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American films

Fast and Furious creator Rob Cohen cooks up perfect storm in Hurricane Heist

Story of tech-savvy robbers who scheme to steal US$600 million in used banknotes from a shredding plant amid a storm has a message about man-made climate change, its Trump-hating director says

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 March, 2018, 1:06pm
UPDATED : Monday, 12 March, 2018, 1:06pm

This year the US Federal Reserve will shred an estimated 5.6 billion damaged, out-of-date or just plain shabby banknotes worth a combined US$175 billion and send them to be incinerated.

Money gets trashed regularly and mostly no one notices – but what if a historically powerful hurricane and a gang of sophisticated thieves happened to be headed right towards where it’s kept?

That’s the premise of The Hurricane Heist, the latest release from veteran director Rob Cohen, the creator of the megabucks Fast and Furious franchise.

“A shoot-out is no longer just a shoot-out, a chase is no longer just a chase. Any of the tropes of action films suddenly have to reinterpreted by taking place in 140mph [225km/h] winds and driving rain,” the 68-year-old says.

“It just seemed like, what a delicious challenge to be able to create a hurricane itself, but to create an action film within it.”

The Hurricane Heist stars Toby Kebbell ( Kong: Skull Island ) as Will Rutledge, a government meteorologist tracking Hurricane Tammy – the fiercest storm in US history – as it heads for coastal Alabama.

As the locals evacuate, the US mint in the fictional town of Gulfport race against time to shred US$600 million in old bills before Tammy hits – but a gang of tech-savvy robbers have other ideas.

Extreme weather is a nightmare all too real for Cohen, who remembers a particularly terrifying storm when he was growing up in the small commuter town of Cornwall, an hour’s drive north of New York.

“We got hit with a hurricane somewhere in the 1950s and all I remember is the power going out and trees falling. You hear the trees snapping and falling, and those banshee winds howling,” he recalls.

“We were on the edge of that storm, not even in the brunt of it, but I remember I was like six or seven years old, just hunkering down, worried that a tree was going to crush the house with me in it.”

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After graduating from Harvard, Cohen got his break in Hollywood as a reader for agent Mike Medavoy.

One day, he plucked a neglected script out of the slush pile and promised Medavoy it was “the great American screenplay and … will make an award-winning, major-cast, major-director film”.

After some next-level nagging, Medavoy agreed to try to sell the screenplay, but warned that if there were no takers, Cohen would be fired.

Universal bought it and it went on to win seven Oscars, including best director and picture, and Cohen has been known ever since as “the kid who found The Sting”.

I hate him, I hate everything he stands for, including on climate change. He’s in the pocket of the oil industry
Rob Cohen on Donald Trump

This intuition has fuelled much of his work, balanced with an aptitude for innovative special effects that has seen him firing cars out of moving trains and placing his cameramen on go-karts.

Creating the storm of the century on camera is the kind of challenge the director of high-octane blockbusters such as xXx and Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story relishes.

An early pioneer with computer-aided animation, Cohen abandoned CGI in favour of practical effects to show farmhouses destroyed, trucks whipped into the air and a 20-foot (6-metre) tsunami crash into a garden centre.

Meanwhile, he used LED plates on the windows of cars to transform the red tower roofs and stucco buildings of Sofia, Bulgaria – where the shoot took place in the summer of 2016 – into the bucolic Deep South, with its check curtains and picturesque coastline.

“I find that an audience has a real sense of when you dump 44,000 gallons [167,000 litres] of water on a team of stunt men, and when you pull them on wires and add the fake water later,” Cohen said.

“There are just a million tells that tell you this isn’t real. Computers don’t handle chaos well.”

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Kebbell and Maggie Grace (Lost, Twilight: Breaking Dawn), who plays US treasury agent Casey Corbyn, endured pummelling by crushing rain, 100mph (160km/h) wind gusts and routine 16-hour days on set.

You don’t have to look particularly hard to find the subtext in all this chaos, for The Hurricane Heist is a movie that wears its environmental message very much on its sleeve.

Kebbell’s Will explains at one point that the increasing frequency and severity of hurricanes is caused by global warming and that “all due deference to Donald Trump, there is man-made climate change”.

Cohen, it turns out, has vitriol to spare for the American president, who has described climate change as a Chinese hoax and appointed climate-change sceptic Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency.

“I hate him, I hate everything he stands for, including on climate change,” Cohen said. “He’s in the pocket of the oil industry, he doesn’t want to hear that fossil fuels may in fact be poisoning the whole Earth.”

The Hurricane Heist opens in Hong Kong on Thursday, and is released in North America on Friday