First of all, some clarifications; we're discussing films that can only be described by the genre of Action. So anything that might fall under Action/Sci-Fi (Star Trek, The Avengers) or Action/Thriller (Skyfall, Inception) are out. This is just pure action, the likes of which used to govern the cinemas back in the 80's and 90's. During the action heyday we had the likes of Die Hard and Speed and Face/Off, and for a time, it was good. But since then action movies - PURE action movies - have gotten stale and, let's be honest, kinda crap. Just look at those last two Die Hard movies, or the likes of The Expendables; stuff blowing up just for the sake of it doesn't translate automatically into fun for an audience.
Then we have Fast Five, an absolute anomaly in modern cinema, and to understand its greatness, we need to delve a little bit into its history. Way back in 2001 (can you believe it's been THAT long?), the first of the ever-more-confusingly titled series came out, with the not-so-confusing title of The Fast & The Furious. Director Rob Cohen (Daylight, Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story) made this little illegal drag racing movie for $38 million, turned in a worldwide box office of $207 million, and made bona-fide stars of Vin Diesel and Paul Walker. Exactly two years later for exactly two times the budget we got 2 Fast 2 Furious, which replaced Vin Diesel (both he and director Cohen went off to make xXx) with Tyrese Gibson, and to this day remains one of the most hilariously homoerotic movies ever made. But with the box office not doubling up like everything else - a barely there bump to $236 million - the producers decided to mix things up completely.
In 2006 we got The Fast & The Furious: Tokyo Drift, which also dropped Paul Walker from proceedings, and got in new lead Lucas Black. Audiences didn't much care for the end product - $158 million from an $85 million budget - and it remains the nadir point of the series, with everyone assuming that would be the end of it. But original star Vin Diesel appears in a cameo at the very end of the movie, and he obviously saw something in director Justin Lin that nobody else did, and got producers to keep him on board for 2009's Fast & Furious (he has remained with the series right up to Fast Six). The fourth movie in the series actually takes place before the events of Tokyo Drift (as does Fast Five and Six), and with the reunited cast of Diesel, Walker, Jordana Brewster and Michelle Rodriguez - who, SPOILERS, gets killed off -, suddenly worldwide interest is piqued again. Another $85 million budget this time made a return of $363 million, and producers realised what needed to be done.
You see, the first three Fast & Furious movies were nothing more than two or more cars racing each other down empty streets, and by the time Tokyo Drift came around, audience's had gotten bored of the repetition. But with the fourth movie, the franchise switched it up and it became about the over-the-top heists. It was basically Ocean's Eleven with burly cars and even burlier men, which is where Fast Five arrives. Set to a massively increased budget of $125 million, the stunts in Fast Five are INSANE! Just check out that opening action sequence: cars diving off a train, then a truck smashing into the train, then the train smashing into a bridge, then a car driving off a cliff because it's being chased by the exploding truck… Absolute insanity, and that's before we even mention the massive safe being chucked about downtown Rio in the climax. This was nothing but a pure action movie, never attempting to be bogged down with subtexts or an overcomplicated plot. Fast Five was nothing but fun in a world were blockbusters are trying to out-dark each other.
And it totally paid off! $626 million at the worldwide box office, and the first overwhelmingly positive reviews for any of the movies in the series to date. The introduction of Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson into the series is the reason given as to why the movie worked so well, but you just need to look at the recent G.I. Joe: Retaliation to see that his sudden presence doesn't guarantee sudden quality. Fast Five worked because the makers took a chance to go bigger and brighter, even as the laws of diminishing returns should dictate they go smaller, and the laws of modern sequels demand they go darker. It was also - most importantly - HUGELY enjoyable.
We could write entire tomes about the inner workings of the F&F series (pro-feminism, pro-racial equality, pro-gay rights, etc., it's all in there), but why bother when there are so many cars flipping through the air with the Christ The Redeemer statue in the background? There is a sense of family here when nearly every major character from the series join forces to take down the big bad guy, and then there's the cameos at the end of the movie; Eva Mendes (the "love interest" from 2 Fast 2 Furious) pops up to tell The Rock that - SPOILERS! - Michelle Rodriguez isn't dead after all! There is a sense that the whole series is beginning to tie together, and with this summer's Fast Six re-introducing Rodriguez, and next summer's Fast & Furious Seven - under new director James Wan (Saw, Insidious) - rumoured to have a superstar villain, it looks like we'll have at least two more awesome action flicks to look forward to.