Film Review: Fast Five

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Toretto’s Ten

(Fast Five, Justin Lin, US, 2011, 130 mins)

‘Ten-second car’; ‘undercarriage lighting’; ‘pink slips’; ‘NOS.’ Ten long years ago, The Fast and the Furious took the world into the exotic realm of underground racing, and subsequently added those phrases to the vocabulary of almost every adolescent boy. But, a decade is a long time, and those heading off to their local multiplex to see Fast Five expecting the series’ standard offering of fast cars, barely-clad ladies and nitrous oxide used by the tankful are in for a surprise…

Not that you’d realise that from the opening. Picking up where 2009’s Fast & Furious left off, director Justin Lin, in his third crack at the series, reunites the original cast for a highway-set jailbreak that acts as a distillation of every element of the franchise. Jailed for 25 years at the close of the last film, Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) is saved from his fate by two fast cars, some skillful driving from his sister Mia (Jordana Brewster) and disgraced former cop Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker), and the resulting seven rolls from the prison bus.

It’s an exhilarating, impressively CGI-free opening, and, as a newsreader relays in the following scene, one that, amazingly, results in no fatalities. Transcending the physical limits of the human body – and even the laws of physics themselves – is fair game in the world of Fast Five, as long as it results in something cool happening onscreen or saves the muddying of our heroes’ morality. Indeed, Fast Five arguably has more in common with a comic book movie than any racing flick, with the leads’ incredible vehicular feats analogous to superpowers; their pimped-out rides effectively their costumes. This very clearly is not reality, and Lin’s film is all the better for it.

From here, the plot veers away from the well-established tropes of the series and into new territory. With the three leads wanted in the US, they flee to the favelas of Rio, where the gang come into conflict with Hernan Reyes (Joaquim de Almeida) – millionaire, drug dealer and de facto ruler of the city. With Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Jonhson), a federal agent with a near-mythical reputation, despatched to apprehend them, and Reyes’ men trying to kill them at every opportunity, the gang are forced to assemble a crack team to perform the fabled One Last Job – rob Reyes of his fortune and race off into the sunset forever.

That’s right – the core of Lin’s film is basically Ocean’s Eleven by way of The Fugitive. While this means that Fast Five offers only the slightest of glimpses into the neon world of Rio’s racing scene, the shift refreshes the series, with the familiar gearhead lingo and drag races replaced by a wide range of set-pieces, an ensemble cast, and even a chase scene – whisper it – on foot.

With the aforementioned bipedal pursuit across the favela rooftops – through houses, ambushes, and hails of gunfire – a daring car theft from a moving train over a two-hundred-foot drop, and some impressively visceral combat scenes, Fast Five’s lengthy runtime flies past quicker than a quarter-mile in a Ford GT. Even more notably, the vast majority of the film’s set-pieces were created the old-fashioned way, with CGI used sparingly. Indeed, it’s always more effective seeing a stuntman jumping a truck into a locomotive than a bunch of train and 4×4-shaped pixels colliding.

Even so, everything else Lin throws up on screen pales in comparison to the final heist. Two Dodge Chargers, steel cabling, a twenty-ton safe, the Rio streets and around a hundred cop cars combine to create one of the most exciting car chases/demolition sprees in recent memory. Loud, fast, unrelenting, heart-stopping and more than a little absurd – the scene is the embodiment of everything Lin does right.

There are, of course, ‘quiet’ – or, more accurately, ‘less loud’ – moments between the action. Even the explosion-free portions of Fast Five are, somewhat surprisingly, watchable, with the team’s machinations to break into Reyes’ vault and evade capture frequently impressive in their ingenuity and/or humorous in their absurdity – Reyes’ palm print captured by his pawing of Gisele Harabo’s (Gal Gadot) bikini-clad rump being the most obvious example. Make no mistake, Fast Five revels in its own ludicrousness.

Although Fast Five does perform some fan service with the return of series favourites Roman Pearce (Tyrese Gibson) and Tej Parker (Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges), it’s likely to be a new introduction – Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson’s turn as US marshal Hobbs – that sticks in the mind. Gleefully and knowingly embracing the absurdity of his role, Johnson throws out one-liners and chews up the screen like a smarter, more intelligible version of The Governator in his prime. The Arnie comparisons go further than a few wisecracks, though. Dripping in moisture the entire time he’s on screen, Johnson is so impossibly large you wonder whether it’s sweat or excess testosterone that glistens on his immense frame.

There is, of course, another bald, well-built actor starring in Fast Five, and the coming-together of these two apogees of manliness has been incessantly marketed as one of the film’s USPs. Thankfully, when Diesel and Johnson finally square off, almost three-quarters of the way through the film, it doesn’t disappoint. The Schwarzenegger and Stallone (or Van Damme if you’re feeling cruel) of their generation, an identikit  movie fight scene would be an insult to the two. Just as well, then, that the lack of overt choreography and cinematographer Stephen Windon’s frenetic camerawork combine to render something more akin to two continents of meat colliding. Walls and windows are broken, blood is let, and Justin Lin’s Fast Five throws yet another exhilarating set-piece up on the screen.

In terms of acting, things, unsurprisingly, aren’t so rosy. Walker, wide-eyed and rather wooden, still looks like he’d be more comfortable on a surf board than in a car, while Don Omar and Tego Calderon – the two token Brazilians on the team – are saddled with the roles of ‘amusing, bickering duo,’ which becomes ‘annoying, bickering duo’ after ten minutes of screen time. Likewise, Elsa Pataky, as seemingly the sole morally-upright member of the Rio police force, is more plot device than character.

The characterisation may have all the subtlety of the aforementioned meat melee, the plot isn’t exactly byzantine in its complexity, and some of the dialogue is horrendous (‘$11 million? Sounds like a whole lot of vaginal activity to me.’), but all of that becomes irrelevant in the face of Fast Five’s unrelenting drive to simply entertain. Lin’s film may be absurd, brash and dumb, but it’s also self-knowing, thrilling and, in an age where computers can make any stunt possible, refreshingly real. From this, it seems the Fast & Furious franchise is back – dare I say it – firing on all cylinders.

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