Fast Five made an improbable franchise essential

This year is the 25th anniversary of the release of the first Jurassic Park. For most of us at Cinedelphia, it is a film that has defined what we look for in a summer blockbuster. So what better time than now to revisit the last 25 years of summer blockbusters and pick our favorites? View the criteria and full introduction here, and the whole series here.

13. Fast Five (dir. Justin Lin, 2011)

“Alright, listen up! The men we’re after are professional runners. We find ‘em, we take ‘em as a team, and we bring ‘em back. And above all else, we don’t ever, ever, let them get into cars.”

And with that legendary line, uttered by newcomer to the series, Hobbs (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), the Fast and Furious franchise became self-aware. It is in this moment that a stark re-branding of the series occurs, making what was once a laughable quadrilogy borne of a mediocre Point Break riff, into one of the most enduring and beloved action franchises of all time. The magic is that this fifth entry didn’t just serve to invite a new audience into the Fast Fambly fold, but it also somehow managed to stay completely on brand to the preceding films, while opening the door for exponentially massive escalations in what now appears to be an unending story. 

We often joke that one day the Fast Fambly will make it to outer space, or engage in a time-travel adventure, and it’s Fast Five which set the precedent by which such absurdities could exist in the Fast universe. A world which was initially just about some street racers trying to steal DVD players and sell them on the black market. How? Well, we’re about to get into it. But first, a little story about my experience with the series on the whole.

The Fast and The Furious came out while I was in high school. It was an edgier time for young Dan, who often shunned movies out of a sense of them being below his considerable tastes (which, at 16 included such things as ska music and K-Pax). Despite there being buzz around The Fast and The Furious stating that it was actually a decent stunt reel in the clothing of a mindless teen-thrills picture, I carried little regard for the film. When I eventually did see it, I remember thinking that it was okay, but not even close to being worthy of a sequel, let alone a multi-decade franchise. When the sequel did come out, with the painfully terrible title 2 Fast 2 Furious, my immature distaste for the franchise was all but cemented. To young me, this seemed like a shameful cash grab that was gunning for the wallets and purses of a type of person that seemed, to me, well, shitty. As young adults in my social circle began showing interest in Honda Civics and race lingo (but never actual races, oh no, not that), I felt like I was smart in avoiding what was clearly the new POGS (collect, never play), with the added bonus of not having to hear Crazytown’s Butterfly any more than the radio already dictated.

2 Fast 2 Furious just felt stupid to me. It was stupid entertainment for stupid people who want to wear the badges of a certain lifestyle without actually partaking. I made this hypocritical judgment from atop a skateboard which I never learned to use properly – which was only purchased because I loved Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. So naturally, by the time the third and fourth entries came out, I was pretty much a stranger to the series. Funnily enough, this franchise was one which came to existence out of experimentation. What I mean is that the first film never intended for a sequel. The sequel was made without Vin Diesel who, at the time, was pursuing serious roles (ha!). The third entry, directed by the series’ eventual tastemaker, Justin Lin, moved the brand, but not the plot, to Tokyo, and was made with the intention of reducing the age of the central cast to something a little closer to the audience. You see, Paul Walker was nearing his forties and Tyrese just wasn’t beefy enough to be a Diesel replacement. Tokyo Drift was a hit, but murmurs in the crowd made it clear that while car races are key to the franchise, it’s actually the drivers which keep us coming back. They also made it clear that Han (Sung Kang), who dies midway through the film, was a character worth keeping alive. 

Part four, titled Fast and Furious, kept Justin Lin, and retroactively made the series up until this point into a prequel to the previous entry so that when they induce the “all your favorites are back” method of brand management, we could have the original crew (complete with a returning Vin Diesel), as well as the eventually-to-be-deceased Han, who was scripted to constantly remark, “I’ll make it back to Tokyo one day.”

My roommate at the time was your typical MTV girl. She loved that stupid show about Jessica Simpson’s marriage, and that stupid show about Britney Spears’s marriage, and any of a litany of Fast Fambly adjacent idiocy (or so I thought at the time).  One day, she came home with the DVD of Fast and Furious and asked if I wanted to watch it. Not really, but I did anyway and it was exactly what I expected. Fun enough, but very dumb, and per my prejudices at the time, well below me. 

I forget what movie it was – perhaps Battle: Los Angeles, before which the first Fast Five trailer was shown. Take a look:

The way this trailer is set up keeps the viewer in the dark for a few seconds before dropping that wonderful “don’t ever let them get into cars” line and revealing that this is indeed a Fast Fambly flick. I remember the crowd going absolutely bonkers at this reveal (which doubles as a reveal that yes, The Rock is now a member of the cast). My friend who was sitting next to me at the time immediately leaned over and said “Fuck dude, why can’t this be the movie we’re seeing right now?” I went along with the excitement despite still being unmoved by the franchise as a whole. But who am I to hate at this point? I knew that when it came out, we’d all go see it. And we did.

My inaugural viewing of the film (highlighted by an in-theater fight in which two patrons shushed one another, agreed to meet in the bathroom after the show, and then forgot about it since one of the parties fell asleep almost immediately after the movie started), was an absolute blast. The crowd dug it, my crew of drunken friends dug it, and I dug it. As it turns out, the world dug it too. The schizophrenic brand management up until this point had finally become the brand itself.

Fast Five, in execution, made me retroactively reassess my experience with the franchise on the whole. Yes, these were inimitably dumb movies, but with Fast Five, the lack of brains made its way to the sleeve. Furthermore, the filmmakers did not grow self-aware in a way that felt cynical. There was no wink and nod. These movies are earnestly stupid, and it was refreshing to see such earnestness at the heart of a franchise which, unbeknownst to my closed mind at the time, featured everything I love about film. How appropriate that a film’s complete lack of cynicism is what highlighted the cynicism I held within my very own heart. In a way, Fast Five made me a better consumer – a better person. It made me feel like a member of the Fambly.

Practical stunt work, real cars doing real car tricks, teamwork, explosions, parkour, a train robbery, COHERENT ACTION DIRECTION, and of course, a post-credits stinger which allows for the insane back-half* of the franchise, the awesomeness of which nobody could have predicted. 

Before I waste your entire day with this, lets abandon form here and get into a few fun observations about the film. Many of these list items would be considered demerits for most movies, but the magic of the Fast Franchise is that any amount of stupidity is welcomed and encouraged.  Here goes:

  • This film introduces a device which all further entries in the series use in order to explain the sudden acquisition of skills, be they computer hacking skills, fist fighting skills, bow-hunting skills, etc. When a character suddenly has abilities beyond what they have exhibited in the first four movies, they simply state “I had a life before you knew me.”
  • Another piece of script gymnastics occurs when Mia, who is running communications during the big heist, announces over the radio that “every crooked cop in Rio is on your tail!”  How she knows that they are all crooked remains a mystery, but this line serves to let us know not to feel bad when our heroes violently kill hundreds of police officers. This is along the lines of “I hear a white horse coming,” in that it is very, very, very dumb, but it works.
  • This is the entry in which the themes of Fambly really begin to take shape. Yes, we can trace the true roots of this aspect of the series all the way back to the original film, where Brian and Mia began to fall in love, much to the dismay of Dom, who ultimately welcomes Brian into the family. But that was “family.” Fast Five introduces the concept of “Fambly.”  There’s a difference, and it exists beyond the words I could use to describe it. 

  • Not only does Fast Five occur pre-Tokyo Drift, but it has the audacity to give our one explicitly doomed character, Han, a romantic subplot. His and Gisele’s romance proves to be the most moving in the franchise, albeit the shortest-lived. Don’t worry, suggests Han as he races towards the closing credits, he will make it to Tokyo eventually. It’s like he knows. 
  • Multiple times throughout the movie, Hobbs tells Dom that he’s earned his freedom. It’s the classic action hero/cop juxtaposition. “My job means I have to bring you in, but since I respect you, I’ll give you a head start.” Each of these moments feels earned despite the fact that Dom is directly responsible for the violent deaths of Hobbs’ entire team. I don’t know how it works, but it does. 
  • After an action-packed first act, Mia reveals that she is pregnant with Brian’s child (and does so while in a sewer). With the amount of hardcore parkour she engages in for the preceding 30 minutes, she might want to get this checked out. Logic points to miscarriage. Ha, look at me, citing logic of all things. 
  • “Don’t ever let them get into cars” is so important because it establishes the one rule within this world that holds true 100% of the time: Anything is possible, so long as… cars. If it can’t be done with a car, it can’t be done. But here’s the thing: it CAN be done with cars. Always.  The same way that most stabs at the internal logic of LOST can be answered with “because magic island,” anything in this entire franchise can ably be explained by “because cars.”
  • Roman remarks “this just went from Mission Impossible to Mission In-freakin-sanity!” I love this line because, technically speaking, it means that the mission just got a little bit easier. 
  • “We do one last job and then we disappear forever.” Yeah, suuuuuuure. Not to get dark, but it’s amazing how this concept of “one last job” soon becomes so deeply buried into the franchise’s DNA that “one last ride” was the slogan for Furious 7, referencing Paul Walker’s passing during production. 
  • I remember seeing The Rock in this movie and wondering how someone could get so huge and greasy. Now I look back at Fast Five era The Rock and wonder why he looks so small compared to the 2018 model. The answer is probably steroids. 
  • The post credits sequence reveals that Letty, Dom’s love interest, who presumably died in part four, is not dead. She’s the one favorite who isn’t back. We have now established that yes, more of these movies are coming, and no, death is not a permanent fixture in this universe. Han gets to breathe a sigh of relief.

Overall, Fast Five is my favorite entry in the series because it succeeds where so many sequels/late franchise entries fail by design. It’s exciting, fun, well-made, and opens up an accessibility to the franchise that was previously unavailable. It kept true to the brand while giving it a full makeover. It became meta without becoming meta. It ensured that on a bi-yearly basis, the Fast Fambly would be returning to multiplexes, and even at its worst (The Fate of the Furious), it would still be pretty good. Most importantly, Fast Five let the world know that even the dumbest movies can have a heart, so long as we’re willing to let them into ours. 

Cue closing credits music with the following hook:

That’s how we roll / we roll like this

That’s. How. We. Ro-ooooll / we roll like this

*This statement, of course, under the assumption that these films will not be released in perpetuity. A concept which feels less and less likely with each new entry.

Author: Dan Scully

Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *