With A History Of Violence, Tom Breihan picks the most important action movie of every year, starting with the genre’s birth and moving right up to whatever Vin Diesel’s doing this very minute.
Fast Five (2011)
Stuntmen loved Fast Five. The year after the movie came out, I spent a few days at ActionFest, a film festival in North Carolina devoted entirely to action cinema, to report a story for GQ. People kept mentioning Fast Five. The stuntmen, especially, kept bringing it up. One guy told me that Fast Five was a clear sign that his profession was still relevant. You could see why he might’ve been stressed. For years, the dominant summer entertainments had been CGI-heavy spectacles—superhero movies, young-adult adaptations, movies that wished they were superhero movies or young-adult adaptations—that only made minimal use of old-fashioned stuntcraft. Fast Five was something else: a global blockbuster made up of dudes crashing cars in ecstatically ridiculous ways. It wasn’t an old-school action blockbuster in the Schwarzenegger sense, but it proved that people still wanted to watch other people narrowly escaping death in real and tangible ways.
The Fast & Furious movies had to hurtle recklessly down a long, winding road before they became our greatest global action franchise. The first movie was a fun surprise hit, a triumphantly silly car-racing crime-movie caper that shamelessly capitalized on a street-racing trend and even more shamelessly ripped off Point Break. The second movie, 2003’s perfectly titled 2 Fast 2 Furious, lost star Vin Diesel and moved things even further into the realm of the ridiculous.
But by the time the franchise got to 2006’s The Fast And The Furious: Tokyo Drift, it had mostly abandoned the characters and the world of the first two movies, content to tell an almost unrelated story about kids racing each other in Japan. It wasn’t even a heist movie! Tokyo Drift was perilously close to being a straight-to-DVD sequel, but it’s also the movie that introduced director Justin Lin to the franchise. Lin, who’d broken out with the 2002 kinda-comedy Asian-American heist Better Luck Tomorrow, turned out to have a perfect feel for the series—for the car stunts, for the comic-book male bonding, and for the tone of blithe insanity that those movies needed.
When all four of the leads from the original movie reassembled for 2009’s Fast & Furious, they were Lin’s versions of the characters. They were no longer in-over-their-heads street kids and FBI agents. Instead, they were superhuman heist-masters capable of literally impossible feats behind the wheel. They loved each other, they loved working together, and they were more devoted to one another than to anything else in the world. As that fourth movie ended, Brian O’Conner, Paul Walker’s character, had left behind his FBI position, and he was speeding off into the desert, getting ready to pull Vin Diesel’s Dominic Toretto off of a moving prison bus.
Fast Five—still the greatest Fast & Furious movie and the moment where the series truly became what it is today—opens exactly where its predecessor left off. Lin isn’t the type of director to leave things to the imagination. He’s not just going to tell us that O’Conner has somehow mysteriously rescued Toretto from prison. Instead, he is going to show us O’Conner and Toretto’s sister, Mia, ramming and wrecking that prison bus.
O’Conner’s plan doesn’t make a lot of sense. A crash could kill Toretto and anyone else on the bus, and it could leave O’Conner dead or unable to escape with him. But this isn’t the sort of movie where we worry about stuff like that. Two minutes in, before the title even flashes on screen, we see that bus roll. A minute later, we see that everyone is okay and that Toretto is safe. We accept that O’Conner, who was an FBI agent five minutes earlier, is completely fine with giving all that up for the outlaw life. The bus crash is a great vehicular stunt, and it’s also a signal to the audience—a clear sign that what we’re about to see is going to be pure, delirious spectacle, and that it might not make the slightest shred of narrative sense.
So Lin knew exactly what he was doing with Fast Five. And beyond figuring out how to tell that sort of story, he and the movie’s producers had a few absolute strokes of genius. The first one was to move the action out of the United States. Most of the movie takes place in Brazil, where our heroes plot to steal a massive vault of cash from a crime-lord villain who’s only barely in the movie. Lin shot most of the Rio De Janeiro scenes in Puerto Rico. (There’s no artful way to work this in, but I had to mention it: As I’m typing this, the places where the movie’s best scenes were shot are suffering from catastrophic damage, and millions of people can’t even get clean drinking water. Our government seems determined not to help, so please do what you can.) The move to Brazil, like the move to Japan in Tokyo Drift before it, helped establish the Fast & Furious movies as truly global action films. These days, Toretto and his crew rarely stay in one country for long, and that sense of constant motion has surely helped make the movies as popular as they are around the world.
Another stroke of genius was assembling a cast of characters from the previous four entries, bringing them together as a squabbling family. Some of those characters had only barely been in their previous movies, and some of them were given implausible makeovers. Ludacris’ Tej Parker went from being a garage owner to a genius-level hacker, and Gal Gadot’s Gisele Yashar goes from being a drug lord’s envoy to a former Mossad agent and a badass killer. Meanwhile, Sung Kang’s Han Seoul-Oh goes from being a dead guy to being a guy who is not dead. Lin’s decision to bring back a character he’d killed in Tokyo Drift meant that the series had to twist its chronology into pretzels, but Kang’s stoner cool made it the right call. (And anyway, I like the idea that Tokyo Drift didn’t really take place in 2006. It just took place at a later time, when Japanese teenagers happened to be really into flip phones and Juelz Santana. This seems oddly plausible!)
With that crew of former bit-part characters transformed into a big sitcom family, Lin gave the world a diverse, charming cast, one that would continue to shift and grow as the series went on. (It’s also worth noting that, of eight Fast & Furious movies, only the first one has been directed by a white guy. Lin himself ended up doing four of them.) Fast Five was the moment when Diesel’s Toretto made his greatest toast to his crew: “Money’ll come and go, we know that. The most important thing in life will always be the people in this room right here, right now. Salut, mi familia.” The movie’s moments of quiet reflection are somehow more ridiculous than its over-the-top action scenes, but they’re as serious as they are goofy. And Lin really did make them seem like a family; that’s a big part of the reason why Walker’s real-life death, a few years later, hit so hard.
But Lin’s greatest coup was casting Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as the driven, grudge-carrying DSS agent Luke Hobbs, the movie’s real antagonist. Diesel has said that the role was originally supposed to go to Tommy Lee Jones, and the Rock really does strut into the movie like a much, much bigger version of Jones’ character from The Fugitive. But Jones wouldn’t have been able to crash through walls and windows like a rhino during the movie’s great favela foot-chase scene.
The Rock wasn’t the massive A-list movie star that he is now when he took that Fast Five role, but he brought all his no-bullshit charisma and cartoonish physical mass to the role. (The Rock must be the only person in history to leave professional wrestling and then become more jacked.) At one point, O’Conner tells the rest of the crew about Hobbs in literal Biblical terms: “This guy, he’s Old Testament. Blood, bullets, wrath of God: That’s his style.” It’s to The Rock’s credit that Walker actually seems like he’s underselling things. And when the Rock and Diesel finally get into their inevitable fistfight, suplexing each other through windows and spearing each other through walls, it seems downright goofy when the much-smaller Diesel ends up with the advantage.
The Rock’s intensity and his single-minded focus are what makes him a great enemy for Toretto and his gang. And they’re also what makes it so satisfying when, near the end of the movie, The Rock turns and joins the Toretto gang: “I’ll ride with you, Toretto, at least until we kill that son of a bitch.” A movie later, he was a full-on member of the crew. It didn’t really make sense, but it ruled anyway. The Fast movies have shown a beautiful willingness to turn great villains into heroes. People complained when, in this year’s The Fate Of The Furious, previous-movie villain Jason Statham only needed the barest bit of plot manipulation to become one of the good guys. But do you really want to root against Jason Statham forever? These movies know what their audiences want, and they refuse to let a little thing like narrative consistency stand in their way. I admire that.
The other thing I admire is the action scenes, and Fast Five has some all-timers. There’s the scene where the Torettos and O’Conner steal cars from a moving train, a beautifully nuts idea even before their co-conspirators turn against them. There’s the scene where the characters race stolen police cars down city streets just for the hell of it. And there’s that beautiful final chase, in which Toretto’s gang drags an enormous metal bank vault through city streets, flattening oncoming cars and pulverizing buildings. To shoot that scene, still this decade’s finest car chase, they really had to drag that thing, and they really had to destroy all those cars and smash all those windows. The movie’s gleeful, wanton destruction, its sense of kinetic lunacy, is its real gift to cinema. Fast Five, and the movies that followed, have told action-movie stories in action-movie ways, and they’ve done it in ways that have competed with the superhero extravaganzas of the world. They’ve carried the action-movie torch. I’ll ride with them forever.
Other notable 2011 action movies: I’ve gone back and forth a bunch on whether Drive counts as an action movie, and after rewatching it, it totally does. The action scenes themselves, the chases and fights and murders, are stylized all to hell, but they’re also brutal and gripping. And Ryan Gosling’s getaway driver is a worthy entry to the action-movie canon of laconic, taciturn badasses. It counts. And that means Drive gets runner-up honors for the year.
2011 was actually a shockingly good year for English-language action movies, especially after movies from around the world had been overshadowing Hollywood’s action-movie output for a few years. There was Mission: Impossible-Ghost Protocol, with its breathless and commendably insane Burj Khalifa stunt. Tom Cruise really climbed up and then plummeted down the world’s tallest building, and we owe him our respect for that. There was Attack The Block, the fun-as-hell British kids vs. aliens movie. And there was Hanna, the oddly beautiful fable about the little girl who was raised to be an absolute killing machine and who dreams of seeing the world anyway.
Two low-budget movies, Drive Angry and Hobo With A Shotgun, saluted the grindhouse pictures of the past with violent, tongue-in-cheek verve. Neither was an actual good movie, and neither seemed all that interested in being an actual good movie, but both were fun enough if you met them on their terms. Unknown, meanwhile, was a byzantine thriller that kept the reborn Liam Neeson’s action-hero streak going. Warrior was more of a sports movie than an action movie, but its MMA setting makes it close enough to an underground-fighting movie that it sort of counts. There were misfires, too—the Luc Besson-produced Zoe Saldana assassin vehicle Colombiana, the draggy Statham/Owen/De Niro Peckinpah remake Killer Elite, the entirely unnecessary and CGI-heavy Conan The Barbarian remake—but Hollywood action movies had a pretty good year.
Hollywood had competition, of course. France gave us Sleepless Night, a nail-biter of a thriller about a crooked cop trying to get his kidnapped son back while fighting gangsters in a seedy Paris nightclub. Hong Kong gave us Dragon, a sharp and fascinating detective story in which Donnie Yen plays a kung-fu master who’s doing his best to keep his identity secret, and Life Without Principle, a twisty crime thriller from Johnnie To. (Hong Kong also gave us Shaolin and The Lost Bladesman, two soggy and kinda boring historical martial arts epics.) And from South Korea came the grisly, crowd-pleasing blockbuster War Of The Arrows, about an expert archer who practically manages to foil a Manchurian invasion all by himself. It’s a period piece Korean version of Rambo, and if that doesn’t sound good to you, then you’re probably reading the wrong column.
Next time: Indonesia’s The Raid: Redemption gives us one of the purest, nastiest, most fun pure-cinema experiences in action-movie history.