Bigger, Balder, Better | Fast Five at 10

I’ve staked my semi-professional reputation on Fast and Furious 3: Tokyo Drift being the best of the long, time-bending, death-defying Fast & Furious franchise. And I stand by that statement but Fast Five is perhaps the closest of all these films that came to knocking Tokyo Drift off its pedestal. Sure, Fast & Furious 6 had Dom (Vin Diesel) launching himself through his windshield in order to catch his brainwashed, presumed-dead girlfriend in mid-air. And yeah, Furious 7 had Dom and Brian (Paul Walker) essentially fly a supercar through three buildings. Not to mention the nuclear submarine in The Fate of the Furious. But it goes without saying that if Fast Five hadn’t upped the ante then all of the batshit crazy madness up above would never have happened.

Fast Five picks up where Fast & Furious left off with Dom on a prison bus bound for, well, prison. Quickly rescued by best buddy Brian and his sister, also Brian’s girlfriend, Mia (Jordana Brewster) the trio flee to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. While on a train heist to rob some souped-up cars Brian discovers that one car holds a microchip containing the details of crime lord Hernan Reyes’ (Joaquim de Almeida) criminal enterprise. In pursuit of Dom, Brian and Mia is DSS agent/Man-Mountain Luke Hobbs (Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson). With enemies on all sides Dom calls on some old friends to defeat Reyes, steal his fortune and escape Hobbs and his squad of musclebound man-hunters.

Fast Five was the turning point. Maybe the gears had changed in Fast & Furious but the franchise was locked into an unstoppable handbrake turn with Fast Five. Whereas the first four films had been obsessed with illegally supercharged cars and the people that drove them, Fast Five pivoted to looking at how these people and their supercharged Subarus could plan a €100 million heist. By this stage a solid cast of supporting characters had been built up but what it really needed was a shot of nitrous-oxide in the arm… or engine. Whatever, I’m allowed to mix my metaphors if the franchise mixes its timeline.

Car culture is all well and good but it only sustains a multi-million dollar film series for so long. You can only have so many street races, bouncing hydraulics and models in short skirts sitting on emerald-green Hyundais before you hit a point of diminishing returns. Not that you need to lose any of these things but as Cherito says in Heat “The action is the juice for me”. Behind the scenes little changed however. The director of Tokyo Drift and Fast & Furious, Justin Lin, stayed on and would also helm Fast & Furious 6 as well as this year’s F9. Lin proved himself immensely capable of leaning into the series’ handbrake turn into action.

The first four films all had their brush with action. Whether it was Dom and his crew boosting DVD players from unionised truckers or Sean Boswell (Lucas Black) drifting through Tokyo’s main thoroughfares the series has always understood that the set pieces make the films. Which is why Fast Five opens with Brian flipping a prison bus using only a muscle car. From that moment on the film and the series were free of the shackles of reality and just kept reaching higher and higher from there.

If the MCU and the Fast Saga have one thing in common beyond Vin Diesel and being multi-billion dollar franchises it’s that they waited a good while before delivering on the promise of an epic team-up. While the Avengers were always Marvel’s initial plan the Family of the Fast Saga feels more organic and less engineered. Mostly because up to that point each film’s existence was predicated on the success of the one before it. With Fast Five Lin, Diesel and Universal Studios saw a chance to make the franchise into something to compete with, if not outright challenge, the still juvenile MCU.

In order to rob Reyes Dom, Brian and Mia decide they’ll need help. They already have their old buddy Vince (Matt Schulze) from The Fast and the Furious. Brian brings in the slap-happy duo of hacker Tej (Ludacris) and childhood friend Roman (Tyrese Gibson) from his Miami days. Dom recruits his old business partner – and fan favourite – Han Lue (Sung Kang) as well as former Mossad agent Gisele (Gal Gadot). Dom’s old companions Leo and Santos (Tego Calderón and Don Omar respectively) from his time hijacking oil trucks in the Dominican Republic round out La Familia. It’s a crew that’s gained and lost members over the series but the originals are the ones fans remember best. And now we move on to candy-asses…

Although it was never clear who exactly (it was Vin Diesel) the Rock was calling a “chicken shit” and “candy-ass” for daring to use a stuntman on the set of The Fate of the Furious it nevertheless effectively sidelined him from the franchise after that, leaving him to languish in the average Hobbs and Shaw spin-off. You don’t try and divide a family that Vin Diesel built, that much is clear. Still, without the Rock as bulging, sweating villain and eventual ally Luke Hobbs Fast Five wouldn’t have been nearly as compelling. How do you go bigger and balder than Vin Diesel? There’s only one answer.

In case it’s not clear I’m a devotee of The Fast and the Furious. Others want superheroes in spandex and that’s fine. I’d rather see Vin Diesel and Paul Walker drag a ten tonne safe through the streets of Rio. From that opening bus crash Fast Five had me hooked and not even my two friends beside me getting hot and heavy could distract me. All I could think was “They’re really missing out” as Vin Diesel spear tackled the Rock through a wall. But the series means more to me than gung-ho fender-bending action. It might be fast and it might be furious but for me the series has always been about Family.

It’s easy to make fun of the soft moral message beneath the rigid steel and rippling muscles that form the exterior of these movies. But it always feels like people reaching for low hanging fruit whenever it does get mocked. Sincerity is incredibly rare in the blockbuster cinema of today. It’s why this constantly growing and shifting found family unit feels so special. There’s an earnestness to these films that feels hard won, not engineered. Which, I admit, is an incredible feat of engineering. Still, these moments of overblown, occasionally maudlin and often ridiculous sincerity all tie back to where everything began. No matter how ludicrous the situation there will always be that point of connection to tuna-on-white, 10-second cars, stolen DVD players and an ever-changing, ever-growing Family.

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