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.
Chloe (voiced by Drew Barrymore) is a diamond-drenched pampered pooch who lives the high life in Beverly Hills. Beloved by her owner Aunt Viv (Jamie Lee Curtis) and adored by the landscaper’s Chihuahua Papi (George Lopez) she is left with a babysitter niece Rachel (Piper Perabo) when Viv takes off on vacation. Rachel impulsively departs on a last-minute weekend romp to Mexico with Chloe who not only gets lost south of the border but ends up in some very bad company. Saved from certain death in a dog fight she hooks up with a street-savvy German Shepherd (Andy Garcia) harboring a dark secret from his past life as a police dog. Along the way her diamond ID collar is swiped by a conniving rat (Cheech Marin) and his accomplice a very fidgety Iguana (Paul Rodriguez) leading to major chaos as all of them are pursued by the vicious El Diablo (Edward James Olmos) a Doberman out for revenge and one very disoriented Chihuahua. Will Rachel and Papi be able to find her in time before clueless Aunt Viv’s return? That’s the burning question. Basically a talking dog movie with a heavy Spanish accent Beverly Hills Chihuahua doesn’t exactly shy from stereotyped Mexicans but since this is a canine Babe it manages to get away with just about anything simply because these pooches are just so darned cute. The voice cast which features such Latino stars as George Lopez Edward James Olmos Paul Rodriguez Cheech Marin and Andy Garcia is perfectly cast lending a lot of fun to the proceedings especially Lopez as the lovably loyal Papi and Marin as a jewel-thief rat. Barrymore is also ideal as the ultra-rich and spoiled Chloe who is the equivalent of a canine Paris Hilton. The human actors are basically wallpaper with Curtis given little dimension in her relatively brief screen time and Perabo spending most of the film searching for the pup she carelessly misplaced. Manolo Cardona does nicely as the family gardener who helps out in the search. But it’s the remarkable real dog stars that steal this show. You have to wonder how their trainers led by Birds And Animals Unlimited’s Mike Alexander pulled some of this stuff off. These animals are more three-dimensional than most real thesps we’ve seen lately and actually do seem to be mouthing their lines (including some very clever dialogue). The old show-business adage says to never work with kids or animals--they take center stage everytime. In this case director Raja Gosnell and the group of talented trainers behind the cameras have proven the saying absolutely right. Dominating the breezy 86-minute time the bulk of the movie is devoted to stars of the four-legged variety and Gosnell makes it look easy with inventive camera angles giving us the POV of all the various dog stars who seem to be taking on the distinct personalities of the “characters” they are playing particularly the soulful down-and-out ex-police dog Garcia voices. You really do wonder what this dog’s deep dark secret is and the relationship forged between him and Chloe is genuinely real. It’s a tribute to Gosnell’s talents and the entire behind-the-scenes team that Beverly Hills Chihuahua turns out to be the family delight it is.