- - Thursday, April 28, 2011

With “Fast Five,” the “Fast and the Furious” franchise has undergone a full-body overhaul: What started as a series about illegal street racing has been taken to the shop and rebuilt as a team-based heist flick.

Expensive autos still feature prominently, but the thuggish grit of the originals has been replaced with breezy comedic hijinks clearly designed to offer greater mass appeal. It’s a high-speed, hip-hop-heavy riff on “Ocean’s 11.” The result: a smoother, more accessible ride but in some ways a less interesting one.

“Fast Five” starts with a swiftly staged prison break designed to reintroduce us to the series’ longtime leads. Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) is once again headed to the slammer. With the help of some sleek cars and slick stunt driving, his sister, Mia (Jordana Brewster) and former federal agent Brian O’Connor (Paul Walker) break him out of a rolling prison bus. After the escape, they head to Rio de Janeiro to lay low.

It isn’t long before they run into more trouble. After a failed high-speed heist involving a train, a handful of showy sports cars and a rusted tow truck that looks like a leftover from “The Road Warrior,” the trio find themselves at odds with a local crime lord, Reyes (Joaquim de Almeida), and falsely accused of murdering a group of federal agents.

That sets the rest of the story in motion. Toretto, along with his sister and O’Conner (now a couple), decides to strike out at Reyes, and he gathers a team of familiar faces from previous films (among them, hip-hop stars Tyrese and Ludacris) to help. Meanwhile, the U.S. government sends one of its top law-enforcement hombres, Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson, the wrestler formerly known as the Rock) to take down Toretto and his crew.

Director Justin Lin, working from a screenplay by Chris Morgan, who scripted the previous two entries, handles most of the proceedings with basic competence, but not much else. The dual story lines don’t always appear to be driving in tandem.

Hobbs’ hunt, for one, frequently feels grafted onto the main revenge-heist story line, and the script fails to capitalize on the potential for macho rivalry between Mr. Johnson and Mr. Diesel.

The same goes for Toretto’s team-building efforts, which are copied crudely from the “Ocean’s 11” films. The requisite jokey intrateam squabbling, meanwhile, tends to come across as sitcom-level pandering. Much of the film feels like a lazy rehash of other, better films.

Yet “Fast Five” is not without its pleasures. Mr. Diesel remains an appealingly amiable presence, especially now that he’s been tasked with playing father figure to the film’s crew of adolescent chest-thumpers. Mr. Johnson, who adopts a goofy accent and exudes an amusingly self-aware machismo, is gloriously weird as the sweaty, bug-eyed government tough.

The various high-speed action set pieces are constructed cleverly and occasionally are even spectacular - especially in the film’s final sequence. But by mostly ditching the world of illegal urban racing, the series has lost its sneering, street-level edge and replaced it with something softer and, sadly, all too familiar. It’s plenty fast, yes, but not very furious.

TITLE: “Fast Five”

CREDITS: Directed by Justin Lin, screenplay by Chris Morgan

RATING: PG-13, for violence, language and macho antics

RUNNING TIME: 131 minutes


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