Forgive my ignorance of the "Fast and Furious" films. Believe it or not, this fifth installment is the first I've seen in its entirety. I could generally care less about car culture and only just learned how to change my own oil. The closest I come to drifting is in "Mario Kart." I am not the target audience. But as the producers have apparently exhausted street racing tropes, they've pimped the franchise out to the masses. Color me impressed, it actually works.
"Fast Five" may be brainless action, but at least it's the type that revels in its own ridiculousness. The genre has lately fallen into a self-serious slump, teeming with stern-faced heroes who don't enjoy saving the world one bit. Conversely and to all appearances, Vin Diesel and company couldn't be having a better time tearing up the streets of Rio de Janeiro. Sometimes a fast car and a toothy grin is all you need.
Director Justin Lin obviously appreciates the simple and satisfying marriage of physical stunt work and compelling cinematography. Granted, it's no master's course in action filmmaking, but his use of the camera to transfer momentum is undeniably effective. Particularly impressive are his opening and closing chase sequences, in which he employs CGI sparingly in favor of real vehicles and visceral wrecks. Smartly favored in the trailer, "Fast Five" is bookended by an hour of easy escapism.
The problem is everything in between. No one was expecting Shakespeare, but Lin and screenwriter Chris Morgan should have at least dog-eared the bit about brevity being the soul of wit. At two hours 10 minutes, "Fast Five" is longer than it has any earthly business being. The bloated running time allows for some presumably obligatory street races and more tiresome exposition than you can shake a stick shift at.
Hours seem to wither away in a dimly lit garage where story beats are spoon-fed to the audience. Get on with it; "Fast Five" is a "one last job" heist film with few surprises. Whole swaths of the story could be cut—they exist solely to justify more drag races, fistfights, and shootouts. Morgan also relies on cheap, microwavable drama in his peripheral storytelling: an unexpected pregnancy and leftfield romances add little depth to the proceedings. Having his characters emote plays to nobody's strengths.
Thankfully, the charisma of the cast buoys any less than Oscar-worthy performances. Diesel comes off surprisingly empathetic as the muscle-bound mastermind of the hundred million dollar heist. Along the way, he spars with a gargantuan federal agent played by The Rock, and calls in help from a colorful cast of returning characters, including an ex-rival (Paul Walker), his sister (Jordana Brewster), a smooth-talker (Tyrese Gibson), and a safecracker (Ludacris).
Despite its lulls, "Fast Five" kicks the summer off right. With more judicious pacing, it might have been the perfect Saturday afternoon snack, but junk food necessitates a conservative serving size. Lin's overlong film is fortunately punctuated by the sort of tangible high-octane action that has become a rarity in the age of CGI superpowers and spell craft. Even if you're as unfamiliar with the franchise as I was yesterday, you'll likely find this fifth installment immediately accessible and intermittently fun. Now if you'll excuse me, I have a date with my 2001 automatic transmission Toyota Camry.