By Darren Franich and Derek Lawrence
April 28, 2021 at 10:45 AM EDT
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Few franchises had a longer, stranger road than the Fast Saga. Following the success of 2001's The Fast and the Furious, the next two films shed stars and filmmakers, with each sequel steadily grossing less at the domestic box office. 2009's Fast & Furious reunited the original core cast and could have ended the series, but its unexpectedly massive success led Universal to greenlight a sequel. Fast Five arrived ten years ago, and movie history would never be the same.

Fast Five
Credit: Jaimie Trueblood/Universal Pictures

DEREK LAWRENCE: The day has finally come, Darren! I feel like we've been waiting for the 10th anniversary of Fast Five for a long time, staring down April 29, 2021 like we're Dom (Vin Diesel) and Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) meeting for the first time. Not only did this give us an excuse to talk about what is universally considered the best Fast & Furious movie, which is such a compliment in its own right, but also maybe the best action movie of all-time. I recently made this declaration to Ludacris on EW's BINGE: The Fast Saga and he was in such shock that the only reaction he could muster was "Oh s---!" Yes, that seems like a very bold claim, but, for me, Fast Five marks the moment when I truly fell in love with what I guess we are now calling The Fast Saga. While I really, really enjoyed all of the first four films and saw each of them in theater (I will forever be on the correct side of history for picking Tokyo Drift when a large group of friends was deciding between seeing that or Cars), Fast Five felt like the first true event. And it was such a moment that I can vividly remember my opening day viewing experience.

It was Friday, April 29, 2011, and my brother and I skipped our normal theater by our house, opting instead to make the rare trip to the IMAX. But the real kicker here was that my brother was in 8th grade and this was an early afternoon showing, something that was only made possible by the fact that my parents literally allowed me to check him out of school early just for us to go. I hope that was the actual excuse they gave too: "Dear Mrs. 8th grade teacher, the family has to go see the family on opening day. Thanks for understanding. Salud mi familia, Nathan's parents." Darren, where does your mind go first when thinking back on Fast Five?

DARREN FRANICH: Let me say, Derek, that I'm very honored to jump out the window and chase you across the metaphorical rooftops of cinema. I saw Fast Five opening weekend at the AMC on 34th street in Manhattan, and the audience was ready. Blockbusters were in a very ornate digital-fantasy period — in between Deathly Hallowses, approaching the rock-bottom horrors of Green Lantern and Pirates of the Caribbean 4, with bad memories of whitewashed dreck like Prince of Persia and The Last Airbender. Fast Five begins with a huge bus flipping six times, a cut to black, and then the metal-crunch SLAM as the title flashes onscreen. My theater just erupted: Applause, laughter, the kind of shocked gasps you read about in comic books. That opening scene promises a pure blast of entertainment, joyous and destructive in equal measure. The movie delivers and delivers. The high-speed train heist, with one car exploding and another one driving straight off a cliff. The bank vault crashing through Rio — and the moment when Dom starts wielding that bank vault as a weapon.

Director Justin Lin had used his previous two Fasts as on-the-fly education in action cinema. Here, a bigger budget meant a bigger sandbox. Lin has such a gift for blending slow-building propulsion with gearhead absurdity, and I wonder if his work on Community's paintball episode informed some of Fast Five's loopier moments. But you can feel him having fun with other forms of action, too. Just look at the wall-smashing duel between Dominic Toretto and Luke Hobbs, which turns a runty garage into a wrestling ring.

The film's success is more than technical feat. There are a lot of people to thank for the decision to turn the previous sequel's ensembles into a vehicular superteam, but I always credit Diesel's long-stated dedication to Dungeons & Dragons. He seemed to think Fast & Furious was a saga before anyone else did, so this film has that great second-act expansion when the other characters arrive. I had seen Tokyo Drift and loved watching Han (Sung Kang) continue his secret prequel journey. I had actually never seen 2 Fast 2 Furious, but I loved how Roman (Tyrese Gibson) tilted the whole crew's vibe in a more comedic direction. I saw the original movie on opening weekend in high school, so I mourned the loss of Michelle Rodriguez… which means I screamed with everyone else in the audience during the post-credits teaser.

Derek, can you talk about what sets this movie apart, for you? Do you have favorite moments that, on rewatch, seem like they could only happen in Fast Five and nowhere else?

DEREK: Sorry for my delay in responding as I've been reeling from the bombshell that you hadn't seen 2 Fast 2 Furious, or 2 Fast 2 Underrated as I declared it in my 15th anniversary tribute (we love Fast anniversary tributes around here as much as Dom loves Coronas and V-necks). I think the thing that truly places Fast Five above the rest is it's the perfect balance of what Fast was and what Fast was about to become. Minus the game-changing addition of Johnson, we're reliant on just the core family that we built up over the first few films, not yet trying to figure out how many movie stars can packed into one movie (I'm amazed every time I look at the F9 cast list and am reminded that it includes Charlize Theron, Helen Mirren, AND Kurt Russell). And in addition to being the Avengers before the Avengers in terms of superhero team-ups, Fast Five's action and stakes land in that believable but still insane sweet spot. Yes, they're stealing $100 million from a Brazilian drug lord, but they're using regular cars and old school brawn to do it, whereas the next films would find them repeatedly saving the world via tanks, flying cars, and nuclear submarines. Don't get me wrong, my jaw still drops for all of that ridiculousness, and yet I do sometimes yearn for the days of running through favelas and dragging safes through the streets.

When it comes to my favorite moments that feel like they could only happen in Fast Five, how long do you have? I could go full-Letterman and count down my top 10 and still have some leftover. You mentioned that high-speed train heist, which for any other franchise would be the best action set-piece they've ever done, and I'm hard-pressed to even find a spot for it on my list. Just to throw out a few scenes that come on and make it "mission infreakin sanity" to change the channel: the legendary introduction to Hobbs (the best moment of Johnson's non-WWE career); the assemble the team montage, an essential for any great heist film; the aforementioned favela chase; the indoor barbecue, a nice spin on the "last night before our biggest job yet" trope and a scene filled with small but important character moments; the epically brutal and punishing showdown between Diesel and Johnson, a reminder of the missing dynamic that hurt The Fate of the Furious; and, lastly, the greatest ending montage in cinema history. From the minute Tej opens that safe and Don Omar's "Danza Kuduro" comes on, I'm in my happy place, from the chills I get when Han says of Tokyo, "We'll get there…eventually," to the smile on my face when Brian wants another shot at racing Dom. No lie, I actually just put on "Danza Kuduro" as I wrap this up. I can't wait to return to a karaoke bar and sing that and Vin's "Feel Like I Do." So, while I keep jamming, Darren, I feel like we've talked a lot about the spectacle here, so let's come back down to Earth and discuss our favorite family, especially since this is truly when they became an extended family.

DARREN: We required the DJ at our wedding to play "Danza Kuduro." Thank you, Don Omar and Lucenzo, for bestowing humanity with the precise sound of pure unfettered happiness. That closing montage sums up the sheer unbridled energy of Fast Five, which stood out so far from the grim pack of wannabe Dark Knightlings that proliferated across the early 2010s. As you mentioned, Derek, there's a secret modesty in the focus on cars-doing-stuff action, and I think that left room for all the actors to look like genuine stars. Gibson was just a couple months away from appearing in his third Transformers movie, but you get a whole trilogy's worth of his goofy charisma in his first scene. There are no gigantic car-people to dominate the frame, so the humans get to be the gigantic car people. Kang is just pure cool as Han, and you can watch Gal Gadot become Wonder Woman. The decision to transform Tej into the resident tech guy meant Ludacris got to play modern cinema's coolest nerd. Find me on the right day and I'll say the single best moment in the whole movie is the final moment with Tego Calderon and Don Omar, betting everything on a game at least one of them will lose. (The Onion memorably spoofed screenwriter Chris Morgan as a vroom-vroom 5-year-old, but credit the franchise's longtime scribe for giving even minor characters some major showcases.)

Fast Five arrived 10 years after The Fast and the Furious. It was an up-down decade for Walker and Diesel, who both struggled to build off the first film's success. In a different Hollywood era, their return to Fast would've seemed like an embarrassing step backwards. But the paradigm was shifting. Today, the global audience expects they'll live with certain movie characters for a lifetime. It's that saga thing again — it's why Harrison Ford is spending his later years reliving his early years — and with Fast Five, there's a legitimate feeling of lessons learned. Walker makes Brian a little older and wiser, finally a true part of the Toretto family with his once-and-future love Mia (Jordana Brewster). As Dom, Diesel looks bigger and more mournfully amused than ever. And it's important to remember that Johnson was on his own comeback ride after a Tooth Fairy-ish detour. There's some kind of crazy magic when Hobbs comes face-to-face with Toretto. The Rock is all swaggering American self-righteousness, his massive frame squeezed into a tight Under Armour t-shirt. Diesel underplays everything with his deep voice — and then he puts that little I-am-the-world accent on the line "This is BRAZIL!" They became more complete as movie stars working together. The Rock's instinct at self-satire made Diesel a little bit funnier, while Diesel's rigid commitment to the emotional truth of car-flipping ultra-drivers gave his co-star a grace I miss in his solo films. It could just be a literal balance, two gigantic presences on either side of a scale. I miss when Hobbs was a bad guy, honestly. As much as I enjoy the films that followed, I wonder if they would've felt more Furious with the DSS agent forever tailing the Toretto crew.

I want to talk a little bit more about the reunion quality of Fast Five, Derek. The movie honors its own history in a way that seems normal now, in our "Every Spider-Man is in the next Spider-Man" era. Were there moments that stood out to you as someone who loved the previous movies — an appearance or a reference that pleasantly shocked you?

DEREK: As much as the joke has become that none of the main Fast stars can lose a fight, everyone truly came out a winner in that Diesel and Johnson showdown that felt like this generation's Arnold and Robert Patrick in T2, two beings, more machine than man, laying waste to each other. And you made a great point about missing Hobbs as a "bad guy." It really feels like we could have gotten at least one more film of Hobbs chasing the family down, before inevitably becoming one of them. It's why the moment of Brian and Dom driving off that bridge with their 24-hour head start and Hobbs opening the safe to realize it's empty showed so much promise that neither we nor Hobbs could hold back a smile. We were all ready for that chase to continue.

But, going back to your question, what I really wasn't ready for was that mid-credits scene and the triumph return of… Eva Mendes!!! Oh yeah, Michelle Rodriguez too, obviously. I just need to give a quick shoutout to Special Agent Monica Fuentes, played by Mendes, a.k.a the most important person in my life from 2001 to 2005, thanks to Training Day, 2 Fast 2 Furious, and Hitch. That is a personalized Derek run if I've ever seen one — speaking of seeing something, what do you think it would take for Mendes to consider coming out of semi-retirement and looking at my Hitch 2 spec script? Okay, enough of me declaring my undying love for the future Hitch: Back 2 Business star, and back to the revival of Letty, which was so shocking because death still seemed to mean something to Fast at this time, as it was long before Han survived the most-played death scene of all-time. Letty's resurrection led the franchise directly into the soap opera trope of amnesia (Next up: Long-lost evil brother!), but, just like with Sung Kang, giving us more of Rodriguez was worth whatever "rules" they had to bend and break to make it happen. Now do Gisele next!!

Darren, we could go for another couple miles about this masterpiece, but do you have any final words on Fast Five? I say final, but, as we know, nothing is ever over in the Fast world, so I look forward to doing this again for the 15th anniversary.

DARREN: Doesn't Monica Fuentes work with Hobbs? Can Eva Mendes show up to de-bro-ify Hobbs & Shaw 2? I feel the need to clarify that I did finally see 2 Fast 2 Furious — several times! And I've come around to thinking that candy-ridiculous sequel was a crucial piece of what Fast became. Watching Fast Five again this week, it struck me that Joaquim de Almeida is having so much fun as Reyes, a criminal so nefarious he cheerfully compares himself to colonial conquerors of yore. I would say he's playing a Bond villain — but by 2011, the Bond films were already getting choked by sensitive prestige, the whole notion of Bond villainy now reserved for Oscar winners.

I'm coming down hard on all the serious-minded blockbusters because I want to make it clear just how different this movie was — and still is. The film's silliness has a weird sincerity. Even when it's very funny, it's never quite a comedy. It's not a superhero movie, but characters keep breaking the laws of physics at just the right climactic time — surviving a huge fall, throwing each other through walls, whipping a giant bank vault around a highway like a meteor hammer. The brilliant critic Wesley Morris used the film's release as an opportunity to write the defining piece of Fast & Furious analysis, describing the series' casually diverse ensemble as "the most progressive force in Hollywood today." This was still a miserable moment when the big blockbuster parts were reserved for various white Chrises or the latest Australian mass o' muscle.

But even as Hollywood very slowly catches up to the Fast Saga's onscreen representation, I worry that our megafranchise era has lost track of the film's ecstatic sense of just-go-for-it possibility. The influence of Marvel is way more prominent, even on the recent Fast films. (Russell is basically playing the white version of Nick Fury; Idris Elba was the first Fast baddie who needed cyber-genetic enhancement, the kind of dull "Logical Explanation For Action Hero Powers" that sent Jeremy Renner on a globetrotting search for chems.) The problem with that model is that you start to feel every movie is held captive to the narrative's forward progression — that a whole film series, and the audience, is stuck on rails, moving forward on a predetermined track to next seven sequels. Consider Fast Five the proverbial flatbed Heist truck, driving out of the desert to steal the fancier franchise train's cars, then blowing up all the cars, then driving straight off a cliff into the next wild adventure. In the heavenly last scene of the film, Dom notes that his sister, has never looked so happy. "It's because we're free," Brian says. That's the liberation Fast Five conjures for me, every time I watch it. And then, of course, they drive.

For more Fast, listen to EW's BINGE: The Fast Saga, in which we're racing through each of the films with the stars who brought them to life. The first episode, with Vin Diesel, debuts on Friday.

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