Monday, May 2, 2011

Faster than Light

Oh, happy day! With the week's selection of new releases woefully unappealing (no thank you, Prom and Hoodwinked Too), I was more than happy to make action film Fast Five my latest destination this past weekend. The fifth (if the title wasn't a dead giveaway) in the box office-smashing franchise, the film was prefaced by trailers featuring amazingly fast cars, superb chase sequences, and just about every important character from the series making a return. I don't have much experience with the Fast and the Furious series; with only the first movie under my belt (as i talked about last week), and so I'm certainly no expert on the films starring Vin Diesel and Paul Walker, both of whose filmographies I'm quite okay with not being familiar. So why was I so excited about seeing Fast Five? Well, now that I'm officially a "film guy" I do admit some excitement about catching this film on the big screen. The genre of popcorn action films has been surprisingly weak so far this year, with expected blockbusters I Am Number Four and Battle: Los Angeles limping at the box office. Still, the big-budget special effects of Fast Five looked like just the remedy to these unknown quantities, and begged to be seen on an IMAX screen. If nothing else, the chance to visit anew a series that has already made fans of millions seemed like a good way to spend the day. With this chance for excitement too good to pass up, I made my way to the theater for some big screen heroics and explosions.

Aw, Paul Walker finally became a grown man!
When a deal gone bad makes Brian O'Conner (Walker) and siblings Mia (Jordana Brewster) and Dom Toretto (Diesel) enemies of the most powerful man in Rio de Janeiro, the three find themselves in deep water, as criminal kingpin Herman Reyes (Joaquim de Almeida) hunts them down for the secrets in their possession. Now, with the dual threat of Reyes's goons and a team of DSS government agents led by Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) hot on their trails, Dom and Brian decide that they are tired of running. Using what they have found, they plan to rob Reyes blind, and to do so they assemble a crack team filled of former allies and co-patriots to take the stuffing out of the man who owns all the power in the "Marvelous City."

"Car Surfing" was one X-treme sport that never really caught on
One of the big differences between Five and previous additions to the series is the relative lack of street racing, which had helped the franchise identify itself in the first place. The early episodes in the series made their bones with extensive looks at the illegal street racing scene, endearing themselves especially to teenagers and race enthusiasts. There's a reason the films have won so many Teens Choice and MTV Awards and not any Oscars, and that appeal to young audiences is at least part of it. Anyway, in this latest film, the street racing  is nearly ignored completely. Excepting a couple of scenes taking place at a meet and one personal contest between some of the main characters, the racing angle is almost completely overlooked, resulting in something more of a generic heist movie a la The Italian Job. This would have been a problem if the subject matter couldn't adapt to those changes, but thankfully the cast and crew are more than up to pulling it off. While more could have been done with these original elements, in the end they're barely missed.

It's the "gather around the computer" scene, a classic of heist films
Besides the amazing chase sequences, the cast was a huge draw for audiences, and for obvious reasons. Besides the "Big Three" of Diesel, Walker and Brewster, just about every character you loved from previous films has returned, unless they up and were killed off in the other sequels (characters from the third film, Tokyo Drift don't count since chronologically it is last in the series). From 2 Fast 2 Furious come Tyrese Gibson and Chris 'Ludacris' Bridges, Gibson as a fast-talking Lothario and Ludacris as a tech genius.  Tego Calderon, Don Omar, and the beautiful Gal Gadot return from their roles in the fourth film Fast and Furious as well, though only Gadot is even remotely fleshed out. Yes, I do mean that literally. Sung Kang has appeared in more Furious films than everyone besides Vin and Paul, and reprises his ultra-cool racer here. Even Matt Schulze returns as Dom's childhood friend Vince in a role that hasn't been seen since the very original. For all these returning characters, the key is to make them appealing to everyone, not just the fans series as a whole. While I'm sure it HELPS to see the earlier titles to understand these characters better, I felt fairly attached to them from the get-go. Everyone from Brewster to Omar (who barely speaks any English at all) felt authentic to me, and while Diesel and Walker were often front and center, the rest are given enough to do to not make them seem worthless. The only real disappointment there would be Schulze, which is a shame since the character had such potential in his return. Unfortunately, the script doesn't seem to know what to do with Vince besides being a means to an end. He's kind of like Captain Kelly on Battlestar Galactica; you see him around, and he seems to belong, but the story doesn't seem to have any use for him, and he is eventually tossed aside.

Too late, Dom and Brian realize they're NOT driving the Mach 5
Fast Five's new characters manage to hold their own against the established stars, however, and help make the film better overall. Dwayne Johnson seems comfortable stepping back into his ass-kicking shoes. As the film's secondary antagonist, Johnson's DSS agent does whatever he can to catch the bad guys, and he's got our heroes dead in his sights. It's good to see a man who made a name for himself as a tough guy stop wasting time with family-friendly films like The Game Plan and The Tooth Fairy. He's born to be an action star and should get a legitimate chance to do so. Elsa Pataky also impresses as perhaps the only honest Rio cop, and her inclusion is done expertly well by the script. Only Joaquim de Almeida is uninteresting as a generic two-bit corrupt businessman. He at least manages to prove somewhat dangerous, with the deepness of his pockets and his multitude of faceless minions who die at his whim. There's just nothing to differentiate him from the many like villains that died at the hands of heroes in the past decade. Still, he's the odd man out in what is otherwise a compelling cast.

The People's Champ looks about ready to lay the smack down
The film does oversimplify things by disregarding the entire idea of "innocent bystander" in some of the more outlandish chase scenes, and we feel good in knowing that no innocents are EVER caught in the crossfire. It is this disregard for the real world that allows the film to just sit back, relax, and enjoy our popcorn. While it does absolutely nothing new (and is possibly the least innovative in the Fast and Furious series), Fast Five is honest enough of a film to be avoid being a derivative knockoff. Truly exciting and worth every penny of the ticket price, you should do yourself a favor and see it in the theaters if you're going to see it at all. At parts funny, engaging, sexy and never dull, Fast Five might be remembered as the top action film of 2011. That's saying a lot, with the comic book adaptations of Thor, Captain America and Green Lantern awaiting their turns this summer to shatter box office records. For now, I'm as surprised as anyone that Fast Five debuts as the #8 best film of 2011. Maybe it'll be the last in the series; maybe it won't. For now I'm just glad I took a chance and saw this when I did.

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