Even when Toretto and Hobbs are beating each other up, they encounter no moral gray area. They’re both good and they’re both right. Always.
Very few film franchises make it to five movies. Even the most successful usually peter out after the trilogy, and those that do persist rely on iconic characters (Batman, James Bond, Harry Potter) or epic storylines (Star Wars, Star Trek).
And then there’s the Fast and Furious franchise, with four successful installments and not a single protagonist the average viewer can name or even a quotable catchphrase. It began with 2001's The Fast and the Furious. If that first film's plot was mundane -- a detective went undercover with a ring of car thieves and ended up becoming one of them – but it had cool cars and lots of action. The subsequent movies have tried to capture that same essence. The plots always involve the need to pull off a heist involving cars. At some point, there is a drag race with scantily clad groupies. A marginally important character may die, which leads another slightly more important character to seek revenge. Clunky dialogue and improbable twists ensue. Little evidence points to the need for a sequel. And yet….
Fast Five picks up exactly where Fast & Furious left off. Dominic (Vin Diesel) is on a bus headed to jail to serve out a very long sentence. Brian (Paul Walker), who was the undercover cop in the first film and is now Toretto’s partner-in-crime, breaks him out. Accompanied by Mia (Jordana Brewster), Toretto’s sister and O’Conner’s girlfriend, they flee to Brazil. Upon arrival in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, they decide to get involved in a heist. This is the first of many inexplicably bad decisions, as the film seems almost a primer on what not to do when you’re a fugitive from the law.
The group's first heist involves stealing cars off a moving train, which is a lot of fun, as are all the action scenes in Fast Five. There is something refreshing about stunts done the old-fashioned way, without too much CGI. Toretto, O’Conner, and crew are subsequently noticed by federal agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson), who, as might be expected, won’t stop until he takes them down.
Perhaps the secret to the Fast and Furious films is that they embrace their B-movie clichés. These heroes are throwbacks. Toretto and Hobbs both have steroidal physiques that would be a better fit in an ‘80s action flick, those simpler days when actors looked like they could take each other's heads off.
At the turn of the century, Johnson and Diesel briefly seemed to be the future of action films; but today’s action heroes are more likely to be human-sized brooders like Jake Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey Jr. than Herculean slabs of meat like Stallone and Schwarzenegger. It's rare to find a tent-pole movie so completely void of angst these days. In Fast Five, no one stops to stare in the mirror and wonder whether stealing cars is wrong.
Toretto and Hobbs may be on opposite sides of the law, but they share a code of honor and justice that often involves killing unnamed foreign thugs without needing to pause for reflection. Somehow, even when they’re beating each other up, they encounter no moral gray area. They’re both good and they’re both right. Always.
This no-frills approach may explain why the franchise is a worldwide success, even as it avoids cultural relevance. Fast Five also displays a deep nostalgia for its prequels that will appeal to fans. Although no one has appeared in all five movies, this one brings together stars from all the previous four films, a bit like a B-list Ocean’s 11. Their decision to undertake the climactic heist is again one of those horrendously bad decisions, but it leads to another great car chase.
Fast Five is not a good movie, but it is a satisfying one. Those who enjoy the franchise will find a lot to like -- and are strongly encouraged to stay for the closing credits, for an additional sequel-setting scene. But those without a prior investment in the series won't be missing anything they haven't already decided to miss.