Friday, April 29, 2011

Fast Five: Over-revved

Fast Five (2011) • View trailer for Fast Five
Three stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, and much too generously, for profanity, sexual content and unrelenting violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.29.11

If the destruction of personal property were the benchmark of quality in a film, then this one would be a masterpiece. I've not seen so much gratuitous carnage since the Blues Brothers wrecked an entire shopping mall — amid dozens of needless close-ups of shattered storefronts and smashed merchandise — back in 1980.
Having rather miraculously escaped certain death while dangling from a speeding
train, Brian (Paul Walker, left) and Dominic (Vin Diesel) face a fresh problem:
They're about to roar off a cliff ... with nothing but a long drop below.

All attitude and relentless road rage, Fast Five is vacuous Hollywood product at its finest. Director Justin Lin rarely allows himself to be bothered by irritating details such as plot or character development; this fifth entry in the Fast & Furious series survives solely on macho posturing, scantily clad babes, screaming engines, spinning tires and gear-shift close-ups. I could make a rude comment about symbolism, and what the latter traditionally compensates for, but that'd be giving way too much credit to Chris Morgan's laughably dim-witted screenplay.

Admittedly, Vin Diesel isn't one of the world's great actors, but under better circumstances he can hold camera focus and deliver a line with gruff, teddy bear charm. But he can't make any headway with Morgan's lame dialogue here, which never rises above hilariously soap-opera-ish twaddle such as "It's all about family" ... this from a guy who has, during the course of this series, thought nothing of putting his sister and girlfriend — and anybody else who might have meant something to him — in harm's way every five to 10 minutes. Like they say, love can be cruel.

I'll give editors Kelly Matsumoto, Fred Raskin and Christian Wagner credit for momentum; they certainly move things along, in the manner of a relentless roller coaster. An endless roller coaster, at that; Fast Five clocks in at an indefensible 130 minutes, which is at least half an hour too long. Morgan pads his storyline with too many tiresome sidebar schemes and blown efforts, and of course we need the token street-racing sequence, with all-but-naked cuties draped provocatively over similarly hot cars. Even stalwart fans are apt to get restless as the third act drags on, by which time this franchise has attempted to re-invent itself as Dominic's Eleven.

That results from this story's extensive character reunion, drawing from faces going all the way back to 2001's The Fast and the Furious, whose success we can thank — or blame, depending on your taste — for the fact that we're still enduring this silly nonsense a decade later.

Lin opens this entry, as is customary, with a typically audacious stunt sequence that ignores both the laws of physics and the human body's resilience. With Dominic Toretto (Diesel) en route to a federal pen for the rest of his life, good buddy Brian (Paul Walker) and Dom's sister, Mia (Jordana Brewster), roar up behind the prison transport bus and execute a maneuver that flips the larger vehicle, rolling it like a huge metal sausage until it smashes into pieces at the side of this conveniently deserted road.

Cool, said my Constant Companion; Dominic and everybody else on that bus obviously just got pulped beyond recognition, so I guess we can go home.

No such luck. As half a dozen TV newscasters subsequently inform us, "Miraculously, nobody was killed." (Now, there's an understatement!) And, of course, everybody is accounted for except Dominic, who's gone with the wind.

Cut to an overhead shot of the massive Cristo Redentor statue, and we're in Rio de Janeiro for the second time this month ... and let's just say, the neighborhood obviously has gone to seed since the folks who made the animated Rio were in town. Brian and Mia have gone to ground; for some reason that makes sense only to this film's screenwriter, Dominic isn't with them.

That's so he can show up a few scenes later, and "happily surprise everybody." Yeah, right.

Looking to pick up some pocket change, Brian and Mia agree to help Vince (Matt Schulze) — one of Dom's childhood friends, also now in Rio — boost some cars. Turns out these vehicles are being transported by train, and let's just say Morgan gets points for concocting one of the most jaw-droppingly nervy "car thefts" I've ever seen. It almost seems plausible ... until things start to go wrong, at which point those nasty laws of physics and human body endurance once again get set aside.

Fortunately — happy days! — Dominic shows up in time to get everybody's butt out of the fire. Alas, the heist goes south when it turns out that our heroes have been double-crossed by men belonging to this story's big baddie, a drug lord named Reyes (Joaquim de Almeida) who, we're told, "owns the entire city."

All of Rio? Really? Well, we can't accuse these filmmakers of being timid...

Meanwhile, hard-charging federal agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and his crack team have just arrived in Rio, with the assignment to capture Dom, Brian and Mia, and bring them back to face fresh charges in the States. Hobbs requests rookie Rio cop Elena (Elsa Pataky) as a translator, because "she has a nice smile" ... well, no, not really: actually, because Hobbs somehow knows that she's not bent. (Apparently, that makes her a party of one in the Rio police force.) They go tearing off after our heroes, just as Dominic discovers why Reyes wanted one particular car from that train heist: Its GPS system contains a chip that holds all sorts of information regarding the crime lord’s drug and money-laundering endeavors.

Can't say why Reyes would keep said information in such an ill-advised manner, but hey: If you're still asking questions like that, you're obviously seeing the wrong movie.

One nasty skirmish in a favela later, Hobbs gets even angrier, now convinced that Dominic and his friends also are responsible for killing all sorts of federal agents. They aren't, of course; that was done by Reyes' men ... but I have to say, Lin's clumsy directing makes it impossible to tell who's putting high-powered bullets into whom. For that matter, Hobbs and his comrades seem just as vicious as the drug enforcers, so it's rather difficult to separate the good guys from the bad guys. The idea, of course, is to make Dominic and his fellow anti-heroes look like angels, by comparison. Which they do.

At about this point, more judicious adults will wonder how the hell this film skated by with a "family friendly" PG-13 rating. Bullet-riddled murders are unrelenting, and we've not even gotten started; the final act's body count mounts into the hundreds. The MPAA ratings imbeciles apparently "tolerate" all this carnage because Lin's camera never dwells on maimed bodies or severed limbs, but that hardly excuses the disgusting level of violence present in a "larkish" action flick clearly aimed at adolescents and teenagers.

Anyway, now Dominic's really, really angry; we can tell because Diesel's forehead has three creases, rather than just two. He and Brian therefore summon a crew for a high-profile cash snatch, resurrecting familiar faces from previous entries in this franchise, with the intention of bringing Reyes down.

To that end, Brian Tyler's amped-up soundtrack and cinematographer Stephen F. Windon's tight close-ups signal the arrival, one by one, of:

• Pierce (Tyrese Gibson), a smooth talker who can hustle his way into (and out of) any situation;

• Tej (Ludacris), an electronics genius and professional safe cracker;

• Gisele (Gal Gadot), a utilities and weapons specialist, who also looks hot in a skimpy bikini;

• Leo (Tego Calderon) and Santos (Don Omar), comfortable with explosives and related wet work; and

• Han (Sung Kang), the "drifter" from this film's third entry (Tokyo Drift), whose talents are "blending in" and being cool.

Interesting trick, seeing Han again ... since he perished rather spectacularly in Tokyo Drift. But hey, doncha know, Fast Five takes place before that installment, making this the fourth entry, not the fifth, and Tokyo Drift the fifth entry, not the third. Got all that?

Granted, things liven up with all these additional characters, and the film actually becomes mildly entertaining. The tag-team dialogue between Calderon and Omar is a hoot, and Gibson's Pierce makes a good-natured fall guy. And goodness, are those romantic sparks we see zapping between Han and Gisele?

Ah, yes. Speaking of romance, this film's Big News is that Mia is pregnant, which plays right into big brother Dom's family instincts. Amazing, though, that poor Mia wouldn't miscarry after all the jumping, falling, bouncing and trouncing she takes during the aforementioned favela chase and skirmish. Heck, even one of the dim-bulb chatterbox sorority dweebs, talking incessantly as she sat behind us during Tuesday evening's Sacramento preview, wondered about that problem: "Wouldn't she have just lost the baby?" she asked, rather loudly.

Yes, darling child, she would have. But if you're still asking questions like that, you're obviously seeing the wrong movie.

With Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson in the same flick, we know they'll eventually tussle, if only to see whose arms are thicker. The eventual brawl is every bit the glass-shattering, wall-smashing fracas one would hope for ... although, like everything else in this movie, it drags on much too long.

As does the final, actual heist of Reyes' fortunes ... but you've gotta admire the dazzling preposterousness of this climax; it's a corker. I don't think downtown Rio will ever recover, but hey: You can't make an omelet without breaking a few (hundred) eggs.

Ultimately, Fast Five is guaranteed to please its target audience; how could it not? Everybody struts, scuffles and smart-mouths on cue, and Lin certainly puts the entire budget on the screen, with respect to action-oriented mayhem. And, in truth, Fast Five is better than its 2009 predecessor ... although that's damning with rather faint praise.

Faint praise, however, is all I've got.

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