Review: ‘Fast Five’ kicks off summer right with big stunts and beautiful people

As with the “Scream” series, I come to this latest sequel in the long running “Fast and the Furious” franchise as a non-fan.  I don’t hate the movies, but I don’t have any particular love for them, either.

The difference is that the latest “Scream” movie struck me as a film that only fans of that franchise would love, and when I reviewed “Scream 4,” I wrote it with my shoulders lifted into a shrug the entire time, trying to imagine whether a “Scream” fan would be happy with the final product or not.  It seems to be a wholly insular thing at this point, designed only for people already familiar with the series, and so self-contained that it almost didn’t care if new viewers were able to crack the movie’s code.

With “Fast Five,” it is obvious that this franchise is moving in a different direction, continually evolving and changing in an effort to become a broad-based audience-pleasing machine, and with this latest chapter, I think they’ve finally made the film they’ve been gearing up to make now for a while, the most completely unhinged mainstream action movie since “Bad Boys 2,” and while there is a stretch in the middle where the melodrama starts to pile up a bit, for the most part, this is a breathlessly exciting and gleefully improbable ride.  And, yes, fun from end to end.

You’ll know within about five minutes or so if this film’s for you.  I don’t think I saw “Fast and Furious,” the last film, but I assume it ended with Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) doing something Very Bad and getting caught, because this one starts with him on his way to prison for a decades-long stretch.  Then Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker) and Dom’s sister Mia (Jordana Brewster) show up in muscle cars and proceed to torture the laws of physics until the prison bus flips and Dom is set free.  In the aftermath, director Justin Lin and screenwriter Chris Morgan are careful to make sure that we hear a news reporter say that no one was killed in the escape, because Dom and Brian and Mia are Robin Hood bad guys, not above breaking the law, but certainly not out to hurt anyone.  And the next four or five scenes play out in what almost feels like random order, barely connected to one another, as we see Brian and Mia head for Brazil, where they hook up with Vince (Matt Schulze), a veteran of the first film in the series, and he turns them on to a new job stealing cars in the most improbable and dangerous way ever.  One of those cars ends up having a chip onboard that could be the key to the entire criminal empire of Reyes (played with practiced ooze by Joaquim de Almeidea, or as I like to call him, the Latino Phil Hartman).  Why he’s got his entire criminal empire stored on a chip in the navigational computer of a car is never answered in the film, but if you’re asking that question, you are not the right audience for this movie.

In general, this movie is so hell-bent on its own daffy agenda that asking any logic questions of it seems to be an exercise in churlishness for its own sake.  It is a silly film in many ways, and the way the film sets up a big heist that Dom and Brian and Mia need to organize as an excuse to bring in a who’s who of familiar faces from all four of the previous films is flimsy at best, but again… doesn’t matter.  Films like this live or die on energy, and that’s what Justin Lin has mastered here.  This film has a propulsive quality to it that makes all of the improbability and all of the ridiculous character broad strokes seem like assets instead of drawbacks.  It is fun.  It is almost pure fun.  Vin Diesel hasn’t been this enjoyable onscreen in a  long time, and even Paul Walker manages to add a few new facial expressions to his resume.

What kicks this up past any other film in the series for me is the addition of Dwayne Johnson as Hobbs, head of a special international task force, assigned to bring in Dom and Brian.  Johnson has never looked more ripped onscreen before, he’s never spent an entire film dripping sweat like this, and he has rarely looked like he’s enjoyed himself this much.  He seems to relish every single cliche he gets to snarl, and he makes them work.  From the moment he shows up, the film promises to put Hobbs and Dom in a room where they will have no option but to beat the holy hell out of each other, and sure enough, they get that opportunity.  The film’s fight choreography is outstanding all the way through, especially in the hand-to-hand moments, but when you’ve got Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson going mano-y-mano, you need to make it special, and they do.

Likewise, I would personally like to shake the hand of whoever cast Gal Gadot and Elsa Pataky in the film.  While Brewster has gotten lovelier with some age on her, giving off a sort of 21st-century Ali McGraw vibe now, Gadot and Pataky are pure jaw-on-the-floor eye candy, and the film makes no apologies for it.  That’s the sort of movie this is.  It gives you people who aren’t just good-looking, but stunning.  It gives you stunts that aren’t just cool, but insane.  It gives you action scenes that aren’t just big, but record-breaking.  It’s always reaching, always working overtime to please, and as a way to kick off the summer season, “Fast Five” is pretty much ideal.  The film makes good use of the Rio setting, and knowing they shot most of it in Puerto Rico and Atlanta, it’s a pretty solid illusion they sustain.  I found myself laughing repeatedly at the way they’ve tried to make the subtitles in the film “cool,” but it just makes me like the film more.  That puppy-dog enthusiasm and eagerness to please is just plain charming in this case.

I am not one of those people who advocates turning your brain off to enjoy something, because I think that’s insulting to both the filmmakers and the audience.  This film does not require you to turn your brain off, because it almost takes pride in how ridiculous it is.  It dares you to keep your brain turned on and still have fun anyway, and it is terrific, cranked up, manic fun.

“Fast Five” is open in much of the world right now, and opens nationwide in the US this Friday.