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Movie Review

'Fast Five'

Driven to destruction: In fun, frantic ‘Fast Five,’ the high-speed merging of crass and crash equals cash

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By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / April 29, 2011

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In “Fast Five,’’ just about everybody from “Fast and Furious’’ installments one through four drops in on Rio de Janeiro to steal some cars, take down a dirty local tycoon, and obliterate everything possible. The choicest objet de rampage is a 4-ton vault cabled to two cars containing what I’m sure Universal Pictures hopes will be the movie’s worldwide opening-weekend haul. As it swings through a bank, plows through car after car after car (speeding, parked, whatever) and sends extras running for their lives, it’s a weapon of crass destruction. Which means “Fast Five’’ is, so far, the most honest Hollywood movie of the year. It’s also the most fun.

No longer is the series a collection of GPS-navigation dialogue, robots disguised as actors, and video-game-worthy action — well, not only is it that. Narratively, this is one of Steven Soderbergh’s “Ocean’s’’ films strapped to the hood of something in a Michael Bay demolition derby. With Soderbergh’s movies, the interest in paydays is classed up with movie stars and sleek style, while Bay expresses a fascination with money by spending it on computer-generated toys. For a rambunctious stretch of “Fast Five,’’ the cash is the entertainment. The movie beats you over the head with money even as it takes it from your wallet, and the lack of shame, as loathsome as some might find it, is refreshing for the brutal blatancy of crashing poetry into literalism: Money destroys everything.

What began as a franchise of road-race extravaganzas is now, for the moment, a heist series, one with a climax that unfortunately evokes recent weather-related disasters. Still, the category switch is as exciting as the stunt work here. “Fast Five’’ jumps from the hurtling wreckage of its previous genre onto the cab of another at about 150 miles per hour — not unlike what Paul Walker does twice in one early scene.

Walker’s turncoat FBI agent, Brian O’Conner, and his car-thief pal Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel) are now wanted for stealing seized DEA cars from a Brazilian train and killing government agents. They did steal the car but didn’t shoot the agents, which allows the movie to demonstrate that it knows wrong from wronger. Brian’s lady (Jordana Brewster) is also Dom’s sister, and she’s pregnant, which means she wants to stop running. So a last job is required, as is ye olde ragtag specialist team. That’s a welcome development, since it brings back the series’ more charismatic players — Tyrese Gibson, Chris “Ludacris’’ Bridges, Sung Kang, Tego Calderon, Don Omar, and the slinky Israeli Gal Gadot — to water this personality desert. The object of that sub-“Ocean’s’’ scheming is to rob a vicious businessman played by Joaquim de Almeida, who’s really known no other role.

To bring Dom and Brian in, the movie introduces Diplomatic Security Service Agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and his team of men with tight shirts and large arms — though no shirt is tighter and no arm larger than Johnson’s. It’s never explained why his head stays beaded with an unspecified liquid or why his goatee is always soaking wet, but my guess is that he’s leaking testosterone. The rest of him glistens as if, in between the many shootouts and foot chases, he’s competing in a Marvel Comics posedown against the Incredible Hulk and the Mighty Thor.

It turns out that having Diesel and Johnson in the same movie is shrewd casting. It’s something you don’t notice until Diesel’s mumble and Johnson’s swagger are happening to you at once. Time is taken in putting them face to face — long enough to think the suspense is not unlike waiting for Al Pacino to meet Robert De Niro in “Heat,’’ long enough to think, even fleetingly, that Diesel and Johnson are the Pacino and De Niro of absurdly muscled, totally bald, racially mixed action heroes.

During one outrageous chase through and atop the favelas, Diesel leaps from one rooftop to another. On his way down, he turns around and sees Johnson blast himself through a window. Diesel’s look of awe is as comical as it is appropriate. They later share a dance in which they take turns throwing each other out of windows and through walls. As is par for the course in a “Fast and Furious’’ movie, the only persuasive physical intimacy is between the men.

The previous film, from 2009, was mostly drudgery. After Michelle Rodriguez was eliminated in the opening sequence, there was barely a reason to remain seated. The challenge for the director Justin Lin and the screenwriter Chris Morgan, who’ve handled the last three episodes, is to show us something new. So while this is another American blockbuster that rudely treats Latin America as a playground for Hollywood stunt teams, I appreciate Lin’s modicum of applied skill to capture the mayhem and enunciate the ridiculousness. For one portion of that rooftop chase, he tries a long shot of about a half-dozen people running along different roofs. It’s like a frame of barrel-jumping in Donkey Kong. Although, the challenge for most makers of action movies is now the orchestration of sequences that don’t seem possible in a video game. I’d say the business with that vault qualifies.

It’s rare for a series at death’s door to find a second wind. But by the time a sequence after the closing credits tells us what’s hilariously to come in “Fast Six,’’ you sense that the filmmakers have a giddy, if diabolical, sense of purpose. They want to clobber us with other people’s cash, but the series isn’t above treating itself like an ATM, either.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. Twitter.com: wesley_morris.

FAST FIVE

Directed by: Justin Lin

Written by: Chris Morgan

Starring: Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Jordana Brewster, Tyrese Gibson, Joaquim de Almeida, and Dwayne Johnson

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs, Jordan’s IMAX in Reading and Natick

Running time: 122 minutes

PG-13 (language, shooting, fistfights, wrestling, wall-to-wall demolition)

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