"Final Destination 5" isn't 'final' but bloody fun

Final Destination 5 (2011) 
92 min., rated R.
Grade: B

There was nothing "final" about 2009's nonsensically titled "The Final Destination," so death comes knocking a fifth time in "Final Destination 5," which surprisingly doesn't turn out to be just diminishing returns. What do you know that it took five movies for the filmmakers to finally give some sort of "finality" to this cleverer-than-most modern horror franchise. Unlike the exhausted "Saw" series, the "Final Destination" movies actually make death a laughing matter with gasps and giggles in equal measure. No spoiler there—a lot of people die, maybe even everyone (!), but there is undeniable suspense in how these people will die, not who dies, and the pay-offs are quick yet brutal. Yes, the formula of each entry in the progressively ludicrous, mechanical franchise is like a broken record: One character boards a plane/roller coaster/etc. and experiences a premonition (for no reason) of a disaster on that plane/roller coaster/etc., then becomes a survivor along with a few others, only to regret it later as Death feels cheated. 

This time, instead of teenagers, it's a group of employees from a paper company called Presage (Get it?) on a bus for a team-building business retreat. Sam (Nicholas D'Agosto) has a coincidental vision of the impending disaster: the bus stops on a long suspension bridge, the whole structure collapses, and dozens drown/impaled and killed. But before the actual accident, Sam gets himself and seven co-workers off the bus and bridge. They were supposed to die on that bridge, so Mr. Death stalks these human shish kebabs without any escape. Will a single soul make it to the end credits?

"Final Destination 5" should have been "The Final Destination," as this one also uses 3-D but actually reaches a rewarding destination. Whether or not you shell out the premium charge for 3-D, the opening credits call the first three "Friday the 13th" movies to mind, throwing shards of glass at you. Up until the carnage on the bridge, the setup is tedious and perfunctory when it comes to so-called character development: Nice guy with dreams (D'Agosto) gets dumped by girlfriend (Emma Bell), the workplace sleaze (P.J. Byrne) gets all of his conquests confused, the intern (Ellen Wroe) is sleeping with the nice guy with dream's friend (Miles Fisher), and the boss (David Koechner) who doesn't remember anyone's name. Screenwriter Eric Heisserer (the "Nightmare on Elm Street" remake and the upcoming remake "The Thing") at least tried. Little details act as foreboding and foreshadowing, such as one character saying "It's gonna be a good day," the bus stairs' sign reading "Watch your step," and Kansas' song "Dust in the Wind" playing on the radio. The bridge-collapse sequence itself is right up there with the 2000 original's plane explosion and the 2003 sequel's highway accident. It's writ large and pretty spectacular. 

Steven Quale, who co-directed James Cameron's 2005 documentary "Aliens of the Deep," is the conductor of this morbidly entertaining chain-reaction ride of amusing close calls and nasty surprises. The bread-and-butter death scenarios thrive on our fears, staged with a tense, jokey sleight of hand that gets us giggling through our shock. With a gymnast losing her good-luck-charm bracelet, there's an armrest-grabbing gymnastics routine gone wrong. One guy checks into an Asian spa and gets acupuncture but doesn't check out. Also, anyone thinking of getting LASIK eye surgery will rethink the process. To cap it all off, the full-circle twist conclusion is a real doozy that doesn't cheat. Just for fun, there's a pre-ending-credit montage of all the previous body-count kills. 

The cast dies but they make more of an impression than the previous entry and survive from some very clunky dialogue. D'Agosto, as Sam, is one of the more engaging leads since Devon Sawa. Bell underplays it as his girlfriend, Molly. Completely overacting is Fisher, who looks and sounds like Tom Cruise, playing Sam's close buddy Peter. TV soap star Jacqueline MacInnes Wood has the most spice as Olivia, the bad girl with bad eyesight. Tony "Candyman" Todd returns, from the first two films, as omnipresent coroner William Bludworth, but he's never been put to use beyond expository reasons. Featuring some of the more memorably cringe-inducing kills, "Final Destination 5" is as atmospheric as the original with less of the tawdry-fun tone of #2 and #4. If this is the mindless modern horror Hollywood is bound to keep on making, we'll take it over any more Jigsaw shenanigans. Life is too short to not just go to the cinema and see a bunch of attractive young people become chopped liver.

Final Destination (2000)
98 min., rated R.
Grade: B +

What's scarier than a maniac in a mask stalking and killing off teenagers? Why, the Grim Reaper of course! Or, the supernatural form of Death that is. Before taking off on a class trip to Paris, ordinary 17-year-old Alex Browning (Devon Sawa, a relatable hero), with having a vivid premonition, predicts the plane will explode after takeoff. Temporary clairvoyance? Causing a commotion, Alex, along with five other students (Ali Larter, Chad Donella, Seann William Scott, Kerr Smith, Amanda Detmer) and a teacher (Kristen Cloke), get off the plane. By cheating death, each person gets killed in the same order they originally were supposed to die. They meet their maker by oncoming buses and trains, a clothesline, and . . . John Denver (who died in a plane crash himself)? When your number's up, it's up. 

Tapping into the fear of death from mundane activities, like using nose clippers, "Final Destination" is a surprising, stylishly foreboding “Twilight Zone” twist on standard teenage-slasher fodder that's more thoughtful and fun. As if the setup's Doomed Plane wasn't already convincingly realized and anxiety-filled enough, the characters' sendoffs are creative, absolutely bonkers freak accidents cloaked in ominous dread and designed by a bad, bad Rube Goldberg. Excuse the cliché, but the movie kicks off with a bang and puts its hooks in your heart like a roller coaster ride should. Writer-director James Wong's ludicrous, if clever, premise (co-written with "X-Files" partner/producer Glen Morgan and Jeffrey Reddick) takes its horror formula seriously but not without some smarts and a macabre sense of tongue firmly planted in cheek. Tautly directed by Wong (this being his debut), the deaths are sneakily inventive and intensely staged, with the suspense coming not from who is going to die (the artsy loner? the jerky jock?) but how he or she will die (lit on fire or impaled?). 

A plus is having the characters cutely named after directors and stars of black/white horror movies, including Lon Chaney, George Waggner, Tod Browning, Alfred Hitchcock, and Val Lewton. "Candyman" star Tony Todd gives a fun cameo as an undertaker named Bludworth, but his role is strictly for exposition about "Death's sadistic design." Though painting itself into a corner a bit as the coda ends up a cheat, "Final Destination" is welcome hope that the horror genre still has enough ideas and thrills to offer.

Final Destination 2 (2003)
102 min., rated R.
Grade: B -

A lotto-winning meathead is impaled with a fire-escape ladder. An unattended boy chokes on a ceiling mobile while sitting in the dentist's chair inhaling laughing gas. Excuse the spoilers, but "Final Destination 2" is strictly an exercise in seeing how inventive director David R. Ellis and the three writers can get when it comes to offing people in the most wildly improbable and gruesomely entertaining freak accidents. And there's nothing wrong with that, as this wholly unnecessary sequel to its 2000 predecessor is more of a tawdry, self-parodic hoot than a pallid copy. That's meant in the best way possible for a movie with a “2” at the end of its title. 

Following the anniversary of Flight 180 exploding on takeoff and the Grim Reaper dispatching its survivors thereafter in outlandish ways, Kimberly (A.J. Cook) now has a horrifying premonition. This time, it's of a highway pile-up that saves her and other strangers from the clutches of Death's list, and now believing they all cheated death, ominous signs are their only hope for surviving their early fates. Teasing us with cunning clues of foreshadowing (“Highway to Hell” plays on the radio, a little boy in a car pushes two toy trucks together), we get the most awesomely intense car wreck captured on film in recent memory. The chain reaction of gory, Rube Goldbergian money shots that succeeds the main set piece builds with doomsday suspense and a brisk pace, then sneaks up on us with ingeniously devious payoffs, ironic wit, and grossly nervous giggles. One character is thought to be killed by pigeons but then done in another way, or when another ashes a cigarette onto a fuel leak but we get a nasty delight with an airbag instead. 

Cook is likable enough to care about as heroine Kimberly; Keegan Connor Tracy plays off her acidic sense of humor as self-centered Kat; and Jonathan Cherry is weirdly funny as weed-headed slacker Rory. The only returnee from the first film is Ali Larter as survivor Clear Rivers, but her role is contrived; and Tony Todd gives another cute cameo as the mortuary coroner. While the original "Final Destination" was bloody and inventive, it also took itself seriously to make it scary and intelligent horror-hokum. On the other hand and to its credit, "FD2" is gorily amusing and sharply directed cheese that falls into a class of sorta-fun and sorta-stupid, ending on a morbidly funny punchline. 

Final Destination 3 (2006)
85 min., rated R.
Grade: B -

Numbers keep being added to "Final Destination" and more people keep dying. First it was an exploding plane. Then it was a massive highway pile-up. In "Final Destination 3," Wendy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is the self-proclaimed "control freak" high school senior who envisions a roller coaster accident, allowing herself and nine others to get off the ride, until sure enough the ride derails. Now, like in the trend of the first two films, the group of survivors repay for cheating Death ... and when their number is up, it's up. 

"Final Destination" may need an expiration date sooner than later, but this quick, amusingly gruesome in-name-only retread is a through-and-through guilty pleasure, directed by the original's James Wong and injected with a sly, devilish sense of humor to go with all the bloodletting. The roller-coaster set piece should've been a palm-sweater, but it's actually kind of murky and only sporadically thrilling through its 4-odd minute length. But for the third go-round (who's counting?), "Final Destination 3" relentlessly pumps out the outrageously elaborate, often brutal demises. The most memorable is between two blonde students, Ashley (Chelan Simmons) and Ashlyn (Crystal Lowe), who say the word “totally” like it's going out of style, burning to a crisp in a tanning bed. With "Love Rollercoaster" playing on the soundtrack, the scene wittily cuts to two caskets. 

Despite subtle clues, the blindsiding fashion in how the fatal blow will come takes us by surprise, with its most sneakily nasty one being with a nail gun, and others involving gym weights, harpoons, and a subway. And the finale actually doesn't cheat or open the doors for a sequel; it's about time. 

The Final Destination (2009)
82 min., rated R.
Grade: C +

From its waste-no-time opening racecar crash to a rock n' roll credit sequence with deaths from the previous movies, "The Final Destination" won't convert any starters but it is what you'd expect and will surely please the series' fans who pay to see hot, young, acne-free things get it by the Grim Reaper's vengeance. At a racetrack, Nick (Bobby Campo) has a premonition that a screwdriver in a racecar's tire snowballs a whole massacre. And of course, he saves his girlfriend (Shantel VanSanten), her friend (Haley Webb), his cocky boy (Nick Zano), and three other strangers (including security guard Mykelti Williamson). As the routine goes, the aftermath leads to the soon-to-be-victims dying in horrific ways unless they can break Death's design. 

Even if the stupid title pretends it's really "the" final movie, this is pretty much "Final Destination 4." By now, we don't need tiresome exposition of how this formula works. "Final Destination 2" team director David R. Ellis and writer Eric Bress guide this hopefully final round with slick, no-frills efficiency. There's a deviously fun red herring at a hair salon with cougar mom Kristea Allen, a racist redneck's death ironically playing to "Why Can't We Be Friends," and a few tongue-in-cheek touches (e.g. a poster for "Clear Rivers Water" at a bus stop). On a screenplay level, it's completely hopeless, with plenty of dumb dialogue (like “I'm sorry to be blunt here, but your life's in danger and you're gonna die” or "I should've seen that coming"). The characters are cardboard cut-outs with no jobs or anything outside of the plot. Also, none of the performances are polished or really stand out. 

Allowing us to see the deaths in close-up with its 3-D novelty, the gory, inventively gruesome kills include via tow trucks, lawnmowers, swimming pool drains, car washes, 3-D cinemas (wink! wink!), escalators, which are all staged for laughing along with the movie's sheer giddiness. Not even the characters seem really that affected by their friends' deaths (breaking out the champagne)! For not taking an ounce of its dummy self seriously, it's a surprise "The Final Destination" is as much of a trashy, over-the-top hoot as it is. Let's just see how many more deaths this moneyed, ridiculous franchise can crank out in, maybe, “5inal Destination.”