Ever since Len Wiseman's Live Free or Die Hard's summer 2007 release, it would seem the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) have allowed themselves to become increasingly more lenient as to what levels of violence and profanity they deem acceptable for a PG-13 rating. Back in the '80s and '90s anything more than split-second bullet hits and mere allusions to more gratuitous acts of violence were almost always met with an automatic NC-17, let alone the highly coveted R rating movie studios clamored to cut their films’ content back for. Revered early-'80s classic The Terminator, for example, has surprisingly little on-screen bloodshed when compared to the R-rated ilk of today. Watching as bullets tear through good or bad guys – all the while sending blood and viscera sailing through the air - has become commonplace. So much so, in fact, that I’m almost positive many of this generation's R-rated films would have been given non-negotiable NC-17s if released just 15 years ago.
The influx of R-rated actioners masquerading as PG-13 fair have skyrocketed since Live Free or Die Hard's release almost five years ago. Director Justin Lin's Fast Five is yet another in an ever-increasing line of hard-edged action flicks that doubles-down on everything but blood squibs and dismemberment to accompany its intense, destruction-heavy action sequences. And despite being the fourth sequel in the Fast and the Furious franchise (which has also spawned some of the most awkwardly named sequels this side of First Blood), Fast Five bears little resemblance to the 2001 Rob Cohen film that truly launched Vin Diesel into superstardom.
Those pining for a return to the L.A. car culture fusion of the first three films will once again find themselves with unmet expectations. Justin Lin's second sequel, Fast & Furious, got the genre ball rolling as it moved franchise mainstays (for the most part) Vin Diesel and Paul Walker away from the aforementioned car culture and instead placed them into a highly stylized barrage of car chases, car crashes, drug lords, shootouts, and a plethora of bassy explosions all in the name of avenging the death of one of the original film's principal characters. And realistically speaking, who can blame them? The car culture phenomenon died not long after the series' first sequel 2 Fast 2 Furious left theaters and when 2006's Tokyo Drift ended up a sequel in name only with no returning cast members, something had to be done in order to advance any future films forward without relegating them to dated topic matter. That's more or less what Fast & Furious accomplished. A bit slow in spots and a tad too heavy on exposition in a franchise that doesn't really need it, but Fast & Furious gave fans exactly what they wanted: Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and Special Agent Brian O'Connor (Paul Walker) tearing up the asphalt together once again.
Enter Fast Five. After three seemingly unrelated sequels featuring a smattering of new characters as equally unrelated, the brilliant idea to gather them all together - even the original film's Matt Schulze (Vince) shows up briefly - is a novel one and offers fans a quasi "greatest hits" sort of cast that could have very easily fallen victim to the old ‘too many faces with too little screen time’ song and dance. Factor in Dwayne Johnson as charismatic DSS agent Luke Hobbs and you see how dangerously close Fast Five was to becoming a victim of having a great idea that sullies its potential in executing it. Thankfully for us (and Vin Diesel's declining career) Fast Five is, hands down, one of the best action films of the last five years. If you're up on the series enough to know who all of these characters are, as well as their respective backstories, you'll find a lot to like. Justin Lin supplies varying degrees of fan service in no small amount thus ensuring that the more initiated will get a lot more out of this than those renting or buying the flick just hoping for a solid two-hour time killer.
What's even more interesting to note is how a lot of the previous cast members have grown as actors since their respective entries. Paul Walker is often derided for his non-existent acting abilities, but 10 years later and there's an unmistakable improvement in both his emoting and line delivery. Vin Diesel has always been something of a glorified stuntman likening himself to an A-list star and Fast Five certainly isn't the kind of film that does him any favors in that department. But he's yet another cast member who has improved over time, now able to better convey varying degrees of emotion and intensity without looking completely out-of-place while doing it. But Fast Five isn't an actors’ film despite all of the fun these guys seem to be having.
Justin Lin realizes that consumers are coming into this one expecting absolutely insane action sequences and that's precisely what he serves up on a battered silver platter. If character development is something you find absolutely essential when making your viewing decision then it's best to just steer clear of this one. You know exactly what you're signing up for when within the first five minutes of the movie Lin is throwing a high-speed breakout scene at you that involves exotic cars managing to flip – multiple times, no less - a prison transport bus. Yes, this is one of those kinds of action flicks. The laws of physics are foiled again and again in favor of delivering one jaw-dropping action set piece after another. And what Justin Lin gets right more than anything else is the pacing. Fast Five's extended cut clocks in at just a hair over two hours. With a 130 minute runtime you'd expect that last 45 minutes to become as tedious as waiting in line at the DMV. Where Fast Five benefits from this bloated runtime is, again, emphasizing the stellar action sequences and witty banter between the motley crew of returning characters. The choreography is top-notch and the amount of devastation Dom and company are able to cause is a testament to the film's outrageous $125 million budget.
With a budget like that it comes as no surprise that even the less action-centric moments are still cluttered with deafening ambience and macho posturing. Isn't that all an action director can really ask for? That an example of "less action-centric" is a sequence in which masked gunmen beat the crap out of a cash house proprietor and set his money on fire? The money belonging to Joaquin De Almeida's Brazilian drug baron Hernan Reyes, no less. It's surprising to see an international actor of De Almeida's talent "slumming" it as he does here. And if there's one complaint to level at Fast Five it’s that the motivation for Toretto's high-stakes heist of Reyes's vault (of which holds $100 million) comes off as totally inconsequential. De Almeida is, again, an excellent actor and even with such little screentime is as good as ever. He's imposing while doing or saying very little, instead letting his body language and cold gaze define the character. But as the movie's villain we simply don't see enough of him or what he's truly capable of, effectively half-baking Toretto's beef with him.
But despite that one vexing flaw, Fast Five is the summer popcorn flick to end all summer popcorn flicks. Universal, as par for the course, has given Fast Five a stellar Blu-ray release with a plethora of supplemental features, a gorgeous hi-def transfer, and one of the best DTS-HD 5.1 tracks I've had the pleasure of experiencing. Universal has also seen fit to release Fast Five in an extended cut that plays up its hard-edged action sequences by overlaying some very convincing CG blood into the gunfights. Other than CG blood, some slightly extended action sequences, and a few added bits of dialogue the extended cut is identical to the theatrical print.
Fan of the franchise or not, Fast Five works as both a sequel and a standalone entry that requires no past knowledge of the movies preceeding it to enjoy what it has to offer. As far as over-the-top action flicks go you'd be hard-pressed to find one that's able to keep the pace flowing this smoothly while maintaining such a crowded cast and decidedly lengthy runtime. Whether through writing or by accident, Fast Five's cast displays a great deal of chemistry amongst each other which contrasts the white-knuckle action sequences beautifully. A pure adrenaline rush of a movie that, even as the fifth film in a fairly mediocre franchise, manages to dazzle by pulling out all the stops and finally becoming the kind of no-holds-barred, ass-kicking good time this franchise has always had the potential to become. Simply put, see Fast Five.