Fast Five

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 04/28/11 23:00:00

"Roads To Rio"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

"Fast Five," the latest installment of the surprisingly durable "The Fast & the Furious" franchise, is one of those action extravaganzas that starts off wildly over-the-top and then spends the rest of its running time constantly trying to top itself with one increasingly outlandish set-piece after another that so completely fly in the face of both narrative logic and elementary physics that they wind up looking and feeling literally like cartoons more than anything else (and they utilize so much CGI imagery in the process that one could argue that they are more animation than live-action anyway). Despite what some fuddy-duddies might otherwise argue, this approach can result in deliriously delightful bits of pop cinema when done properly by filmmakers who recognize and acknowledge that the material is inherently ludicrous without rubbing the noses of viewers in it--good examples of this approach would include many of the jaw-dropping and eye-popping titles in Luc Besson's filmography. However, when done incorrectly by pushing things too far into the ridiculous without any compensating factors or even a vague sense of shame, the result can be a mind-numbing, headache-inducing and eyeball-searing atrocity that is genuinely painful to sit through--something along the lines of one of the "Transformers" films or, to judge from all the coming attractions trailers of later, practically every major studio release for this summer outside of "Tree of Life" and "Super 8." When you consider that it spends virtually every second of its running time pushing every single element to its illogical extremes and far beyond, it is more than a little ironic that in the end, "Fast Five" winds up landing somewhere in the middle. On the one hand, it contains several legitimate amazing stunt sequences and a healthy sense of its own absurd nature for a while that is somewhat refreshing. On the other hand, it just doesn't know when to quit (perhaps not surprising for a series on its fifth installment and which has already promised more to come in the future) in regards to anything--the stunts become too ridiculous for even the admittedly elastic standards of the genre to handle and it hits the self-awareness button so hard and so often that it begins to feel like "Scream 4" with gearshifts instead of knives.

The film picks up right where the previous one concluded (and newcomers to the series should be warned that it not only presumes that you have seen the four earlier films, it presumes that you watched all of them approximately five minutes before arriving at the multiplex) with legendary street racer/car thief Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) being sprung from custody via a spectacular car crash arranged by uneasy ally Brian O'Conner (Paul Walker), a one-time cop once charged with busting him several installments ago before throwing in with his lot, and sister Mia (Jordana Brewster) and seemingly disappearing into thin air. When the story catches up with them, they are holed up in the slums of Rio when they are offered a high-paying job stealing some cars from a moving train. The job goes off, not without the inevitable stunt-filled complications, but it turns out that they not only belong to Reyes (Joaquim de Almeida), the ruthless business tycoon who essentially owns the entire area, including the police force, but one contains a computer chip holding the details of all of his dirty business dealings and the locations where he hides all of his ill-gotten gains.

Naturally, this doesn't set well with Reyes and he sends an army of goons to whack them and retrieve the chip. Amazingly, our heroes are able to escape this attack by a swarm of highly trained killers and in return, Dominic hits upon the brilliant idea of getting back at Reyes by stealing $100 million of his money via a series of elaborate heists that will require the participation of supporting characters from all of the previous installments (including Tyrese Gibson, Ludacris, Matt Schulze, Sung Kang, Gal Gadot, Tego Calderon and Don Omar) and so any elaborate props and gadgets that even if the gang does pull everything off and gets away scott-free with all the loot, they may still find themselves swimming in red ink afterwards. If that wasn't enough, they also find themselves being pursued by Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson), a hard-nosed, tough-as-nails federal agent who, in a twist that will surprise you, always gets his man no matter what the cost. Aiding Hobbs in his pursuit is Elena (Elsa Pataky), a rookie cop following in the footsteps of her husband, who was slain by Reyes' goons. Hobbs selects her allegedly because is determined and has not succumbed to the corruption that has infected her fellow officers, though my guess is that her head shot probably had quite a bit to do with it as well.

Perhaps recognizing that the narrative possibilities of the world of street racing and car theft had been exhausted several films ago, "Fast Five" shifts from that particular sub-genre to that of the heist film by utilizing the framework of "Ocean's Eleven" (or at least "Ocean's Thirteen") to present the usual hallmarks of the series--things such as outrageous stunts, goofball dialogue that sounds as if it was cobbled almost entirely out of movie poster tag lines, bald pan-ethnic lugs pounding the crap out of people and so many inadvertent (or maybe not so inadvertent) homoerotic underpinnings that the bevy of beautiful babes on display feel more like beards than romantic conquests. (One plot development involves Mia being pregnant with Brian's child, which may come as a surprise to Brian since, based on the evidence seen here, he seems to only have eyes for her brother. Then again, between the numerous crashes, smashes and rooftop dives that she endures, it is doubtful that it will continue to be an issue unless the fetus has a resilience not seen in uteri since the tyke in "It's Alive.") Marking his third entry in the series in a row, director Justin Lin (remember when he was going to be the next big indie icon after the release of his wildly overrated 2002 debut "Better Luck Tomorrow"?) is an old hand at deploying all these elements and does so with a certain flair--the opening act train robbery is as entertaining as it is implausible with a genuinely nifty capper and the finale, featuring a wild chase through the streets of Rio with a couple of the cars involved dragging a giant vault filled with the $100 million behind them, is put together with enough style, savvy and cinematic skill to put the efforts of such action auteurs as Michael Bay and McG to shame. (Additionally, the sight of a vault containing $100 million laying waste to everything in its wake also works as a surprisingly effective metaphor for the current strain of blockbuster filmmaking that "Fast Five" so totally represents.) Of course, the story is nonsense but as this kind of nonsense goes, it gets the job done even though it doesn't make a lick of sense. As for the performances, this is not the kind of film that requires fine acting but the actors go through their familiar paces easily enough and Dwayne Johnson is an amusing add as Vin Diesel's musclebound and muscle-headed doppelgänger and yes, I am slightly proud that I was able to work a word like "doppelgänger" into an analysis of "Fast Five."

On the other hand, "Fast Five" doesn't know when to quit and in its effort to be bigger and badder than all the previous films combined, it grows entirely too top-heavy for its own good and begins to sag under its own weight. For example, while hard-core fanatics of the series will no doubt be thrilled to see all of the returning supporting characters (including one that passed away a couple of sequels ago, which either means that either this is actually a prequel or that even the vaguest form of continuity has been given the heave-ho here), more casual observers will note that there are so many of them that the need to give each one a few minutes apiece to shine drags the proceedings out to ridiculous lengths. There are also way too many scenes that seem to exist only to kill time and allow viewers to zip out to the concession stand without fear of missing any of the good parts. In the most egregious example, Diesel and Johnson have a confrontation in the streets in which they glower and mutter at each other for several minutes without either of them or the story getting anywhere as a result--it is kind of like what the Pacino-De Niro diner scene from "Heat" would have been like without the snappy script and direction, the nuanced performances or anything resembling a point. Even after the big action climax that brings things to a legitimate exciting head, the film drives over its own foot with a seemingly endless tag that adds nothing to the proceedings. As a result, it clocks in at a long 130 minutes, a length that is ridiculous for an admitted potboiler like this and which may not even include the post-credits cookie that throws in a couple more familiar faces while cockily setting up yet another installment.

Make no mistake, "Fast Five" is nothing more than cinematic junk food and a probable harbinger of the nonsense set to fill up the multiplexes over the next few months. However, as these things go, it is mildly entertaining and more or less gets the job done without hurting too badly despite its numerous missteps. (This is one of those films that may be better served on Blu-ray, where a deft finger on the fast-forward button can provide the overall editing job that it so desperately needs. Some observers with way too much time on their hands have noticed that the best films in the "Fast & the Furious" franchise have been the odd-numbered ones while the evens have been the weakest by far. (This is, of course, the direct opposite of the "Star Trek" films, assuming that one forgets that "Nemesis" ever existed and I think most of us have done that by now.) "Fast Five" continues in that hallowed, if inadvertent, tradition and based on that, all I can say is that I am now dreading Part Six and looking to Part Seven with something resembling vague optimism, especially if all involved can use the time to steal a better and tighter plot along the way.

© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.