Monday, July 29, 2013

Fast Five (Universal, 2011)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched a movie that was a recent film and part of a highly successful franchise, but one neither of us had encountered before: Fast Five. This began life way back in 1954 as The Fast and the Furious, the first film released by American Releasing (later American International Pictures) and the first feature-film production credit for Roger Corman, who also wrote the original story, though the credited director is the film’s on-his-way-down star, John Ireland. The page for the film gives the following synopsis — “A man wrongly imprisoned for murder (John Ireland) breaks out of jail. He wants to clear his name, but with the police pursuing him, he's forced to take a beautiful young woman, driving a fast sports car, hostage and slip into a cross-border sports car race to try to make it to Mexico before the police get him” — which sounds like a quite different movie from the one made under the same title in 2001 which kicked off the current series: “Los Angeles police officer Brian O’Connor (Paul Walker) must decide where his loyalties really lie when he becomes enamored with the street racing world he has been sent undercover to destroy.” For some strange reason the 2001 The Fast and the Furious — starring Vin Diesel as Dominic Toretto, the head of the street racing world who eventually “adopts” O’Connor as his partner in crime — was a massive hit and generated no fewer than five sequels plus another one, the seventh in the series, slated for release next year.

Fast Five is, as the title suggests, the fifth in the series, directed by Justin Lin from a script by Chris Morgan based on characters by Gary Scott Thompson, and though ordinarily I wouldn’t have gone near a movie like this I happened to spot the DVD in the half-price rack at Vons and thought it might be fun to check out this cultural phenomenon. I wasn’t expecting much but at least I thought there would be a lot of high-tension action scenes that would provide mindless entertainment. Was I wrong! The first half-hour or so did indeed seem to be promising a hot action movie even though the big set-pieces had little or nothing in the way of plot to connect them — it begins with one of the gang being broken out of a bus taking him to prison when the hot cars the ring has stolen surround the bus and force it to flip over, much the way Somalian pilots surround a large ship with speedboats in order to capture it and hold its cargo and crew for ransom, and that wasn’t the only scene in this film that looked like a modern-dress high-tech land-based version of a pirate movie. In what’s by far the film’s best scene, the gang — having fled to Brazil, of all places, following the Great Escape — converges on a train carrying some hot cars belonging to Brazilian organized-crime kingpin Hernan Reyes (Joaquim de Almeida) and steals them by driving a weird desert vehicle alongside the train and using it to board the train. Eventually the boarding vehicle develops an off-ramp which they can lower and drive the cars into the desert — though given that the cars they’re stealing in this intriguing fashion are delicate sports cars like the 1960’s Ford GT40, it’s unlikely that they’d last very long being driven across the Brazilian desert as if they were ATV’s. But given how fast and loose (pardon the pun) this film plays with the ordinary laws of physics, that’s the least of its problems! 

Alas, once the characters settle in Brazil and steal the cars — it turns out the GT40 contains a computer chip on which is embedded all the details of Reyes’ operation, including the location of his cash drops (he does all his business in cash because he doesn’t want to leave what is still quaintly called a “paper trail,” but these days is more like an electronic trail, through the world’s banking system), and Reyes hired Our Anti-Heroes to steal the cars just to lay his hands on that chip — the movie turns dreadful, and dreadful in quite the opposite way from the one I’d anticipating. Instead of a series of exciting action scenes with only a pretextual plot to connect them, writer Morgan and director Lin make exactly the opposite mistake, devoting endless footage to the all-star gang Toretto and O’Connor recruit from around the world (including two heavy-set Black guys, a quite cute Asian and the obligatory females to double as action heroines and sex toys for the males — though interestingly we never see much of anything besides the obligatory embracing and closed-mouth on-the-lips kissing) in order to steal Reyes’ $100 million cash stash, which they propose to do by stealing his entire cash vault (which Reyes has housed in the headquarters of Rio de Janeiro’s military police — indicating that his reach includes most if not all of local law enforcement as well as the people of Brazil’s slums, the favelas, whose loyalty and service he’s bought by bringing them electricity, running water and the other “mod cons” the government hasn’t bothered to provide to the poor) and using their hot (in both senses) street racers to drag it through the streets of Rio until they reach their secret headquarters and they can open it at leisure.

Unfortunately, so much of the running time is spent on detailing the minutiae of this plot that Fast Five turns dull — a failing one doesn’t expect from a movie like this! Another problem is that, for all the film’s (and the series’) status as a glorification of outlaws and crooks, the two most interesting characters are both official (and uncorrupted) representatives of U.S. law enforcement, FBI agents Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson, the ex-wrestler formerly known as “The Rock,” who quite frankly does a lot more for me physically than Vin Diesel does — those pecs!) and his assistant, a woman who joined the force after her FBI agent husband was killed in the line of duty. Alas, we get to see all too little of them. Charles and I screened the so-called “extended edition” of Fast Five, though it was only about 10 minutes longer than the theatrical release of 130 minutes — frankly this was a film that could probably have been better if it had been considerably shorter (about 90 to 100 minutes was about how much running time this slender story could have sustained) and if the action sequences hadn’t been encumbered by all the dull, banal and ridiculous plotting that surrounded them. There are a few felicitous touches in the writing that suggest that Chris Morgan’s heart was not in his work — a nice bit where Reyes explains that the Spanish and the Portuguese both tried to conquer Brazil, the Spanish by killing all the natives they could get their hands on and the Portuguese by bribing them with gifts and making them dependent; and a good gag in which one of the African-American members of the gang is trying to gain admittance to the military police office with an I.D. stolen from a white man, and when the clerk notices the discrepancy the Black guy says, “It’s a tan, get it? A TAN!” But for the most part Fast Five is a mediocre movie that doesn’t work even on its own terms as an action vehicle.