Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Paul Walker
Hollywood has been doing car chases as long as they’ve been cranking cameras but I’m confident in saying this sequence is one of the most imaginative I’ve seen in years
Taking place chronologically before Tokyo Drift, Fast & Furious 5 begins with Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) being rescued on his way to prison, forcing the whole reassembled gang to go on the run as wanted fugitives. They end up in Rio, where a series of events leads them to lock horns with an evil crime boss as they target his cash houses in a series of daring raids. At the same time, DSS agent Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) is getting closer to his quarry.
Fast & Furious 5 starts with a literal bang, as the gang stage the high impact rescue of Dom... by crashing his bus in an horrific conflagration. It’s a significant moment for the audience and the movie that follows, openly acknowledging the unrealistic nature of the action and the indestructible nature of the characters.
From there, it’s anything goes – a fact which sits just fine with the series’ slow reinvention as an action franchise. The first film was almost wholly focussed on street racing, using over the top CG to convey the sense of speed and g-forces the participants undergo. But that facet has moved into the background in recent years as the stunts have become larger and more fantastical. This time around, you’ll find copious gunplay, some light parkour foot chases and a handful of solid vehicular set pieces... but not a single significant race. One clear moment which recalls the earlier films lets the race itself occur off screen while a friendly wager between friends for pole position sees four identical police cars neck and neck with little sense of speed or fun.
Happily you won’t miss the high speed competition as the alternative action on display is generally fantastic. The opening train heist is gleefully ridiculous – with the climax inciting peals of laughter in my screening. It’s followed by running and gunning and a location destroying fight between two animated golems – otherwise known as the improbably muscled Diesel and Johnson. But it’s the final 20 minutes that stood out most in my mind; a heist that involves the theft of a room sized safe by two supercars – which drag it through the streets of Rio. Hollywood has been doing car chases as long as they’ve been cranking cameras but I’m confident in saying this sequence is one of the most imaginative I’ve seen in years, possibly since Michael Bay’s ludicrous 2003 offering Bad Boys II. The level of destruction on offer is biblical, presenting true car crash porn, but at the same time there’s a defensive function to the lumbering safe which gives the scene some internal narrative and stops it from ever devolving into repetitive loops of fancy vehicles. Stunning stuff.
If the film has one major stumbling black it’s unquestionably the 2 hour plus run time. Long stretches pass without any significant action and the filmmakers attempt to fill that void with drama and camaraderie that invariably reeks of fail. A pregnancy sub-plot is despairingly unnecessary (and leads to the effected female being conspicuously left out of anything even slightly perilous) and the comedy falls flat – unless you count Johnson’s ridiculous pseudo-hardman pronouncements. There’s a lean, high octane 100 minute version of this film that could easily have been one of the best action efforts of the year. The cast and performances are better than expected, with Johnson stealing the show effortlessly – it doesn’t hurt that his body looks like time lapse footage of some vast muscle orgy.
Fast & Furious 5 is a lot of fun, making no bones about the ridiculous nature of its action scenes or character interactions and delivering more high octane thrills than you might expect. There’s still serious potential left in the franchise – if they can limit the cast members and the running time and get some solid comedy writers and performers in, this could be one of those rare series that remains watchable even as it approaches double figures.