Where do you even begin? Let’s go with the title: Fast Five. This is the fifth film in a franchise that started in 2001 with The Fast and the Furious, and the first sequel’s cutesy 2 Fast 2 Furious has nothing on the way the series’ makers seem to have given up coming up with anything original. “Fast Five” is what you would call the film casually, tossing it around with fellow viewers, though it feels more like shorthand that cropped up in the production offices and somehow stuck. It’s choppy and ugly, and it betrays a total lack of effort on the part of the filmmakers to win over anyone who isn’t in the series’ crowd of enthusiasts and hangers-on. It’s a nickname made official. This is the problem that runs throughout Fast Five: its utter lack of ideas. The bulk of the film is set in Rio de Janeiro, and there are three separate shots throughout the film sweeping up the hill behind the Christ the Redeemer statue and looking down to the city below. These are not instances of repeated footage. These are separate filmed events, all showing the same basic location, done with the same doubling sweep familiar from, well, earlier in this very film. Director Justin Lin is unable to come up with enough separate images to make a full feature, and instead starts repeating himself before the end credits. That’s Fast Five: caught up in a feedback loop, enamored of trite design, and nostalgic for its own existence.
The universe of Fast Five thrives on contradictions: though there have been four films before this one, only three of those feature characters related to the story told here, and none is required viewing to understand what goes on. The characters are constantly chasing money through drug deals and hijackings, yet they’re forever broke and forced to pull that one last job that will clear their names or give them pocket money for life. It’s a little like James Bond: things keep happening, but nothing ever changes. The screenplay from Chris Morgan (who wrote the previous two films and Wanted, for which he’s still on the hook as far as society is concerned) features a brief recap of the final moments of Fast & Furious, the fourth film, which ended with Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) being sentenced to hard time and his friends, including sister Mia (Jordana Brewster) and Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker) using stunt cars to bust him out of the prison convoy. Brian began the series as a cop, only to become an outlaw when he befriended Dominic while working undercover. Then he got back in the good graces of the law and became an FBI agent, only to help out Dom and chuck his career again. By now, he’s a committed crook out of loyalty to Dom, who gave him his start, and Mia, his girlfriend.
Fast Five is a straight-up heist flick, but it would be wrong to classify this as a change for the series. They’ve almost always been about major thefts and cons, just ones done using street racers. Down in Rio and running from the law, Brian, Mia, and Dom meet up with Vince (Matt Schulze), a compatriot from the first film, who hooks them up with a job stealing cars that turn out to be marked by the DEA and wanted by their original owner, a local drug kingpin named Reyes (Joaquim de Almeida). The job with Reyes’ men goes south, and a few DEA agents are killed, which calls down the thunder from the states in the form of Agent Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson, nee The Rock), who chases after the FBI’s most wanted and whose physical proportions straddle the line between gargantuan and cartoonish. Once Hobbs hits town, it’s a pretty standard story, as Dom’s crew recruits old friends from previous movies to steal Reyes’ $100 million in drug money riches to start a new life while they also try to stay a step ahead of Hobbs.
Lin’s style is nothing if not familiar. This is his third straight film in the franchise to direct, and he (with cinematographer Stephen F. Windon) definitely has a certain number of stylistic and emotional beats he wants to hit. Wide establishing shots are done by circling around an object with panning the opposite direction; fight scenes are filmed with a dizzying number of cuts that still don’t quite mask the fact that the characters rearrange themselves within the room’s geography with each edit; action scenes are presented with tweaked frame rates that create a choppy look that owes more to a general prevailing vibe than any one storyteller’s desire to imbue movement with tone; etc., etc. The best action sequence comes early on, with various enemies chasing Dom, Brian, and Mia across the rooftops of a Brazilian favela, soaring from house to house with a kineticism and freedom that’s breathtaking. It’s one of the few times Lin actually lets us feel what’s happening in the film’s world instead of just observing its hyper-edited effects. A sense of place gives you movement and energy; a clutter of images does the opposite. Lin is so enamored of assembly-line filmmaking that he forgets to make any part of Fast Five feel like anything other than an unwarranted entry in a series that should have ended already. Lin was an almost inspired choice to helm the first-season finale to NBC’s “Community,” which used a paintball game to send-up action clichés, but his work on that show soared by mocking its own inanity. Here, he actually means it, which is far more problematic.
The cast does have its moments of humor and ease, though. Walker is almost criminally charming, and he’s actually able to bring a humanoid smile to Diesel’s face when they’re palling around and stealing cars as they plan their heist. The supporting players are likable, too, particularly Tyrese Gibson as a fast-talking driver and thief and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges as the resident safecracker. There are times when they’re all able to come together and just coast on their mutual chemistry, and it’s these scenes that work the best, since they’re the most like the actual enjoyable heist films Fast Five wants so badly to be. But soon enough, the camaraderie is over, and Dom’s talking in greeting-card banalities about life and freedom and he’s doing so with all the passion of a child struggling with a summer reading assignment. It’s true enough that this is an action film, and that performances in the genre are not typically expected to be life-changing or resonant, but it’s not too much to ask for the actors to act. It is, after all, their job. Then again, there’s a degree to which some of the plastic performances are fitting, given the fact that they abut a series of set pieces that rely more and more on computer-generated objects and ideas. When Lin uses real cars and actual objects, the stunt scenes look amazing, but when he reverts to CGI, the film stalls out. The visceral thrill of physical action is almost impossible to replicate digitally, and parts of the film feel dead on arrival.
Most curious of all, for an action franchise that revolves around car races and chases, Lin rarely delivers the goods. There’s a four-man drag later in the film in which Brian, Dom, and a couple other cons race each other for the fun of it, but other races are left entirely to the viewer’s imagination. At one point, Brian and Dom take to the streets of Rio to find racers and challenge them to heads-up matches to try and win new vehicles for their robbery scheme, a set-up that seems beautifully teed up to allow Lin to mix the series’ trademark racing tone with its broader heist/action leanings. But we never see the races. After a few traded barbs and some typical bravado, the film cuts to the aftermath to show Dom and Brian arriving at home with their trophies. Lin, bizarrely, seems to have forgotten that the fast cars and speed-based thrills are kind of this whole movie series’ m.o., and that without them it becomes just another franchise. He’s made a racing movie with no races, an action movie that trades physical thrills for computer-generated toys, and a narrative film that plays like an ad. Fast? On occasion. Furious? Not a chance.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. He’s also a TV blogger for the Houston Press. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.