REVIEW: Sequel/Prequel Fast Five Mixes, Matches and Somehow Works
Fast Five is not the movie it could be. But maybe it's the movie it ought to be. Action movies in which the cutting is so frenetic and choppy that you can barely discern who's coming from where are a nickel a dozen, and Fast Five is one of them. But the picture has other charms. Cars that drive off cliffs, trains that blow up real good, actors who are in on the joke of their own ridiculously buff silhouettes, shapely girls who wear short-shorts with a single star slapped on each buttock: It isn't quite summer-movie season yet, but Fast Five is already peeling down to its proverbial, sweat-sodden muscle shirt in preparation. It's ready for anything.
Actually, the proceedings are a little more high-toned than you might think. Fast Five, directed by Justin Lin, is the fifth movie in the franchise spawned by Rob Cohen's snazzy 2001 B-movie-style cheapie The Fast and the Furious. The first picture is still, for my money, the best in the series: The Fast and the Furious arrived in theaters with little fanfare and a lot of brashness, a Rip Van Winkle that had fallen asleep watching Eat My Dust at the drive-in, only to wake up 25 years later with a slightly bigger budget.
The ensuing three sequels -- John Singleton's 2003 2 Fast 2 Furious and the 2005 The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift and the 2009 Fast and Furious, both directed by Lin -- wavered in quality and entertainment value, and all were more excessive and self-conscious than the original. But Fast Five works better than any of the previous three movies, perhaps because, for all its excessiveness, it has a bulging sense of humor about itself. It rides the wave of self-parody steadily, without embarrassment or overcompensation.
It also marks an attempt on the part of the screenwriter, Chris Morgan (who also wrote the previous Lin-directed entries in the franchise), to map out an elaborate heist picture a la The Italian Job or Oceans 11, and he doesn't do too badly. Fast Five opens where one of the previous movies -- I've seen them all, but I can't for the life of me tell you which one -- left off: Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel) is headed to jail, where he'll be forced to wear that dreaded, unflattering orange jumpsuit. As he's being sentenced, his sister, Mia (Jordana Brewster), and his former-nemesis, now-pal Brian O'Conner (Paul Walker), express anxiety and dismay from their side of the courtroom. Toretto isn't in jail for long, of course, and sometime later the three find themselves in Rio, where another old-time associate from movie #1, Vince (Matt Schulze), is waiting for them with -- get this -- one last job.
Actually, it ends up being two more jobs. Or could it be three? In any event, Brian, Mia and Toretto are going to need help for their various car-boosting and money-stealing activities. (They're fleecing a bad guy, a Rio crime boss played by Joaquim de Almeida, so it's all OK.) They reach back in time -- in some cases possibly resurrecting the dead -- to call some old friends: Car mechanic Tej (Chris "Ludacris" Bridges), Mutt-and-Jeff explosive experts Leo and Santos (played, with brio, by Tego Calderon and Don Omar) and the expected assortment of hotshot drivers, Sung Kang's Han, Tyrese Gibson's Roman and Gal Gidot's Giselle. The whole gang must outrun beefy law-enforcement guy Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson), whose comely sidekick, tough cop Elena (Elsa Pataky), will end up making a pretty sweet love interest for somebody or other.
You may recall that the exceedingly charming Han met his maker in Tokyo Drift, but Fast Five apparently takes place before that happened -- so it's a sequel that's also a prequel. But never mind. Sections of Fast Five are so packed with excitement that they're nearly bogged down: The action sequences are elaborate and ambitious -- the first one involves boosting cars off a moving train and features one glorious explosion -- but they're also cluttered and manic. The fallacy here, as with almost all modern action movies, is that on-screen chaos needs to be chaotic. (Of all the directors currently working, Tarantino is the master of clean action sequences: You always know who's coming from where, even if you don't know why.) And while there's plenty of stunt driving here, it's cut into so many ribbons that it barely feels thrilling.
But Lin, as he showed in Tokyo Drift, does have a knack for poetic images, and there are a few here: The best of them involves a car jetting off a cliff and launching into a silent freefall -- it's a soaring bit of craziness presented with Zenlike calm. Lin also keeps the movie's plot intricacies clicking along at a reasonable pace. But perhaps the best thing about Fast Five is that it brings Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson together for the first time.
It's either genius or madness to put Diesel and Johnson in the same movie, or the same scene. They're both enormously appealing performers: Johnson may have the edge -- he's looser and more self-deprecating, although Diesel, with his slow-burning, bad-boy smile, is hardly a snob. Physically, the two of them are a matched set, like overgrown salt-and-pepper shakers. Their proportions are so exaggerated, they're comical. (In Fast Five, Johnson's skin is so well-oiled it looks as if he's been dipped in Polyurethane.) When the two finally come face to face -- the clean-shaven Diesel in an angelic white T-shirt, Johnson, with his Sonny Rollins facial hair, wearing dark law-enforcement garb -- they stand eye-to-eye, smoldering at each other, like the Gold's Gym version of Groucho and Harpo's mirror sequence. There's a lot going on, maybe too much, in Fast Five. But in the end, it comes down to two hot guys staring each other down and checking each other out. Everybody goes home happy.