It was recently announced that Justin Lin might be taking over the Terminator franchise with Arnold Schwarzenneger in tow. After seeing the director’s latest, dumbest—and best!—entry in the Fast and the Furious franchise, I can understand why. Working from a lackluster series of carsploitation flicks, Lin and his team take the most insanely idiotic script of the year and turn it into a high-octane crowd pleaser that actually gets the blood pumping. This is the film last summer’s The Expendables wanted to be.
Picking up where the fourth film left off, Fast Five begins with Dominic Toretto (Diesel) on his way to prison. This self-imposed (sort of) incarceration is short lived—about 40 seconds or so – because his spunky little sis Mia (Jordana Brewster) and ex-FBI officer Brian O’Connor (Paul Walker) show up in race cars and annihilate the laws of physics in order to bust him out. Flash now to Rio, where O’Connor and Mia are prepping for the arrival of a baby and Dom and Vince (the original film’s Matt Schulze) have set-up a new gig to grab some stolen cars.
Two new forces threaten the makeshift Toretto clan. One is a corrupt Rio drug lord named Reyes (Almeida) who has the city more or less in his pocket and the other is Special Agent Hobbs (Johnson), a relentless muscle-bound tracker who won’t stop until he’s got Dom and Brian in custody. A new plan is born when they realize they have the drug delivery schedules for all of Reyes’ operations and assemble a team to steal his empire out from under him.
The smartest turn of the story—indeed perhaps the only one—is the way the film nonchalantly slips from illegal street racing (there’s not a single action scene dedicated to it) to a more traditional heist film that blends The Italian Job and Ocean’s Eleven with the decidedly low-brow FF franchise. It’s here that Lin connects the comic-book infused earlier segments with the central story by bringing in a rogue’s gallery of returning characters from every last one of the other films.
All of the performers are right on target for the material, and Diesel and Johnson in particular know how to respond to those safe pitches the script keeps throwing them. Both actors have untapped stores of charisma and energy in them, but Fast Five never requires any of that. It only wants them oiled up, muscles rippling and scowls raised as they charge like stampeding bulls over the rickety corrugated tops of the favelas.
When the film eventually gets around to their big brawl, Lin makes it a bone-crunching and virile affair with all the right intensity and impact. There’s a third act arrangement that might not ring completely true, but it fits with the rest of the whacked-out script and deserves to exist for no other reason than to provide the best mutual bicep squeeze since Carl Weathers and Ahnuld had their testosterone-soaked reunion at the start of Predator.
The action in the film is of course the main reason to see it and as presented is the connective tissue that stands in for character motivation and psychology. Everything on the script level is either a brittle cliché (It always had to end like this,’ ‘I won’t lose you again’) or something wonderfully bone-headed. Take for instance one of Hobb’s lackeys saying ‘I’ve got good news and bad news for you’ and then Johnson growling out impatiently ‘You know I like dessert first. Then give me the veggies!’ So, what characters punch, drive, or blow-up defines who they are and in a film like Fast Five, that’s a whole lot of definition.
About those action scenes. They are spectacular, wildly implausible, and refreshingly coherent visually. The laws of physics and gravity aren’t simply ignored, they are outright erased from the universe. The set piece involving Dom and Brian racing next to a speeding train and literally ripping a hole into one of the compartments so they can drive off the stolen cars is even less logically motivated than the dreamy action scenes in Inception. But look at it as a piece of kinetic, escapist filmmaking, throwing away earthbound limitations in favor of pure adrenaline, and it becomes a thing of crazed beauty. This is The Great Train Robbery puffed up and inflated for the Grand Theft Auto generation.
The second half of the movie that develops the heist is surprisingly covert in the way it prepares us for the mind-numbing action of the final chase. Lin keeps marching you through the steps, the practice, a turn here, a turn there. We know how it’s supposed to go down, and so when lunacy breaks out, our mind fills in the parts we have already seen. It boils the scene down to its purest action beats and that’s one of Fast Five’s greatest strengths in general. Despite an overflow of content, it’s surprisingly economical.
This economy also hampers the pic to some degree. Yes, the script is expected to be undercooked, but sometimes it’s baffling in what it leaves out. Dom’s relationship with Elsa Pataky’s noble police officer is occasionally confusing; we suspect she knows something he doesn’t and the script is so vague it’s hard to know if it’s being clever or clumsy. The final revelation after the credits also suggests that some things may not be what they seem. Or maybe FF just dumps in events without thinking about them. It hardly matters because it’s all about the moment here, a visceral thrill, and on that level it’s hard to criticize the film too harshly.
It would be easy to consider Lin’s film a guilty pleasure or a good ‘bad’ movie, but it’s simply too well made for that, no matter how trashy or implausible it gets. Lin elevates willful stupidity to nearly an art form. There’s no better way I can think to start the summer movie season than with Vin Diesel dragging a bank vault the size of a small apartment through the streets of Rio De Janero with nothing more than a souped-up car and one hell of a sturdy chain.