'Fast Five' Accelerates Summer
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
There are at least five good reasons to like "Fast Five" -- the latest installment in the cops, crooks and cars franchise that began with "The Fast and the Furious" -- and the even more impressive trick is how director Justin Lin takes those five reasons and balls them up into a solid fist that knocks the audience flat on its metaphorical ass.
First, the "car racing and crime" combination the prior films delivered is chucked out the window in the name of delivering a flat-out heist movie. Second, the film gets the band back together, assembling a rogues' gallery of likable familiar faces from the prior "Fast" films -- not just Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Matt Schulze and Jordana Brewster from the first film, but Ludacris and Tyrese Gibson from the second, Sung Kang from the third and Don Omar, Tego Calderon and Gal Gadot from the fourth, approaching the franchise's past with rowdy respect but never rigid reverence. Third, the film squeezes our crew of noble hard-driving heist artists tightly between Rio de Janeiro's top drug dealer and a hardass federal agent bent on taking them in -- and that hardass is played by Dwayne Johnson, who gives the franchise a mighty shot in its figurative, beefy arm. Fourth, in a summer movie landscape clotted and clogged with superheroes and semi-divine mythic beings, it is welcome to watch ordinary, mortal (but handsome and charismatic) people punch, shoot and drive their way out of trouble with nothing more than nervy skill, bruisable flesh and an ace stunt team on their side.
Finally, Lin delivers the kind of explosive, operatic action sequences you normally associate with Michael Bay -- but in the context of a semi-coherent and engaging script, which you normally do not. This is where "Fast Five" truly delivers, because Lin and his crew keep things moving but clear, with the engine of the plot constantly roaring but never grinding its gears. To be sure, there are brief dead moments in the film, and there are scenes where credulity is stretched so thin you can read through it, and some of the dialogue is so fraught with self-important sweaty swagger that it is laughable. But then you do laugh, because you're having a good time, and that sense of delight winds up letting you absolve all of the film's many sins.
To be fair, there is a substantial audience for whom this film will have no appeal: If you think all American action films are junk, you'll hardly be inclined to give "Fast Five" a fair shake. But if you know big-studio action cinema at all, and know how good it can be when it is good, you'll understand that this film is like the improbable offspring of "Bad Boys II" and Soderbergh's "Ocean" films -- the visceral violence and vengeance meshing perfectly with the clockwork cleverness of the caper. Diesel and Johnson's scenes are more about charisma than acting skill -- I wouldn't pay to see them do a revival of "Inherit the Wind," and neither would you. But they know how to be tough-guy movie stars, and when they fight, it's like half of Mount Rushmore got liquored up and started wrasslin', two solid slabs of muscle whaling away at each other with great vigor, and to great effect.
Screenwriter Chris Morgan and director Lin handled the two films before this installment, and their understanding of, and affection for, the characters and the actors is a pleasure to watch. There are no small parts here; everyone gets a moment, even if that means that Joaquim de Almeida gets short shrift as the film's bad guy. And the film's subtext of family and friendship keeps the script focused on the big picture of the ensemble, even as Johnson, Diesel and Walker topline the enterprise. In a time when too many action films are either soulless, gleaming, CGI hollow shells ("Tron: Legacy," "Sucker Punch") or rusty remakes and rehashes of sluggish gas-guzzling past glories ("The Expendables," "The A-Team") a film that's custom-built to combine the swift horsepower of characters we like with the stylish chrome of fresh changes is a welcome pleasure.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, AMCtv.com, IFC.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He was also the on-air film critic for San Francisco's CBS-5 from 2006 to 2008. He now lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.