Fast Five is frankly something of a miracle. Here is the fifth entry of a 10-year old franchise that has rarely surpassed mediocrity, but which now offers up a chapter that borders on genuine greatness. Here is a sequel that pays explicit attention to what came before and rewards viewers who actually watched and enjoyed the previous films.
Unlike so many later sequels that basically just disregard the prior sequels and try to be a sequel to the original or a stand-alone reboot, Fast Five embraces its character relationships and continuity. I had not seen any of the Fast and the Furious films until the week prior to seeing Fast Five. Having watched the prior entries over a period of a few days, I really didn't care for any of them. As much as I enjoyed Fast Five, I cannot even imagine how rewarding this movie will be for those who have loved this series since the beginning.
A token amount of plot: Following a daring (but explicitly not-deadly) jailbreak at the conclusion of Fast and Furious, former FBI agent Brian O'Conner (Paul Walker) is now a fugitive along with Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and his sister Mia Toretto (Jordanna Brewster). After a heist goes south, resulting in the murders (by a third party) of three DEA agents, our heroes find themselves at the top of the Most Wanted list as they scramble to survive on the streets of Brazil. But the botched job does result in a piece of information that could allow them to steal tens-of-millions of dollars from a corrupt politician (Joaquim de Almeida, of course!).
With all three of them sick of being on the run, they plot to take down one last score, but they can't do it alone. So they recruit, well, pretty much every memorable character from the previous films. Enter Tyrese Gibson and Ludacris from 2 Fast 2 Furious, Sung Kang from Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, plus Gal Gidot and Tego Calderon from Fast and Furious. But hot on their tail is the relentless Agent Hobbs (Dwayne 'the Rock' Johnson, having as much fun as he can get away with). Pardon the obvious paragraph conclusion, but things do indeed get fast and/or furious.
Unlike the prior entries, which mixed and matched underground racing culture with undercover cop thrillers, Fast Five peels away the fat and goes for a straight-up caper picture. Call it Fast and the Furious meets Ocean's 11, but Justin Lin's newest installment (his third consecutive entry) spends much less time admiring automobiles or even racing those automobiles and more time establishing character and relationships and setting up the big score so that the action pay-offs actually have a token amount of weight.
This isn't Oscar-level material, but everyone has a relaxed chemistry and a shorthand that makes the audience feel like they are truly in the company of old friends. The copious humor is generally successful as the various wise-crackers don't try to oversell the wit and there is a good-natured vibe to the constant teasing. Most of the 'franchise all-stars to the rescue' are onboard for comic relief and/or action, but everyone is having a blast and the amusement is contagious.
Leads Vin Diesel, Jordanna Brewster, and Paul Walker are not master thespians, and Dwayne Johnson seems to have been directed to overact as much as possible (he's on pure, unrelenting hard-ass mode here), but they all do what needs to be done to sell the drama. Walker and Diesel have a lovely scene in the first act where they discuss their relationships with their respective fathers. In the first film, Diesel had a heartfelt monologue about his father's death, this time he talks about his father's life. It's a surprisingly sweet moment that, along with a major development in the relationship between Brian and Mia, establishes the emotional stakes for the rest of the picture. Point being, when the film needs to go for serious drama, it works as well as it has to.
While I do wish the women were around for more than just decoration, Elsa Pataky gets a few low-key moments as a rookie officer whose cop-husband was murdered by local drug dealers (it's not a great performance, but the effort at creating a generally asexual female is appreciated). Jordanna Brewster gets plenty of screen time, but little of it involves her being in the thick of the action. Although, for what it's worth, this is a film that more-or-less passes the Bechdel Test, so credit where credit is due.
Ironically, Vin Diesel probably mourns the loss of Michelle Rodriguez more in this film than in the film where she actually died, which retroactively improves Fast and Furious. It's just one example of how Fast Five refuses to ignore its past and instead feeds on continuity to give substance to the caper antics. Even Matt Schulze, from the very first movie, makes a brief appearance in the opening act, and he has a touching moment where he openly acknowledges how much their family has fallen apart a decade later.
You've probably realized that I'm five paragraphs into this review and haven't commented on what most of you probably came to see. Well, the action sequences are, in a word, spectacular. Pretty much all of it is true-blue practical, with real stunt work, real car crashes, and real table-smashing, glass breaking, bone-breaking fight scenes. The curtain-raiser sequence is a tension-filled car heist on a train that climaxes in a ridiculous stunt that's impressive even if you've already seen the trailer. The first act concludes with a genuinely suspenseful foot chase atop shanty rooftops as two sets of armed foes chase after our heroes and end up fighting each other.
The handful of other set pieces I will not reveal, only to say that those wanting a smack-down between Vin Diesel and The Rock will not be disappointed (and unlike some titan vs. titan fight scenes in movies past, there is a clear winner and loser). The film climaxes with an astonishing bit of automobile maneuvering and destruction. And since the film takes the time to establish the relationships and the stakes (this film is nearly thirty minutes longer than any of the previous entries) there is a genuine emotional investment outside of the visceral surface-level thrills. Everything else aside, this is a dynamite action picture that really should be seen in IMAX if at all possible.
I love that characters actually remember that Michelle Rodriguez died in the last film. I love the quick moment at the beginning when fugitives Brian and Mia hurriedly scarf down a meal, implying that they haven't been eating much lately. I love that our heroes state over and over again to whomever will listen that they are not guilty of the murders they've been accused of, logical behavior that is all-too absent in 'the wrong man accused-type thrillers'. I love that when (...SPOILER...) a major character is seemingly about to die at the finale, I bought it completely before remembering that it would have been scientifically impossible (hint -- this film takes place before Tokyo Drift). (...SPOILER END...) I love that most of the film involves generally intelligent characters making generally intelligent decisions whenever possible. I love the silly moment right before the climax when your audience is likely to roar with applause and approval (mine did).
And I love that Fast Five succeeds where the previous four films have failed, crafting an epic, yet intimate action adventure story that is rooted in character and chemistry as much as it's rooted in car crashes and explosions. I didn't like any of the prior films in this series, yet I kinda loved this one. If you're actually a hardcore fan of what came before, then you are in for a treat. It may have taken four times to get it right, but the fifth time is truly the charm. Universal isn't lying, summer indeed begins on April 29th. And there hasn't been a summer kick-off film this all-out entertaining since X2: X-Men United.
Fast Five may not be a great film. But, by god, it's a pretty great movie.
For more of Scott Mendelson's writings, go to Mendelson's Memos.
Follow Scott Mendelson on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ScottMendelson