Five Times Faster

Courtesy of Universal Pictures

The last week of April is, for those in the know, Shakespeare Week: the week when the Bard of Avon was baptized (on April 26, 1564) and died (on April 23, 1616). To my mind, no film released this Shakespeare Week does more to honor his legacy than Justin Lin’s “Fast Five,” the fourth sequel to 2001’s “The Fast and the Furious” and the latest since 2009’s “Fast & Furious.”

Whether or not that claim sounds alarms in a reader’s mind depends on their view of Shakespeare’s hotly contested legacy. Leaving aside the many post-colonial readings of Shakespeare’s work — although “Fast Five’s” setting in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro certainly entreats us to keep them close at hand — the central question is whether you think of Shakespeare as high art or pop culture.

As sanctified and sanitary as Shakespeare’s works feel in the precincts of the English classroom, any drama student can tell you that his plays were performed for the lowliest of English commoners (the upper classes and royalty preferred more dignified spectacle, like sicking dogs on captive bears and genocide).

And “Fast Five” is, likewise, entertainment for the teeming masses. While the self-identified sophisticates are busy watching psychosis and cunnilingus in “art films” like “Black Swan,” the marginally-employed are watching classical family dramas augmented by fast cars exploding in exoticised locales.

The plot of “Fast Five” revolves around the classic “one last heist” that simultaneously promises economic and filial stability, a way out of a life of crime, interchangeable light-skinned trophy-women and socio-political security for the natives. In the case of Dom (Vin Diesel), Brian (Paul Walker) and Mia (Jordana Brewster), they have to take down the local crime lord qua business mogul, Hernan Reyes (Joaquim de Almeida), while avoiding capture by “Old Testament” federal agent, Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson at his tough guy best) and raking in a hundred million dollar score.

The generic crime story is scaffolded by a generic, but satisfying, family drama. For the first time, Dom and Brian are on the same side of the law — without any apparent dissemblance from either party — and they have a new impetus to escape the grasp of state: Nia, Dom’s sister and Brian’s beau, is newly pregnant and the two patriarchs have to provide a different life for their growing family unit.

Not unlike Shakespeare’s “As You Like It,” the fugitives escape civilization in favor of the lawless, sunny climes of Rio — the film luxuriates in the scenery to a fault, the Christ the Redeemer statue makes three separate cameos — accompanied by a who’s who of “Fast” veterans. Tyrese Gibson is the quick-tongued Roman Pearce (Shakespeare’s Touchstone), Sung Kang the melancholy Han Lue (Shakespeare’s Jacques, who famously contemplated that ‘all the world’s a stage’), alongside a hot Israeli woman (Gal Gadot), two comic relief henchmen (Tego Calderon and Don Omar), and a laconic mechanic (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges).

The story doesn’t reinvent the wheel. Instead, and more appropriately, it spins the wheel to a supersonic blur. The film dispatches with nuance in favor of broad strokes and big emotions. In short, it satisfies but rarely surfeits.

Still, “Fast Five” suffers in many places from the direction of Justin Lin, a “Fast” franchise veteran, who struggles to contain both the action sequences and the interstitial family drama. At just over two hours, “Fast Five” is the longest film in the series, and the most action-packed, but poor pacing robs the non-action sequences of their intensity. The several scenes devoted to watching the team practice for the heist (before abandoning the plan completely) bog down the second act almost unforgivably — or, on the bright side, offer 15 minutes for a bathroom and concessions break.

But there is little, it seems, that can stop the “Fast & Furious” juggernaut, certainly not sub-par direction. “Fast Five” is already a box-office hit and several more sequels are on the way. The success of this installment may well make this the series of a generation.

Myself, I still remember the excitement of the first film — those halcyon days in the summer of 2001 when a “Department of Homeland Security” would have sounded nightmarishly Orwellian (oh the innocence of youth!) — and “Fast Five” comes closest of all the sequels to capturing the magic of the original while shifting into a new gear.

It’s not hard to imagine that explosion porn like the “Fast & Furious” series might, in 400 years, be regarded as the height of American art and letters, read in dignified airs in English classes on space colonies. At least, it offers entertainment such that we might, borrowing from the Bard, “fleet the time carelessly, as they did in the golden world” — and how!

Rating: 4/5 Stars