In my experience, by the time a film series reaches its fifth instalment, one of two things is usually the case: either the dead horse has been flogged to the bone and the whole enterprise is on the verge of dying on its arse and/or going straight-to-video (for example: Rocky V, Hellraiser: Inferno), or it's entrenched itself as part of the cinematic landscape and shows every sign of carrying on for the long haul (You Only Live Twice, Carry On Regardless). My preconceptions on this score were shaken this week, after viewing Justin Lin's….
…um, er. If we're going to be pedantic, I think there's a little confusion over what this film is called. The film certificate lists the title as Fast Five. The poster, on the other hand, goes for the rather less concise Fast & Furious 5: Rio Heist. I don't recall there being an actual title card of any kind, though I may still have been acclimatising to the film when it flashed by. In any case, it doesn't really matter, as everyone knows what this film is all about: big growly men driving cars with big growly engines, very quickly and not in the best of moods.
Now I haven't sat down and properly watched any of the previous four F&F films – not intentionally, I admit. I caught the second one on TV in Japan and was not much impressed, and saw the third one in Russian on Kyrgyz TV and was even less struck. However, great pains are taken to make this outing newbie-friendly while still appealing to the existing fanbase.
Big growly bald criminal mastermind-stroke-boy racer Dominic Toretto (the great Vin Diesel) starts the movie en route to the chokey but is almost at once busted out by ex-cop-turned sidekick Brian (Paul Walker) and his sister (Jordana Brewster). The three of them tootle off down to Brazil intent on keeping a low profile. Unfortunately Vin's idea of a low profile includes driving cars off the side of a moving train and crashing them into the nearest river canyon, and very soon they are being chased by both Rio's top drug dealer and the US government. Just to make things interesting the top lawman on their tail is slightly absurd colossus of justice Luke Hobbs, who's played by the Rock, who's played by Dwayne Johnson. Of course.
Vin and Walker decide to do one last big job before retiring for good, stealing the entire fortune of the aforementioned drug dealer. To do this they recruit a crack team of characters from previous films in the series. The F&F all-stars include Sung Kang from the previous two pictures, Tyrese Gibson and Ludacris, last seen in the first sequel, and Gal Gadot who was only in number four. Not that any of this matters: it's just the set-up for some very silly and thoroughly enjoyable Ocean's Eleven-inflected caper shenanigans. Or, if you prefer, another remake of The Italian Job where everyone's been working out a lot.
I confess I turned up to this movie prepared to scoff and mock it relentlessly, but halfway through the first major stunt sequence I found myself actually really enjoying it. It's not deep, or thoughtful, and it has no pretensions whatsoever, but it is a tremendously well-assembled piece of machinery, for the most part. The script does fall down fairly badly in a couple of places, but usually redeems itself very quickly. Even when it's absurd, it's enjoyably so.
The money sequence in this movie comes when Vin Diesel and the Rock engage in a spot of fisticuffs. Wisely, the producers keep it back until the third act, although the two of them do face off earlier on. There's even a bit where the two of them have a go at parkour, which looks as ridiculous as it sounds. Eventually, though, it can be delayed no longer, and the two big bald growly men face off.
'Rrr hrrr rrr grr rrr rrr,' says Vin, profoundly. 'Uh gruh gur huh ruh gruh,' the Rock ripostes, and then, rather in the manner of two continental plates colliding, battle commences. This isn't quite the epochal moment it might have been eight or nine years ago ( and the very fact both men are in this movie is an indication of how their careers haven't gone quite as well as everyone was predicting) but I can't imagine anyone will be too disappointed by the sight of the Rock trying to ram Diesel's head through the bonnet of his car, or Diesel hurling the Rock bodily through a window. (Miraculously, neither winner nor loser emerges with more than the faintest of scrapes upon their face.)
(The Rock's presence also brings with it the fringe benefit that in comparison Diesel looks like a marginally more nuanced performer than usual, but nobody in this movie is really here to do anything more than look good in shades and work a steering wheel in a photogenic fashion.)
With the battle of the big guys out of the way the film does seem to lose focus a little and the climax and resolution seem rather uninspired and over-prolonged, respectively: but not quite enough to seriously spoil the movie.
As I say, this is purely a popcorn movie, but it is a rather good one, and shows no signs of being the last gasp of a moribund franchise. The makers seem to agree, as the conclusion to this sets up yet another outing, which strongly hints at the return of – be still, my beating heart – Michelle Rodriguez. I will certainly be going back to see that one, but on the strength of this movie, I think I would have done so no matter who was in it. A reliable and extremely competent piece of entertainment.