I can’t believe I’m writing this article. When I saw The Fast and the Furious, I was so upset that I promised I would never see that film again, nor would I bother with any of its sequels. Yet for the past couple of days, some people whose opinions I occasionally pretend to respect have come forward with recommendations for the franchise’s latest entry. “I hated the other films,” they all said, “but I loved this one!”
Now, having sated my curiosity, I’m put in the unthinkable position of joining the chorus. Impossible as it may seem, Fast Five is really fucking good.
There are a lot of ways in which this film is superior to the first, such as the difference in management. TFatF was directed by Rob Cohen — he of xXx, Stealth and the third Mummy film — who could charitably be called a hack. Fast Five and its past few prequels have been directed by Justin Lin and I won’t deny that I’ve made a few jokes about him for it. Imagine how stupid I felt upon discovering that he also directed a few episodes of the TV show Community, including the infamous “Paintball episode,” which I prefer to call “the most amazing half-hour of television I’ve ever seen in my life.” Cohen may be able to make money by filming half-assed, brain-dead “action” films, but with this film and his work on Community, Lin has proven that he can make money by filming awesome brain-dead action films. Mark my words, folks: Justin Lin is one to keep an eye on.
The second big change is that now, the franchise is dealing in a whole ‘nother genre. The first film was supposedly about street racing, yet the screenplay struggled in finding a reason for us to care. The vehicular action was limited almost entirely to the third act and even then, the film was about a crew of gearheads who violently rob innocent truckers for no good reason. Worse still, we were expected to sympathize with the thieves! The action was boring as all heck because we had no one to root for.
The latest movie solves this problem by ditching street races pretty much entirely and becoming a straight-up heist flick. In this film, our band of robbers — made of characters from all the previous films — are trying to get rich so they can retire from their illegal misadventures. They plan to do this by robbing a crime kingpin in Rio out of every cent he’s got. The plot is paper-thin, but it’s enough. We’ve got a clear set of protagonists, we’ve got a douchebag villain and we’ve got a reason to cheer for the former over the latter, which is far, far more than the first film ever gave us.
It also helps that our leading actors are employed very well. Vin Diesel, for example, plays the de facto leader, which means that he gets far more screen time and dialogue than most of his co-stars. Since Diesel has always been the strongest actor in this cast, giving most of the heavy lifting to him was a very smart move. By contrast, Paul Walker and Jordana Brewster still can’t act, but that doesn’t cause too much damage since neither of them are pushed too far out of their comfort zones.
Unfortunately, there are some characters in the cast that I found borderline intolerable. Tyrese Gibson plays one such character, though his impossible stupidity is slightly redeemed by the occasional humorous moment. That’s more than I can say for Tego Calderon and Don Omar, both of whom play characters in constant and desperate need of a ball gag. The good news is that there are so many characters in this crew and they’re all doing so much that the annoying is spread mercifully thin.
As for the villain… well, what about him? He’s comically evil, he owns the entire corrupt police force, moving right along.
So we’ve got our good thieves, we’ve got our bad crooks, and then we’ve got The Rock. Dwayne Johnson enters the franchise as elite US federal agent Luke Hobbs, a character who deserves his own spin-off film. There’s no denying that the character is horribly written, but Johnson wisely compensates for this with a metric fuckton of American testosterone. This is a character who’s constantly uttering one-liners and an actor who is superb at making one-liners sound badass. Best of all, Hobbs is presented as a man who’s extremely tough and great at his job, yet the film knows better than to make him look like a villain for it. The only reason Hobbs is an antagonist is because we’re looking at this film from the wrong side of the law. Also, Dwayne Johnson does throw down with Vin Diesel for a very lengthy fight scene and it is glorious.
But enough of the characters, what about the babes and the action? Well, to my surprise and gratification, the sex appeal in this film is very carefully used. Jordana Brewster’s character, for example, is quite well-attached to Walker’s character — not to mention pregnant with his child — throughout the story, so she doesn’t have too many opportunities to strut her stuff. To the movie’s credit, the pregnancy matter is very smartly utilized. The characters only mention it in a couple of scenes and we don’t get one of those uber-cliche scenes in which she has to be lectured out of the action for the baby’s sake. Instead, she gladly stays back at the HQ without a word about the subject, advising the team from a computer, so the character is still useful.
Getting back to the matter of eye candy, Michelle Rodriguez didn’t return for this movie, so Diesel’s character gets a new love interest. And she’s also the last honest cop in Rio. Needless to say, she doesn’t show a lot of skin while wearing a police uniform. Gal Godot, on the other hand, gets an amazing bikini scene in which she uses her sexuality to get something needed for the heist. Wonderful.
Aside from that, there are a few shots of scantily-clad women during the street racing scenes. In typical TFatF fashion, however, these shots are too quick to really do anything. The usual blatant misogyny is otherwise thankfully absent, however.
Yes, despite the new heist genre, this film does have a few street racing scenes. The twist is that all but one of them take place offscreen. Though this might seem like a rip-off, skipping over races with foregone conclusions did nothing but save us time, something that Rob Cohen would’ve done well to think of when he was making the first film. Having said that, the film does show us one street race, and it’s actually a lot of fun. The outcome is uncertain, the visuals are solid, the automotive choreography is easy to follow and the whole thing is exciting enough without any gimmicky CGI.
This brings me to my favorite part of the film: The Action. One of my biggest complaints against the first film was in its pacing, having gone through the entire second act without a decent action scene. Not here.
Though the movie does have its quieter moments, the pacing in general is very good. The heist format helps a lot in this regard, as our characters spend most of the running time performing various tasks to set up the job. In addition, we’ve got exhausting foot chases, spectacular gunfights and of course, car chases. There are several inventive set pieces on wheels in this film, every one a million times more spectacular and destructive than anything seen in the first movie. That film might have had a few cars totaled, but this film generates more scrap metal than a graveyard on Cybertron. Yes, the proceedings are loaded with stunts that defy physics, engineering, anatomy and common sense, but they’re all filmed, edited and sound-designed in such amazing fashion that I couldn’t help but watch in admiration.
Fast Five is everything that this franchise should have been from the very start. It’s a brainless action film with several plot holes and implausibilities, but the script is still clever enough to allow for surprises. The dialogue is loaded with clunkers, but the actors are good enough to try and embrace the cheesiness. Most importantly, the cars are beautifully filmed and used for action that’s jaw-droppingly good.
Basically put, this movie is FUN. It’s a great big barrel of fun. The tedium of the first film is absolutely nowhere to be found here. To that end, even if you’d written the franchise off completely, I highly recommend giving this film a try.