Silver Screen: Fast Five **1/2

Silver Screen: Fast Five **1/2
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Silver Screen: Fast Five **1/2
Bryan Miller

Some sentences will just never sound right, such as: "I prefer the prix fixe menu at Arby's" or "I learned that by watching Silent Library." To those unlikely lines add the following, which I actually uttered aloud to a friend who asked if Fast Five, the fifth installment of the Fast and the Furious series, was worth seeing: "It wasn't quite as good as the fourth one."

Hard to tell if that's a backhanded compliment or a forehanded insult.

The entire Fast and the Furious franchise is unlikely. The original was a solid action movie that pitted undercover FBI agent Brian O'Conner (Paul Walker) against hardbodied gearhead outlaw Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel). The sequel was a perfunctory retread uninspired enough to prompt producers to drop all the original characters from the even more improbable followup, the almost totally unrelated Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift. It was, by all accounts, the movie that should have relegated all future spinoffs to direct-to-DVD purgatory.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the fourth. Departed star Diesel, who had a four-year hot streak that included Saving Private Ryan, The Iron Giant, Pitch Black, and xXx, fell on hard times. After bowing out of both the Fast and Furious and xXx sequels (opting instead for the god-awful Chronicles of Riddick, a dunderheaded extension of Pitch Black), his only pseudo-success was the borderline-unwatchable kiddie comedy The Pacifier. Nearly a decade after the original, he suddenly had nothing better to do than return to the Fast and Furious fold.

Even more inexplicably, it was a good idea. The article-free fourth Fast and Furious was more outrageous and over-the-top than any of the previous entries, opening with a killer heist scene involving a fuel truck and mountain roads, and pretty much eschewing plot altogether as it plowed through big stunts and action setpieces. It was pretty much the definition of a summer-movie guilty pleasure.

Fast Five attempts to merge the gonzo spirit of the last entry in the series with the basic plot elements of the original. When last we left our razor-voiced hero Toretto, he allowed himself to get arrested after avenging the death of his girlfriend. That noble sacrifice is undone about three minutes into Fast Five as O'Conner and his girlfriend/Toretto's sister Mia (Jordana Brewster) spring him from a prison bus in an awesomely unlikely sequence. Then it's almost instantly back to normal as the former rivals turned fugitive besties plot another big score while they're hunted by the law, the law here being represented by an elite team of federal agents led by Dwayne "Quit Calling Me the Rock" Johnson.

Fast Five alternates between being unpardonably bad and giddy fun. It benefits from the low expectations of its audience in that no one comes to a Vin Diesel action flick looking for anything more than expensive thrills-- and to that end, it doesn't disappoint. Director Justin Lin, who has helmed all the movies in the series since Tokyo Drift, executes some stellar chase sequences and gets the adrenaline flowing. He's less apt with gunfighting than car crashes and destruction, but he's got an overall knack for orchestrating action and seamlessly blending computer effects with good old-fashioned metal-on-metal mayhem.

But even by the wan standards established by the earlier sequels, the writing in Fast Five is unpardonably bad. No, you don't go to a car-crash movie for character development and socially conscious themes, but there's also no excuse for punishing the audience during the downtime between stunts with one-hundred percent witless banter and a series of leaden quips delivered by less-than-able performers. Even the normally amiable Johnson, whose entire post-rasslin' career has depended on saying something funny and raising an eyebrow after shooting or punching something, can't wring a laugh out of these clunkers.

The rest of the costars fare no better. Dueling rappers Tyrese Gibson and Ludacris are reverse-cast, with the inexpressive Gibson playing the fast-talking conman while the charming Ludacris is relegated to the role of tech-support guy. The rest of Toretto and O'Conner's heist crew is unexceptional, but the most thoroughly perfunctory character is sexy policewoman Elena (Elsa Pataky) whose existence as a potential love interest for Toretto is more a buffer to break up the sexual tension between Diesel and Walker, who spend a lot of time exchanging meaningful looks. With the franchise so financially successful yet so bankrupt of female star-power, perhaps the simmering feelings between the two beefy costars is just the thing to spice up the inevitable sixth film. Fast, Furious, and Fabulous, anyone?