Fast Five reminds me a lot of the kinds of cars that its leads drive. Now, please excuse me if the metaphor is a bit clunky. I know nothing of cars. However, whenever we cut to inside one of these enhanced driving machines, it’s clear that virtually every unnecessary component has been stripped out in order to make room for more relevant pieces of equipment. The passenger seat, for example, has been removed and replaced with some canisters I can only assume allow the car to go faster. In many ways, Fast Five feels a bit like that. I knows exactly the film that it wants to be, and it knows exactly what it needs to be that sort of film. Anything else – whether wit, sophistication or character development – is all just dead weight between fast one-liners, impressive action sequences and effective stunt work. And, I am not ashamed to admit, I actually quite enjoyed it on its own terms.
I actually admire how dedicated Fast Five is to being the leanest, meanest car-themed heist movie ever made. At this stage, five films into a hugely successful franchise, it seems like writer Chris Morgan and director Justin Lin know what audiences expect for them and what they can get from their cast. The film features absolutely no quality character work. I still have no real reason to care for Dominic Toretto or Brian O’Conner. That’s just a fact of life.
Morgan and Lin appear to have done their research – they know that actors Vin Diesel and Paul Walker are hardly the most convincing of action movie leads, and that good character development is all but wasted on the pair. Indeed, Paul Walker seems to struggle with basic exposition, at times sounding like he’s reading his lines of a handkerchief. The pair are at their most awkward during the film’s single “well, let’s have them talk a bit” moment, where the two lead characters reflect on their parents.
Morgan’s writing of the scene is sharp and to the point. He doesn’t extend it into a theme or attempt a subtle approach – he seems to know that Diesel and Walker aren’t suited to that sort of character work. Instead, the pair just talk about their dads and leave the audience to make what they will of the scene. As an aside, I found it interesting that the crook came from the fully-functioning household with a strong male role model, while the cop had an entirely absent father figure. Of course, Toretto is a much better criminal than O’Conner is a cop, so I suppose that there’s some logic to that.
Still, that one short scene is the only real bit of character work we see, and even then it’s a generic stereotypical sequence. All the best badasses have daddy issues, after all. Instead, the script and the direction play to the strengths of the cast – notably looking bad ass. There’s a minimum of extraneous dialogue cluttering up the film. There’s the illusion of dramatic conflict created by adding the spectre of betrayal, but mostly the film plays to the notion of Toretto and O’Conner as distinctly macho figures. It’s shallow, and it’s not particularly clever, but it works very well.
Indeed, Lin and Morgan both find the best use for the Rock that I’ve seen in quite some time. Instead of playing a failed father figure in another disappointing children’s film, here Dwayne Johnson is cast as a muscle-bound federal agent, who is also a badass. And a bit of a dick. The character only seems to break into the second dimension by sheer force of muscle mass. “Am I right?” he asks at one point. “Of course I am.” There’s not a hint of irony, because that would erode the sheer badass nature of the character. Standing up to local gangsters, who back down when confronted with his sheer badass-itude, our Federal Agent simply mutters, “I thought so.”
There’s no growth or character development. At best, he’s like a two-dimensional Sam Gerard, without any of the nuance writing or subtle performance that made Tommy Lee Jones’ performance so superb. He doesn’t have things like beliefs or opinions. He’s a results-orientated federal agent. “All these guys are are names on a list. They come up, we take em down. Not a phone call more, not a bullet less.”He’s named Hobbs, which I choose to interpret as a reference to the famous moral philosopher. But he’s even tougher than any pansy-ass philosopher. He’s so tough that he doesn’t even need cover during an ambush, adopting the tried-and-tested method of simply standing in the middle of the street shooting at people.
Don’t think too hard about the Rio setting. I mean, it’s really just an excuse for some nice saturation and to put the female cast members in bikinis. (Remember, the quickest way to get a villain’s handprint is to allow him a nice and juicy tushy squeeze!) The political implications of the story are best ignored. Apparently Rio is so corrupt that it is controlled by a single evil drug lord who owns all the police except one.
And apparently it’s perfectly cool for a bunch of US agents to arrive over and start shooting things up like they own the place. In fact, there’s even a rather brutally summary execution of a local by a US officer without any form of trial or inquiry. It’s best not to dwell on the implications of such things. Of course, don’t forget the reckless indifference to the lives of Rio’s citizens during the climactic car chase. These are the kind of things that, if you thought about them too much, would seriously upset your enjoyment of the film.
To be fair to Lin, he has a wonderful knack for distracting his audience. While there’s nothing new or groundbreaking going on here, Lin has a wonderful skill when it comes to slight of hand – he seems to realise how ridiculous a particular concept is, and can skirt you through it with remarkable ease. Even boring character interaction is rendered cooler when it’s conducted through walkie-talkies in the middle of an epic chase sequence. Dull exposition sequences feel a little bit more interesting if the camera is constantly whirling. Hell, Lin even finds a way to make the subtitles a little bit cooler, refusing to place them at the bottom of the screen, and occasionally allowing characters to wipe them out, so to speak.
The chase sequences are handled very well, and there are one or two smart little action set pieces included. I especially like the finalé that seems almost like a macho logic puzzle, as our two leads tear through Rio dragging a large bank vault behind them. If you ignore the numerous physics questions arising from the sequence, and the near sociopathic indifference to human life, it’s actually a nice little chase.
I liked Fast Five, much more than I probably really should have. It’s not the perfect piece of cinema. It’s not even the perfect piece of brain-dead cinema. Those audience members unwilling or unable to disengage their brains, or at least unable to suspend their critical faculties from one scene to the next, probably won’t find much to enjoy – and that’s a perfectly reasonable position. However, I think Lin and Morgan are just about skilled enough to pull this one off. It might not (despite an ironic campaign) win an Oscars, but it does what it says on the tin.
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