Friday, April 29, 2011

FAST FIVE Full Speed Ahead?


- Ah, the great circle of life. A little movie called FAST & FURIOUS is made, and it's a surprise smash - so much so that its two stars price themselves out of the eventual sequels. And yet the sequels are made, even as careers ebb and flow ... and suddenly, here we are, ten years, four sequels later, and once again the gang is back together again. Vin Diesel is back. Paul Walker is back. Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson is here for the first time, though he's back doing action and playing the badass after being stuck in kiddie-comedy limbo for years. And now, suddenly, Fast & Furious, through sheer stubborn persistence, has become a certifiable *franchise*, complete with overly-confusing backstory, a huge cast of recurring characters, and a shift in focus from the first movie's underground drag-racing premise to a broader action movie feel, befitting a series that has now staked its claim as an early-summer tentpole blockbuster. Personally, I lost interest in the Fast films after the decently-entertaining but not-quite-awesome first movie. But okay, here we are - FIVE films in - I guess it's time to give this summer staple another chance. Afterall - this one's got Vin Diesel vs. The Rock. That, if anything, is an action movie fan's dream match-up - a slobberknocker of potentially epic proportions. And you know what? On a purely visceral level, Fast Five delivers the goods. It's got at least two fairly-insane car-chases, at least one edge-of-your-seat shoot-out, and one Icon vs. Icon smackdown that is worthy of the the names Diesel and The Rock. Those moments alone, are, probably, worth the price of admission - if you're an action movie junkie. It's too bad then that the movie is weighted down by all this other "stuff." A plot that barely holds together, characters that are mostly generic and/or blank slates, and all the other elements of this "franchise" that were never all that great to begin with. You wish that, somehow, they could have just strip-mined the movie of all remnants of previous "Fast" films and just created an epic mano e mano showdown film - The Fugitive with much bigger muscles. Instead, we have some cool action scenes and some great fights stuck in the trappings of Fast & Furious 5. Unfortunately, I think that may be the biggest single roadblock in the way of this one achieving action-movie greatness.

Fast Five reunites key players from all the previous movies to form this franchise's version of Ocean's 11. The plot makes little sense, except to say that the team of fast-driving, hard-living cons assembled by Vin Diesel and Paul Walker are out to steal the vast fortune of a drug kingpin based in Rio - "one last job" so that they can all retire from being so fast and furious all the time and sip umbrella-drinks on the beach. Okay, that part mostly makes sense - but where things get fuzzy is when The Rock enters the picture as a special forces dude who leads some sort of team of American badasses (except that he recruits a local policewoman from Rio to be his right-hand-woman). The Rock and his bullet-proof-vest-clad squad - looking like characters from Gears of War brought to life - think that Diesel's crew wasinvolved in the death of some DEA agents or something, and so they're out to bring Diesel, Walker, and co. to justice (how they have jurisdiction in Rio, I'm not sure).

As can be expected, The Rock and Vin are at odds, fight, and then eventually join forces (after an admittedly-awesome, Predator-esque hand-clasp!) to take out the drug kingpin. Again, no real reason for this except that they have the proverbial "similar dudes on oppossite sides of the law" thing goin' on. But the two do have a great chemistry, and there is definitely that awesome-factor in seeing them go at it. It's not quite at the levels of, say, seeing Stallone vs. Schwarzenegger might have been back in the day, but there is some action-movie magic at work when they come to blows and exchange manly put-downs.

However, I do think the movie gets pretty incoherant at times. There's one instance where The Rock's team has Diesel and Walker and co. completely surrounded and outgunned. It looks pretty bleak for the crew. But then, hundreds of random Brazilian heavies surround The Rock's guys and pull out guns. Diesel walks up to the Rock and says something like "you forgot, this ain't America anymore ... this is ... Brazeeel!" WTF! So Diesel is some sort of populist hero now who commands a whole army of heavily-armed Brazilian thugs? That to me was one of those moments that exemplified how inherently brain-dead and nonsensical this movie could be. It's not just a wink-at-the-audience sort of cheesiness ... it's a by-the-numbers approach to storytelling, except one that often doesn't really even follow much internal logic. I know some people will just say "you're overthinking it - just turn off your brain." To that I say - screw you. I don't need every movie to be Inception, but even in a shoot-em-up action movie, I demand characters whose motivations make sense and make me care about them, and a plot that drives the action and gives us reason to care. In Fast Five, I was entertained by some of the cool action ... but did I ever really care about any of these characters? Would I have even flinched had any of them died? The script tries to throw a couple of bones to get you invested - Paul Walker's girlfriend (Jordana Brewster) is now pregnant, for example - but who is his character, really, other than a blank-faced cop-turned-criminal? As for the side characters, I know that some are fan-favorites from previous films, but here I found most to be grating and/or just plain forgettable. Tyrese plays the stereotypical alpha male who tricks out his car and says stuff like "aww hells no!" Ludacris plays a mechanic type who also says stuff like "aww hells no!" Elsa Pataky plays a tough-but-hot former Mossad agent (apparently this is the new action-movie archtype staple - see also: Predators). Sung Kang has a lot of charisma as Tokyo-drifter Han, but isn't given too much to do except crush on the Mossad agent.

All that said, the characters are elevated thanks to the easy chemistry between the cast members. They all seem to be having a good time and enjoying driving fast and kicking ass, so it's easy to get caught up in the general enthusiasm and sense of fun. Walker is still somewhat of a black hole, but I've always been a big Vin Diesel fan - he is just such a unique guy, and is an easy action hero to root for even when his character here, Dom, is nothing too memorable. But let's be honest, "Dom" is basically an excuse to let Diesel be Diesel, in all his gravelly-voiced glory. And The Rock, man, I will say that, *finally* ... The Rock ... has come back ... to action movies. This is the kind of stuff that the man should have been doing all along - kicking ass, taking names, laying the smacketh down on candy asses. The Rock is super entertaining in this one - over the top, but in an awesome way. Much like his WWE persona, The Rock looks ready to whoop ass at any moment - twitching, sweating, chomping at the bit to stick his boot up someone's rectum. Suffice it to say: more badass action movies, please, Rocky.

Fast Five is also greatly served by, as alluded to earlier, the very capable action direction of Justin Lin. As you can probably tell from the trailers, there are some eye-popping, heart-racing action scenes in the film. The third-act car chase, in particular - a physics-defying set piece that involves an armada of vehicles, a giant bank vault, and guns blazing through Rio is truly something to behold.

There are definitely some cool elements to Fast Five - badass action and larger-than-life action heroes going at it. But beyond that, I just don't see anything all that special about this particular franchise. Don't particularly care about these characters, and nothing about the plot really compels me to watch their further adventures (even the cheesy, soap-opera-esque post-credits cliffhanger). In fact, as the franchise moves away from car-racing and towards more generic action, you have to wonder what the Fast movies actually do bring to the table. Fast Five sort of hints at the fact that, in the name of becoming more like other action movies, the producers decided to simply, well, borrow from other action movies, games, etc. A little Uncharted here, a little Point Break there, with a heavy dash of Ocean's 11 on the side. As is, the generic nature of the film sort of adds to the feeling that this, well ... this is simply a quick appetizer for the bigger, more ambitious, meatier summer blockbusters yet to come.

My Grade: B

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