What would it look like if Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger decided to remake Michael Mann’s Heat?
Hopefully, we’ll never know.
But try this on for size: What if somebody remade Bad Boys 2, only they took out all the yelling and the weird racism and swapped in a likable multicultural cast?
Now we’re getting a little closer.
Fast Five is the fifth action film in the car-happy series that started with 2001’s The Fast And The Furious, which introduced Vin Diesel as a car thief and outlaw, Paul Walker as the undercover agent assigned to bring him in, and Jordana Brewster as Diesel’s sister (suspension-of-disbelief casting there), who becomes Walker’s love interest.
Fast Five is kind of an all-star game, collecting characters from the four previous films – the underrated Matt Schulze (also seen in Torque and Extract) from the first movie, the scene-stealing Tyrese Gibson and Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges from 2003’s 2 Fast 2 Furious (which had no Diesel and no Brewster but much Eva Mendes), the slyly charismatic Sung Kang from 2006’s The Fast And The Furious: Tokyo Drift (which took place in Japan and had none of the recurring characters besides a belated, uncredited cameo from Diesel), and the just-a-little-bit-insanely-attractive Gal Gadot from 2009’s Fast & Furious.
Everybody getting all this so far?
Don’t sweat it if you aren’t. Yeah, I’ve seen all these movies. But you don’t have to. Whatever else you think of their work in Fast Five, you’d have to concede that three-time series writer Chris Morgan and three-time series director Justin Lin do an excellent, economical job of re-introducing all of the above characters, and giving them just enough inter-character interactions to indicate that these are all people with shared personal histories. Which is good, because there are a bunch of new characters in here also. More on them in a minute. Let’s ease in with some recap:
Fast Five picks up exactly where the previous movie, Fast & Furious, left off – Vin Diesel’s Dominic Toretto was being carted off to prison on a bus, and Jordana Brewster’s Mia Toretto and Paul Walker’s Brian O’Conner were bearing down on the bus in hot sportscars, ready to spring him. That, they do. Then the movie, and the two lovebirds (Brian & Mia), abruptly skip off to Rio, in what I temporarily hoped was going to be a crossover with that movie about the animated birds.
Brian and Mia crash with Vince, Matt Schulze’s character, who has long been set up in Rio with a local wife and a new baby. Vince sets them up with a job to steal some rare cars from a moving train. Even with Dom’s practiced helping hand, that job becomes a bit of a mess when some DEA agents on board the train are killed. (Considering the fact that an entire humvee gets driven into the train, it’s hard to imagine that only those three guys were killed in the fiasco, but you kinda have to go with some heavy suspension of disbelief here. As far as we know, none of the spectacular car crashes end in any deaths unless the characters mention it.)
Basically, by stealing these cars, and one in particular, Dom, Brian, and Mia have run afoul of a crimelord named Reyes (Joaquim de Almeida), a Latino Gordon Gekko type who we’re told essentially runs Rio. The trio has an even bigger problem, though: Even though it was Reyes’s thugs who killed the three DEA agents, Dom and Brian are being tagged with the crime. That puts the FBI on their trail, singularly personified in the form of a man named Hobbs, who the rest of us know as Dwayne Johnson, the artist formerly known as “The Rock.”
Dwayne Johnson plays this role as Tommy Lee Jones (in unreasonable Fugitive mode) multiplied by the Juggernaut from Marvel Comics. He has no discernible character traits outside of “chase puny humans.” His head shaved to match Vin Diesel’s, his goatee grown out to match Blackstone the Magician’s, Dwayne Johnson is admittedly one weird- and intimidating-looking human being, maybe never moreseo than in this movie. He’s got a team of little army guys with him, including one who looks like a deflated Patrick Warburton and another who looks like an evil Fred Durst, but he looms over them all by two or three feet. I do think that Fast Five is yet another action movie (see: The Expendables) that suffers a little from not having a villain to match its heroes – Joaquim de Almeida is adequately slimy but not too scary – but whenever Hobbs is onscreen, the threat feels as real as it’s ever gonna. Vin Diesel can get pretty sleepy in these movies, but when Dwayne Johnson is around, he steps up to compete.
So with this level of police heat/ starpower on their tail, the Fast/Furious kids hatch a plan to pull the fabled “one last job” – ripping off Reyes’s private vault and walking away quietly with ten million dollars. To do that, they assemble their dream team: drivers Roman (Tyrese) and Han (Sung Kang), techno-guy Tej (Ludacris), distraction Gisele (Gal Gadot), and two new characters, a constantly-bickering odd couple played by reggaeton music stars Don Omar and Tego Calderon. Calderon is a dead ringer for baseball star Manny Ramirez, and Don Omar is a little less descript by comparison, but they both bring a fun bilingual banter to the movie that adds some much needed humor to the proceedings. Even funnier is Tyrese, who gets all the best wisecracks, and even when they’re not so funny on the page, he brings an enthusiasm that is completely winning, no matter how reluctant I may be to praise anyone who signed up for more than one Transformers movie. Tyrese is fun when he’s busting Walker’s and Ludacris’s balls, and speaks for the audience when some of the truly impressive speed stunts are going on.
Maybe my favorite character (as expected) is Sung Kang’s Han, who appeared in the previous two Fast/Furious movies even though he was killed in the third one. In a wonderfully bizarre chronological re-shuffling, both Fast & Furious and Fast Five are technically prequels to Tokyo Drift, exclusively so that Han could be resurrected. It was worth doing. It shouldn’t have to be pointed out, but it’s rare that American action movies give us Asian characters who are this straight-up cool. It’s not that Han gets all that much to do, but Sung Kang does some nice underplaying when all the aforementioned comedic ball-busting and muscle-flexing bombastics are going on, and he gets to strike up a little flirtation with Gal Gadot (who’s like a hotter version of Natalie Portman), that brings just a subtle undercurrent of pathos to the movie, when you consider that as longtime viewers of this series we know his ultimate fate.
It sounds like I’m giving a ton away already, but I’m really not – this movie is ultra-loaded with characters and business that I’ve only really begun to cover. At over two hours, it’s unnecessarily long for a summer diversion, but to the credit of Lin and Morgan and the ensemble cast, Fast Five is never boring. People are freaking out over this movie already, and I had a fun time too, but I’d caution against overpraise. I can’t imagine wanting to see Fast Five more than once, for instance. Also, as a grown-ass man (emphasis on the “ass”), I don’t love the PG-13 rating. Like all the movies in the series, it has a Maxim Magazine ogle-first approach to women and sexuality, but ultimately a puritanical depiction of sex. Even the ladies who count drug money in warehouses (a la New Jack City) wear bras and cover up when the action starts. And like the majority of American movies, Fast Five may be scared off by the female body but has no problem giving us a scene where an exploded bathroom is streaked everywhere with shit. (Long story; running out of space.) There’s absolutely nothing deep or serious going on here.
But that’s okay. Sometimes I want to read a great novel, and sometimes I want to watch a baseball game. Fast Five has a sophomoric energy that is infectious – assuming, of course, that you’re the kind of person who was willing to sit for a movie like this in the first place. My best hope for Fast Five is that it becomes a huge success and enables Justin Lin to make whatever movies he wants. Then, hopefully, what he wants is to come up with a badass star vehicle for Sung Kang, either by moving him into the lead of this franchise, following his character into his own adventure, or coming up with an all-new story idea. The best thing about the Fast/Furious series is that they bring us a pan-racial culture where all characters are equally capable and equally likable. So why not use it as a springboard to bring us the next great non-white action character?
In the meantime, I can enjoy the simpler pleasures. Fast cars, pretty women, big stupid guns, purple dialogue, explosions, stolen police cars, crashed police cars, the return of the Predator handshake, and quite possibly my favorite post-credits cameo ever (but only if you’re me) – Fast Five has all of these things and much more. So while my brain might yearn for smarter, I must flex my biceps in approval. And they’re mightier than you think, so watch it punk.