Principal Cast : Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Dwayne Johnson, Jordana Brewster, Tyrese Gibson, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Matt Schulze, Sung Kang, Gal Gadot, Joaquim del Ameida, Elsa Pataky, Tego Calderon, Don Omar, Eva Mendez, Michael Irby.
Synopsis: Dom, Brian and Mia flee to Rio to escape justice in the US, before coming under the scrutiny of a local crime boss and once more having to go all fast and furious to survive in one of the worlds most hostile cities. Car chases and shoot-outs galore.
In the world of Hollywood business management, most people would be aware of the age-old tenet of the Law Of Diminishing Returns: to wit, sequels make increasingly less and less profit as the numbering rises, resulting in both lower budgets and less proficient directors helming what invariably become direct-to-DVD flicks of less-than adequate value. Bucking this trend is the increasingly inane, and yet strangely more and more entertaining Fast & The Furious franchise, which has now hit world audiences with its 5th incarnation, bestowed the appellation of Fast Five [alternative markets have this film re-badged as Fast & The Furious Five]. While the original F&F was a catalysing affirmation of the validity of illegal street racing, apropos via the glitzy filter of the big screen and the keen eye of Rob Cohen, the second edition failed utterly to recapture the spirit and energy of its predecessor, while the third entry managed to dissipate almost all the franchises potential in one fell digitally-enhanced swoop. Cue Justin Lin and the fourth film, which returned original-film cast members Michelle Rodriguez and Jordana Brewster, as well as lead actors Paul Walker and Vin Diesel. While Fast & Furious wasn’t the greatest film ever made, not by a long shot, the fact that Lin managed to make a F&F film that didn’t suck was success enough – the fact that it was vastly superior to even the original film (not to mention the sequels) was a bonus. So fans must have been ecstatic when Universal decided that the Fast franchise wasn’t quite dead-in-the-water just yet, and green-lit another Lin-helmed sequel. Would lightning strike twice (or five times) this time?
Picking up directly where Fast & Furious left off, with a spectacular prison bus crash which frees the recently incarcerated Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel), Fast Five takes us to the Brazilian city of Rio de Janiro, where Dom, Brian (Paul Walker) and Dom’s sister Mia (Jordana Brewster) have gone to escape extradition back to the USA. After failing to pull off another job, organized by Dom’s old friend Vince (Matt Schulze), and stirring up the hornets nest of Federal Law Enforcement, special operative Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and his team are sent to bring the trio to justice. While in Rio, Dom and Co fall foul of local crime kingpin (really, is there any other kind?) Reyes (Joaquim del Ameida) who now also wants them dead. In order to escape, Dom and his friends decide to steal Reyes’ massive fortune from right under his nose, which involves an elaborate Ocean’s 11 styled operation. So they call in their “family”, Roman Pearce (Tyrese Gibson), Tej Parker (Ludacris), Han (Sung Kang) Gisele (Gal Gadot), and Tego and Rico (Tego Calderon and Don Omar), to not only split the wealth but also pull off the most daring heist yet. Dom also starts to fall for local cop Elena (Elsa Pataky), who is actually on the side of Hobb’s team of mercenaries.
There’s no denying what draws people to these films, and trust me when I say it isn’t the characters. No, it’s the cars and the crazy – craaazeeeee – stuntwork. I figured after the appallingly dull Tokyo Drift instalment that the filmmakers had simply run out of ideas, and that F&F would be thusly consigned to the Hollywood scrapheap as yet another franchise run into the ground by the bean counters in the backrooms. When Fast 4 came and went and was actually entertaining, I figured that it was prone to a stroke of genius to bring back the original films stars. Imagine my surprise then, when Fast Five slid down the highway and onto the parking lot of my TV screen, buffed and shiny and filled with more testosterone-fuelled action than you could poke a stick at. Fast Five sees Diesel, Walker and Brewster return again, only this time they’re joined by fellow “thespian” Dwayne Johnson, who has finally rid himself of the cutsey Disney-fied comedy track his career was taking and decided to sack up to starring a film where his charisma and effortless screen presence actually work for him. The teaming of Diesel and Johnson in the same film must have made the studios heads collectively explode with orgasmic excitement, because the major promotional push for this film (at least, here in Australia) was the prime positioning of both Diesel and Johnson in the posters – this was like Arnie and Stallone appearing in the same film, and sharing screen time. Like an apocryphal moment of cinema. It also led most viewers to accept that gone were the days of trying to shoehorn actual character development into these films, and just give the audience what they paid to see – stuff going fast and blowing up.
Fast Five is slightly deceptive in this regard, because while it does contain some of the most mind-blowing stuntwork and car driving we’ve seen in this franchise thus far, the filmmakers have (unfortunately) tried to bring in a little too much character-driven material for an action film like this. The triptych relationship between Toretto, his sister and O’Connor is seen by the producers as perhaps the key focus of the revamped sequels, even though none of the cast are capable of delivering anything but the most shallow, basic emotive qualities to their characters. Diesel glowers a lot, Jordana Brewster looks like she’s been moulded by a carving knife (and probably has, because I got the sense a lot of her face is an advert from how not to indulge in plastic surgery) for all the emotion her face expresses, and Paul Walker wouldn’t know honest emotion and screen presence if it smacked his bare ass on a winters day. The “dialogue” moments of the film, which play out with either screaming intensity or vastly overblown machismo and muscular flexing (both physically and metaphorically) are truly dire, and easily the worst part this film has going for it. The Rock – sorry, Dwayne Johnson – acquits himself pretty well as the carved-from-granite DSS Agent Hobbs, a no-nonsense kinda guy who will stop at nothing to catch his man, even though his character has as much depth as a piece of single ply cotton.
Where the film really kicks into gear is in the obligatory, extensive, and altogether physics-defying action sequences, most of which involve some kind of vehicular badgergaggery. Car stunts are nothing new to this franchise, perhaps eclipsing even the vaunted Bullit, Ronin and a host of other (Michael Bay’s The Rock included) car sequences over the course of its five-film run. Fast Five delivers more of the prerequisite racing (a four-way police car chase between four of the male cast members, while completely unnecessary, keeps the film tied to its original street-racing roots) and chasing, as well as some superbly choreographed running and fighting (of actual people, not cars) and a pretty intense Bourne-esque fight between Johnson and Diesel. Director Justin Lin learned a fair bit from his work on Fast 4, giving Five a leaner, meaner edge with the stuntwork and camerawork. Franchise devotees will know that Lin also cut his teeth on the Tokyo Drift entry, which, while certainly stylish, relied far too heavily on digital trickery and an abundance of drifting to make much sense. To say Lin’s work here is better than either Tokyo Drift or Fast & Furious is a little like comparing Terminator 2 to the original Cameron classic – yes it’s a sequel, but oh so much better. While he can’t direct actors to act, he knows how to shoot an action sequence, and frame cars doing the craziest stunts, and as far as this viewer is concerned, that’s all I ask of any Fast & Furious film.
As I mentioned, the film slows considerably in its more dramatic moments, especially between Dom, Mia and Brian (I bet the cast are regretting naming one of the lead characters something so corn-boy as “Brian”), where a subplot regarding pregnancy rears up as a somewhat tepid narrative enhancing the “family” they all are – not to mention the abominable arc between Dom and Elena, the latter who seems more like Dom than either of them are ready to accept, in the fact that they’ve both lost something close to them and are seeking some form of redemption. It’s poorly handled, I found, and while I understand the need to try and humanize the robotic and thuggish Dom Toretto, perhaps this wasn’t the way to do it. Poor Paul Walker has little to do except look alternately confused and angry as he scowls through his role of the former undercover cop, Brian. His scenes with Jordana Brewster, while mercifully short, reminded me somewhat of the awkwardly wooden chemistry between Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman in the Star Wars prequels. I’m not comparing the daytime-soap style of acting from Brewster with the Oscar winning ability of Portman, just to be clear, but neither actor in this duo of on-screen partnering seems natural or believable in their admittedly limited roles.
As I also pointed out, plenty of the cast have returned from previous instalments – Tyrese Gibson appeared in the lamentable 2 Fast 2 Furious, while Gal Gadot reprises her role of Gisele from the fourth film. Sung Kang appeared in Tokyo Drift, while the comic relief pairing of Don Omar and Tego Calderon from Fast & Furious is once more mined (perhaps to a more irritating effect) here. Original film co-star Matt Schulze, who couldn’t act then and can’t act now, appears in an extended cameo as Dom’s friend Vince, although his arc as a traitor-slash-friend seems poorly handled, and simply exists as some sort of redemptive narrative subplot to further provoke Dom into more drastic action when the time arises. None of the cast are asked to do a hell of a lot except look cool, and spout some truly ridiculous dialogue, even as the explosions, bullets and massive bank-safe car-chases are taking place around them.
It’s hard to know quite where to go with Fast Five. On the one hand, the film is seriously undone by some woeful acting and scripting. On the other, the action sequences enthral and entertain, which is all you’d ask of them, really. The characters are pretty shallow, the physics of what transpires onscreen would make Stephen Hawking stand up and shake his bony fist at the sky, while the denouement is reasonably adequate for the inevitable sequel (stay tuned through the credits for a cool cameo – again, a blast from the franchises’ past – and a jaw-dropping revelation I never saw coming!) coming down the pipeline. Fast Five requires some serious suspension of disbelief (and I mean serious) for it all to work, and yet somehow, Justin Lin manages to make it work somehow, even when all the individual parts of the film are weirdly discombobulating. Make no mistake, this film is loud, improbable and seriously stupid. The emotional journey it takes the viewer on could be contained within the core of a subatomic particle. But the guttural roar of a NOS-injected engine, the throb of a quality gear change, the schwing-screeee of a sideways slide mixed with ricocheting rubber on concrete, and the muscular entry of Dwayne Johnson versus Vin Diesel (which is a lot like seeing two refrigerators collide) make Fast Five a cacophonous joyride through popcorn-chewing cinematic B-cheese. It’s been said before (and by folks of a higher critiquing calibre than I) but I think Fast Five might just be the best F&F film to date. Crank it up and enjoy!