As it celebrates its tenth anniversary with its fifth series entry, Universal’s Fast and the Furious franchise should rightly be regarded as one of the more reliable popcorn pleasures of recent years—and also, like the Harry Potter films, that rare long-legged franchise that has actually gotten better with age. A revved-up, nitrous-boosted makeover of the hot-rod movies of the Fifties and Sixties, the first Fast and the Furious (borrowing the title, though not the plot, from a 1955 Roger Corman quickie) followed undercover Los Angeles cop Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker) as he infiltrated an elite underworld of high-octane street racers, only to end up befriending one of his suspects—the blue-collar tough Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel)—and falling for Toretto’s comely sister, Mia (Jordana Brewster). A drive-in movie for the post-drive-in era, it established several of the series’s inalienable constants: very fast cars navigating their way through very tight urban spaces; lone-wolf men (and women) of action willing to sacrifice everything in the name of honor; and just enough plot to get from one rubber-burning set-piece to the next.
Since then, the Fast pictures have taken on something of a travelogue quality (and also the most original numbering system of any current franchise), detouring to Miami for 2003’s Diesel-less 2 Fast 2 Furious, then to Tokyo for 2006’s The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, a non-sequitur (à la Halloween III: Season of the Witch) that eschewed the original characters in favor of a stand-alone narrative about a California gaijin who runs afoul of some street-racing yakuza. Not that that mattered very much. Directed by Justin Lin, an indie darling (Better Luck Tomorrow) at the helm of his second major studio feature, Tokyo Drift infused the series with a kinetic action brio that effectively obliterated the uninspired hackwork of Rob Cohen, who presided over the first two installments. Focusing on a specialized form of street racing in which drivers hand-brake their way around hairpin turns in an elegant gliding (or “drift”) sweeps, the movie’s racing scenes attained a balletic grace, and Lin only further upped the ante with 2009’s Fast & Furious, which returned the franchise to Los Angeles, reunited the original stars and dreamed up new and ingeniously complicated patterns of vehicular mayhem—an almost abstract frieze of man and fuel-injected machine.
Much the same holds true for Lin’s latest chapter, Fast Five, which has few if any equals in the category of fives and can be considered a test case for just how far an elemental understanding of the audience’s desires can carry a series like this, even when it keeps repeating the same basic dramatic devices ad infinitum. Indeed, there are moments when Fast Five really does feel like the world’s first IMAX soap opera, when it gets a touch too sentimental (something none of the previous entries risked) or self-referential. But when Lin and screenwriter Chris Morgan (another series vet) stick to the smash-and-grab basics, they rarely put a foot wrong.
Fast Five picks up exactly where Fast & Furious left off, with O’Conner once again throwing away his law-enforcement career to help Toretto out of a tight spot. With Mia in town, the now-fugitive trio goes on the lam in Brazil, where they sign on for a job that involves liberating a bunch of high-end sports cars from DEA custody—the catch being that the vehicles are cargo on a speeding locomotive. That sets up the first of the film’s genuinely spectacular action sequences, as well as the inevitable series of betrayals and double-crosses that propel the rest of the story, which pits the intrepid speed junkies against both a powerful drug lord called Reyes (the flamboyantly sinister Joaquim De Almeida) and a brass-balls federal agent (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) who works for “the guys the FBI call when they want to find somebody.”
But let’s not beat around the bush: no one came here for the character development. Shot on location in Rio de Janeiro, with its intricately terraced favelas and the curlicue streets that snake through them, Fats Five trades the previous films’s predominately horizontal geography for a dramatically vertical one, and Lin responds by staging one exuberant foot chase early on, in which O’Connor and the Torettos find themselves boxed in by the feds and the bad guys, their only means of escape the corrugated tin rooftops that can barely support their weight. Of course, you don’t really come to a Fast and the Furious movie to see foot chases either—no matter how skillfully executed—and if there’s a major disappointment to Fast Five, it’s that it features the least actual car action of any movie in the series, particularly during a long middle section in which O’Conner and Toretto, joined by a who’s-who of special guest stars from past installments (including 2 Fast 2 Furious’s Tyrese Gibson and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges and Tokyo Drift’s Sung Kang), plot an elaborate heist designed to rob Reyes of his millions and buy them their freedom. So Fast Five starts to feel a bit like an old-fashioned caper picture—The Brazilian Job, if you will—and it sputters a bit, before rallying itself for a finale so exhilarating that all is forgiven.
The last 20 minutes or so of Fast Five are as immensely pleasurable as anything I’ve seen in a movie theater this year—if not longer—and they turn on a visual gag so inspired that I won’t risk spoiling it for you. Instead, I’ll concentrate on the way Lin stages the scene, which may be the most singularly destructive demolition derby since John Landis laid waste to half of Chicago in The Blues Brothers. Like Landis, there’s an unbridled merriment to Lin’s mayhem; although the scene is played straight by the actors, the central idea—which involves a very large object moving in a very unexpected way through a very crowded public area—is something Buster Keaton might have conceived, and Lin (with due credit to second unit director Spiro Razatos) directs it all with a similar degree of comic elegance. When he crashes things into other things, he does it with the giddiness some children take in smashing together their toys—just to see how they break apart—and his wide, spacious compositions capture the action cleanly, so that we experience the impact and the moment just before impact in the same shot, the way action used to look in Hollywood movies before the attention-deficient aesthetics of television commercials and music videos became the lingua franca of the action blockbuster. Then, just when you think the scene has reached its limits, Lin pulls some even more outrageously over-the-top stunt out of his hat.
In her seminal essay, “Trash, Art and the Movies,” Pauline Kael wrote, “Because of the photographic nature of the medium and the cheap admission prices, movies took their impetus not from the desiccated imitation European high culture, but from the peep show, the Wild West show, the music hall, the comic strip—from what was coarse and common . . . All week we longed for Saturday afternoon and sanctuary—the anonymity and impersonality of sitting in a theatre, just enjoying ourselves, not having to be responsible, not having to be ‘good.’” The Fast and the Furious movies return to us those anonymous thrills, and not a moment too soon. May this series live long and continue to prosper.
From the sublimely ridiculous to the simply sublime, director Clio Barnard’s The Arbor exists at the intersection of life and art, reality and performance, documentary and fiction, and it explores that terrain in a way no other movie quite has before. There have, of course, been movies—some very good ones, like Paul Schrader’s Mishima and Stanley Kwan’s Center Stage—that approached the tricky subject of filmed biography through a deft mixture of dramatic and nonfiction devices. More recently, the excellent, little-seen The Windmill Movie transfigured the life of the filmmaker Richard P. Rogers into a kaleidoscope of film clips, home movies, interviews, and invented diary entries. But The Arbor, which is based on the life and work of the late British playwright Andrea Dunbar, blazes its own unique path through the enigma of Dunbar’s genius, madness and all-too-brief time upon the earth. It is a movie that takes Dunbar on her own terms, adding rather than subtracting layers of interpretation and meaning as it goes, giving us not one incontrovertible Dunbar but rather a dazzling mosaic, the infinite complexities of a life contained within a single dynamic canvas.
Like Dunbar’s 1976 play of the same name, The Arbor takes its title from Brafferton Arbor, the street where Dunbar grew up in a joyless stretch of housing estate in Bradford in the north of England. Written in green ink in a school exercise book when she was only fifteen, Dunbar’s play drew heavily on her own experience as a pregnant teen with a Pakistani boyfriend in a hotbed of working-class racism, and it did so with a frankness, an economy of words and an unexpected wit that eventually drew the attention of the Royal Court Theater, where The Arbor was produced as part of a young playwrights festival. Dunbar went on to write more plays—the best-known of which, the raunchy ménage à trois Rita, Sue and Bob Too, she also adapted for a 1986 film version—before succumbing to depression and alcohol and dying prematurely (from a brain hemorrhage) in 1990, at age 29.
The Arbor the movie explores Dunbar’s life in those years, then continues to the present, where it focuses on her three now-grown children, all of whom bear the scars of their mother’s self-destructiveness, some more than others. The constant is Brafferton Arbor itself, from which Dunbar never strayed far, literally and as the fount of her creative inspiration. And it is to Brafferton Arbor that Barnard journeys, conducting interviews with family and friends and staging scenes from Dunbar’s play, in public, on the street where it all began. In the film’s most radical stylistic conceit, the interviews that we hear are real, but what we see on screen are professional actors playing Dunbar and her relations, lip-synching to the audio so precisely, down to every pause and breath, that the effect is at once seamless and eerily dislocating. The technique may be partly inspired by Robin Soans’s 2000 “verbatim” play A State Affair, a sequel of sorts to The Arbor in which actors performed monologues derived from interviews with actual residents of the same Bradford estate, one of them being Dunbar’s eldest daughter, Lorraine. And it is Lorraine, like her mother both a victim and perpetrator of abuse, who gives the movie its center of gravity, her haunting narration—and the stoic face of the actress, Manjinder Virk, who plays her—lingering in our heads long after the lights have come up.
Everyone in The Arbor is searching for Andrea Dunbar, not least of all the late author herself, and yet she remains forever out of reach. So Barnard—a video artist making an enormously impressive feature directing debut—keeps returning to Dunbar’s own words, the lasting legacy that she wove out of a miserable existence. A great many films have been made about the ability of art to transform our lives, but few have shared The Arbor’s sober conviction that art alone can not save us.
Fast Five now playing nationwide. The Arbor now playing in New York City, opens May 11 in Los Angeles.