Author's note: I no longer endorse this review, and certainly not its final score, but I leave it in place for now until such time as I'm able to write a replacement.

Whatever pretext undergirds the Fast and the Furious series, it has finally been snuffed out by Fast Five, which is not really a film about street racing, nor even a film about street racing as a secret method of fighting crime, but which is, as plenty of people have already pointed out, Ocean's Eleven in cars. Except for the "in cars" part; fact is, it's kind of startling how much this fifth entry has managed to relegate the high-speed auto erotica that has been till now the chief reason for the franchise to exist to the back burner. So it's basically just Ocean's Eleven with Vin Diesel. I am certain that there exist in this world folks who think that going from George Clooney to Vin Diesel is a trade-up. You are welcome to go read their blogs, if that's how you swing.

Taking off from the very same moment that the last film, Fast & Furious, ended - which you had best remember, and if like me you don't, then you're hosed, for this film jumps right into the mythology of a series that has grown insupportably complex given that even the damn titles out-and-out tell us that "cars am shiny!" is the reason to give the films your attention - Fast Five first demonstrates how former LAPD cop and FBI agent Brian O'Conner (Paul Walker) and his ladyfriend Mia Toretto (Jordan Brewster) rescue Mia's brother and Brian's BFF Dominic (Vin Diesel) from a prison bus, using their cars. But only using their cars for a few seconds, for whereas the previous entries in the series have opened with long, lingering car-based action setpieces, Fast Five just shows us a quick clip of a car tripping the bus, for want of a better phrase, and then rotates as quickly as possible into the plot, because Jesus Christ, opening your car movie with a long car sequence would just be garish.

I'm just giving Fast Five a hard time! In fact, it is readily the best film in the franchise since the very first, The Fast and the Furious of 2001, though it speaks to the quality of this massively popular series that the second-best entry could be something as frequently bad (and as peculiarly over-praised) as Fast Five, which gets points merely for being as moronic as 2 Fast 2 Furious - though I will forgive that title nearly everything - as muddled as Fast & Furious, or as flat-out pointless as The Fast and the Furious: In Tokyo Now For Some Reason. In Fast Five, there is at least a sense that the characters are characters, the plot is mostly easy to follow, and by adding The Rock "Dwayne" Johnson to the cast, as implacable federal bulldog Hobbs, the film even manages for the first time to create a worthy antagonist, though the actual bad guy is still a refugee from a Jean-Claude Van Damme picture in the 1980s; conniving Rio druglord Reyes (Joaquim de Almeida), who has fucked over Dom & company, leading our heroes to concoct a bitchin' scheme to rob all 10 of his cashhouses, stealing $100 million in the blink of an eye and leaving Reyes broke and unable to control Rio de Janeiro with his dastardly plan to give electricity, clean water, and good schools to the favelas.

This scheme involves recruiting people with very specific skills, most of whom we've seen in one episode of the series or another; that this includes a slick-talking black man (Tyrese Gibson) and an easily-agitated techie black man (Chris Bridges, Ludacris to you and me), and a pair of brothers who can't stop bickering with each other long enough to do the job (Tego Calderon and Don Omar), is no doubt a total coincidence; I can only suppose that writer Chris Morgan skimped on the crusty Jewish con-man solely because there's no C-list version of Carl Reiner. At any rate, the joy of any caper film lies in watching the cogs get mounted one at a time, and then watching as the whole damn machine begins a-cranking, and this pleasure is surely given to us in Fast Five, though director Justin Lin and his army of editors are perhaps over-worried that we'll lose patience if the film spends too much time lingering on the details of its plot, and accordingly put the whole thing together in a fidgety, nervous manner that serves on the one hand to make everything the most goddamn exciting, thrilling thing you have ever motherfucking seen, and on the other to make Fast Five seem a wee smidgen over-caffeinated.

Occasionally, though not frequently enough, something awesome happens: a pretty damn cool train robbery that kicks things off, a footrace through a suspiciously clean favela, various fisticuffs and shoot-outs, including on in which Diesel and The Rock punch each other, The Rock very nicely wearing a Van Dyke beard so that we can quickly tell which of the hypertrophically muscular, bald men with olive skin is which. Not very many of these involve cars, and at a couple of points the movie almost seems mean about it, showing us the minutes right immediately before a street race - before it became a series of globe-trotting crime epics, this was actually a series about street racing, you might recall - but not the race itself. Not to mention, plenty of the action that happens is that particularly destructive, but totally sterile PG-13 kind of action, where the collateral damage must be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars and the tens of dead bodies, but since it's all kept neatly offscreen, we're not meant to reflect on the fact that our heroes are culpable for a shitload of devastation.

So for a while, the film is sort of antsy making, anchored largely by Diesel's inordinately grave presence, and The Rock's "Ima fuck you up" crazy eyes and sweat and screwball line deliveries, and Stephen F. Windon's shabby-chic cinematography, and the profound sense that a lot of what we're seeing is all real, weighty physical stunts without the stink of CGI. Then it all comes together in a miraculous final sequence, in which two cars are dragging a multi-ton bank vault down the streets of Rio as several dozen cops offer pursuit, a ludicrous, physics-defying gag that goes on and on and is everything the series has always meant to be: unmitigated vehicle stunt porn, with a healthy dose of "that can't possibly happen" pixie dust on it, and it even manages to work nicely into the requisite sleight-of-hand of any decent caper film. I'll own up to fairly much loving this sequence: it is slick and hollow, but so very delightful to watch, popcorn movie stupidity at its finest. It almost makes the ticket price worthwhile, though coming as it does after a very long movie - there is no reason on this Earth or any other for Fast Five to be 130 minutes, not when the half-hour that could be shaved off is so transparently padding - and after a hell of a lot of staring at Paul Walker's empty face, it's not the same as saying that Fast Five itself is a good fun dumb action movie. It's a bit of a grind, in fact, with its sole saving grace that it ends right at the second it's done giving 110%, so you leave feeling sated.

I gotta be honest, it worked. When the inevitable F6st, or whatever it ends up being titled, comes out, I will probably be eager for it, remembering only the big-ass final chase scene and not the hour and three-quarters of frequent tedium that preceded it. This is both the blessing and the curse of enthusiastically frivolous action movies: their joys are so giddily effervescent that you can forget how fast they fizz out.

Reviews in this series
Fast & Furious (Lin, 2009)
Fast Five (Lin, 2011)
Fast & Furious 6 (Lin, 2013)
Furious 7 (Wan, 2015)
The Fate of the Furious (Gray, 2017)
Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw (Leitch, 2019)
F9: The Fast Saga (Lin, 2021)

Not yet reviewed
The Fast and the Furious (Cohen, 2001)
2 Fast 2 Furious (Singleton, 2003)
The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (Lin, 2006)