There’s nothing wrong with making a goofball popcorn movie. Despite the many bad example of the form in modern times – we’re looking at you, Michael Bay – there is always room for an energetic bit of fluff that dazzles your eyes while your intellectual capabilities take a nice nap. When such a movie is done well, it is the cinematic equivalent of a sugar rush and the kind of thing that only Hollywood can pull off.
And that brings us to Fast Five, perhaps the giddiest expression of popcorn-movie fun to hit the multiplexes this year. As the title suggests, it’s the fifth film in the Fast & The Furious franchise. It’s levels of quality and consistency are a bit of surprise because this series has always been a bit of an underachiever, even by popcorn movie standards: the F&F films have always had good production values and well-choreographed action but they’ve rarely had anything approaching an inspired story to support the thrills. Part 3 is probably the best of the bunch thanks to the novel Japanese setting, the presence of a real actor in the lead via Lucas Black and a cameo from grindhouse martial arts god Sonny Chiba.
That said, Fast Five takes the franchise to a peak that was inconceivable in the earlier films. It helps that the series has acquired enough characters and stylistic elements over its past installments to actually add up to a halfway decent plot – and they are all deployed in a basic but effective way here. For starters, you have rebellious good guy/federal officer Brian (Paul Walker) reunited with his original target/mancrush Dominic (Vin Diesel) for the first time since part 1. Brian and his lady love Mia (Jordana Brewster), Dom’s sister, get things off to a rip-roaring start by busting Dom out of prison in a daring jailbreak aboard a moving prison bus.
The trio decamps to Brazil and that’s where things really heat up. As is usually the case with these movies, the heroes needs to pull the archetypal “one last job” to fund a comfortable exile. Unfortunately, when they take the gig they discover they are being used by crooked businessman (Joaquim De Almeida) and decide to plot an even bigger heist – not just money but also the vault itself that holds the money. To make things even more complex, they have to dodge a new lawman on their trail in the badass form of Luke Hobbs (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson!).
If any of that sounds overloaded in terms of plotting, don’t worry – screenwriter Chris Morgan knows the name of the game here is spectacle and he doles out the plot/character stuff in easily digested, bite-size chunks between the action beats. He juggles the multiple characters – including an array of assistant thieves for the big heist – and plot threads in a confident manner, giving it just enough narrative heft to keep the bombast afloat. He also throws in a few fun character moments that add flavor, like an extended flirtation between cool-blooded Han Lue (Sung Kang) and sexpot Gisele (Gal Gadot). Most importantly, he creates an array of physics-defying but energetic setpieces.
And that’s where director Justin Lin’s skills come into play. He’s been directing the series since Tokyo Drift and has gotten to a point where he’s perfected a sleek, energetic formula that plays like gangbusters. His approach is every bit as music-video stylized as a Michael Bay but his ability to choreograph action is much more surehanded. As flashy as the setpieces are here – one involves heisting cars off a speeding train and the finale depicts a car chase that involves a bank vault dragged on high-tension cables – they are always easy to comprehend. Even better, the blend of practical stunts and CGI is seamless (Your Humble Reviewer is still trying to figure out which parts of the destruction in the finale were digitally created).
Lin also makes smart use of the pop personas that populate his cast. Neither he nor Morgan ask too much of the players, as that would be out of place in a light concoction like this. Instead, the personas of the actors do the work: Diesel brings the brawn as the muscular lunkhead with a code of honor, Walker is appropriately jittery as his more hotheaded counterpart and The Rock is all square-jawed righteousness as the film’s numero-uno lawman. Argue if you want about the acting skills of Diesel and Walker but they have a unique chemistry – and the addition of the undeniably talented Johnson puts this over the top, in terms of both charisma and machismo (there’s a brawl between Johnson and Diesel that is worth the price of admission alone – it’s the kind of fight where the brawlers knock each other through walls).
Lin and Morgan are also smart enough to not lean on the film’s central trio too heavily. They give the audience variety via the ensemble cast: in addition to the smoldering chemistry of Kang and Gadot, there is also light urban-style comic relief from Tyrese and Ludacris as co-conspirators with a streak of rivalry. It’s also worth noting that De Almeida is typically professional as the baddie here, even notching an impressive little soliloquy that adds a bit of adult-age gravitas to the otherwise deliberately juvenile proceedings. No one gets asked to do any heavy lifting performance-wise, but it’s a fun crew to watch and their diversity keeps the proceedings fresh.
In short, Fast Five is exactly what you want from a popcorn flick. Ambition and depth are minor concerns when you’re dealing with technicians who know to balance and deploy the elements of frivolous fun with this much skill. The end results are goofball Hollywood showmanship at its most beguilingly effervescent – and the multiplexes could always use a little more of that.