More than a few film franchises seem like a trip to the drive-up burger joints: the payoff is predictable, not always very nourishing, but the experience can be fun, and you won’t leave hungry.
That recipe worked perfectly for The Fast and the Furious in 2001. The film didn’t promise steak, just a lot of sizzle, which clearly satisfied a broad segment of moviegoers. This motorized morality play (of a sort) mixes brooding, inarticulate characters tied to a supremely implausible story sprinkled with lots of attractive women and fast cars.
This menu spawned a series of films that grossed nearly a billion dollars worldwide. So, of course, Fast Five just opened. It expects to do large business because it does not stray far from the basic formula.
Here’s the big question posed by this ‘Smack: Does Fast Five extend the franchise, or suffer a hit-n-run by The Fast and the Furious?
Ex-con Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) can’t stay out of trouble, but he has resourceful allies: his sister Mia (Jordana Brewster) and her beau, Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker), who is a former cop on the lam. They turn up in Rio de Janeiro after springing Toretto from police custody. They need money so they agree to steal several seized sports cars from a moving train. Crime boss Hernan Reyes (Joaquin de Almeida) bankrolled this caper but he wants something other than the cars. Double-crosses and messy shootouts have Toretto marked for extinction by Reyes. Added to this, the U.S. has sent down a double-shot of testosterone, Agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson), to catch Dom and his crew. Now it gets confusing, as Reyes targets Hobbs, and Hobbs joins forces (temporarily) with Toretto against Reyes. What follows beggars credulity and leaves you thinking: Oceans Eleven. Who wins? Who loses? You know exactly who, since two more sequels are on the way.
The Defending Champion
The Fast and the Furious introduces us to Toretto doing what he knows best: street racing, auto repair and crime. A string of truck hijackings (Toretto’s handiwork) in Los Angeles catch the attention of the LAPD and FBI. They assign officer O’Conner (Paul Walker) to go undercover as a street racer. This gives O’Conner the street cred to infiltrate Toretto’s inner circle. Complications, of course: Toretto’s beautiful sister, Mia, who takes a shine to O’Conner; unstable rival street racers and long haul truckers now packing firearms to use against hijackers. Loud music and aggressive driving loosely bind these elements. Since the movie has been sequeled you can guess what happens to the main characters. Gary Scott Thompson, Erik Bergquist and David Ayer adapted a magazine article by Ken Li into a tale of betrayal and redemption with fitful moments of honesty. Rob Cohen (Stealth, xXx) directed.
Neither film tries to be more than it is. It strictly becomes an issue of which movie offers more of what it is. The Fast and the Furious created the template: Loud, fast and don’t let the dialogue get in the way of a simple story line. On that basis, the film succeeds well. You’re not bothered that no one acts very well, since so little is required; a scowl here, a fragment of dialogue there, a heavy foot on the gas for the well-staged chase sequences. It’s always watchable, rarely satisfying. Within those boundaries Fast/Furious scores big with the audience — mostly young males — this film aims to reach.
Fast Five nearly upsets the formula. Writers Gary Scott Thompson and Chris Morgan graft some unconvincing palaver about “family” and “commitment” onto the few non-action interludes. In the hands of director Justin Lin a bank vault becomes a weapon of mass destruction in Rio de Janeiro. This is so over the top it’s almost… charming. Adding The Rock to this ensemble seems like overkill, or a calculated effort to ramp up dramatic tension for the upcoming sequels.
This isn’t The King’s Speech and the producers are okay with that because their real inspiration in this latest outing seems to be Ocean’s 11. Their film series and its defiance of the laws of physics has triumphantly embraced the laws of Hollywood, or so the box office says. You won’t rent the first film by accident, nor will you stumble into a theater for Fast Five and be confused that the film is about fast cars. These films are about energy — and we’ve known since 1968’s Bullitt that the speeding car translates into a perfect night out for at least a certain segment of the audience. What we’ve learned in those four decades, though, has now been taken to its own art form. Fast cars can be enough all by themselves.
These often impossible stunts and crashes just get more fun with their insane villains and hot women. The question is: as these car dramas get faster and ever more furious does it stretch the formula past the breaking point?
These entertainments don’t satisfy on every level, just the ones they want. Audience approval made Vin Diesel a movie star and there’s no stopping the franchise now. If you are part of that audience, then getting more and more of what you want hardly ruins the film, it just makes it more of an experience to sit back and enjoy.
There’s no reason to feel nostalgic for The Fast and the Furious. It set the table, but it’s clear that this meal would have ended years ago if the sequels stopped attracting diners. You can blame our winner, Fast Five, for filling the space between the award winners. That suits the filmmaker and his audience just fine.