In a different reality, we’d be in the midst of Hollywood’s epic summer season, enjoying the nearly weekly unveiling of a major event movie, including much-anticipated sequels (Wonder Woman 1984) and the improbable return of Tom Cruise’s beloved 1980s hotshot (Top Gun: Maverick). Instead, you’re cooped up trying to figure out what to watch while not going stir-crazy.
This is where we come in. On a regular basis, we’ll be presenting “The Replacements”: a list of five alternative choices for every big tentpole you’d been excited to see before COVID-19 changed our lives. We’ll select movies that are thematically or narratively similar to the postponed blockbuster, offering picks that range from certifiable classics to forgotten gems. For the time being, event movies are on hold. But hopefully our alternatives will scratch that cinematic itch.
This week: F9, the latest in the Fast & Furious saga, which brings back most of your favorites, except for Hobbs and Shaw. This wonderfully over-the-top franchise has some new surprises in store with this ninth chapter, chief among them that Vin Diesel’s Dom … has a brother (John Cena) who has teamed up with Charlize Theron’s still ridiculously named Cipher to bring down the crew. Will there be more incredible car chases and action sequences? Sure looks like it. Will there finally be justice for Han? Apparently so! We won’t get F9 until next April, but in the meantime, let us recommend five replacements — including some other hot-rod extravaganzas and a forgotten Diesel drama.
The Italian Job (1969)
It would have been easy enough to recommend the hit 2003 remake, which, like F9, features Charlize Theron. But the original is such a stylish 1960s British crime film that it gets the nod. One of the all-time great heist movies, The Italian Job understood that pulling off the perfect robbery wasn’t enough — it had to be executed with flair. From Quincy Jones’s summery jazz score to the crew’s elegant threads, Michael Caine and his partners are decked out in endless cool as they steal a bunch of gold bullion. And director Peter Collinson knew how to make escapism smart. “I want my movies to be fun to watch because they challenge their audiences to keep up,” he said in 1967. “Audiences aren’t as stupid as many people believe.” In our dumbed-down blockbuster culture, The Italian Job is even more of a bright light.
Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981)
We’re going to assume you’ve seen Fury Road, yet another film that co-stars Theron, so we’ll instead pay tribute to what might still be the best Mad Max installment. In The Road Warrior, our beloved postapocalyptic anti-hero is still reeling from the death of his family in 1979’s Mad Max, and while he thinks there’s nothing left worth caring about, he’ll help a group of brave souls trying to transport an oil tanker across dangerous terrain full of marauding punks. As mind-blowing as Fury Road is, at least we’d had a precedent for how gonzo fearless an action filmmaker George Miller was — and that precedent is this audacious extravaganza of cars and carnage. Trust us, in the early 1980s, nobody had ever seen sequences as bravura and insane as what The Road Warrior unleashed upon us. Is it hard to separate Mel Gibson’s personal behavior from his iconic role as this wasteland cowboy? Sure, but at least his stoic warrior doesn’t actually talk that much.
Find Me Guilty (2006)
Famous mostly for being the strange movie that got a little bit too much screen time on the night Sidney Lumet received his honorary Academy Award — it sure fit in awkwardly in the clip reel alongside masterpieces like Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon — Find Me Guilty was the New York master’s penultimate movie, right before his much more heralded Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. Find Me Guilty isn’t nearly as good, but it certainly has its moments, and it features a compelling performance from Vin Diesel as a lunkheaded lower-level mobster who represents himself in court in order to avoid ratting out his friends and associates. Diesel wears a ridiculous wig, but it sort of fits the character, who isn’t the smartest or savviest guy, but has a fundamental goodness to him, even if it ultimately does him more harm than good. This was during that brief moment when Diesel was trying to use his action fame to play “serious” parts, and while that period didn’t last long, this underrated curiosity is quietly one of his best performances. The wig still looks terrible, though.
Death Proof (2007)
The Fast & Furious series has become a multibillion-dollar franchise because of how far it’s willing to push the envelope on car-chase lunacy, using computers liberally to go as extreme as possible. (Let us not forget the time when cars jumped from one skyscraper to another.) But Quentin Tarantino’s half of the infamously financially unsuccessful Grindhouse film is much more lo-fi, an ode to Hal Needham’s practical stunt work from the ’70s. This was a mode Tarantino hadn’t worked much in — stripped down, old-school action — and while Death Proof still has its long, wordy, indulgent periods, its two set pieces (one successful attack by Kurt Russell’s Stuntman Mike and one … less successful attack), well, they’re still jaw-droppers 13 years later. There’s value in the Fast & Furious approach. But we’ll always side with Tarantino’s more down-and-dirty style.
An unconventional documentary biography of late Brazilian auto racer Ayrton Senna, Senna features no narration, no interviews, and no attempts to get inside the head of its famously charismatic and thrill-seeking subject. What it does have, though, is some of the most incredible Formula One footage, often from Senna’s car, and it makes racing look like maybe the most terrifying sport imaginable. It’s also incredibly exciting, and the footage tells us so much more about why Senna was the way he was than any sort of psychological guesswork. The Fast & Furious movies push reality past its breaking point, but Senna shows how breathtaking the real deal truly is.