There are moments in Fast Five that bend the laws of physics like a Looney Tunes short, and lines of dialogue so bombastic they're unintentionally hilarious. But as the kind of brawny, exciting and slightly dumb action that American blockbusters excel at, Fast Five is practically peerless, as confident and charismatic as its lead characters and every bit as fun to be around. Even with a bloated two-hour running time the movie flies by on bravado and skill, feeling quick but never rushed, over-the-top but never campy, as simple and perfectly executed as the squeal of a tire at the start of a drag race.
What makes Fast Five more of a blast than the previous film in the stalwart car-racing franchise is that it dares to ditch the drag races that have defined the series and move up to a full-on heist. Hiding out in Rio after a totally ludicrous jailbreak, Dom (Vin Diesel), Brian (Paul Walker) and Mia (Jordana Brewster) take on a job stealing cars off a train moving through the Brazilian desert, which of course doesn't go quite as planned (though the resulting action sequence is almost embarrassingly fun). Determined to get revenge and get out of the game once and for all, the three take on "one last job" (yes, they actually call it that), and bring in some of the best and brightest from the previous films to help them execute a heist at Rio's heavily guarded, heavily corrupt central police station.
Franchise fans will be happy to reunite with the likes of Tyrese Gibson, Ludacris, Sung Kang and Gal Gadot, though newbies are offered a nice shorthand to learn which one is the hothead, which one is the technical whiz, which two are the comic relief, and so forth. There's a gooey heart at the center of the Fast franchise that regards all these oiled-up rogues as a family, and as much as the film is about violent justice and machismo, it's mostly about having a great time with your cool friends and their cooler cars. Screenwriter Chris Morgan takes us through the satisfying steps of setting up the heist-- the floor plans, the scouting trips, the ingenious problem-solving-- and even when our heroes abandon the well-laid plans in favor of the mayhem they do best, every element of the heist we've seen practiced still comes into play. As long and ridiculous as Fast Five may be, there's still not a moment wasted.
Maybe the film's biggest disappointment is Dwayne Johnson, playing the straight-laced FBI agent trailing our guys, but really there so he can have an epic showdown with his doppelganger Diesel. Accompanied by a spunky Brazilian cop assistant (Elsa Pataky) Johnson is hulking and committed but utterly blank as a character, lacking the devil-may-care energy of the thieves or even a proper righteous indignation; he's tracking down our heroes rather than the film's actual drug lord bad guy (Joaquim de Almeida), so it's hard to be invested in him as a character or even a threat to Dom and company. Director Justin Lin is far more talented at filming car crashes and chases than hand-to-hand combat, so even when it comes time for Johnson and Diesel's big battle, the energy isn't quite there.
But when Lin is good, as he is for much of Fast Five, he's terrific, investing a giddy energy into both the wildly implausible car chases and the affectionate barbs the thieves throw back and forth while working in the garage. Both LIn and Morgan know their limits, slashing the dialogue to a bare minimum and wasting very little time setting up the rudimentary plot before allowing the engines to rev. But they also take their work seriously-- both know it takes serious effort and smarts to make a dumb action movie that's this good. With the Fast and Furious franchise showing no signs of stopping, it's a relief to see the filmmakers aren't afraid to tweak the formula and prove there's still plenty of gas left in this tank.