1. Maybe this is a bit yokel-ish of me, but it still sort of awes me that, when they film car chases and car crashes in movies, there really are cars crashing and metal scraping and hoods flipping and windows smashing. The cars do actually hit each other. (Sometimes they hit things they aren't supposed to hit.) The history of great car chase scenes in the movies is as long as the history of movies themselves; no other medium can capture the 13-year-old fantasy of just flooring it the way movies can. (Radio doesn't quite do the trick.) The franchise that is "The Fast and the Furious" -- which was originally a 1998 Vibe magazine story called "Racer X" written by Ken Li, a friend of mine -- is all about cars and chases and crashes and all the things that make movies exciting. The movies aren't just about cars, sadly, and their dialogue often seems written by a Spike TV commercial. But their core selling point -- cars! fast cars! awesome cars! -- is as American as capitalism, the electoral college and war.
2. "Fast Five," the latest (and highest profile, it seems) of the whole series, isn't so much about cars, which is to its detriment. Perhaps by the fifth film, they've run out of inventive car chase scenes; it's hard to come up with good ones, you know, and they've made a lot of them. Fortunately, "Fast Five" has enough energy for two of them, and they are, without question, terrific. The first, which opens the film, involves our heroes attempting to steal vintage cars from a moving train. This is even more complicated than it sounds. It requires a huge truck going along side the train at the exact right speed, with a platform and pulleys to bring the cars aboard, reversing the car so it comes off the truck's platform at the right speed and then turning the car around so it's going forward, at maximum speed, while people are shooting at you. (And I haven't even mentioned the bridges and the cliffs the train has to speed over.) The second, which closes the film, is even more complex, involving two speed cars dragging a massive safe through tight street corners while being chased by 100 police cruisers. The physics involved in this are something to behold: It's a Rube Goldberg puzzle of unintended consequences, which ends in a safe bashing through populated urban areas. This film only has the intestinal fortitude for these two car chases, no more, but man, they're really outstanding. By now one would hope this franchise could do that part right.
3. Alas, there is much more to "Fast Five" than those two scenes, and the movie is, somehow, more than two hours long. There is zero reason for this movie to be that length, and part of me wonders if someone just fell asleep at their Avid. I'm sure there are people who care enough about the mythology of the "Fast and the Furious" characters that they demand a full, thorough accounting of all their comings and goings, but Lord, please let me never meet these people. Most of the gang is back, from Vin Diesel and his grunts to Paul Walker and his vacant bro-dude stare to Jordana Brewster and her ability to smile while also having dark hair. Here, in this fifth film, the cars are less the point than a sort of liquified "Oceans 11" heist plot, with characters from the first four films banding together to steal $100 million from a bad drug lord, because he is mean to people and played by Joaquim de Almeida, a man so cartoonishly "evil" that you half expect him to show up in a beer commercial. (The Zucker brothers, were they still sane, would cast him as a great Robert Goulet/Ricardo Montalban villain, but the "Fast Five" gang is playing it straight.) None of these characters are interesting in the slightest, and mostly just shout "Yeah!!" and "Dammmmmmmmnnnnnnnn" at random intervals. Which, I suppose, has its charms.
4. There's one major new character in "Fast Five," and he's actually a great one. I hope you won't lose respect for me when I say this, but I love The Rock. Not the tutu-wearing, image-skewering, family-friendly Rock; I mean the arse-kicking, biceps-the-size-of-coffee-tables, sh*t-talking Rock. Of all the uses of The Rock in film, I am being dead serious when I say that "Fast Five" comes the closest to getting him exactly right. As Special Agent Hobbs, the FBI agent in charge of bringing our heroes (who I guess are fugitives? I think that's right) to justice, The Rock barges into every scene he's in, punches it in the face, slings it over his shoulder and throws it through a plate-glass window. Barking orders with a baseball relief pitcher's goatee and Under Armour shirts so tight they're almost floss, The Rock has a fierce "Old Testament" fervor that's sometimes almost too much for the rest of the film to handle, particularly when everyone else is just going through the motions for the paycheck. ("Dude, settle down, this is our fifth one of these," you imagine Walker and Diesel telling him between takes.) I've been saying for seven years that in a just universe, The Rock would be the next great Schwarzenegger action star, but he's been distracted with Disney movies and dumb Richard Kelly art projects. In "Fast Five," he's not deconstructing any persona: He's just bustin' sh*t up. It's awesome.
5. Also, the movie is shot in Rio de Janeiro, the second movie this spring (after, uh, "Rio") to make the city look like the most gorgeous place in the world to visit. (The Rio tourism board is earning its paycheck this month.) With that: I have given you everything that is worthwhile about "Fast Five." That totals about 40 minutes of a 125-minute running time, and, I'm afraid, that's just not enough to recommend it. The plot doesn't make any sense, and the actors, particularly Diesel and Walker, look bored, going through the motions. It also must hold the record for most times the phrase "Let's get out of here" is uttered in a movie; I counted 11. Forty minutes of this movie are big dumb fun. The other 85 forget the fun part. By "Fast Eight," the ratio will be about 15 to 125. I suggest getting out of the car now, before it flies off the cliff.