Finally, The Rock has come back to action movies. Yeah yeah, I know he made “Faster” last year, I know he doesn’t even go by “The Rock” anymore — it’s Dwyane Johnson now, Jabroni — but after years in the kiddie movie wasteland, he’s back where he belongs: beating the holy crap out of people. “Fast Five” has both the continuation of the adventures of Vin Diesel’s Dominic Toretto and Paul Walker’s Brian O’Conner and Johnson as their new badass adversary; it’s an embarrassment of macho riches. This movie is so drenched with testosterone, it belongs on Major League Baseball’s banned substances list.
It starts by resuming the nuanced, multilayered plot threads from the end of 2009 “Fast & Furious.” Brian and his girlfriend Mia (Jordana Brewster) break her brother Dom out of prison and the three flee to Rio de Janeiro. Looking to get out of the driving very rapidly and stealing things business, they decide to stay in the driving very rapidly and stealing things business for one last job, and assemble an all-star roster of former “Fast & Furious” co-stars to help them, including Tyrese Gibson and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges from “2 Fast 2 Furious,” Sung Kang from “The Fast & The Furious: Tokyo Drift,” and Gal Gadot from “Fast & Furious.” The enormity of the returning cast — including a few unannounced cameos — turns the film into a “House of Frankenstein” for muscle-bound muscle car movies. But while Dom and Brian’s gang plan to rob Rio’s drug kingpin, Johnson’s DEA Agent Hobbs pursues them as fugitives on the run from United States justice.
“The Fast & The Furious” franchise started in 2001 as a movie about an undercover cop with frosted tips torn between his responsibilities and his deep, deep manlove for a drag racer. The series’ camp elements peaked with “2 Fast 2 Furious,” a movie that culminates with a chase scene so ridiculous that “Starsky and Hutch” used it as its own climax and didn’t have to chance anything to play the scene for laughs. Since then, the series has gotten progressively more straight-faced, if no less absurd. That transformation from corn to pop is completed in “Fast Five,” which tones down the street racing and amps up the heist film elements that have always bubbled beneath its surface. The newfound gravitas is supported immensely by Johnson, who provides a literally sweaty intensity missing from the stone-faced Diesel and smirky Walker. I’m pretty sure he never unfurrows even once in the entire picture. He doesn’t change his shirt once, either. No time for that stuff when there are smackdowns to lay.
Writer Chris Morgan and director Justin Lin combine all kinds of action in this masculine hullabaloo — a big and enjoyable heist, some good car chases, foot chases, and fight scenes — another way in which “Fast Five” is a bit like a Frankenstein monster. The enormous, lumbering frames of Diesel and Johnson — and their big, destructive mano-a-mano rumble, with its shades of Lugosi’s monster versus Chaney’s werewolf — is another.
“Fast Five’ is significantly longer than any of the other films in the series, and it sags a bit in its middle section; typically heist films thrive on scenes of ingenious planning and preparation, but the “Fast & Furious” movies have never been at their best basking in the intellect of their protagonists. Regardless, Lin, directing his third straight film in the franchise, has evolved into a skilled action director capable of choroegraphing chases that never sacrifice clarity for freneticism. The dual chase, with the Brazilian mobsters and the DEA agents both hot on the heels of Dom and Brian’s crew through the streets and rooftops of a Rio favela, is a bravura sequence.
When you step back and look at it, this series’ evolution is kind of insane. Its fifth entry is unquestionably its biggest and most technically accomplished production yet. It’s also the least silly and the least dumb. This all flies in the face of the rules of almost every long-running movie franchise, which typically turn to self-cannibalization when they exhaust every original idea by installment three or four. It’s kind of sad that simply making a very professional and satisfying movie in a film series feels innovative in our climate of cinematic autosarcophagy. But it does. “Fast Five”‘s so satisfying that even before a cute post-credits teaser, it’s pretty easy to smell what The Rock and his new friends are cooking: another sequel.