Friday, April 29, 2011

Fast Five (Justin Lin, 2011)

Having seen neither the third nor fourth entries in the Fast and Furious franchise, I cannot say whether Fast Five is, as so many now say, the finest film in the series. I certainly preferred it to the first two, inasmuch as one can prefer one case of chlamydia over another. Ludicrous the point that even the strongest critics are powerless to stand in its way, Fast Five offers enough entertainment, at least of the unintentional variety, to make for a decently fun, if unnecessary, 130 minutes . Yet the filmmakers' awareness of Fast Five's inanity leads to such a disregard for character, coherence and, frankly, morality, that it proves the first film of this series I've found genuinely troubling.

Fast Five once again locates its core band of crooks and expert drivers as they continue to inexplicably walk away from all sorts of consequences of their actions -- only Michelle Rodriguez has truly suffered among the main recurring cast, suggesting that even the physics-suspending Fast and Furious franchise cannot surmount the immutable curse of the Michelle Rodriguez character. Ex-federal agent Brian O'Conner (Paul Walker) and his girlfriend Mia (Jordana Brewster) bust antihero crook (and brother to Mia) Dom (Vin Diesel) out of a bus bound for prison. They leave all other convicts to be picked up by cops. The three escape to Rio de Janeiro, where soon they find themselves targeted by a dictatorial businessman (Joaquim de Almeida) over some ridiculous matter concerning a computer chip containing information about his business transactions and where he keeps his money.

I cannot believe I got a full paragraph out of that. Fast Five technically has a plot, and one that involves more pieces than the ones I named -- for instance, it eventually finds an excuse to bring back the cream (for want of a better term) of the Fast and Furious crop, gathering characters from previous films as a way of thanking fans for sticking by them through thin and thinner. Six cast members reprise their roles, which is handy: that's enough two-dimensional sides to form a cube, so presumably they share a three-dimensional character between them.

Fast Five was directed by Justin Lin, who helmed the last two franchise entries but caught my attention as the director of the paintball episode of Community, that contemporary masterpiece of television making. But the cheeky cleverness of his television work gives way to empty spectacle here, all big explosions and disorienting editing that undercuts the impressive staging of his outlandish stunts.

And yet, a certain TV sensibility is precisely the chief setback of the film. Of Fast Five's 130 minutes, a good 80 of them must consist of close-up shots of the actors, particularly Walker and Diesel, reacting off each other. This winds up being the most engaging aspect of the film, as relying on Walker and Diesel, two of the least expressive actors to ever find themselves attached to a lucrative series. Both actors are so resolutely inexpressive that Fast Five may be the most expensive test of the Kuleshov effect ever mounted: naught but music and the juxtaposition of other images gives the audience a clue what we should feel.

What nags at me, however, is the film's disturbing disregard for everything around the beautiful characters. The wanton apathy for collateral damage is the worst facet of super-budget blockbusters: even this franchise, which admirably uses old-fashioned physical stunts and spare computer animation in lieu of rampant CGI, still benefits from gargantuan setpieces afforded by millions of dollars. The climactic sequence, involving a bank heist that finds a way to utilize cars at the expense of the last shred of disbelief whipping from a vehicle antenna, lost me because of its glorying in the destruction caused by a bank vault being dragged around crowded Brazilian streets at 80 mph. I know it's a movie, I know no one got hurt, but to see a movie perceiving humor and coolness in millions of dollars in careless destruction of property and life repulses me. If that constitutes an unfair, too-literal bias, so be it, but I cannot and will not cheer a film with such a hollow view of the "fun" of carnage, particularly when framed in the aesthetically displeasing style favored by those afraid to pull off such a ridiculous and immoral stunt piece in a manner people might be able to fully process.

Unintentional humor and the occasional moment so patently absurd I couldn't help but love it floated me through Fast Five, but if this is the franchise's high point, I cannot say I'm sorry to have missed half the previous installments. I had a great time at the screening, if only because my friend and I nearly passed out from laughing at Vin Diesel's chimpanzee smile or the constantly oiled muscles of an unfortunately goateed Dwayne Johnson as a DEA agent and walking tank hunting down Dom and Brian. But neither of us could laugh in the frenzy of the final free-for-all, all of it for what is frankly an unimpressive sum of money (who would risk the wrath of a multinational businessman/warlord for a measly $11 million each in modern times?). Perhaps it's such a small sum of money so these idiots will blow that cash in months, thus necessitating yet another sequel a year from now.

I thought I would get back on this franchise and give it a fair shake, but Fast Five manages to tie up a great many of the simpler reasons for mocking the series and introduces issues that nag at me far more than the blank slates of its uncharismatic stars or the flashy offense of its insipid mechanical fetish. Oh, for those halcyon days.

1 comment:

  1. As I watched Vin and Dwayne grapple sweatily with each other, I realized this film had the opportunity to portray an actually rather interesting homosexual romance between the two men. I mean, it would be interesting just because it's in the context of a film where the only funny line is a reference to purchasing 'vaginal activity'. But hopes were dashed. Instead there was an absolutely INEXPLICABLE female love interest instead. Shame...