented upon features of The Matrix, is that it features the death of subtext. From now on (and the work of Christopher Nolan is essential to this phenomenon) movies will have characters explain the themes of the film through lines of dialogue. As movie makers grew ever more confident in the audience’s ability to patch together a stream of quickly edited visual images, they grew less confident to trust them to reflect on the ideas of the film afterwards. In The Matrix there will be a lot of discussions about ‘truth’ and ‘reality’. This has the same authenticity as any evangelical church preaching the truth – it will provide a degree of insight into some of the predicaments of society and existence, but the answers they provide will be just as false as the lies they suppose to discount. At times, The Matrix can have the slight air of being caught in a tedious conversation with a stranger at a pub; they’re very insistent on explaining to you some idea or other, but you just want to get back to your friends.
(Who am I kidding – I’m the tedious stranger.)
So despite the occasional sophomoric lecture that bogs down this film – and make no mistake, The Matrix is a film that features as much exposition as it does action – the true pleasures of the film are not vocal, but visual. The Matrix transforms the caricatured biker, black-leather culture that was seen in the early nineties, into a genuine outsider community. For the most part, the heroes of the film are a counter-culture that isn’t actually very counter-cultural; they still adopt the same social restrictions and norms that exist within society. But isn’t that true of any counter-culture – ultimately they operate within a state of capitalist realism. Even Keanu Reeve’s discomforting, alien, hairless appearance when he awakes in the real world is discarded in favour of a form of fashion magazine anorexic-chic.
In amongst the black leather and gun straps (none of which are used to explore ideas of bondage), the movie cleverly adopts a vivid green light strategy. Oft unseen in cinema, it lends a level of unreality to proceedings, and firmly harkens back to those early computer monitors we all had. Whilst The Matrix, seeks to adopt a level of futurism, most of its production design choices refer back to an industrial age. Theirs is the technology of phone lines and hand pumps. It is neither fortunate or unfortunate that all realism within sci-fi films is heavily influenced by Alien (1979 – Ridley Scott); if something ‘space-y’ needs to look used and lived in, it must be grimy and greasy and consist mainly of metal grills.
If some of these paragraphs read like criticisms, they’re not meant to be. The sins of this film (primarily I wrote in my notes ‘I don’t think Morpheus has actually read Alice in Wonderland’) are no greater than those of any other action movie. They all think they are more clever than they actually are. Human history has not actually always been dependent on machines as the movie states (this is only a relatively recent feature of humanity – see childbirth rates etc.)
The Wachowskis took a genuinely innovative visual approach and hung it onto the Skynet plot from Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991 – James Cameron) – artificial intelligence gains sentience and mankind tries, largely unsuccessfully, to eliminate it from existence. (Much of the floppy mirror CGI effects in the film also lives in the shadow of that hugely influential picture.) Like all the best action movies, The Wachowskis knew that the primary thrill of these films comes from their action sequences. This seems like stating the obvious, but any number of modern ‘action’ directors – Brett Ratner, Stephen Sommers et. al. – could do with understanding this. The Wachowskis fused the kung-fu films of their youth, the visual stylisations of John Woo, and cutting-edge visual technology, to create something truly special.
There is a moment three minutes into the film when you realise you are about to watch something extraordinary. Trinity hangs motionless, poised in the air, like some gothic praying-mantis, and the camera swirls around her, before the action resumes, and she devastates her opponents. It is as if the orgasmic slow motion of Sam Peckinpah’s death scenes has been exploded to the nth degree. In addition to some extraordinarily well-crafted fight scenes, the film employed a technique which allowed multiple stills cameras to fire in sequence around a performance – it was a technique so influential, so popular, that the general public learnt its name… ‘bullet time’. It was the perfect tool for action cinema as it entered the new millennium; it blended physical performance, new technology and computer-generated-imagery in a few stunning shots of ethereal delight. From this point onwards, a fist hitting a face would not be enough. We now expected our fights to have a greater impact than sheer physicality.
And one of the greatest beneficiaries of this was Keanu Reeves. He learnt all the lessons since Kathryn Bigelow had placed her trust in him. He became completely dedicated to choreography, martial arts and weapon training. Watching any training footage of him reveals him to be an utterly dangerous human being. Yet Keanu did not swagger. Subversively, he took all this physicality and kept it to himself. He never attempted to dominate others, or make another individual feel weak. The musclebound heroes of the early nineties (and of today’s cinema) are all about assertiveness. But for a few brief years at the turn of the century, Reeves pioneered a new vision of masculinity; one of dedication, tolerance and peace.
Despite the complete showiness of the film – and there are moments of pure gorgeousness within the film (such as the apple-core pillars in the aftermath of the tower-block lobby battle) – occasionally the film displays some duff notes. I’m sure there is a more interesting non-gendered reading of the film to be made, but for my money, the film completely mishandles its female lead. Initially, Trinity is presented as a woman of capability and agency. She is a stylised and amped-up version of Lori Petty in Point Break (1991 – Kathryn Bigelow) all cropped hair and emotional reserve, and as such, both textually and sub-textually coded as queer. ‘I thought you were a guy,’ comments one of her crew mates to her at dinner, ‘most people do,’ is her response.
But Trinity’s agency is lessened within the final moments of the film. Her assertiveness and belief in others is revealed to be centred upon an infatuation with Neo – a man with whom she has spent very little time. It is an infatuation based almost solely upon inconsequential actions. By making her pivotal moment in the film to be one of physical attraction to a man, The Wachowskis dilute the determination and resilience they had previously imbibed the character with.
So The Matix is a long way from perfect film. It textually has a lot less going on than it thinks it has. It could do with having taken a few more minutes reflecting on its use of women before concentrating so much on its revelations of truth (a criticism that seems equally valid for Christopher Nolan and his endless stream of dead wives and girlfriends). But as a visually pleasurable movie; as a movie which is enjoyable to watch… The Matrix is wonderful. And too often we forget, or through our own self-loathing and pretentiousness deny, that that is what good cinema is all about. Enjoyment.
As action cinema entered the twenty-first century, The Matrix proved to be the defining text. The clear visuals of the film were easily pastiched (see the not-completely-worthless Scary Movie 2 (2001 – Keenan Ivory Wayans)), but the dystopian, leather-clad aesthetic, and bullet time style effects became de rigueur in cinema. X-Men (2000 – Bryan Singer), Charlie’s Angels (2000 – McG), Equilibrium (2002 – Kurt Wimmer), Underworld (2003 – Len Wiseman), Aeon Flux (2005 – Karyn Kusama) and season finales of Buffy the Vampire Slayer are amongst a handful of media directly ripping-off The Matrix one way or another. It goes without saying that they are all diluted versions of the original film. More widely, the use of CGI for action scenes became prevalent. Ignoring the sheer physicality of The Wachowski’s work, studios became convinced that the signature action sequences of their films should be visualised, composed and composited within computers. Green screen work was now standard. The early 2000s feature a dearth of decent action films, such was the genres reliance on flimsy, ineffectual computer generated imagery. It would take the arrival of The Bourne Supremacy (2004 – Paul Greengrass) to convince filmmakers that physical action, and talented second-unit action directors, were valuable and necessary to a film’s success.
Keanu was once again a superstar… but little consideration was given to his talents by the cognoscenti. He continued to work steadily in and around the action genre in the years since The Matrix’s release. There are worthy films made in these years – Constantine (2005 – Francis Lawrence) is particularly pleasurable – but like Nicolas Cage, Keanu’s distinct talents seem destined to be underappreciated throughout his career. Whilst lesser actors are given their ‘McConaissance’ periods, Reeves seems to be stuck with a wooden perception. Not that it seems to have bothered him; if anything, he has knuckled down into his naturalistic, calm screen presence. John Wick (2014 – Chad Stahelski & David Leitch) featured Reeves as the titular hero (with a similar dress-sense and demeanour to Neo), and allowed him the opportunity to demonstrate that his physicality was as impressive as ever, even though he was pushing fifty. No longer was he Bill and/or Ted proving himself in an unfamiliar genre.
Quite deliberately, I’ve chosen to not mention the two Matrix sequels he appeared in directed by The Wachowskis. The Matrix Reloaded (2003) and The Matrix Revolutions (2003) were filmed back-to-back, and are largely disappointing. Portentous and overlong, they sought to accelerate The Wachowski’s live-action anime style. Whilst they both feature some decent action sequences (the second film’s motorway sequence holds up pretty well, even if it is obviously filmed of a manufactured stretch of set) they add little to the enormous thrill that we all felt when we saw the first film. With the major studio’s timidity towards new ideas, it is little surprise to hear that they are talking about making another sequel in the years to come…
Of more interest is The Wachowski’s choice of projects in the subsequent years. Delving deep into their thematic exploration of individuals coming to recognise their own true identity, they crafted three wildly differing pictures. Speed Racer (2008) is a vividly colourful, almost video game aesthetic movie, which underlines the evils of capitalism. Where most films seek to deny their roots (think of how the contemporaneous Slumdog Millionaire (2008 – Danny Boyle) is almost ashamed that it is based on a television gameshow), Speed Racer embraced its cartoon origins is a hyperkinetic family film. Heavily indebted to George Lucas’ distinct visual mise-en-scene developed across his Star Wars prequels, Speed Racer blends deep focus CGI backgrounds, physical props and extraordinary matte paintings within single scenes, using whatever was necessary in each shot. It creates a true fantasy world, quite unlike the one we are used to. Jupiter Ascending (2015) is more of an action picture, but one that gets bogged down in pointlessly dull exposition scenes. There is a strong coherence to the action sequences, but they carry little weight, as it is tremendously hard to stay invested in the plot mechanics of the film.
Both films were critically and commercially disappointing. As was their other film made in this period, Cloud Atlas (2012). Whilst that is a somewhat understandable response to the other films, Cloud Atlas (which was co-directed with Tom Tykwer) is a small masterpiece. It is a beautiful, beguiling films, that is a masterpiece of narrative editing, such is its dedication to cross-cutting across timelines with related lines of dialogue or images. Whilst committed to a presentation of extraordinary racial and gender politics, the film seemed curiously ignorant of the fact that having white actors ‘black-up’ is a highly-politicized act. The argument was made that all actors play character of different races, regardless of their given skin tone, but this ignores the fact that the majority of the cast identify as white (and male), so true equality seems impossible. Regardless of this, it is a film of extraordinary scope and imagination, and it deserves further exploration.
For a brief moment at the end of the twentieth century, it seemed that action cinema had found a way forward. It was able to subtly incorporated new computer technology and had found heroes that stepped outside the previously prevalent toxic depictions of masculinity.