It’s not often that a summer blockbuster spawns a large number of sequels. And considering how awful 2001’s The Fast and the Furious was, who would have imagined it’d launch a franchise still kicking a decade later? Moreover, who the hell would’ve thought that the film’s fourth sequel would actually be good? 2011’s Fast Five is easily the best, most satisfying Fast and the Furious picture so far, on top of being the franchise’s first genuinely good film. It’s a pretty dopey, clichéd slice of summertime entertainment, but it’s also a lot of skilful fun. Added to this, Fast Five is not hindered by all the usual issues – against all odds, the dialogue is actually involving, the dramatic elements are perfectly tolerable, and the formula has been altered, thus introducing much-needed innovation into a franchise long past its expiration date.

Fast Five picks up after Fast & Furious ended, with Dominic Toretto (Diesel) being freed from an in-transit prison bus by his sister Mia (Brewster) and former FBI Agent Brian O’Conner (Walker). Now fugitives being actively pursued by the authorities, the trio head to the streets of Rio de Janeiro whereupon they fall into the bad graces of powerful drug kingpin Hernan Reyes (de Almeida). Hoping to buy their freedom and give up life as fugitives, Dom, Brian and Mia start planning a heist to rob Reyes of $100 million. It’s a daring mission, so the trio pull together a team of friendly faces, including such former partners as Roman (Gibson), Tej (Ludacris) and Han (Kang). However, a hulking federal agent named Hobbs (Johnson) is on their trail, working as fast as possible to bring down the fugitives by any means necessary.

It’s doubtful that Fast Five can be considered positive for Rio’s tourism industry. After all, the plot concerns the city’s seedy underside of corrupt police, drug dealers and armed teenagers. Indeed, the depiction of the city is very different to that which was seen in the 2011 animated film Rio.

Screenwriter Chris Morgan might have been responsible for the appalling Tokyo Drift and 2009’s average Fast & Furious, but his script for Fast Five is superlative. Astonishingly, the dialogue is not bland or awful; the repartee is actually witty, with engaging character interaction and a few notably amusing exchanges between Roman and Tej. The flick isn’t Harold Pinter or anything, but it is robust and awesome. And mercifully, the street racing aspect takes a backseat for this story – Fast Five is more concerned with a heist in the vein of The Italian Job and Ocean’s Eleven. Long-time fans of the series may be disappointed with the lack of street racing, but the change is good – it denotes progress in the franchise, and, after all, the racing angle ran out of steam a few movies ago. To maintain fidelity to the series, a random street race does happen for the sake of having a street race, but it’s the most uninspired set-piece in the film.

Returning to the franchise, director Justin Lin and his team set out to achieve the majority of Fast Five‘s action sequences with practical effects. Fortunately, the results are spectacular – the stunts are phenomenal and the vehicular carnage feels real, making the action scenes all the more exhilarating. (If CGI was used at all, it’s seldom obvious.) The extended climax – a car chase through the streets of Rio – is especially rewarding; cars are smashed and buildings are decimated, making Fast Five worth a hearty recommendation on the basis of this sequence alone. Of course, a suspension of disbelief is often required for this franchise, and Fast Five is no exception. Patently ridiculous stuff does happen, but it’s easy to suspend your disbelief thanks to the old-fashioned filmmaking techniques. Also thrown into the mix are a few exciting shootouts, and even an awesome showdown between Vin Diesel and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, the latter of whom looks buff enough to wrestle a fucking T-Rex and come out victorious.

Another contributing factor to Fast Five‘s success is the actors, all of whom are better than they had any right to be. The real surprise is Paul Walker, whose acting has drastically improved since the first Fast and the Furious. No longer wooden, Walker’s performance is solid and believable, and he always looks in the moment. Even Vin Diesel’s work is strong here, and Jordana Brewster doesn’t get on the nerves anymore. To make the reunion a bit more complete, Matt Schulze is also seen here as Vince for the first time since the 2001 original. And Walker’s 2 Fast 2 Furious co-star Tyrese Gibson returned for this film as well, delivering an amiable, funny performance as Roman. Meanwhile, rapper-turned-actor Ludacris (another cast member from 2 Fast 2 Furious) is equally entertaining as Tej. Heck, even Sung Kang is good here – this is his most tolerable performance in the series to date. The best of the bunch, though, is without a doubt Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson playing the tough-as-nails Hobbs. An intimidating badass, Johnson is at long last proving that he still has what it takes to be the next Arnold Schwarzenegger, and he’s inarguably the strongest antagonist the series has seen to date.

Fast Five runs a mammoth 130 minutes (making it the longest entry in the series by a good 20 minutes), but it’s never boring; the pacing is strong and there’s always something interesting going on. Put alongside its subpar predecessors, this is an excellent offering of action entertainment; slickly-directed, well-paced and irresistibly entertaining. And be sure to watch until the end of the credits for an exciting set-up for the inevitable sixth film that this reviewer is actually looking forward to it. (I cannot believe I actually just wrote that…)

8.1/10