Well, it took the producers long enough, but they've finally made a "Fast and the Furious" film that didn't immediately trigger my gag reflex. "Fast Five" is the fifth installment of this unlikely saga of cars and bros, and while dopey as ever, the fun factor has increased exponentially now that certain plot elements and subculture porn has been ditched to roughhouse in Rio with a band of crooks who've blossomed into a family. The acting remains atrocious, but the formula has been altered dramatically, injecting needed restlessness into a comatose franchise.
After their last adventure forced them to flee America, Brian (Paul Walker), Mia (Jordana Brewster), and Dom (Vin Diesel) have settled in Rio de Janeiro, barely keeping one-step ahead of their pursuers. Stumbling upon a golden opportunity to rob local criminal kingpin Reyes (Joaquim de Almeida) blind, the trio set out to prepare an outlandish heist, with Dom calling together a group of friendly faces to help pull off the impossible. With the likes of Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Tej (Chris "Ludacris" Bridges), Han (Sung Kang), and Gisele (Gal Cadot) working all the angles, Brian and Dom are off to battle new enemies, including an unstoppable force known as Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson), a hulking federal agent tasked with bringing down the fugitives using any means necessary.
After helming the last two pictures in the series, director Justin Lin goes for his own trilogy with "Fast Five," showing outstanding confidence this time around, building on the itchy momentum generated in the last movie, 2009's "Fast & Furious." Lin isn't the most sophisticated filmmaker, but the man maintains a vast appetite for destruction, again returning to a theme park stunt show spirit to help work the action sequences into a sufficient lather. From the get-go, bodies are hurled, cars roar and occasionally take flight, and bullets are sprayed everywhere -- the bedlam sold with a credible gusto from the cast and crew, who put forth a slick technical effort marked by a few Wows, an Ohmygod, and maybe ½ a Yeahrightnoway.
The ferocity of "Fast Five" is a refreshing development, with the sequel nearly shedding all of the car culture shackles that turned previous installments into a tedious foreign language not worth the effort of translation. Never fear, there are plenty of wheels fetishized here, with the gang attempting to locate the appropriate automobile that could possibly outrun a security camera, necessitating a return to the underground racing circuit to pick up their prize. Cue the thumping beats, objectified women, and shiny paint jobs. Mercifully, the racing is made background noise, with a heist now dominating the menu for the team, spreading the adventure throughout Rio via mini-missions, each highlighting how the drivers get their groove back.
Lin goes for a rock 'em sock 'em tempo that steamrolls through the city, using local streets and a maze of favelas to stage chase sequences, both on foot and in cars. The stunt work is dynamic and the car-fu is strong, with Lin orchestrating a convincing mix of practical effects and CGI to tear up Brazil. "Fast Fast" is surprisingly long (130 minutes), but it never bores, keeping a steady pace of spying and smashing that is far more rewarding than any race. The new film offers a mission for the squad, with screenwriter Chris Morgan taking the opportunity to rebrand the series as something more than just a flashy car show, focusing on primal regions of survival and protection, even supplying bland Brian, forever the slack-jawed ornament, with a renewed sense of purpose for this sequel.
Acting has never been a strong suit for the franchise, and "Fast Five" doesn't exactly challenge the ensemble with its crude lines of devotion and vengeful invitation. The interplay between cast members is loose, but often quite painful to endure, with Gibson and Bridges actually encouraged to improv (pure death), while Walker, Brewster (looking uncomfortable in her own skin), and Diesel enjoy a staring contest, which the actors clearly assume passes for brooding Eastwoodian intensity. The real spark here is Johnson, eating the frame as human cannonball Hobbs, out to nail Dom any way he can -- a quest that could be interpreted several ways. Always growling and huffing, Johnson is exactly the type of antagonist "Fast Five" needs, generating a palpable feel of dogged pursuit that scuffs up the film's sheen.
And bravo to the production assistant assigned to squeeze a wet sponge over Johnson's shaved head during his intense close-ups. If faux sweat work could garner an Academy Award nomination, "Fast Five" would be a shoo-in to win.
The climax features the gang dragging a colossal safe with their cars through the bustling streets of Rio, pursued by rabid baddies and cops. It's a spectacular demolition derby event that takes the film over the top, but in a delightful, they-should've-done-this-all-along manner that makes me even more infuriated with the previous four pictures.
"Fast Five" is legitimately thrilling and occasionally amusing, always with its foot on the gas pedal. Don't forget to stick around for the end credits to view an intriguing set-up for a sixth installment, which, and I can't believe I'm writing this, I'm now sincerely looking forward to. My 2001 self would hate me for even thinking such a thing. Then again, my 2001 self would likely die of a heart attack if told he'd be watching numerous "Fast and the Furious" movies over the next decade.