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Fast Five

Success in Excess

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars.

Guilty pleasures don’t come any guiltier or more pleasurable than Universal’s decade-old Fast and the Furious franchise, which returns with a lucrative fourth sequel, Fast Five.

Directed, once again, by Justin Lin (Fast & Furious, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift), Fast Five offers the same crowd-pleasing mix of super-fast, tricked-out cars; hypertrophied, tight T-shirt-wearing, slicked-down action stars (or wannabe action stars); cartoonish macho posturing; and gravity-defying car stunts. But this time the setting is outside the United States in Rio de Janeiro, with a heist plot liberally borrowed fro the 2001 remake of Ocean’s Eleven.

Fast Five wastes little time getting under way as Brian O'Conner (Paul Walker), a former FBI agent turned rogue street racer and felon-with-a-code-of-honor, and his girlfriend, Mia Toretto (Jordana Brewster), attempt to free Mia’s brother and O’Conner’s onetime nemesis/sometime partner-in-crime, Dominic “Dom” (Vin Diesel), before his police transport reaches the confines of a federal penitentiary. That highway-set scene, however, is just a prologue to the first Rio-set action scene: a daring attempt to carjack several, high-end European imports from a moving train.

In a surprise to no one (unless you woke up mid-scene), the heist goes awry. In the first sign of things to come, Lin pushes the stunts into the CG, undercutting one of the central appeals of the franchise: actual, real-world cars and physical stunts. The scene ends with O’Conner, Mia, and Toretto on the run again, this time from Fast Five’s central villain, Reyes (Joaquim de Almeida), a corrupt Brazilian businessman. Reyes keeps a small army of Brazilian thugs plucked from the poor, destitute favelas on his payroll to deal with interlopers. With the exception of Reyes’ top thug, Zizi (Michael Irby), the other Brazilians don’t get names, let alone recognizable faces or backstories.

But that’s how it should be in the ever-expanding Fast universe. Exotic locales and, alas, equally exotic locales (the women are hot, most of the men are thugs or openly corrupt), are mere backdrops for O’Conner and Toretto’s (and vice versa) high-risk, high-reward adventures. The death of three DEA agents who, presumably, operated under the color of Brazilian law, in the bungled car heist results in the arrival of Lucas Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson), the head of a Diplomatic Security Service task force.

Fast Five’s second half pivots into the wind-up/prep phase before the big heist goes down, usually with one or two (or three) setbacks to keep the audience engaged and, quite possibly entranced until the end credits make their appearance. O’Conner and Toretto expand the heist team by calling on characters from the first, second, and fourth films in the franchise (the third entry actually occurs post-Fast Six presumably), including Vince (Matt Schulze), back from a 10-year hiatus (he appeared in the first film); Roman (Tyrese Gibson); and Tej (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges); Leo (Tego Calderon); Santos (Don Omar); and Gisele (Gal Gadot); and Han (Sung Kang).

Franchise newbies, however, need not worry about losing track of Fast Five’s overabundant cast of characters. Chris Morgan’s (Wanted) script is perfectly pitched to the least discerning, least focused moviegoers, spelling out the necessary connections between the characters and snippets of their backstories before ramping up into the heist section of the film with Reyes, Hobbs, and their respective subordinates attempting to stop and/or capture O’Conner and Toretto.

Mia’s there too, but only as an afterthought/eye candy. Her presence ameliorates any questions or concerns about a homoerotic connection between O’Conner and Toretto. As the loyal “good girl/sister,” she gives Toretto his felon-with-a-heart cred, and O‘Conner a heterosexual love interest.

Of course, moviegoers won’t be filing into multiplexes this weekend to see Fast Five for its complex characters, nuanced acting, or profound themes (though they’re there if you look hard enough), but for the periodic surge of adrenaline that comes with car chases, novel heist scenarios (the aforementioned train), running gun battles, and obligatory Toretto vs. Hobbs throw-down. Lin also mixes it up by staging an extended, Bourne-style foot chase in, through, and around the narrow streets of the favela. It’s actually the highlight of a film that becomes increasingly exhausting with each new set piece.

However, the action overload won’t stop audiences from making Fast Five the first mega-hit of the summer season.