by HELEN GEIB
When Fast Five, the latest installment in the “Fast and the Furious” series, took in over $80 million in its end of April opening weekend, the predictable response from studio PR was that summer had arrived a week early. The real surprise is not that the movie had a smash opening, but that the “summer movie” tagline is accurate; five movies in and the current entry has the broadest popular appeal of any film in the series. At the same time, it’s the ultimate movie for series fans. That’s a feat more impressive than the showiest action set-piece.
The story picks up from where Fast & Furious (entry no. 4) left off with Dom (Vin Diesel), Brian (Paul Walker), and Mia (Jordana Brewster) on the run in Rio after springing Dom from jail. Now they’re all three living the fugitive lifestyle Dom knows so well from his years on the lam between the conclusion of The Fast and the Furious (the original film) and the tragedy that brought him home to LA at the start of the last film. When a drug kingpin targets them for elimination, they decide to finance their future by stealing his drug money; all $100 million in cash of it. They find a new ally, and Dom a new chance at love, in honest local cop Elena (Elsa Pataky) and a new antagonist in Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson), an ultra-tough fed ordered to bring them in. Justin Lin returns as director in his third series outing.
Going along with the “further adventures of” storyline, the film also caters to fans with in-jokes and references to the events and characters of the earlier films. The best of them is the time Dom and Brian win a car in a street race… offscreen. Set-up and punch line do triple duty as in-joke, reference, and fond farewell to the street racing that was a keystone of the series up until now, but with this film has been replaced by summer movie-style outrageous action set-pieces.
What makes Fast Five the ultimate movie for series fans is that the continuity is more than superficial. Fast & Furious restored the nuclear family torn apart at the first film’s end. Fast Five goes a step further: it’s a reunion of the extended family that brings together supporting characters from all four prior films. The return of Vince (Matt Schulze), a mainstay member of Dom’s crew before Brian showed up, might have been expected as a narrative follow-up to the Dom-Brian-Mia reunion. Not expected was the return of characters from main storyline outliers 2 Fast 2 Furious (entry no. 2, natch; Brian’s solo cops and robbers adventure) and The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (entry no. 3; with none of the series principals aside from a cameo appearance by Dom).
The plot device behind the reunion is the assembly of a team of specialists to pull off the heist. Thematic continuity with the The Fast and the Furious is achieved when Dom resumes his rightful position as paterfamilias; the connection to the starter film is consciously evoked in the dialogue, there’s a lovely scene when Dom gives brotherly advice and support to Brian, and his smile when he realizes he’s inadvertently played matchmaker for two of his friends is a thing of beauty. The overarching effect is a film that wraps a ribbon around the series, ties it with a bow, and offers it as a present to the “Fast and Furious” family’s loyal supporters among the members of the audience.
The aforementioned summer movie-style outrageous action set-pieces take in gunfights, fistfights, foot chases, car chases, explosions, jaw-dropping stunts, a high body count among the drug lord’s minions and cops on the take, and an extended action finale that really must be seen to be believed. Like most films of its ilk, it goes on a little too long.
The quality and quantity of the action is a departure from past series entries, yet also a natural progression from the intrinsic absurdity of the street racing genre. The series’ defining characteristic is the films’ (individually and collectively) core of emotional seriousness. However, that core has always, albeit to varying degrees, come bundled in ridiculousness. The ridiculousness has never ceased to delight. In Fast Five, it amazes too.
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