Fast Five states its intentions right up front. Picking up the story from the last frames of Fast & Furious, Brian (Paul Walker) and Mia (Jordana Brewster) break Dom (Vin Diesel) out of a bus that’s taking him to Lompoc Prison. Their method? Use their hot rods to flip the bus six or seven times, smashing it all to hell. News reports tell us the rest of the story - Dom got away… and no one else was hurt. WHAT?
If you can roll with that - and I laughed and applauded at that - then you’re in for a hell of a ride. Especially because that scene is beautifully practical, almost a complete counterpoint to the flipping truck sequence that opened F&F. And indeed, all of Fast Five feels like a course correction from that huge misstep of a film. It’s a movie stuffed with practical car stunts and brimming with the emptyheaded charm of the first two movies. It’s an easy movie to like.
The story picks up some time after the escape. Mia’s knocked up, and she and Brian are in Rio, still on the run. They’re way broke and they turn to Vince (Matt Schulze), Dom’s old best friend from the first film, to get them a job. On paper it’s “easy” (in ridiculous action movie terms) - they’re to liberate cars from a moving train. But it turns out these cars are DEA property, and a local drug kingpin wants them too.
From there shit gets out of hand. The Feds think our heroes killed a trio of DEA officers and they send the wrath of God personified, Hobbes (The Rock), to find them. And our heroes end up with the one car that the powerful drug kingpin wanted and he sends waves upon waves of machine gun shooting thugs to get it back. It turns out that car includes a computer chip that details all of the kingpin’s money safehouses, creating a map to every dollar he has. So Dom comes up with a fool proof plan - assemble a team and steal every cent from this cocksucker.
Each of the Fast and Furious movies has been its own weird take on a genre. The films have been essentially riffs on Point Break, The Karate Kid and Miami Vice. Now they’re going after Ocean’s 11, and it works remarkably well. The weird structure of the series - each installment has had different headliners - offers a deep bench of characters and actors, all of whom return for ‘one last job’ (a line actually delivered by Diesel) and who bring their own sense of personality and fun. Where Fast & Furious spent half the movie trying to get Brian and Dom to the make up sex, Fast Five just throws all the characters into the mix by the end of the first act and shakes it up vigorously.
Which leads to my major complaint about the film: isn’t this a series about cars? There are some amazing car action scenes here, including a barnstormer finale, but most of the film is made up of non-car business. It’s hard to get too aggravated because all of the non-car business is great - we get a Bourne-ish chase through the favelas, a Black Hawk Down-ish assault on an armored convoy, some fun and funny heist business. Justin Lin and his team of second unit experts bring it all in this film, and every action scene is a wonder.
Well, except one. And so we get to my second complaint (but give me this paragraph and then I gush again): the Vin Diesel/The Rock fight scene. Conceptually this is an incredible scene, set up well in the movie and in the pop culture. You’d like to see the two reigning bald action stars go head to head. And you still will after Fast Five, since the whole fucking fight is stunt men exchanging punches while digital shadows or blurs hide their faces. This isn’t some kind of crazy Jackie Chan style fight, just a pretty straightforward brawl, and yet neither of the stars seem to be up for good old fashioned punch trading. The movie builds you up to this confrontation and then the stars essentially tag in their doubles. Disappointing.
But that brings us to The Rock, who is the central figure of fury who elevates this film from fun to a possible classic of summertime schlock. Sweating in every single frame of the film, Dwayne Johnson plays Hobbes as the ultimate badass, always clad in bulletproof armor, always growling some order or putdown, and always willing to unload bullets into an incapacitated man’s cranium. This is the tough as nails, coldly murder a motherfucker version of The Rock that I thought we had lost to The Tooth Fairy, and it’s wonderful to see him back. How tough is Hobbes? He gets the film’s one MPAA-allowable ‘fuck.’ The Rock really gets the tone of the series, and he plays to it perfectly, bringing just a little bit of that wrestling phoniness to the proceedings.
He’s certainly more than a match for Diesel, who continues to turn into some kind of Gnome King or something. His head seems to be shrinking while his nose blossoms out and the thin layer of flesh holding in the hamburger helper with which he is stuffed seems tired and about to give up the ghost. All of Diesel’s lines sound like they’re coming through some kind of bass-heavy fuzzbox and the choices he makes in delivering them are baffling. I don’t know what kind of a movie he thinks he’s making. Still, as awful as he is on paper he’s arresting on screen, a sentient pork chop that occasionally drives cars. This is the ultimate niche for him, and hopefully he understands it. He is Dom, and Dom is he.
Walker, meanwhile, has aged into something respectable. He’s torn here; in the Diesel-starring films he’s the ultimate beta male, just hoping to get a sniff of Dom’s urine, but in 2 Fast he’s part of a buddy cop relationship. This film brings both together, and Walker must plod around after Dom like the obedient bitch while also giving Tyrese plenty of shit - something that puts Tyrese’s Roman way down on the male totem pole. Still, Walker has become grizzled with age and now that he’s lost the baby face he’s sort of believable as a wiry criminal.
The rest of the cast supports to perfection; Tyrese remains hilarious (bringing back his ‘hongry’ catch phrase from 2 Fast), while Brewster almost gets a shot at being in the action. She’s looking almost dangerously skinny here, which is too bad because she had much more of a real girl appeal in the first film. As a girl she gets sidelined into being the human GPS system (basically she’s Tank from The Matrix).
That’s a sight better than the gorgeous Gal Gadot, whose part in the entire film is to literally have a man grab her ass. She returns from Fast & Furious, but for almost no reason. She had no character there, and she’s all but presented as a new character here. There’s another female in the film, the stunning Elsa Pataky, who plays the only cop in Rio who isn’t corrupt. She ALMOST gets to be an action heroine, but then the movie condescendingly takes her out of the action again and again, often to be ‘protected’ by big sweaty men.
This would all be offensive if it wasn’t for the fact that the homoeroticism is thicker than The Rock’s biceps. These men barely even note the sexuality of the women around them; the film is set in Rio, one of the most notoriously sensual cities in the world, and the level of sexuality in the film still hovers right around non-existent. It’s kind of amazing that this franchise can simply keep ignoring women; even the ‘sexy lady’ shots in the film feel completely perfunctory. While the story tries to set up Dom and Pataky’s lady cop as a couple, the reality is that the whole thing is a mating dance between Dom and Hobbes. The film treats women the way a closeted gay man does, cat-calling ‘Oooh baby, nice ass! And nice shoes!’
Let’s get back to the characters and the actors - Han. Played by Sung Kang in two previous films, this is the character’s shining moment. He may have been Obi Wan Kenobi in Tokyo Drift but he’s James Bond here. I just loved Han in Fast Five, and he’s the only character whose reaction to a woman felt real. Why isn’t Sung Kang in more films? He’s got such a cool screen presence. I’d actually love Fast Six to team him up with The Rock; the fire and ice pairing would be better than the continued clash of muscleheads I’m sure we’ll see with Hobbes and Dom.
The film treats these characters well; they’re not particularly nuanced or deep but they’re fun, and they have fun together. It’s like the Ocean’s films in that way - the fun they’re having comes off screen and we have fun with them. There’s a lot of adorably stupid banter (although Tyrese really does get some truly hilarious zingers in), and a lot of futzing around, all of which is welcome because you love this team. It’s car movie as hangout film.
Director Justin Lin and writer Chris Morgan know exactly how to balance that with the action scenes. The action punctuates at just the right times, never getting exhausting and never allowing the non-action scenes to dominate too much. And each action scene is perfectly paced, giving you the beats you crave and never overstaying their welcome. The final, spectacular chase almost gets to be boring but then Lin throws in new elements that refresh it.
The real stars of Fast Five are the stunt men and women who did all the incredible action we see on screen. It’s so satisfying seeing real cars smashed to pieces or hurtled over cliffs. It’s amazing to watch real people in dangerous situations. There are CGI elements - the vault that is being improbably dragged behind two cars in the final chase, for instance - and there are inserts of the lead actors or faces mapped onto real stunt people, but the majority of what you see on screen in Fast Five is good old fashioned practical work, people doing the physics, taking the chances and earning the bruises. Let’s hope that this film reminds the rest of Hollywood that we would much rather see a real person jumping off a cliff rather than a digitized wire frame person.
I won’t lie - I loved this movie. Morgan and Lin know what they’re making, and they don’t repeat the mistakes of Fast & Furious. They keep it light, fun and well-paced. They up the ante in just the right way with Hobbes while using the franchise’s best assets - its secondary characters - to keep things buoyant. And Lin and his second unit have crafted the greatest action scenes in the franchise’s history - as well as some of the best big screen action I’ve seen in years. This is what a summer movie should be - knowingly silly, fun, light, thrilling, packed with real stunts and not-so-subtle gayness. And best of all you never have to turn your brain off - half the fun is laughing along with the audacious goofiness of the whole thing.
Fast Five gives the franchise new blood. It’s not a ‘real’ movie like Tokyo Drift, but it’s the biggest and the most fun, and I can’t wait to see where they take the series next - especially after the completely bonkers post-credits reveal.