There's a moment in Fast Five when Dominic (Vin Diesel) is about to race his 1970 Dodge Charger through the streets of Rio de Janeiro against a Porsche 911 GT3 RS for pink slips. The audience holds its breath in anticipation of the race that's about to come....
Then it doesn't happen. In the next moment, Dom has won the Porsche and Brian O'Connor (super-dreamy Paul Walker) is seen driving it into the gang's hideout. The film never bothers to show the race between the Charger and Porsche — not a single frame, not even the very start or the very end.
It's like director Justin Lin is goading the audience, daring everyone who paid to see this fifth installment in The Fast and the Furious saga to not love it. To embrace it even though they expected a street-racing movie and didn't get a single race.
Fast Five is a transitional film for this series. From here on out, NBC Universal has explicitly stated, the Fast & Furious gang aren't street racers. Now they're a multiethnic mélange of super-clever thieves who take absurd chances to complete a heist. The next movie will be a blue-collar Ocean's 11 with more action-packed mayhem.
Given that, Fast Five is undeniably one of the most exciting and best-made action films produced in the last decade. And there's still enough car stuff around to keep us gearheads on the hook. Barely.
Accept This and You'll Accept Anything
Fast Five opens with his cohorts breaking Dominic out of the bus that's transporting him to federal prison in Lompoc, California — a direct continuation of the final scene in 2009's Fast & Furious. The breakout is ludicrously unrealistic in both general shape and its specific elements. Dozens of passengers aboard the bus would have been killed or permanently injured.
But when a newscaster announces on screen that everybody is OK in the melee and that Dominic is the only one missing, the audience goes with it. From that point on, we all know we're in for a wild ride in an alternate universe filled with over-the-top action, where no one will be really hurt and no visible blood will be spilled. You know, the same alternate universe that contains Hazzard County and all the highways between a thirsty Atlanta and Coors-laden Texarkana.
Reality has nothing to do with this movie. And once you accept that, the movie is near great. Not next to great, but near it — like within a mile, or a quarter-mile as they like to say.
Rio de Whatever
Once Dominic is free, the action shifts to Rio de Janeiro where he, Brian and Mia (Jordana Brewster) are laying low, running out of money and sucking up Brazilian sunshine amidst the colorful poverty of Rio's favelas (much of which was filmed in Puerto Rico). It's also where we see the sweetest car in the whole film, a first-generation (PGC-10) Nissan Skyline GT-R. It's not used as anything more than a taxicab in Rio, but it looks so nasty that, as car lovers, we want the film to stop and tour the Skyline. That the car then disappears from the film, never to appear again, is beyond frustrating.
According to the film's Picture Car Coordinator Dennis McCarthy, the Skyline GT-R was a rental out of Florida. Which is why Inside Line didn't drive it alongside other vehicles from the film. Damn.
From there it's straight into the film's first big heist: an attempt to swipe three exotic cars off a speeding train. Alongside some lowlife types that no rational person would trust, Brian and Dom execute a plan no rational person would consider. Their plan of action? Pull a custom-built heist truck alongside the train, use a plasma cutter to knock out a wall, and slide the cars — a Pantera, a GT40 and a Corvette Grand Sport — over to the truck using a winch. Yeah, huh uh, right.
Just to describe the heist is to point out how ludicrous it is. But it's also dang near brilliant action filmmaking. Director Lin moves everything along so quickly, and it's edited so well, that the audience never loses track of what's going on or the tension and danger that's constantly building. This is state-of-the-art stunt work that never once looks like it's been faked up in a computer. It's far more exciting than anything in any recent superhero movie.
Please Don't Act
Fast Five falls flat in its middle: the part of the movie where the actors act.
Writer Chris Morgan's irony-free script does a great job of bringing back many notable characters from previous Fast & Furious films. That includes Matt Schulze as Vince from the first one, Ludacris as Tej and Tyrese Gibson as Roman from the second one, Sung Kang as Han from the third one, and Tego Calderon as Tego and Don Omar as Rico from the fourth movie. Each of those supporting characters fit into this film seamlessly with memorable moments of their own.
But they're just supporting characters. The movie rides on the backs of Vin Diesel and super-dreamy Paul Walker. Diesel acts mostly by tightening his neck muscles and swallowing. Walker, meanwhile, is Keanu Reeves without the emotional range.
The movie sags when Diesel, Walker or love interest Jordana Brewster are left alone on screen. It's a second-rate soap opera set in the middle of a world-class action film.
There's one major addition to the cast, and that's Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson as Lucas Hobbs, an elite United States Federal DSS agent assigned to track down Dominic and Brian and return them to justice. Johnson may have started as a wrestler, but he's a real movie star. When he's on screen, Fast Five's energy level goes up exponentially. Here's hoping Fast & Furious Six is all about Hobbs.
The inevitable fistfight between Dominic and Hobbs is a letdown. First because it's hard to believe Hobbs would have any trouble whatsoever ripping Dominic apart. Second, because the action isn't filmed with the crispness of the other action scenes or as cleanly edited. And third, there's the fight's ambivalent resolution. If two bald cinematic icons are going to try and destroy each other on screen with their fists, then the stakes ought to be high and at least one of them ought to wind up destroyed. Instead they dust off and move on to the next scene unhurt.
If The Rock slammed you through a cinder block wall, you might ache for a few days.
The final heist is the theft of a criminal mastermind's massive, cash-filled vault and its subsequent trip through Rio being pulled behind two 2010 Dodge Charger SRT8s. The physics don't make any sense, but the chase is utterly spectacular, with more mayhem per mile than any film since 1980's The Blues Brothers.
Like The Blues Brothers, the Dodges (lots of newer, product placed Chargers) in this chase have almost magical abilities.
The driving (much of it done by Rhys Millen and Rich Rutherford) is simply great and the destruction wrought by the swinging vault is awesome — there's more sheet metal crushed in this one sequence than all the previous Fast & Furious movies combined.
Fans of heist movies will see the final twist coming. But it's still a cathartic moment as long as you don't immediately start thinking about the logistics involved in moving that much cash out of Brazil. So don't think.
Finally, don't leave when the credits roll. The setup for the sixth film is embedded between two credit crawls and it features yet one more character from a previous F&F film and a surprise atop that.
After this film, you'll want to see that next one. Even if something stupid happens and they put fewer cars in it.
Inside Line Guess: Fast and Furious Six opens April 2013.