Brio de Generic
I really enjoyed Fast and Furious, the fourth installment of the motor-heads-and-muscled-hustler series. It was fun, light, and fast-paced.
And I can’t remember a damned thing about it.
I recall Vin Diesel driving hot cars through desert caves and Michelle Rodriguez’s character dying. But if you were to ask me who the villain was; what he or she wanted; how Diesel and Paul Walker’s characters were involved; or how they saved the day, I’d be utterly stumped.
Even the opening of Fast Five didn’t help remind me that car thief Dominic Torretto (Diesel) had been sent to prison at the end of the last movie: During the opening prison-bus-breakout, I had an awful sense of déjà vu, as if I were watching a scene from one of the earlier installments (though it could have just as easily been from one of the half-dozen other action movies that have pulled off, almost beat for beat, this exact same scene).
Come to think of it, maybe that was the ending of Fast and Furious.
Whatever the case, ex-federal agent Brian O’Connor (Walker) and Toretto’s sister Mia (Jordana Brewster) use their mad skillz and hot ridez to utterly wreck the prison transport. Local news reporters arrive on the scene and claim that no one was killed, and that Torretto was the only person missing. Right away, the movie lost me. If you can find this scene on YouTube or—God forbid—your local theatre, watch it and ask yourself how everyone on that bus could have survived that particularly heinous flipping, skidding, parts-flying mess.
Also, ask yourself when the last time was that you saw resolution lines across your high-definition television. I’m sidetracking here, but, seriously, this is a movie convention that needs to go. Are news tickers and station logos not enough, or do audiences really need fake resolution-line overlays to avoid getting confused?
Okay, back to the story. We flash forward to Rio de Janeiro, where Toretto has pulled together some of his old crew to steal three impounded cars from a moving train. He also allies himself with members of a local drug cartel who, shockingly, turn out to be untrustworthy. Bullets fly, chumps get stomped, and O’Connor leaps from an exploding train into a convertible driven by Toretto—mere seconds before they would have been clipped by an oncoming bridge.
The subsequent freefall into a river several hundred feet below is what drew me to this movie in the first place. In the trailer, this scene concludes mid-air, with O’Connor bracing to leap out the back and Toretto following suit as he leaves the steering wheel behind. I simply had to know how director Justin Lin planned to get these modern day Duke Boys out of this pickle.
Turns out the answer is really simple: They jump out of the car and fall straight into the water, emerging moments later without so much as a broken bone. Apparently, the duo spent all of their earnings from the last movie’s heist (I assume there was one) to buy their way into the Super Soldier program from the upcoming Captain America film.
O’Connor and Toretto find themselves at the top of drug kingpin Reyes’ (Joaquim de Almeida) enemies list: The car that Mia jacked from the train contains a computer chip that has the dates and locations of Reyes’ entire drug network stored on it. Back at home base, O’Connor suspects one of his oldest friends, Vince (Matt Shulze), of selling them out to Reyes. This did-he/didn’t-he drama ping-pongs back and forth so much that after Vince’s fourth ambiguously sinister close-up, I didn’t care who’d stabbed whom in the back; I just wanted to leave.
About forty minutes into the movie, Fast Five’s plot kicks in. Toretto decides to rob all of Reyes’ safe houses and use the $100 million to make himself and his crew disappear “forever” (we’ll know for sure after the weekend numbers come in). To pull off this impossible feat, he recruits almost every living cohort from the past four films, along with a new Hot Girl named Gisele (Gal Gadot).
Excepting her and her would-be boyfriend Han (Sung Kang), every member of the gang is comprised of the Hell Naw School of Acting’s alumni board. Seriously, Tyrese Gibson and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges do more to regress and corrupt black culture in this movie than the entirety of the Tuskegee syphilis experiments (and, no, I’m not suggesting that they “act white”—merely that they act like men in their 30s).
For a few minutes, the prospect of this large crew targeting ten heavily guarded locations in Rio excited me. How would they pull that off, I wondered? Once again, the answer sucks.
The gang raids one of the safe houses and sets fire to several million dollars. This freaks Reyes out so much that he immediately calls for all of his money to be shipped to a single state-of-the-art vault inside the local police headquarters. This means that the next hour-plus is a gear-head version of Ocean’s Eleven, with lots of tedious training and driving exercises leading up to the climax’s Big Heist. You’ve seen bits of the finale in the trailer: Toretto and O’Brian anchor the safe to two cars via steel cables, yanking it out of the cop-shop and right into a high-speed chase.
I can’t say much about that penultimate twenty-minute stretch. Like every other scene in Fast Five, the tension registers at exactly zero on the Thrill Meter (and dips into the negative on the Imagination Scale). No major player is ever placed in mortal danger (which gives the fourth movie an instant leg-up over this one; more on that in a moment), and there’s so much CG in every action scene that I found myself marveling more at the shoddy digital face replacement than caring about what horrific collision would next leave our heroes unscathed. Maybe it’s the actors’ desperate attempts to look and feel 25 a decade after a fluke blockbuster launched their careers; maybe it’s the fact that practical stunt work is going the way of the Gremlin; whatever the case, I was thoroughly bored during two-plus hours of “non-stop action.”
The only bright spot—and this should really tell you something—is Dwayne Johnson’s turn as Hobbs, the ultra-buff, no-nonsense fed who’s brought in to take Toretto down. His Sergeant Slaughter line delivery and look-right-through-you eyes made him a magnetizing figure, and I wondered how great it would’ve been—how original for this franchise—if we’d followed him in his pursuit of Toretto’s gang, rather than following Toretto’s gang as they avoid him and his team of mercenaries. Johnson is especially charismatic when compared to the film's second lead, Walker, who, when he's not reciting his lines like Zack Morris on Ambien he appears to be waiting for the director to call "Action!"
That brings me to two big issues I have with Fast Five and, to an extent, the franchise in general. These movies have always romanticized Toretto and his street-racers-turned-criminal-masterminds. It’s most striking here, as they destroy half of Rio in their quest to steal lots of money. I guess the moral distinction is that they’re not as bad as Reyes, but I wonder if the bystanders at the climax would’ve noticed a difference.
Busy sidewalks, office buildings, and streets are demolished by flying cars and a multi-ton safe clanging about like the fist of God. Because these characters have been established as lovable rogues, their anti-establishment violence and theft can safely be called a “fun, action-filled romp” instead of a “polarizing terrorist thriller.”
My second problem is that the Fast formula of having the hot-pursuit cop team up with the criminals at the end has gotten really, really old. Particularly since you have “The Rock” playing Toretto’s nemesis, I figured there’d be an epic fight to the finish somewhere in the film. But soon after a manly brawl that would’ve been impressive had I not just seen it in The Expendables (along with a number of other story beats), Hobbs switches sides for about half a day in order to bring down Reyes. Emerging victorious, he issues the standard “24-hour head start” warning, allowing all the “good guys” to escape with their crazy fortunes.
Either the authorities in this reality need to start screening their candidates more effectively, or they should just appoint Toretto as head of the FBI.
A funny thing happened during the end credits, though. After having been awake for nearly twenty-one hours, I was in no mood to fight my way through packs of giggling, meandering teenagers; so I sat still and checked my phone for new e-mails. A couple minutes later, the hard-driving rock music stopped and a mid-credits coda popped up on the screen.
Turn away now if you’re not into spoilers.
We see Hobbs behind his desk at the police station. His colleague, agent Fuentes (Eva Mendes, reprising her role from the hilariously homoerotic 2 Fast 2 Furious) asks him to look at a report detailing a massive car heist in Germany. He says he’s not interested unless Toretto is involved. She convinces him to peruse the folder anyway; a few pages in, we get a close-up of Michelle Rodriguez as Toretto’s allegedly deceased girlfriend, Letty.
With Fuentes’ ominous line, “Do you believe in ghosts?” and the subsequent cut to black, Lin and writers Chris Morgan and Gary Scott guaranteed that I’d be in a theatre for the opening of Fast Six: The Good, The Bad and The Furious.
Call me a sucker, but that moment—the only surprising one in more than two hours—held real promise. I’m giving these movies one more chance, and then I’m out.
Correction: After having listened to the newest episode of the How Did This Get Made? podcast, I was reminded that Gal Gadot actually appeared in the fourth film. Much like the opening jail-bus breakout, I had no memory of her involvement in the series; which is either a testament to the interchangeability of these characters or a sign of my impending senility. Let's call it a draw.