It had to happen eventually. Hollywood, or more accurately the half-dozen or so studios that make up the majority of its output, has seemingly realized that there might, just might, be more to life than turning every comic book that’s ever been doodled into a vacuous, overwrought blockbuster. The sixth installment of the Fast & Furious franchise is out this week. It will be a vacuous, overwrought blockbuster, too – but the right kind. And it could represent the rebirth of action cinema.
I say ‘could’, because it needs to make a giant pile of money first – and that’s why you need to go and watch it. Don’t go begrudgingly, though. If it’s anything like its predecessor, it promises to be an awesome, hair-raising mixture of preposterous car stunts, oiled muscly bodies and random bouts of artillery fire. And for some of us, that’s what cinema is all about.
The idea of the straight-up action blockbuster has died a death. By my reckoning, the last time it was taken seriously was in 2003, when a pre-Transformers Michael Bay was allowed to spend a small fortune on the superb Bad Boys sequel. Since then, summer ‘tentpole’ flicks have looked to the geeky, spotty world of the comic book (or, shudder, the ‘graphic novel’) for inspiration. Our big screen heroes have become intergalactic beings, or lonely nerds endowed with special powers, or fucking Norse Gods.
These sorts of movies have a massive audience but it doesn’t mean they’re for everyone. If you’re the sort of person who grew up watching Arnie punch his way through Walter Hill’s Red Heat, or Danny Glover trying to take a nervous shit in Lethal Weapon 2, then you might have been crying out for movie heroes of the more down-to-earth variety. People who don’t need superhero powers to be superheroic; people who can drive fast, hit hard and shoot straight without the assistance of the yellow Sun of the Earth.
Some will argue that the action genre is alive and well. Liam Neeson’s Taken, for instance, famously ran off with $226m at the global box office from its $25m budget; the sequel did similar business. Jason Statham has been churning out no-fuss actioners for years, and 2013 has already seen Schwarzenegger’s Last Stand, Sylvester Stallone’s Bullet to the Head and Bruce Willis’ A Good Day to Die Hard.
Yet when were these films released? Not during the summer months. Taken debuted on Jan 30, The Last Stand on Jan 18, Bullet to the Head on February 1 and A Good Day to Die Hard on Valentine’s Day. (Choosing the latter is Hollywood’s way of saying ‘only sad, single people like these sorts of movies’.) The films are being buried, squeezed between autumn’s Oscar hopefuls and the comic book-strewn summer, which, like the English cricket season, now seems to run from April to September.
Huzzah then for Universal Pictures, the major studio that, for some reason or another, hasn’t managed to get its mitts on a comic book franchise and is forced to offer something else instead. A decade ago it was raiding its own horror-tinged catalogue and demanding financial success from the likes of The Mummy and Van Helsing. But with that plan fangs up, and rival majors Warner Bros (Batman, Superman), Sony Pictures (Spider-Man), Fox (X-Men) and Disney (Avengers Assemble) counting the spandex-suited cash, the Universal brass has, basically, said ‘Sod it’, thrown director Justin Lin an enormous budget, and asked him to serve up a 130-minute old-school testosterone-fest that it can stake its summer profits on. Just to add to the charm, Jason Statham’s in it.
With Hollywood’s creative nous simply extending to finding a trend that makes money and riding it out until it doesn’t, fans of bullet-strewn, automobile-crammed movie-making can be assured that if Fast & Furious 6 succeeds, more films of its ilk will follow. And I don’t just mean Fast & Furious 7.
Ten years of silly films about silly people in silly costumes is enough. It’s time for cinema to grow a pair. Starting this weekend.
Fast & Furious 6 is released in the UK on Friday 17 May.