Dwayne Johnson, right, and Vin Diesel in "Fast Five." (Jaimie Trueblood / Universal…)
Who knew that the best place to put Vin Diesel would be between the Rock and a hard place? The spot has never been tighter, or righter, and the testosterone never higher than in the hot jacking action of "Fast Five."
Going mano a mano with Diesel's Dom, the ex-con street-racing Robin Hood, is Dwayne Johnson's agent Hobbs. He's come down to Rio de Janeiro, where the fifth (and best) edition of "The Fast and the Furious" zoom-zoom takes place, to settle some scores. (Memo to Johnson, if you really want to stop the "Rock" references to your former wrestling self, then don't put on 30 pounds of muscle and oil up so the sun reflects off the biceps — not complaining, just saying.)
In Dom's corner is most of his old pit crew, anchored by Paul Walker's ex-undercover cop, now officially hooked up with Dom's sister (Jordana Brewster), because nothing cements a relationship like breaking a prospective brother-in-law out of jail (see No. 4 for more).
Director Justin Lin, who's been in the driver's seat since No. 3, 2006's "Tokyo Drift," kicks things off with a brazen bit of business that involves a speeding train, luxe cars in need of stealing, federal agents dying, a bridge looming and characters actually talking. If I'm not mistaken, Dom's expanded his cache of expressions from miffed, mad and amused to include thoughtful, sentimental and one that is either bliss or bleary depending on the camera angle.
In addition to nearly every actor who's ever taken the "Fast" ride, most of the core creative team is back as well, including screenwriter Chris Morgan for his third go. He and Lin have shifted the story away from the confines of the underground street-racing culture and turned "Fast Five" into a heist movie, though not a typical one (in those the bad guys tend to keep things on the down low).
It's a complicated setup. Things didn't go as planned on the speeding train, and now Rio's slick drug kingpin (Joaquim de Almeida) and his thugs are after Dom and crew. Dom's not happy either and is planning a sting to steal the kingpin's money. Meanwhile, Hobbs has amassed an army to bring in Dom and friends for those agents' deaths. Hobbs conscripts local hot cop Elena (Elsa Pataky), because — road rules — there can never be too many pretty girls or too many cars (started with 300, lost 200 along the way), and now major firepower's been tacked onto the list.
Lin makes sure the humor isn't lost either, with even the sound of guns locking and loading behind every door on one dicey street a very funny bit. As always, the pacing is a strange mix. When things are simmering — the kingpin ordering killings, Dom making up elaborate schemes — everybody just hangs loose, grabs a beer, barbecues ribs. Then suddenly it's pedal to the metal time.
Rio works well as a backdrop for all that — a footrace across rooftops and down alleyways of a hillside shantytown is one of the most visually riveting action sequences in recent memory. The locale is also a good excuse to put about half the dialogue in Portuguese, with English subtitles — no doubt a show of respect to the series' many international fans.
Tucked inside all the running and gunning are a lot of heart-to-hearts about fatherhood, brotherhood, family, loyalty and love in the talkiest "Fast" yet. The best moments though belong to the Diesel and Dwayne face-offs. Although the Rock looms larger, slug for slug they are pretty evenly matched, and fights usually end in a tie. Unlike the loooooong car chases — the finale would be better cut by half; in fact the movie, which clocks in at two-plus hours, should have been "faster" too — the boys' battles are bloody efficient.
Though aesthetics have never really concerned "Furious" filmmakers — I don't think they're going for an Oscar — the sheer audacity of "Fast Five" is kind of breathtaking in a metal-twisting, death-defying, mission-implausible, B-movie-on-steroids kind of way. Not complaining, just saying.