Fast Five begins with a replay of the final moments of Fast & Furious; by this stage, Vin Diesel’s translation of Sylvester Stallone’s career is complete. He is using the same tricks as Stallone’s Rocky (1976 – John G. Avilsden) franchise, as much as he is adopting the elder star’s screen persona. The replay also underlines that this is a franchise growing in critical and commercial appreciation; new fans are coming to series after hearing positive word of mouth (and for the record, I was one of those people.)
Even by this stage the franchise has established a huge cast of characters, both lead and supporting. It is adopting the approach of The Simpsons, which innovatively focused on producing a world of additional people, replete with distinctly drawn personalities, catchphrases and emotional ties to the main cast. This means the return of Matt Schulze as Vince from The Fast and the Furious and Eva Mendes as Monica Fuentes from 2 Fast 2 Furious – they bring with them a level of emotional complexity that would not arise otherwise. There is no exposition to explain their characters; the audience is expected to get up to speed themselves.
Additionally, each film in the series will now bring in new characters to the mix; the world grows ever bigger. Fast Five makes the frankly delightful choice to introduce Dwayne Johnson as Luke Hobbs. Taking a role originally written for an elder statesman, such as Tommy Lee Jones, Johnson hurls himself into the franchise with little consideration of its existing stars. He is eminently watchable; gruff, amusing, and physically dominant. There is no doubt in his mind that this film belongs to him. By the time Hobbs destroys Toretto’s Dodge Charger, we know we are seeing an oppositional mountain of masculinity to Vin Diesel (and their passive aggressive social media games recently only underline this). Johnson’s sense-of-humour is vital to this, bringing a charisma to his part that Diesel could never reach. In doing so, O’Conner’s role changes. He is no longer antagonistic, and instead becomes a peaceful counter-balance to the oppressive testosterone of Diesel and Johnson around him.
But what is apparent by this stage is the true multi-cultural representation of the lead cast. It is extraordinarily diverse (and Fast Five goes to great lengths to underline that even Giselle, previously ethnically ambiguous, is a former Israeli soldier). Even considering that Diesel, and to a much lesser extent Johnson, have traded on a level of racial ambivalence, the Fast & Furious cast stands in defiance against the bland Caucasian dominance of Hollywood. In an era where Marvel prides themselves on solitary female and black (but never both… god forbid….) actors, the Fast & Furious line-up stands as truly progressive, giving vital prominence to racial and ethnic groups woefully under-represented on screen, such as Sung Kang’s Korean American heritage. Indeed, this diversity becomes text, when the federal agents acting against the crew realise that their imperialist, white standards and practices won’t operate in the diverse world of Toretto’s crew. Their only hope is to integrate, as Hobbs ultimately does.
Many of the key elements of the series are still in place. Characters are repurposed (Ludacris’ Tej Parker is inexplicably repositioned as a tech expert) explained away as unseen adventures. Skeevy sexual politics continue under Lin’s direction (it is pretty shameful that Gal Gadot’s arse becomes a plot point, and the opening sequence relies on the Mission: Impossible style tension of heists gone wrong.
But there are clear new additions. The film has a bloated running time, underlining its status as a blockbuster tentpole release (essential to the running of the Universal studio). The series adopts a Bond-ian approach to locations, visiting a series of exotic locales (there are an almost impossible number of shots of Christ-the-Redeemer to emphasise just how much this film is set in Rio). And action sequences come to the fore. There are foot chases a-plenty (very much a signature style of twenty-first century action cinema after the success of The Bourne Supremacy (2004 – Paul Greengrass), physical fights between characters (the fight between Hobbs and Toretto operates as two huge pieces of meat pounding the crap out of each other) and some extraordinary car chases. The opening and losing sequences are superb, successfully balancing rapid motion and the occasional necessary physical stillness. There is a glee to the franchises’ willingness to easily annihilate physical structures. Buildings crumble, glass shatters, cars are tossed about like footballs; all this underlines the casual appetite for destruction that action cinema enjoys. The heists were always a feature of the series; now they are essential.
With this comes a reduction in some other aspects. Jordana Brewster is again shunted to the side (a movement that is shamefully continued over the next few films). Street racing is almost completely removed – Lin wittily cuts away from a sequence just as it is about to begin in this film. His direction is on occasions extraordinary – there is a long shot of assassins swarming out of the slums of Rio that is quite beautiful. And the series admits that its reliance on the tension between Toretto and O’Conner is over. At the beginning of the film, O’Conner is still very much a rookie, but by the end he is a brother. Along the way, there is a touching sequence where the two discuss their respective fathers; Toretto’s was ever-present, generous and gregarious, O’Conner’s was absent, a blot on his memory. It explains Dom’s utter conviction in himself, and Brian’s shifting, unfixed personality, a personality he ultimately finds stability in the love of Mia by the end of the film. No longer will we wonder who O’Conner is, he is now a stable, strong man.
Fast Five is an extraordinary film. One that the cemented the franchise’s reputation as one of the most invigorating action film series of modern cinema. The opening sequence with its car surfing escapades, and closing, almost half-hour police vault heist are both shot with a determination and exhilaration of style. The series is no longer relying on superfluous CGI to make its point. The current consensus is that single-take shots are essential for invigorating action sequences, but Fast Five proves that quick cutting has its place, as long as it maintains a ccoherence of motion. It is the high point of the franchise so far.
Oh, and it’s revealed that Letty isn’t dead! It’s a shame Dom has got over her, and is now fucking someone else…
Fast & Furious rankings:
- Fast Five
- The Fast and the Furious
- 2 Fast 2 Furious
- Fast & Furious
- Los Bandoleros
- Turbo Charged Prelude
Brian & Dom street racing scorecard:
Brian: II (though Dom lets him win to not hurt his conscience)
Heavy-‘Han’ded references to Tokyo:
2 (once emphasised in a discussion about a magazine, and once in conversation between Han and Giselle ‘I thought you wanted to go to Tokyo?’, ‘We’ll get there eventually.’ – it’s almost as if they were planning on fitting more films into the continuity slot)
‘My smile is not that great.’ Elsa Pataky’s (a woman who is a professional smiler) Elena Neves responding to Luke Hobbs sexist reason for employing her.