Friday, May 6, 2011

Vroom Vroom: FAST FIVE

I don’t recall enjoying any of the previous Fast and the Furious movies, those four oddly named films that provided an excuse for fast cars and manly scowls. But still I showed up at Fast Five with something close to anticipation for I’ve found that this is the rare franchise that can get me kind of excited each time around, as if all those hours spent gazing in apathy at cars zooming around in their dumb little plots were somehow not as bad as I remember. At this point, ten years removed from the first movie, I’m starting to think I should rewatch them all to see if I’d like them any better now. What strange effect the allure of these movies has on my memory and judgment.

It is to my surprise, then, that I didn’t altogether dislike Fast Five. Director Justin Lin (working from a script by Chris Morgan) does a good job of juggling the massive, bloated 130-minute runtime by staging some exciting action sequences and not lingering all too long on the labyrinthine character histories. I thought I was in trouble, though, just a few minutes in. I’m not up on the ins and outs of the Fast and Furious mythology. I couldn’t tell you in too great of detail what even happened in some of the installments let alone how exactly all the characters know each other. When the movie opens with Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) sentenced to prison and promptly escaping with the help of his sister (Jordana Brewster) and her boyfriend (Paul Walker) and then follows that up with a lot of talk about events past, I had a hard time keeping up. Soon enough, though, the movie swept me up in its preposterousness when a car is pulled out of a moving train and speeds across the desert.

Of course, Fast Five is about paying off the fans’ knowledge of the series and about bringing back as many characters from old installments as possible. It kind of feels like a reunion with personalities I didn’t even know I missed because I didn’t think they were enjoyable the first time. In every scene it’s clear that this is a movie that likes its characters as much as I'd imagine fans do (part of what makes me a bit curious to revisit the earlier movies). After a long-winded first act, the movie introduces the need to bring in Tyrese Gibson and Ludacris (unseen since 2 Fast 2 Furious), Sung Kang (from Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift) and Gal Gadot (from Fast & Furious) to help with that hoary old criminal plot: the “one last job.” Yes, after four movies of flirting with a heist plot, Fast Five just goes right on ahead and commits to it. That’s just what this series has been looking for all this time.

Despite the large ensemble, this isn’t about the people. It’s about the plot. It hardly matters who the participants are. As one character says to another, about an upcoming robbery, “I need an extra body.” This isn’t a movie about character; really, this is a movie about careening, about bodies in motion, spinning vehicles and live ammunition down city streets. It’s about slamming through ridiculous close calls and making tight, fast turns through narrow spaces, about pulling off daring robberies in broad daylight with maximum destruction but minimal collateral damage. I kid! With a movie this fast and furious there’s nothing minimal about it, especially when, in its climactic slam-bang heist, two cars are dragging a ten-ton safe down a busy street in the middle of Rio de Janeiro.

Where the movie most succeeds, in my estimation, is its introduction of Dwayne Johnson, continuing his long-awaited reentering into the action genre after last fall’s surprisingly entertaining – and bluntly efficient – Faster (no relation to this series). His blocky, muscled charisma is channeled into an all-business roughness and gruff determination playing a law-enforcement agent who arrives in Rio on Toretto’s trail. He’s a sweaty, hulking piece of overheated machismo that moves right up to the precipice of parody without falling over. (When Johnson and Diesel finally clash in a battle of the sweaty muscles, its some kind of tough-guy showdown that feels much sprightlier than, say, last year’s wax museum of Stallone’s Expendables).

Johnson commands a group of indistinguishable underlings just as effortlessly as he commands the screen. He makes the most out of every line given to him in a movie where most characters are lucky when they get more than a dozen words to say at any one time. In fact, he seems to be the only character that knows just how much sense the movie makes. “You know what makes sense?” he asks an inquisitive underling. To answer his own question, he rips the case files out of her hand and tosses them to the floor.

Even though I found much to enjoy, I still felt like I was sitting at a remove from the movie. I admired the stunt work and the general air of straight-faced ridiculousness, and the last twenty or thirty minutes or so are a nice piece of sustained action filmmaking, but I never really felt completely comfortable. Maybe because it was building on a foundation that was mostly forgotten to me, or maybe because it’s strange tone (its very somber about its silliness) was so weirdly wobbly I never fell into the right groove. Still, I had my pulse raised or a goofy smile provoked (sometimes both at once) just enough times that I can’t be too hard on it.

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