I am not a fan of the "Fast Furious" franchise. I felt that The Fast and the Furious
(2001) was a rather generic police procedural that borrowed liberally from Point Break
(of all movies) while delivering a few colorful action scenes and lots of true boredom. And that was the best of the lot. I do remember lots of car chases, male bonding, and barely-concealed female "boo-tay" from the various sequels -- 2 Fast 2 Furious
(2003), The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift
(2006), and Fast & Furious
(2009) -- but little in the way of legitimate matinee-style entertainment. Perhaps if I was a car fanatic then I'd find more to appreciate in the franchise, but on the other hand ... if four consecutive movies require that you like CARS to dig what's on the screen, then that's a big problem, and it's not mine. But clearly this franchise has its fans (and all over the damn planet), which is why we've been gathered together for, yep, a fifth serving of automotive lunacy, non-stop and nearly homo-erotic moments of male on male bonding, lots of truly photogenic females, and just enough plot to keep the action sequences tied together.
And yet, despite all that, and contrary to a decade in which I felt general disdain for this entire series ... here comes a part 5 that actually works. Call it a cash-grab or a no-brainer beginning to the 2011 summer movie season, but taken on its own simple merits, and divorced from the stupidity of its four predecessors, the handily-titled Fast Five is an upgrade that does sequelizing right: it sticks with just enough of the established formula to keep the old fans happy, it brings back "a lot of the old gang" in an affably pleasant fashion, it borrows (and quite liberally) from popular heist movies like Ocean's Eleven and The Italian Job, and (best of all) it seems to actively avoid "churning up the same old wake." This is not high art, nor will it remain one of the summer's best blockbusters, but all films (even a Part 5) deserve to be judged on their own merits, and if Fast Five is the first film in the franchise to make me feel satisfied, then so be it: this is a fun flick.
I'll leave the four films' worth of canon and continuity to the experts, but here's the deal on Fast Five: Paul Walker, Vin Diesel, and the still adorable Jordana Brewster are wanted fugitives who are scraping by in Rio de Janeiro. They take an ill-advised heist job (stealing cars off of a moving train, those nuts!), which leads to some murders, an alleged betrayal, a not-so-shocking personal revelation from the female of the trio, a lot of trouble with the local crime boss, a scheme to steal $110 million from the aforementioned sleazebag, and a crazy escape plan somewhere down the line. Oh, also The Rock (AKA Dwayne Johnson) is in this one, and he's having a whole lot of sweaty fun as a no-nonsense federal agent who kicks eleven shades of ass. Returning from various entries to add some much-needed personality to the proceedings are Tyrese Gibson, Sung Kang, Ludacris, and Matt Schulze.
While the hardcore fans of the franchise may be dismayed at how Fast Five avoids the "car culture" gimmick that ran rampant through the earlier films, I'd chalk that up to the producers trying to make their "part 5" something of a fresh start. There may be a lot of familiar faces here, but this series is a huge money-maker, and the changes made (to make the stuff a bit more "mainstream," perhaps) are actually what make it seem refreshingly new. That's not to say that Fast Five avoids all the potholes that marred the earlier flicks: despite an opening and a finale that deliver the goods (and then some), there's a palpable "sag" in the second act of Fast Five that almost brings all the fun to a halt. It's admirable that screenwriter Chris Morgan and director Justin Lin seem to have a newfound affection for the suddenly large "Fast" ensemble, but there can be too much of a good thing. Fast Five wedges virtually all of its character development, sidekick comedy banter, quiet moments of ostensible emotion, and general "soap opera stuff" into one 45-minute chunk that really could have offered us a gunfight or an explosion as some colorful respite ...
So the pacing is egregiously "off" in the mid-section of an unnecessarily long (130 minute) "part 5" action sequel. That's a legitimate gripe, I think, but, to its credit, Fast Five patches some of the holes with several unexpectedly outrageous action sequences: Diesel and The Rock brawl in a powerful fist fight; a nasty gunfight breaks out in the middle of nowhere; Walker does a cool leap off a train ... and then a building; and the finale (involving two cars, one safe, and a complete disregard for the laws of physics) is quite simply something to stare at, wide-eyed and chuckling. If Fast Five suffers from a bit too much in the chatty Cathy department, then it certainly apologizes by presenting huge crazy action in an enjoyably "viewable" style.
And by that I mean this: even if you're not as charitable towards the Fast Five screenplay as was yours truly, it's getting really hard to deny that Justin Lin is one fantastic director of action. His crashes, chases, and crazy escapes may have been standard on the page, but this director puts his camera in some truly creative places. Effort like that on a "part 5" is not too common; results as unexpectedly entertaining as Fast Five are rarer still.
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