The return of Vin Diesel and Paul Walker in the fourth The Fast And The Furious film - Fast & Furious - was never seen as a guarantee of success at the box office. Tokyo Drift, the third in the series, had underperformed and many viewed Universal’s fourth movie as too late to salvage the franchise.
But Fast & Furious, which the studio had been building with a clever trailer that condensed the opening heist sequence, didn’t just reignite the franchise when it opened worldwide earlier this month - it exploded it. The film has grossed $281m in just three weekends, numbers that already make it the biggest hit of the series so far.
Ask any critic who reviewed the movie before its release and, not surprisingly, few liked it. The reviews slammed the banal story, hackneyed characterisation and cynical rehashing of earlier elements from the series.
But ask any young audience member who paid to see it, and they will tell you it was the very familiarity of these characters and situations that they loved. Aside from a brace of well-choreographed new car-chase sequences, the film basically reconfigured the first film in the franchise, with Diesel’s brutishly cool Dominic Toretto character making all the same moves. Hell, the title was virtually identical.
This yawning gap between critics and audiences is partly why film critics are almost redundant in the marketing of studio blockbusters these days. Critics tend to seek out the original and imaginative, but to do so in these films is missing the point.
Mainstream audiences want to watch the same again, they positively embrace repackages of what they’ve seen before. In a climate of financial uncertainty and plentiful anxiety, the notion of seeing Diesel and Walker racing streetcars again in Los Angeles is reassuring to many millions of people.
It’s easy to scoff at what works with the multiplex audience these days. I am still stunned at the success last year of Mamma Mia! The Movie to which I gave a poor review in the pages of Screen. I knew it would be a hit, but I never conceived it would catch fire the way it did, nor how young and old alike would overlook its flaws and embrace its spirit of fun.
My mistake. Art is not the purpose. For Universal and all the studios, the key is to deliver existing or well-known properties and talent in a slick new wrapping that can be marketed as effectively to as wide an audience as is imaginable. The industry term is a ‘four-quadrant’ film: young, old, men, women. Critics may scoff, European film-makers may scream “Quelle horreur!”, but that’s the reality of today’s industry and audiences - worldwide.
Whether Hollywood has created these audience tastes or whether the audience dictates what it wants to see is anyone’s guess. Of course, there are still niche audience pockets for smart and daring cinema, but mainstream film-goers are increasingly hungry for recycled tentpoles. They even appear to be forsaking classy star vehicles recently such as Duplicity and State Of Play, which opened last weekend on $10m less than a Zac Efron body-swap comedy.
Perhaps it’s about knowing what you’re going to get. If they are going to leave the house and pay for a movie ticket, average movie-goers tend to seek out the comfort of recycled stories and characters, sequels and remakes and all the cliches they entail. And they don’t care one bit if The New York Times critic advises against it. They wouldn’t agree anyway.
So with Fast & Furious already off the starting grid and notching up millions, critics might do well to take the summer off while paying customers stand in line for more Terminator, Transformers, Harry Potter, Night At The Museum, X-Men and Ice Age, for the second Robert Langdon movie Angels & Demons and big-budget revamps of Star Trek and Land Of The Lost.
These films may not win the Palme d’Or, but they sell a lot of popcorn and ultimately keep us all in business.