SUMMER MOVIES: Fast Five

I remember when the first “The Fast and The Furious” film came out.  We all had low expectations when it came to story and character, but hopeful optimism for some big, bad action sequences.  And, to its (dis)credit, the first film delivered on those two promises.  It was fast, furious, and fall of mindless shit, but man, it was fun. 

The subsequent sequels all followed this roadmap, neatly laid out by producer Neal Moritz and followed to a tee: Keep the plot light, the characters fluffy, and the action flashy.  A franchise was born.  Vin Diesel decided not to return to his signature role of “Dom,” the pumped up, shaved down carjack leader after the first film, leaving Paul Walker, the FBI undercover agent Brian O’Connell, to carry it on.  Fortunately for all involved, Walker’s charm, abdominal presence, and surfer dude charisma were able to keep it afloat for at least the sequel, “2 Fast, 2 Furious,” which also added Tyrese Gibson as…Tyrese Gibson.

The third film was a bit of a reboot, bringing in a whole new slew of characters to carry on the show, which seemed to be in name and theme only.  Lucas Black, best known as the star quarterback in the film version of “Friday Night Lights” took on the starring role and the franchise took a trip overseas to Tokyo.  It was also the first outing for director Justin Lin (the first film was from Rob Cohen, the second from John Singleton).  Lin brought a youthful “in” culture feel to the film, which opened it up to the next generation of moviegoers, sealing the franchise lore even further.

At the end of Tokyo drift, Vin Diesel makes a brief cameo, which stirred the F and F franchise with swirlies of happiness.  Fans, as well as Diesel, who floundered in his post F and F movies, were ready for more.  Lin was brought on for the fourth installment, an achievement in itself, seeing as most films that don’t have a “Saw” or ‘Final Destination” in the title rarely make it that far in today’s cinema. 

What kicked the fourth F and F into high gear was the reuniting of both Walker and Vin Diesel.  Lucas Black, the star of the third film was nowhere to be seen (and still isn’t…guess there’s only room for so many leading men in the F and F world).  The cast alone seemed to seal the deal for the aptly titled “Fast and Furious” (simply dropping the “the” from the original films title).  The story was more attitude than…uh, story, but it worked.  On every level, it was a gee-whiz action romp with fast cars racing and crashing and the occasional brawl or shoot out.  Vin Diesel said quippy things in his bass-grinding monotone, Paul Walker looked longingly into the camera lens, and lots of girls in mini skirts shook their goods in slow motion to Pitbull music.  Everyone was happy.

And now we have the ingeniously titled “Fast Five,” which, in case you haven’t been keeping score, is the fifth installment of the F and F franchise.  It is essentially the culmination of ALL the F and F movies, bringing together cast members from all four of the previous films, to include its staples Vin Diesel and Paul Walker.  This time, Walker is no longer an FBI agent and has joined the “dark” side of the car thief lifestyle.  After breaking Vin Diesel out of prison (or should I say, “en route” to prison) the carjacking gang relocates to Rio de Janeiro to lay low.  Of course that doesn’t last long, as they spring a job to make some fast cash, which involves them with local gangsters.  The job goes awry, naturally, and they are now on the shit list of said local gangsters, triggering the stereotypical main villain/politician/power-player/guy-in-suit to put the kibosh on our favorite car thieves.  To add to the stockpile of trouble, a few DEA agents are killed as well during the heist, which springs forth the super bad-ass team of crackpot trackers led by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

The Rock would win “Best Performance By An Actor Profusely Sweating All Over The Place” award if the Academy ever initiates that category.  He is like a sweat fountain in every scene, his intensity so, uh, intense, that he CAN’T STOP SWEATING.  His eyes squint (or open real wide) and he gets face-to-face confrontational with just about everyone he runs into throughout the movie.  And the thing is: He does it well.  Essentially, its The Rock’s wrestling persona only with an overgrown soul patch and law enforcement fatigues.  And that’s just fine here.  He’s a welcome addition to the already stacked cast.

From here it’s a series of car chases, showdowns, shootouts, and quippy one-liners that work more on an immature teenage level than honest-to-God witty dialogue banter level.  Again, I give the “forgiven” wave, because I was not looking for an Oscar winning script, let alone Oscar winning performances.  I wanted to see some kick ass stunts and explosions.  Fast Five delivers that in spades.

The chief selling point to Fast Five is that it transcends the car culture aspect of its origins and transitions into the action/heist genre with relative ease.  Now, it’s not a “smart” heist movie, but it is damn fun, damn loud, and a damn good ride from start to finish. What gives it its weight in gold is director Lin’s use of in-camera, practical effects, something almost unheard of in today’s action films with bloated use of CGI for almost every type of action sequence (see “Knight and Day” and ask yourself if they couldn’t have just done it “for real”).  Like the action guru director Tony Scott, Lin opts for the in-your-face carpocolypse crashes and carnage, making you wince with every crash, just as you would if you were a man on the street witnessing it for yourself.

When you’re making a reality-based film, it’s important for the audience to be able to see themselves inside the situation.  Bad CGI takes you right out of the moment.  Fortunately, Fast Five puts it in drive and keeps it there all the way to the end of the credits.  Another aspect that I enjoyed was the inclusion of gunplay violence, something that is missing from a lot of contemporary action films.  It’s a rarity anymore and it’s nice to have some good ole’ fashioned machine gun boom-boom in a movie again.  It’s not exactly die hard, but between the car chases, crashes, explosions, shootouts, and fight scenes, you couldn’t ask for a more well rounded action flick than Fast Five.

Fast Five suffers in the story department however, but if you can overlook that, then you’ll have a great time.  The problem is that nearly every motive, decision, and reaction of each and every character leaves your brow furrowed in confusion.  Then there is either some slow motion dancing from scantily clad car whores or an orange ball of fire erupting from a car crash and all is right in the cinematic world again. 

This looks to be a promising summer for movies, but the genre of films is stacked in favor of super heroes, drunken hijinks, and animated anthropomorphic characters.  If you’re looking for a dose of straight up action, Fast Five is the film to beat in the summer heat of 2011.

SUMMER MOVIE SCORE: 8/10

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