Over the next several weeks, Game of Nerds will be looking back at our greatest modern soap opera. Each installment of the main Fast and Furious franchise will be covered in preparation for the release of F9 on June 25, 2021.

Well, this certainly took longer than it needed to. After a decade of half-baked plots, actor disputes, a revolving door of lead characters, and immense studio interference, Fast Five arrived in 2011 as the first in the franchise to truly work from start to finish. Due to the shuffling of the actors over the various installments, Universal accidentally stumbled upon an ensemble cast that would finally give these movies a consistent blend of chemistry and colorful personality. And in doing so, would allow director Justin Lin to redeem the franchise’s reputation, leading to the best audience and critical receptions this franchise has ever received.

A direct sequel to the incredibly uneven Fast & Furious (2009), Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) has been sentenced to prison for years of automotive-abled theft. But his sister Mia (Jordana Brewster), and his frenemy Brian (Paul Walker), attack the vehicle transporting Toretto, forcing it to crash and freeing Dom. So, their plan to free Toretto… was to almost kill him and every single person on board? There may not be a dumber start to a movie in recent memory, but it gets a lot better from there.

On the run in Brazil, after being framed for murder, our protagonists come across a golden opportunity: the chance to steal $100 million in cash. But they must do so while alluding DSS Agent Luke Hobbs (The Rock), who’s been assigned to arrest them, and who has a personal dislike for Brian and Dom. But where Hobbs’ and the gang’s interests overlap is in Hernan Reyes, the Brazilian crime lord who’s the target of the DEA, and the owner of the previously mentioned $100 million.

Despite the terrible villain name, Hernan at first appears to be the most interesting antagonist in the franchise to date. Early, he spins a centuries old yarn about the Portuguese bearing gifts to the natives in Brazil, things that the natives could never get their hands on, as opposed to entering the land with violence – and now everyone in Brazil speaks Portuguese. If you dominate a people with violence, they will fight back because they have nothing to lose. But if you provide them with necessities, they will not fight back for fear of losing those necessities – that’s one way to describe capitalism and the comfort of modern life.

But what works about Fast Five isn’t a villain, it’s the ensemble cast. Once Dom, Mia, and Brian put their plan in motion, they recruit some familiar faces in Roman (Tyrese), Tej (Ludacris), Gisele (Gal Gadot), and Han (Sung Kang) to complete the heist. Here, the movie takes off, filling out the cast and playing off the actors’ excellent chemistry. After the Dom/Gisele romance angle flopped hard in Fast & Furious (2009), Lin and screenwriter Chris Morgan pretend it never happened, this time pairing Gisele off with Han. Whereas Gisele’s character in the last film was essentially “Please have sex with me, Dom,” she has a more equal flirtation with Han, whose charming disposition is a much better compliment to Gadot’s stoic performance.

While the somber tone of Fast & Furious eventually collapsed the film’s aspirations, the humor here is a breath of fresh air. And it’s no coincidence that it’s due to the return of Tyrese and Ludacris. Tyrese’s energetic performance is what improved a very paint-by-numbers film in 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003), as Roman’s back and forth with Tej proves to be the soul of Fast Five. The high point of their banter arrives when Roman, after he notices Tej’s dusty old vehicle, asks “When you gon give Martin Luther King his car back?”

The Fast and Furious films aren’t complicated – what works about them are things that have worked in dozens of other action movies. But the ingredients have to all be present and work in tandem. However, this franchise was in such disarray due to contract disputes, and inconsistent influence behind the camera, that the early entries feel like discount versions of whatever your favorite 90s action movies are. Sure, the cars are always fast, but the movie may be missing character development, or even characters you recognize, comedy, plausible motivations, or a thrilling conclusion. The franchise really needed four at bats before finding itself.

But for all the improvements Lin and Morgan have enacted with this installment, the movie’s trump card is: The Rock. See, here’s the thing about Vin Diesel – he’s really good in the original The Fast and the Furious (2001). He has a magnetic charisma and confidence in that film that is hard to duplicate, and not only is it the best performance in that movie, it’s probably a bad movie with a lesser actor. But then he made Fast & Furious 8 years later, a film he kind of sleep walks through. The magnetism is gone. Enter Dwayne Johnson, a man who’s career is built off producing electricity, a performer who is hardly subtle, and the perfect foil to play against this more ‘chillax’ version of Dom. The Rock’s Luke Hobbs immediately pops off the screen as if he’s crossing over into this series from his own franchise. His first encounter with Dom is an incredibly memorable scene – Dom jumps off a roof, then Hobbs immediately crashes through the window below, capturing Dom’s attention in mid-air! It’s not just an awesome bit of stunt work, but a declaration of what this arrival means for the franchise.

Beyond being a physical specimen, Hobbs is bombastic and over the top, but in a way that suits the material. This version of Hobbs isn’t a comedian (yet), he’s a character that takes the stakes 120% seriously, but does so with an intensity that is palpable, something this franchise sorely needed. When he chastises Brian’s disloyalty and Dom’s history of violence, it not only brings those character arcs into view, but the energy Johnson brings forces the audience to confront the moral ambiguity of the characters’ decisions. The animosity between Dom and Hobbs feels real, even as they barely know each other. It leads to the most intense fight of the series, one that isn’t just satisfyingly brutal, but critical to the development of these 2 characters’ understanding of each other.

As an aside, this film marks the beginning of the portrayal of Toretto as a cultural Superman. They make it seem like Dom is this everyman of the people that represents every diverse demographic and background. During the aforementioned verbal confrontation, while ridiculing Hobbs for being too American for his current surroundings, Dom “says” ‘Brazil’ with an accent to accentuate his cultural flexibility, even though the line is clearly ADR’d thus defeating the entire purpose of this exchange. And you’re just as American, Dom, you drink Coronas for God’s sake.

Looking back, it’s hard to justify the questionable decisions that led to uninspiring sequels in this franchise. But at least it led to improvement. Too many franchises languish in their own mediocrity. Fast Five, however, was the right movie at the right time with the right people behind it. From thrilling action, to great character interactions, and a more conservative use of the franchise’s heavy handed melodrama, this is a fun ride that is riveting, heart-warming, and at times a little inspiring.

When the main characters reach a big moment near the end of the film, the movie’s declaration is clear – this is a diverse group of people coming together for a common goal, by taking away from the people who hold society hostage rather than liberating it. Yes, these movies don’t have much in terms of subtext, but just because they say very little doesn’t mean they say nothing. And it’s nice to know that what it does say isn’t just copy and pasted from Point Break (1991). Fast Five fully assumes the franchise’s own identity and yes, at last, it’s an action classic.

Fast Saga Reviews:

The Fast and the Furious (2001)

2 Fast 2 Furious (2003)

The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006)

Fast & Furious (2009)