Dinca: Surveying Art and Culture

Thoughts on Fast Five

Obligatory mention of it being fast and/or furious; also primed to be one of the better movies of the summer

by Jack Kentala

(Correction: I had erroneously posted the poster for Fast & Furious on the original poster. The above is the official poster. Apologies to all offender parties – JDK)

Early into Fast Five (2011), it seems that five installments into a series ostensibly about cars and heists reaches its saturation point with the very first setpiece. Most of the scene has been crammed down your throats in the trailers, so you already know what I’m talking about. There’s a train, cars, and a cliff, and it doesn’t take a Mensa membership card to put them in the right order.

Instead, the filmmakers – such as franchise veteran director Justin Lin (see also: The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, Fast & Furious; or if you want to check his dramatic chops, the pretty-great Better Luck Tomorrow) – wisely ditch that formula for what has been the talk of the franchise’s future. Alas, gearheads, but the NOS and illegal mods are pushed aside for a heist that provides the main thrust of the film once we get to Rio de Janeiro mere minutes into the runtime.

I think I’m going to paraphrase what a lot of critics have said and, whoa, tie it into something else I need to get out of the way: that the fast cars, the dreadful CG of 2 Fast 2 Furious (guess which film in the franchise that was?), and the complete disregard for car-induced destruction has made the series into a videogame. While I’d love to say that’s false, there’s a rather unforgivable sequence that makes up the second gigantic setpiece of Fast Five, which is a rooftop run-and-gun chase with armed Good Guys and masked favela Bad Guys that seems rather ripped from another videogame: Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.

With the first act out of the way, Fast Five shifts into heist mode. (My god, a pun!) As per the rules of that genre, musclehead bad-boy Vin Diesel and pretty-boy bad-boy Paul Walker need to recruit “a team” to, naturally, take down a drug cartel for a reason that, shit, I don’t even remember, and I just saw the movie three hours ago.

While 2 Fast 2 Furious wobbled with the absence of Vin Diesel, and Tokyo Drift had trouble finding any semblance of a protagonist with the absence of Paul Walker (yes, I did my research and watched all four prior films in a week), Fast Five is the high-school reunion of the franchise. Just by dint of everyone getting in the same place and visibly happy to come together, there’s an immediate chemistry to the ensemble cast. Specifically, for all the flack, Paul Walker’s surfer-brah accent (albeit waning since the first movie) is the perfect foil for Diesel’s well-rehearsed, almost-whispered growl.

(An aside: Said growl is a one-note trick that, somehow, hasn’t lost its potency, even when used in pretty much every Vin Diesel movie. Chalk it up to Diesel’s intimidating physical presence, or the sheer texture of the gravel in his throat. It’s worked through all Fast and/or Furious movies, and it helped define his most [in]famous character, Richard B. Riddick, in the cult horror gem Pitch Black and the gaudy The Chronicles of Riddick. The character, though, is arguably at its best in the videogame The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay and its slightly-lesser-because-it’s-not-about-an-awesome-prison-break sequel Assault on Dark Athena.)

The most-hyped addition to the cast is The Rock, whose real name will remain forgotten to anyone who has ever heard him question aloud what’s he cookin’ and, specifically, if or if not you can smell it. Unfortunately, until his rather obvious actions at the film’s end, he serves mostly as a man with the physique to match Diesel. Despite the fact that his deep tan makes him several shades darker, it’s fairly obvious that they gave his Special Forces Whatever character a borderline-ratty goatee to easily distinguish his baldness from Diesel’s baldness. Until said end-of-the-film actions, he’s criminally underutilized, speaking entirely in quasi-military jargon, mindlessly bossing people around, and driving an enormous Humvee From Hell that looks like it gets worse mileage than a coal-powered Model T.

Am I conveying the fact that I found this film immensely enjoyable?

If there’s any legitimate criticism to toss at this film, it’s that all the “soft” moments fall completely flat. Sure, you need to break up the action, but you don’t need to stick two actors on their marks and play a shot reverse-shot dialog about not wanting to go back to prison or why This or That is what is really Important in life.

(Fortunately, the sparse comic relief from Tyrese, Ludacris, and the two goofy guys from Fast & Furious – that, to my knowledge, aren’t famous at all, other than having been randomly cast in Fast & Furious – works because of the elusive, innate chemistry of getting everyone together.)

One thing about the series that I’ve come to respect (and yes, that is the exact word I’m looking for) is the reliance on using actual humans and vehicles for stunts. Just the element of danger involved in a stunt ups the excitement in ways that no CG puppets or too-shiny computercars can provide. While tight shots and fast cuts usually mean the stunt drivers probably execute their moves around forty miles per hour (standard practice so no one dies), a lot of the expert rally and drift racers used for the impressive Tokyo Drift stunts gave that movie a legitimacy despite being the weakest in the series. (For those of you who don’t know what “drift” racing is, it’s the same thing as “powersliding” in Mario Kart. But without the hop and the colored smoke and the mini-boost.)

As one of the first blockbuster (how I hate that term) movies of the summer, Fast Five sets a high bar. And considering that it has to have built-in mass appeal (requisite shots of female asses barely covered), a PG-13 rating ensures that nothing too off-putting happens (and even the MPAA’s allowance of two “fucks” for PG-13 isn’t used; maybe it was traded for a scene where The Rock mercilessly shoots a guy dead at point-blank range). And since it’s also one of those One Last Job heist movies, it’s a foregone conclusion that there’s a happy ending.

And given that a sixth film in the franchise has been greenlit for months, it’s not a surprise that Fast Five’s end hints at the setup for the next installment. You just have to sit through a pretty motion-graphics sequence of all the above-the-line end credits before you’re treated to a “hidden scene” that hints that #6 might have to start with some baggage leftover from #4, kind of how Fast Five started during the last minute of Fast & Furious. It’s forgiveable given the circumstances, even with the garbled timeline of the five movies. (Tokyo Drift is obviously the last for reason I’ll let you investigate.)

But this is just me talking. I’d rather listen to Vin Diesel growl this whole review.

Postscript (that may or may not contain a statement of political disgust): In this stupid world in which we live, one in which old guys with bad hair who host a goddamn reality game show can question our president’s birthplace (and, thus, his right to his elected presidency), I decided to provide photographic proof that I saw Fast Five and am not simply guessing how this all went down. And that I didn’t download a pirated shakycam copy. Here’s the stub, that’s me (Google my name if you need further proof what I look like; the black-and-white picture is ghastly but close enough), that’s the title of the movie, today’s date, and the $7.50 I do not regret whatsoever for paying to see Fast Five.

Ticket stub will be framed or bronzed

Post-postscript: If anyone thinks Vin Diesel has the IQ of a discarded pack of bubblegum, I highly suggest you watch his low-low budget directorial debut, Strays. For a guy with biceps about as big as his head, he shows a surprising tenderness and a you’ll-miss-it-if-you-blink vulnerability. It also doesn’t cheat its own ending which, coming from this I-usually-hate-the-way-movies-end asshole, that means a lot.