The most striking characteristic about this week’s two big summer sequel releases (the giddy actioneer Fast & Furious 6 and the dire comedy The Hangover Part III) is just how similar their aims are. Both take the previously established mythology of their series and use it as a shortcut toward audience sympathy and emotional closure for their characters. The key difference here is that we’ve been conditioned to care about the characters established in the Fast & Furious series whereas we’ve only been taught to laugh at the foibles of the Hangover characters, instead of empathize with them. The end result makes the former feel like a victory lap while the latter trudges along like a death march.
The furthest my praise can extend for The Hangover Part III is in my belief that it’s better than The Hangover Part II. However, this is like preferring second degree burns to third degree – the only difference being the length of time before the scars subside. Credit must be given to Todd Phillips and Craig Mazin for not attempting to yet again remake the plot of the immensely successful (and quite entertaining, it must be noted) first film and avoiding the “set it in Thailand and replace the baby with a monkey!” pratfalls of the initial sequel.
However, the decision to center the film on Ken Jeong’s Mr. Chow character evaporates any credit earned. Mr. Chow was a secret weapon of the first film, deployed stealthily in small bites to avoid overexposure. The second film started the process of over-utilizing the character, and this third installment immerses you in the world of this shrill, one-note character with very little in the way of reprieve. This is no slight against Jeong – a very gifted performed whose work on the NBC sitcom Community proves his ability to mine pathos out of maniacal idiocy – but instead a fault of a screenplay hell-bent on creating a full-circle feel where none is needed.
The original Hangover film was not a success because we cared deeply about what happened to Stu, Phil and Alan; it was instead a testament to the truly dangerous feel that anything could happen established by the premise and Sherlock Holmes-as-performed-by-drunken-louts structure that provided the film with its massive popularity. We don’t need to see Zach Galifianakis’ Alan find true love or Ed Helms’ Stu finally be respected as a doctor because there were never any emotional stakes for us to invest in from the outset. The fact that Bradley Cooper and Helms sleepwalk through the picture and are given nearly nothing to work with in the way of comedy certainly doesn’t help. Instead of embracing the characters’ sociopathic natures, we’re instead asked to hope for a happy ending which makes the entire final film feel toothless instead of recreating the “all bets are off” vibe that permeated the first installment.
Most disconcerting of all is the movie’s relatively cheap look. Even when Phillips has made films that can be considered less-than-stellar, you could always count on them being amongst the most gorgeously shot comedies of all-time. (Due Date and the two previous Hangovers are ridiculously handsome films, despite whatever shortcomings they may possess.) However, this film has a large amount of unconvincing and drab green screen work that feels part and parcel of the more systemic problems underlying the film. It’s a dire, dire enterprise that luckily appears to be over, at least until it’s rebooted in 2017.
But where the third Hangover fails in nearly ever regard, Furious 6 (as it’s called in its own opening credits) excels. You’ve grown to enjoy this extended family of characters and their specific moral code and Fast Five’s masterstroke of bringing all of the previous four film’s characters under one roof is continued here. And where the previous film became a meathead riff on an Ocean’s Eleven heist film, here the vibe is more decidedly A-Team by way of James Bond, with the team being brought together as a sort of globe-trotting mercenary squad to track down an international terrorist (Luke Evans) stealing components to build a suitably lethal MacGuffin worth billions and capable of bringing entire countries to their knees.
Justin Lin continues to expertly handle the ever-escalating action of the films to create exhilarating set piece after set piece. This time, he even takes a short break to harken back to the street racing roots of the first film. It’s a shame he won’t be returning to the director’s chair for the seventh installment; his deft and steady hand at staging all-out chaos is refreshing in an era of shaky-cam and incoherent action geography. The cast all has easy-going chemistry with one another: Paul Walker and Vin Diesel’s relationship and bro code ethics and the emotional backbone of Brian O’Connor and Dom Toretto. Diesel in particular does fine work mining pathos out of the soap operatics surrounding his reunion with the long-thought-dead Letty (Michelle Rodriguez). Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson continues to glisten his way through the film as Agent Hobbs and has been an immensely valuable asset in selling the ever-increasing stakes of the films (from stolen electronics in the first film to a dirty bomb in the sixth, it’s safe to say that the scope of these films has slightly widened), this time bringing along MMA star Gina Carano (Haywire) to add even a little more ass-kicking bonafides to the film’s resume.
I don’t know that we’ll ever see a series quite like the Fast & the Furious ever again, hitting its stride with its fifth and sixth entries, but we’ve reached a point where a Vin Diesel and Paul Walker summer tentpole, which has no right to be as entertaining as it is, remains the most reliable bet in terms of summer entertainment. I despise the use of the phrase “turn your brain off” when used with regards to summer cinema – what you’re describing is called a coma. The films themselves should be doing the work to make us buy into their premise and characters; we shouldn’t have to run our brains in a computerized “safe mode” in order to be satisfied. And while Furious 6 won’t be joining MENSA anytime soon – with its Looney Tunes action physics and multiple scenes of Corona-soaked bro-downs – it didn’t insult my intelligence and kept me entertained and enthralled throughout. This is much more than can be said of The Hangover Part III and its strained attempts at creating a similar bond between film and audience.