In my review for the bottom-of-the-bucket sequel Fast & Furious (despite the misleading title, that’s the fourth film in the franchise), I called the film “unnecessarily dour”, which remains true, but that doesn’t mean it was entirely unnecessary. Fast & Furious worked as retroactive franchise glue, culling the scattered pieces of the first three films into a cohesive whole for the first time ever. While the first three installments seemed increasingly disinterested in constructing a consistent narrative as a set (with Tokyo Drift being the most hilariously detached of the bunch), the fourth was hell-bent on pretending that there was a grand purpose all along. It was not a pleasurable experience (there’s no reason it couldn’t have been fun while still being functional), but it did serve a purpose: setting the stage for Fast Five.
Fast Five picks up immediately where the fourth film left off, with newscasters (including Perd Hapley!) reporting on the disappearance of Vin Diesel & Paul Walker that concluded the last film, completing Walker’s transition from undercover cop to wanted man. Replacing Walker on the dangerous policing side of the occasion is a supercop played by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. This is essentially the perfect role for The Rock, as he is allowed both to show his chops as a legit actor (his natural charisma is undeniable) and also as an action-film-ready superhuman muscle god. More importantly, an all-star crew of the gang/”family” members from the first four films are assembled here in the single best team-building montage outside of MacGruber. Tyrese Gibson & Ludacris return as a genuinely hilarious comedy duo, playing off of each other’s personalities expertly. Jordana Brewster is finally allowed behind the wheel again (speaking of natural charisma, I can’t explain exactly why I like her so much). Han (Sung Kang) again teases just when Tokyo Drift will occur in the chronology, just like last time. When a character asks him about this directly, saying “I thought you wanted to get to Tokyo?” Han responds “We’ll get there. Eventually.” That’s just gold. Diesel & The Rock’s onscreen interactions are pure gold as well, especially in a especially brutal fistfight that almost results in a bare-fists murder. There’s an overriding vibe of “the gang’s all here” that makes the film a fun, over-the-top ride of campy action.
Giving the cast a narrative reason to coexist was a somewhat important development, but what’s really important is that they’re firing on all cylinders as a group here. This is apparent as early as the opening heist, which is easily the most absurd action set piece of the series so far. It’s a glorious spectacle of a high speed train robbery that includes flying cars, flying Paul Walker, and a grand entrance in which Vin Diesel rips the wall off the side of a train. There’s a second over-the-top action sequence at the end of the film featuring an oversized vault being dragged behind a car like a wrecking ball, but even that scene has a difficult time topping the jaw-dropping opening minutes. In between those two points of widespread, car-driven mayhem, there’s a return to the torture scenes of the first couple films, a callback to the on-the-lens fecal splash of Tokyo Drift, and the highest kill count by gunfire of any film in the series so far, just endless scores of dead Brazilian cops & criminals left by the wayside.
There’s a lot of killer action movie surface pleasures scattered all over Fast Five, but that’s not what makes it special. What distinguishes the film is Vin Diesel’s Dominic’s sudden conviction that his gang of ragtag criminals and former cops is a “family”. Why is it suddenly so stirring when Diesel talks about family in Fast Five, so much more so than it was in previous installments? It’s because it feels like he truly believes it. As far as the franchise goes, the “family” in the first four films act like distant cousins who might see each other once a decade. Suddenly, in Fast Five it’s genuinely moving when Dominic talks about how his father taught him about the importance of backyard grilling, how a family always sticks together, and so on. It’s not a perfect film; it could’ve allowed more screen time for The Rock & (I can’t believe I’m saying this) more street racing and a ludicrous post-credits stinger has the gall to bring the dead back to life without explanation, but it was a huge step forward for the Fast and Furious franchise. Five films in, all the separate elements are finally clicking as a cohesive action movie unit. Where most extended franchises gradually unravel over the course of their sequels, this is one that took that time to find itself and cull its own “familial” mythology.