“I thought it delivered, but could have 20 minutes of air cut from it,” I told a local filmmaker after stepping out of a franchise blockbuster.
“Try 40 minutes,” he replied. “But I loved some of it.”
Let me split the difference with Jason Eisener. Furious 6 is thirty minutes too long. And it’s not like Furious 6 (that’s the title in the credits, and it’s what I’m calling it), at 130 minutes, is demanding some unheard of level of posterior numbness. It’s merely longer than it’s capable of handling (the movie, not your butt). Those extra 30 minutes don’t make it more impactful or epic. They dilute a seriously badass 100-minute, character-driven action film.
This indulgence isn’t a rarity. More and more, tentpole releases equate length with impact and importance.
First off, I’m a fan of the Fast/Furious series. I like that it takes itself seriously within a disreputable Roger Corman-inspired genre to the point where it’s still fun but also believes in itself. I like that every new action scene tries to outdo the last. I’ve come to care about the soap opera moments and retcon fan service. Stars Vin Diesel and Paul Walker barely show up in other movies anymore, but when they show up here, they feel like the biggest stars on Earth. I like that Detective Hobbs, played by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, is visibly and continuously perspiring through these movies, while no one else breaks a sweat, and it’s an unremarked upon character detail.
The series itself plays as an underdog story. Remember that the original film was expected to be buried in the summer of 2001 by the Sylvester Stallone/Renny Harlin racing movie Driven, a film nobody has seen post-Agent Cody Banks 2. Furious 6 was my most anticipated sequel this year, along with Riddick. (I wanted to include the fourth Mad Max film on that list so it doesn’t just seem like I’m in love with Vin Diesel, but I guess that isn’t until 2014. Oh well.)
Furious 6 knows itself and its audience very well, and plays to it hard. But the missing word “fast” in the onscreen title might count for something. It could stand to have the fat trimmed off it and be more aerodynamic.
The number one complaint talented filmmakers make about other films and film critics (and, let’s not fake politeness, about audiences, too) is that they have little understanding of how movies work visually. It makes some sense. If you’re a critic, you’re a writer, and are used to thinking verbally. And it’s rare, or just takes effort, to get both brain areas working at once.
But what’s even more unremarked upon is the disregard of film rhythm.
Movies don’t exist just so you can rock out. But as a viewer, I need to be captured in their grooves. Hold the wrong notes for too long, and you lose the melody. Overdo it on sauce, and you drown the spaghetti.
The problem is most apparent in big movies that aspire to excitement. Michael Bay’s “small movie” (IE. it has no Transformers in it) Pain & Gain was another unwieldy one. It could have made a slick and nasty crime thriller at 90-minutes. At 129, it reached for too much and forfeit a point-of-view. Peter Jackson is the master at pro-mass anti-rhythm indulgence. His 2005 King Kong remake is twice as long as it needs to be, and then hit DVD in an even longer version. And extending The Hobbit, which is shorter than any individual Lord of the Rings book, to three parts and nine hours values length above all else.
Commercial prospects of course influence the way movies are paced. When DVD sales were still an important factor, comedies would be released in EXTREME AND UNCUT versions, which frequently translated to EXCESSIVE AND POORLY CUT versions. The “uncut” DVD of the terrific Dave Chappelle’s Block Party is so hastily assembled it actually repeats a scene. With comedy longer-is-better was routinely problematic, throwing the timing and momentum off in Judd Apatow’s already indulgent films. And those movies set the template. This summer’s big upcoming comedy hopefuls, the Sandra Bullock/Melissa McCarthy The Heat and the Vince Vaughn/Owen Wilson The Internship are both two hours, something studios would have frowned upon fifteen years ago.
There’s no place for expressions that land between short and feature length. A 50-minute movie (the ideal length of Spring Breakers) is hard to program for even a festival screening.
“Christopher Nolan has rhythms. You just don’t like his rhythms,” a friend explained about The Dark Knight Rises. There may be some truth to that. I can’t get with every beat. And I’m not asking every movie to do away with “slow parts.” I have nothing against movies that know what to do for three hours. I’m saying too many films are prioritizing their degree of content over sustaining interest through a flow of tightly assembled parallel and contrasting pieces. And the experience of these movies is suffering.
After the first Lord of the Rings movie caught the Christmas ’01 zeitgeist, other movie fantasies decided to whip it out and compare size. Real fatigue hit me at Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, a brilliant display of 2006 CG creature effects, and one of the most thoughtlessly paced major films ever. As the middle part in (what was once planned as only) a trilogy, it occurred to me that the story wasn’t going to complete itself, needn’t have any signposts toward resolution, and could conceivably keep piling on more whimsical pirate-stuff for an eternity. I lost my glasses on the way out of that screening, which is a strange thing to happen. I can only blame that film’s effect on my temporal-spatial reality.
I get it, movies are expensive to go see. But the bang-for-your-buck ideal has been poorly construed. People want movies that are mind-blowing experiences, that will allow them to visit the world of that film and partake in something enthralling. They don’t just want movies that will eat up the most of their time.
This isn’t an argument that every movie should feel like Detention. That was ADD by design, and the world needs its slow dance numbers, too.
In many ways, the ones outlined in the second major paragraph, Furious 6 is the most satisfying blockbuster so far this year. There are no scenes that should obviously be stripped from it. It’s just that many of them come with a lot of dead space. A mid-movie conversation in an auto-shop with Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) is spread over two rooms so that the same character follows her, gets her attention a second time, and continues the conversation he just started. A joke wherein Hobbs (The Rock) and Tej (Ludacris) partake in the comeuppance of a rich snob by requesting that he disrobe needs to be speedy, but the movie stops dead to display its comic wit.
I realize that our attention spans aren’t what they used to be. When The Exorcist opened in 1973, viewers weren’t sure if they saw or only imagined flashes of Satanic faces on screen. Today, our brains have been so warped and rewired by the pace of MuchMusic, MTV, video games and YouTube, it’s impossible not to clearly see those images. We can process more information than ever, and perhaps retain less of it. A youth-appeal movie like Furious 6 somehow understands this only on occasion.
Let’s just say I liked the movie enough that I wish it had the faith to be less generous. Quit delivering more of what no one needs, and find your tune.
Movies are music.