Here's a short review of Fast Five, the fifth in the increasingly complex series of car chase and caper films starring Vin Diesel and/or Paul Walker (and one that stars neither of them) and features characters pulled in from all of the chronologically preceding films for an even bigger car-centric caper than Fast and Furious' high speed smuggling runs through underground border caves. It's as good as all the others except maybe 2 Fast 2 Furious.
Why are you looking at me with this raised eyebrows? Wait, you've seen all the other films in this series right?
Yes? No??!! I can see you shaking your head and making a Spock-face when I say "chronologically preceding."
Okay, let's run through a quick primer -
In The Fast and the Furious (2001) undercover cop Brian O'Connor (Paul Walker) infiltrated Dominic Toretto's (Vin Diesel's) gang of street racers while trying to stop a ring of mysterious truck hijackers who all drive souped up Honda Civics. At the end, O'Connor lets Diesel escape and it costs him his badge.
Remember that one? Good.
In 2 Fast 2 Furious (2002) Director John Singelton brings back Brian O'Connor, now making his living as a street racer in Miami recruited by his old Police captain working with the DEA in tracking down and busting a drug dealer named Calderone (Cole Hauser) who is looking for drivers to move a shitload of money. Brian brings in a childhood pal, Roman (Tyresse Gibson) to be his wing man. Both of them live on the property of Tej (Ludacris) who owns a speed shop and runs several underground gambling tournaments around racing. Eva Mendez is the cop embedded in Calderone's organization who may have gone native.
Saw that one, yes? Awesome...
In Fast and Furious (2009) Dir Justin Lin - Vin Diesel learns that his old flame, Letty (Michelle Rodriquez) from The Fast and the Furious was murdered while making a money run through a series of cross-border tunnels for some really awful assholes south of the border. Domonic Toretto and his sister Mia (Jordana Brewster) partner with Brian O'Connor, and new characters Han (Sung Kang) and Gisele Harabo (Gal Gadot) to find out who murdered Letty and bring them to justice.
Remember? Fast and Furious is on every cable channel all the time. You've seen it, great. What's that? Wasn't there one set in Tokyo with the kid from Slingblade and Lil' Bow Wow and hey yes, Han was in that one too, but he died? Of course! That was Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006). How come I didn't put that one before 2009's Fast and Furious (also directed by Justin Lin)? Easy, the events of Tokyo Drift take place in an indeterminate future. I know, right? Awesome! And that gives all kinds of wiggle room to the production company to fit in any number of adventures between 2 Fast 2 Furious and whenever Tokyo Drift happens.
In the world of real life, the story is sort of interesting too. Justin Lin, a Taiwanese director, was brought into the franchise after 2 Fast 2 Furious didn't clean up at the box office. Which, having watched this movie approximately 40 times now in the last year, is a shame. John Singleton brought a lot of life and fun to his tale of a really evil if stereotypical drug dealer. Anyway, the film didn't do so well and neither Diesel or Walker were around. So Justin Lin made a way less crime oriented way more car stunt oriented tale of a reckless driving gaijin and his pals making the best of it in Japan's drifting scene. This movie didn't do super well either, 63 million domestically over it's whole run, but it earned a pretty hefty cult following and DVD and Blu Ray sales were very strong. And it was also made on the cheap without the star power of Diesel, Brewster, or Walker (though Vin Diesel makes cameo at the end).
Lin came back to helm Fast and Furious which did 150 million box office, and was brought back to the most recent film Fast Five. This consistency is a good thing.
Lin's claim to fame is that all of the car stunts are live stunts and there's no CGI, and you know what, that's awesome! Fast Five is sort of the The Good The Bad and The Ugly of the Fast and Furious movies. What screenwriter Chris Morgan does is sets up a condition where he can bring all of the best loved characters from the preceding films together for a sort of Ocean's Eleven type heist. Fast Five opens with Dominic Toretto getting 15 to life after his capture at the end of Fast and Furious. Before you can say "breakout" Mia, Brian, and Vince (Matt Schulz) use their superior driving skills to wreck the prison transport bus and steam Dom away. This puts Brian, Mia, Dom, and Vince right near the top of the FBI's most wanted list. The gang ends up in Brazil where Vince has secured a gig, stealing cars from a speeding train, that will earn them enough money to run for many years so long as they stay south of the border. Dom is off on his own most of the time, while Brian and Mia are a couple now and Mia is pregnant. Vince is married and has a three year old son. Times are tough though as they are all so wanted that work is hard to come by. But good drivers are always in demand for the seedier side of any business, which is how Vince lands this gig.
These cars, we learn later, belong to a pseudo philanthropist drug dealer Reyes (Joaquim de Almeida). Also hunting the gang is a team of NSA officers led by Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson). He is the modern embodiment of the old spaghetti western bounty hunter. He doesn't care what Toretto and the others have done, he just wants to catch them because catching the is his job. When Dom and his friends realize why Reyes is to hot to get one of the cars back, they launch into a robin hood type plan to steal all of his ill gotten money. To do that though, they'll need some friends. So, coming into the film are Roman and Tej from 2 Fast 2 Furious, and Han and Giselle and Tego and Rico from Fast and Furious.
Before you can say Oceans 14, they have figured out a way to get into the safe of the Rio central police station and it's going to require some fancy driving to get away with the loot and put off Hobbs and his squad. Shot in Brazil and not afraid to show the favelas in all their glory, Fast Five follows in the footsteps of the others films that ditched nearly all of the expected glitz and glam of a race movie or an action film and lets the characters exist in a space that's both evocative and visually and socially interesting. The settings become a character in and of themselves.
Lin manages to hold this insane plot together by leveraging that had made these movies so relentlessly watchable, he lets the characters interact as if they've all sort of grown up together and have a mutual respect. There is a real camaraderie in the cast and it shows. Lin also doesn't skimp on the insane racing stuff, whether it's running street racers through a warehouse maze or a drag race between stole cop cars (Dodge Chargers in this case) he knows how to film speed and make speed look fast. He knows how to play to the strengths of the genre too so that the action set pieces also become sort of like characters in and of themselves. John Singleton was able to pull this off too in 2 Fast 2 Furious, but much of his set piece work was overshadowed by the dialogue between O'Connor and Roman. Here the dialogue is less good as it's not improvised as much, but clearly it's serviceable, the characters all sound like the characters from their earlier appearances. The screenplay by Christopher Morgan (who also penned Tokyo Drift and Fast and Furious) brings up a few of the elements from the first film too, the importance of family, of loyalty, of how police records do not always show the whole story to a character's history, and meld it with a lot of the stuff that was played out in the preceding films. More traditional stuff, buddy plots, and jealousy, and double crosses are all in here too, but they play second fiddle to duty, honor and family.
Lin manages again to bring together a multiracial cast that doesn't manage to call attention to it's makeup. Sounds strange right, but you tell me what other films have casts like this where race isn't an issue? There aren't any that spring to my mind. Han from Korea, Tej and Roman, Tego and Rico who speak I think two lines of English in the whole film, the rest is subtitled Spanish, all become a family that's held together by the job and there's no crap. That is astonishingly refreshing in an American mass market film.
The acting is universally excellent. I've had loads of fun with ALL of the films in this series and one of their strongest assets is the quality of acting that each director is able to get out of the cast, some of them not even really actors, like Ludacris and Tyresse and Gal Gadot, but here are able to hold their own with seasoned vets like Paul Walker and Jordaa Brewster and Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson.
Is there some silliness? Oh sure, fights that would kill normal men leave no bruises on participants, two ton cars towing and swinging a 20 ton safe behind them and using the safe like a mace against the police. But these are all sort of weirdly in place in the universe of this movie. One of the aspects of heist movies is that you have to be willing to suspend some element of disbelief to at least let the typical Rube Goldbergian robbery plan get started. And, here it's no different. The setup for the sequel is awesome too – just make sure you watch through the credits for another cameo.
I admit to being a wholehearted fan of this series, I saw The Fast and the Furious in the theater and all but Fast Five on cable or DVD/Blu Ray. They've literally become my "go to" movies for a bad day, or for few hours to kill when I am not writing, or for a little mini marathon with popcorn and pizza. So, should you see Fast Five? You should, but if you've marinated yourself in the series it'll be like spending two hours with old and dear friends... who drive like animals.
Oh, and the next film will also take place before Tokyo Drift. Cool huh?