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Jason Wallis Cool car chases don’t make up for pedestrian narrative

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Jason Wallis

Posted: Friday, May 6, 2011 8:31 am

I was even less excited than usual about hitting the multiplex this week, because really, who needs to pay for fake action and thrills when you can turn on CNN and watch accounts of awesome real-life badassery for free? The righteous and appropriately brutal killing of Osama bin Laden has kept me glued to the tube these past few days, and frankly, in light of such events, I fail to see how something as pedestrian as “Fast Five” is continuing to rake in obscene amounts of cash at the box office. Priorities, people.

Thankfully next week brings the well-reviewed “Thor,” which will usher in the early stages of the summer movie season. We’ve got some promising titles coming up, many of which I’m confident will provide more bang for your buck than the often dull “Fast Five” and the rest of the disappointing movies that have blighted release schedules these past many months.

Disclosure time: I saw the first two entries in the “Fast and the Furious” franchise when they were first released, but did not enjoy them enough to pursue further sequels. Beyond that, due to their infinitely forgettable nature, I recall absolutely nothing about the experiences other than the vague sense of disgust I felt with myself after both. So it was with a fresh perspective and an open mind that I tackled “Fast Five,” the fourth sequel to Rob Cohen’s original and the third directed by Justin Lin. It is Lin’s involvement that finally got me interested enough to give the series another shot, as I remember being very impressed with “Better Luck Tomorrow,” his “rich teens gone bad” crime drama that suggested a natural storytelling talent.

Bad news first: That alleged storytelling talent is nowhere to be found here. On a narrative level, “Fast Five” is incompetent in every way. I realize that a good story and developed characters are not what one is necessarily looking for in a movie like this, but there comes a point where all the banality simply becomes too much to tolerate. When roughly 70 percent of your film involves dialogue and character-based drama, action flick or no action flick, you’ve got a major problem if your story plays out like a National Lampoon riff on gearhead movies. Clunky dialogue, stoic acting, false sentimentality and horribly drawn characters abound, and it’s difficult conceive of a more by-the-numbers cops-and-robbers story. As a narrative, “Fast Five” earns an F.

But man, I gotta tell you: Those car chases and pretty freakin’ cool. I’m not even a muscle-car fetishist, but I’d be lying if I said that the action sequences in “Fast Five” are anything short of amazing. They are among the best car-chase set-pieces of the past several decades, and Lin pulls off the increasingly rare feat of sustained kinetic coherence. The story finds our “heroes” (actually a pack of unlikable, low-class, hooligan car thieves who should by all rights be gunned down in the name of public safety -- but I digress) trotting the globe and getting into several frantic, high-speed car chases in a variety of environments -- but through all the jump-cuts and cross-cuts and elaborate, multi-camera stunt logistics, Lin always keeps his eye on the ball. Things never spiral of control, and the viewer feels fully integrated into the action. This is involving stuff, and for the 30 cumulative minutes that “Fast Five” has its game face on, it’s cinematic nirvana for action junkies.

So this begs the question: Is it worth enduring 90 minutes of horrible storytelling (in which Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, as a federal agent tracking the team of car thieves led by the comparatively timid Vin Diesel, is your only beacon of light in a desolate wasteland of lameness) in order to get to the good stuff? That’s a personal decision you’ll have to come to yourself, and honestly, I can see the pros and cons of both arguments. Ultimately, though, my advice is to simply wait for the DVD so you can fast-forward through all the family-life/bond-of-friendship BS and bask in the pure, borderline-sexual excitement that comes from watching a great car chase. Or five.

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. 

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