Back in 2001, it would have been hard to imagine that the Fast and the Furious franchise would be the one to last a decade. That year saw the release of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, which was based on an already-established brand, and Planet of the Apes, which had the added advantage of a high-profile director.
The Fast and the Furious franchise has lower-wattage stars and little originality to its credit. All of the entries in the series have been pretty by-the-numbers—but perhaps that’s the key to its success. While Fast Five, the fifth and most recent installment, is just as formulaic as its predecessors, it’s gleefully formulaic, and it’s hard not to get swept up in the movie’s enthusiasm for itself.
Fast Five begins with Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker) and Mia Toretto (Jordana Brewster) busting Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel) out of a bus en route to take Dom to prison. On the lam and out of money, in Rio de Janeiro they agree to help steal DEA-seized exotic cars—a job that’s supposed to be “clean” and “easy”. Of course, these things never are, and after the theft goes south, our heroes find themselves with a computer chip with detailed information about a criminal enterprise (including a list of “cash house” locations) and a vendetta against the Brazilian businessman who owns them. Meanwhile, the American government sends its most elite, Under-Armour-clad man-hunting force, led by Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson, aka “The Rock”)—whose commitment to justice is only rivaled by Batman’s—to capture the fugitives.
From the opening moments of the movie—when two flashy muscle cars conspire to collide with the prison bus, which tumbles and rolls and everyone walks away without a fatality—it’s clear that Fast Five is going to be at least a little silly. The characters drive off cliffs and leap out of windows and suffer neither broken bones nor scratches and bruises. It is, however, aware of its own outlandishness. “There’s nowhere in the world where people with cars hang out with models. We get that,” director Justin Lin says in his solo commentary on the movie’s extended edition, which runs a full one minute longer than the theatrical cut.
But there’s no harm in running away with the fantasy of it. In the commentary, Lin suggests that everyone just “embrace the ridiculousness of it.” There’s no reason not to, since going along with it means you get to see high-powered cars going up against buses, trains, and, eventually, bank vaults. The joy is similar to the one you experienced when you were a kid, smashing your toys into one another—only the movie has far more expensive toys. Lin estimates that more than 200 cars were destroyed during filming.
It’s not difficult to give yourself over to the fantasy of Fast Five because it’s clear that Lin takes this world very seriously. From his commentary and the bevy of Blu-Ray extra materials, it’s apparent that he valued practical effects and shooting on location. (The best behind-the-scenes features on the Blu-Ray are the ones that break down the action scenes, so you can see driverless cars being launched skyward with air cannons. These are more worthwhile than the meager deleted scenes and obligatory gag reel.)
Lin’s commitment to practical effects is smart; while the most ridiculous stunts are happening on the screen, it feels very real. CGI is used as well, but nothing looks cartoonish. The movie is stylishly shot both within and outside of the action scenes, with good-looking images of Rio—nearly every scene starts with an overhead shot of the city and its favelas.
Big action sequences are the meat of the movie, Fast Five moves at a brisk pace from one huge setpiece to another. They’re full of complicated choreography, and diverse in range, from the high-speed thrills of a train robbery to an intense one-on-one fistfight between giants Dom and Hobbs.
But with the action, Lin also continues to move the franchise forward and out of its quarter-mile drag-race beginnings. Halfway through, the movie becomes a heist film—an Oceans movie for the meathead set—and it becomes less focused on straight car chases, and would just as soon skip them, if it meant furthering the plot along.
It’s not that Fast Five is less likely to adhere to heist-movie conventions than drag-race-movie conventions; in fact, the opposite is true. You’ll hear boilerplate dialogue about “the one cop who can’t be bought” and “putting a team together”. But it does provide a good excuse to pull together threads and characters from all of the other movies in the Fast and the Furious franchise, and the assembled ensemble does have good chemistry together. It’s not that they have so much to do individually, but the important thing is that they’re all there, right? And they all look like they’re having a great time, so it really is like a Soderbergh Oceans movie.
Of course, with such a reunion, you have to endure some dialogue about the importance of family—another, less successful attempt at franchise maturity. But, after ten years, the series has earned the right to a little self-reflection, and it’s achieved the wisdom to know that those scenes go better when followed by one where two exotic cars tow a bank vault down the streets of Brazil.