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Fast Five

Behold a franchise in transition. The Fast and Furious saga gained new life in 2009 with the surprising success of its relatively unheralded reboot, Fast & Furious. Two years later, its follow-up, Fast Five, arrives armed with a bigger budget and loftier ambitions, looking to break free from the narrative constraints of its familiar street-racing niche and blaze a fresh trail for future installments. Because why limit yourself to cars, when there are tons of other super-cool, wildly expensive items to blow up?

Fast Five's story picks up immediately after the events of the previous film, with ex-FBI agent Brian O'Conner (genial surfer-dude Paul Walker) and his girlfriend Mia (the beautiful but oddly vanilla Jordana Brewster) breaking her scofflaw brother Dom Toretto (mumbly, musclebound Vin Diesel) out of federal custody, then fleeing to Rio de Janeiro. Cash-strapped after months on the run, they accept an offer to help hijack a train carrying a cache of exotic sports cars (naturally). But the job goes awry, a massive shootout ensues, and Dom and Brian find themselves not only marked for death by Rio's reigning kingpin, Reyes (Joaquim de Almeida, legendary portrayer of Latin villains), but wanted by U.S. authorities for the murder of several DEA agents.

Train-robbery fireworks notwithstanding, Fast Five sputters a bit out of the gate, never really hitting high-gear until about the 45-minute mark, when the boys, employing that special brand of dubious reasoning peculiar to heroes of American action films, hatch an idea to steal $100 million from Reyes, the same scoundrel currently seeking their heads. At this point, Fast Five adopts the standard template of a contemporary heist flick, a la The Italian Job remake and the Ocean's series: A multi-ethnic team of top-class specialists is assembled (a handy excuse to bring back franchise veterans like Tyrese Gibson, Chris "Ludacris" Bridges, and Sung Kang), and a plan just crazy enough to work is formulated.

Credit Fast Five director Justin Lin with learning a few lessons from the last film, the most salient being that a spectacle this outrageous needs a healthy dose of levity to make its potent summer-movie brew go down smooth. Fast Five has a sense of humor that its needlessly morose predecessor sorely missed, thanks in large part to comic contributions from Gibson, Bridges, and the wacky reggaeton duo of Tego Calderon and Don Omar. And the spectacle is indeed outrageous. Lin bombards us with one gloriously absurd set piece after another, with seemingly little regard for whether the action is germane to the plot or even visually coherent. Alas, logic and coherence are not the priority here; awesomeness is. And if the price of awesomeness is glaring plot holes, underdeveloped characters, and occasional moments of abject confusion, then so be it.

Indeed, some sequences are entirely superfluous, as when the gang steals four cop cars from the local police headquarters (thefts of large, easily recognized and traceable objects being surprisingly easy in Rio) and then decides to race them in an impromptu urban grand prix, because what the hell. Lucky for them, the streets of Rio, a city of 12 million people, are apparently completely deserted at night. There's nary a pedestrian nor another car around to get in the way of the fun, or bear witness to it, for that matter.

Fast Five's main plot turns out to be something of a bust. Far more entertaining is a subplot involving the rivalry that emerges between Diesel and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, who plays Luke Hobbs, a brash and boisterous federal agent sent south to bring fugitive Dom back stateside. Pumped up to his former WWE proportions and wearing a thick, vaguely sinister goatee (presumably to help differentiate him from the cast's other gargantuan, bald, mixed-race actor of limited range) Johnson engages Diesel in a gleefully overblown (yet tonally consistent with the rest of the film) dick-measuring contest. Their scenes together crackle with combustible machismo, not to mention a sexual tension conspicuously absent from Diesel's interactions with his designated love interest, a Brazilian cop played by Elsa Pataky.

The odd man out in the ensemble turns out to be the franchise's old hand, Walker. Over the course of the film one gets the palpable sense that Diesel, who also served as a producer on the film, is gently edging out Walker in favor of a more worthy sparring partner in the guise of Johnson, an actor whose larger-than-life charisma is more suitable to Diesel's ambitions for future installments of the franchise, the foundations of which are very deliberately laid out in Fast Five's extended denouement. I'd be surprised if Walker plays more than a minor supporting role in Fast & Furious 6. Judging from his lackluster presence in this film, I suspect he won't be all that missed. rated this film 3 1/2 stars.