Now We're Getting Good
I will fully admit that I only grudgingly watched the original run of The Fast and the FuriousStarted as a film about undercover policing in the illegal street-racing community, this series has grown to encompass a number of different genres and become one of the most bankable franchises in the world. films because people kept saying "oh, this one is so good." Each time, naturally, I found the films to be less than advertised, but I'm a glutton for punishment who will watch just about anything, so each time I ended up going back once again. There were stupid delights to be had in the films, to be sure (something I've gone on to recount here on the site for the last few days), but overall I never quite understood the appeal of the series. Honestly, the closest the series got to being "good" was with the fourth film, Fast & Furious, and even then it was by degrees. Something still felt a little off.
And then Fast Five came out and I suddenly understood the appeal. For the first time this film series clicked for me and I honestly felt myself getting invested in the movie. It's still a Fast and Furious movie so it's still big and dumb and loud and macho, but this time around the film finds a dynamic that makes it all work. Fast Five comes together in a way the previous films never quite managed, making the film greeter than the sum of its parts.
Picking up right at the tail end of Fast & Furious, we open with the daring highway prison bus escape, orchestrated by Brian O'Connor (Paul Walker) and Mia Toretto (Jordanna Brewster) to free Mia's brother, Dominick (Vin Diesel), from a prison sentence that just doesn't seem fair. After crashing the bus (miraculously without killing anyone despite how bad the crash looks), the three fugitives hit the road, venturing into Brazil. That's where they get entangled with Vince (a returning Matt Schuize, from the original The Fast and the Furious) for one of his jobs. This leads them to butt heads with criminal kingpin Herman Reyes (Joaquim de Almeida), putting them on the wrong side of him and his flunkies. After a job goes south, Brian, Mia, and Dom end up with vital evidence (a list of cash-drop houses) that Reyes wants back, and he'll stop at nothing to get it.
Meanwhile, due to that same job, three DEA agents are dead (not the fault of our heroes) and the three fugitives are now on the radar of DSS Agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson) who is assigned the job of recapturing them. This puts our main characters between two different hard places, and the only way they can think to get out is to rob Reyes of his money and flee to a country without extradition. So they pull together a team: Roman (Tyrese Gibson) and Tej (Ludacris) from 2 Fast 2 Furious, Han (Sung Kang) from Tokyo Drift, and Gisele Yashar (Gal Gadot), Leo (Tego Calderon), and Santos (Don Omar) from Fast & Furious. Now, they just have to plan an execute the dangerous caper before they all get nicked.
Yes, Fast Five is a caper movie. While the series started out with a pretty basic cops-and-robbers story (which was basically echoed in movies two and four), the films have show a willingness to play in other genres. That started in Tokyo Drift, which was basically a high school love story set against illegal drift racing, but Fast Five pushes that even further. By having all the main heroes be on the other side of the law for once, the film can indulge in its caper desires, basically becoming the Ocean's SeriesAlthough the franchise began back in the days of the Rat Pack with the original Ocean's 11, the franchise truly gained prominence with the Clooney/Pitt-starring, Soderbergh-directed Ocean's reboot series from 2001. The daring criminals would go on to have several cool and stylish capers through the series, redefining the heist genre in the process. equivalent for the Fast and Furious franchise. And it works. Honestly, it works better than I could have ever thought.
The problem with the previous movies was that, at one point or another, they had to get down to "serious business" and tell dramatic stories which, really, didn't work when they were splashed against the garish background of illegal street racing. It's hard to take anything seriously when you have girls dancing around in micro-bikinis to thumping techno/rap while cars drive past revving their overclocked engines, all while blasting giant speakers and gleaming with neons. In short, this is not a series that should ever take itself serious. But that's the joy of an Ocean's-style caper: it's not supposed to be serious. Those are delightful, low-stakes, hangout films, an aesthetic that works so well when put against the garishness of the Fast and Furious franchise. For once the story gets to be as goofy as the accoutrement.
It helps that the series, by this point, had accumulated a game and charismatic cast. I've already gone on at length about Han, Roman, and Tedi, all of whom come back for beefier roles in this film and get to shine. Other additions, like the returning Gal Gadot, really get to flesh out their characters and become vital parts of the series. Gadot was little more than eye-candy in Fast & Furious, the femme fatale to tempt Dom. Here, though, she's reinvented (some might even argue retconned) into a bad-ass ex-military soldier (playing on Gadot's own past), and it works so well. Each and every character is given a part to play and, if their past doesn't quite fit, the film simply hand-waves it away with a joke. This core team of people are fun and funny and the compliment each other so well, elevating the movie.
Of course there's the core trio, too. Diesel is the heavy here, and he certainly gets the meatiest part to play. Everyone gravitates around him, letting him be the anchor that holds the whole movie together. He gets the biggest moments, the hardest hits, and the loudest action, but because Diesel is actually a pretty good actor (again, he was cast in Saving Private Ryan) it works. Certainly it works better for him than poor Paul Walker. Although Walker is better here than he was in his first couple of appearances in the series, his Brian still seems a little too goofy, a touch to unsure of how to process all the violence around him. Walker really struggles to act tough so his O'Connor comes across as the goofy kid allowed to hang out with the teenagers. Still, he has a better role in the proceedings than Brewster's Mia as she basically sits on the sidelines and acts as their overwatch. She's a good actress but this movie doesn't give her enough to do.
The worst served by the film, though, is The Rock. This is his first appearance in the series (although he'll be back) and the material just isn't there for him. Hobbs is a cartoony villain without a lot of depth. The Rock, a very charismatic actor, does all he can with the role but there's just no denying that there's not very much going on with Hobbs. He's big, he's mean, and he's always on the tails of the rest of the team. If anyone other than The Rock has been case in the role it's easy to assume the character would never have come back again.
Thankfully the flaws don't drag down the movie. The focus of the film is on the caper, front and center. This is the only plot line of the movie, the only story that matters, and the film gives it all the space it needs to breathe. The characters go from one item to the next, gathering what they need to pull off the heist. It's fun, light, and enjoyable, as any good caper should be, and you;re never left going "this is rushing things, they shouldn't be here yet." Other films in the franchise have, at times, undersold their stories but Fast Five handles it just right.
And then the caper happens and damn if it isn't a show-stopper. The action throughout the movie is great, with Justin Lin's dab hand handling everything just as you'd expect (since this is now his third time helming one of these movies). The film uses plenty of practical effects, giving us a lot of solid, visceral action, but it's certainly the big heist that takes the cake. It's loud, it's over-the-top, and it's everything the movie needed to really cap this enjoyable adventure.
When going through the series it certainly feels like Fast Five is truly where the series evolved out from its roots. This is change that was coming ever since Tokyo Drift, but this is the first film to really cement it. Fast Five takes the loud, brash films from before and makes something more out of them, crafting a new kind of film for the series to follow after this. It is, in short, the best film in the franchise so far, a fun bit of popcorn just about anyone should enjoy.