[28 April 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
The engines still rev with unearthly levels of specifically modified power. The drivers still maneuver avenues that no human being could conceivable manage. The stakes remain firmly high, stuck in the arena of family, honor, revenge, loyalty, and the complex code of the streets - and smack dab in the middle of this motor vehicle mêlée are actors looking for a continued career boast, with others more than happy to tag along for the horsepower and sweaty muscle shirt ride. Yes, this is the world of Fast Five, the latest entry in the improbably car culture franchise, a film series that has, until now, relied almost exclusively on a Top Gear level of car fetishism to get by. But thanks to a smart decision to change approaches, this latest installment delivers much more than forced flap paddle RPMs.
After successfully helping their buddy Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel) escape a prison bus, ex-cop Brian O’Connor (Paul Walker) and his gal pal Mia (Jordana Brewster) head down to Rio. They need to lie low until the heat from this most recent stunt simmers down. Soon, all three become part of a job stealing luxury supercars from a moving train. When the owner of said vehicles - a Brazilian drug kingpin named Reyes (Joaquim de Almeida ) - finds out who’s responsible, he calls upon his friends in the surrounding favelas to take them out.
Learning of this tactic, Dom decides to fight fire with fire. He contacts a group of old friends - Roman Pearce (Tyrese Gibson), Tej Parker (Ludacris), Han Lue (Sung Kang), Tego Leo (Tego Calderon), Rico Santos (Don Omar), and Gisele Harabo (Gal Gadot) - and forms them into a team with one singular mission: to rob Reyes of his untold millions. Sadly, the cash is under lock and key - in police headquarters. In the meantime, a hard-ass Federal agent named Hobbs (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) arrives in Rio, looking to take Toretto and his crew down for the last time.
Fast Five in the kind of film that doesn’t a lot of waste time. It believes you know who these characters are (either via previous experience or cinematic stereotype rote), sets up its story with heist genre efficiency, and then gets down to the spinouts and stuntwork. Justin Lin, whose previous directorial gigs on Parts Three and Four left something to be desired, finally hits his stride here, managing his action set-pieces with kinetic efficiency. Yes, he’s still in love with a kind of ADD editorial style that robs the movie’s main payoff (Diesel vs. The Rock in a mano-y-mano beatdown) of its power, but otherwise, he keeps things clipping along at a gratuitous, gas guzzling pace.
The real revelation here is Chris Morgan’s script. Again, as someone who previously underwhelmed with his participation in the series, this latest plot permutation is an upgrade. This is the man who made Wanted into pure post-modern momentum, after all. By turning Toretto and his posse into a hip hop Oceans 11, the movie minimizes the smarmy road rash of the previous drag race dynamic, and instead, turns these creative criminals into unlikely heroes. You can feel the audience rooting for them to better Reyes, to outsmart Hobbs, and run off to parts unknown flush with cash, and by mixing in a little sentiment among the splash, Morgan manages to keep things grounded. Sure, the finale is so jaw droppingly illogical and goofy that it shouldn’t work (A vault? The crowded Rio streets?), but somehow, Fast Five pulls it off with edge of your seat style.
The cast’s naturally chemistry also helps things. When they all finally get together, the narrative allows each one to have their own individual moment. Gibson and Ludacris play off each other perfectly, like a well honed comedy team trading delirious “dozens” barbs. Similarly, Omar and Calderon are like the Two Latino Stooges, arguing and messing about while, somehow, getting their part of the plan organized. Gadot and Kang have some nice moments together, and the entire crew comes across as comfortable old friends with a common purpose, putting their various almost super human skills to good use. The addition of Johnson is also key. It creates a viable “villain” for the gang to contravene, as well as giving the franchise new future avenues to pursue.
At the center are Diesel, Walker, and Brewster. They make a fascinating trio, complementary but also contradictory in terms of motive and meaning. We know that Dom and Mia are family, but that element never seems to get more play than the passion she has for Brian. It’s an unusual ideal, one that’s rarely explored within the Fast and Furious films, which makes sense, since subtlety is not this series’ strong suit. Instead, it’s all sledgehammer spectacle and fuel injected insanity. While there is some CG used to realize the various crashes and collisions, there is also a nice practical effects element to this particular installment that gives everything a more grounded, organic feel - that is, until the ending, when all sense of possibility and proportion is thrown out the window.
With its sweat glistening off tanned muscles mannerism and hardnosed bare knuckle bravado, Fast Five is the perfect cure for a Spring season filled with failed attempts at recapturing past glories. Some may consider it a guilty pleasure, but there’s no legitimate reason to feel bad about enjoying this otherwise mindless romp. It hits all the right notes, acknowledges when it’s being bulky and overwhelming, and makes sure the audience leaves satisfied and thirsting for more. Better than any other installment in the series, Fast Five suggests where Dom and his ragtag group of performance drivers and gear heads could go. Robbing a major South American drug lord while a pissed-off bulked up Federal agent comes chasing you is one thing. Turning said skill into a potential continuing film series is perhaps the greatest achievement of this fascinating fourth revisit.