Fast Five: The Stunt Men

Posted on May 7, 2011


When you pull out your purse and request a ticket for something called Fast Five, you know that the bang for your buck isn’t going to come so much from the acting as the adrenalin. Still, there may be some merit in appraising the curious phenomenon of the actor who was born Mark Sinclair Vincent and who is now called Vin Diesel. (It’s a great only-in-Hollywood story. A man rechristens himself after automobile fuel; years later, he becomes the star of a franchise about fast cars.) What, precisely, is this man’s pulling power? It cannot be those sleepy eyes, the windows to his solar plexus. It cannot be that voice, a guttural mumble that suggests prehistoric man taking the first tentative steps towards the spoken word. It cannot be that physique, for sculpted brawn is no longer the novelty it was when Schwarzenegger and Stallone tore onto the screen and made the world safe for bad actors who worshipped not Thespis but Trapezius. (That was when the movies began to go really global, communicating not through dialogue but action, the language most understood round a multicultural world.)

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So, again, why does the moviegoing public love Diesel? The latest addition to the fast and furious franchise presents a possible answer in the form of Diesel’s adversary, Dwayne Johnson, an actor whose nickname (“The Rock”) so admirably captures his performing abilities. Throughout the film, they come teasingly close to a showdown, and when they finally end up in the same enclosure and have a go at each other, mano a mano, you watch slack-jawed. It’s a human riff on Godzilla vs. Mothra, Alien vs Predator – The Attack of the Bald Barbarians. Here’s my submission to anyone who wants to study why we exhilarate to the sight of near-Neanderthals on screen. They’re not men – they’re monsters risen from an ooze of primeval masculinity, talking to us through their ham-fists. It’s not just the thrill of action. It’s the spectacle of near-mythology, of where we came from, and you have to wonder what earlier audiences did when they felt the tug of their inner caveman. What did they watch when they felt like a Vin Diesel movie when all they had for action entertainment was a pitifully human-sized Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckling his way through The Thief of Bagdad?

Action films do not always birth such ponderous pondering. Mission: Impossible, for instance, plays you like a puppet – your mind is so steeped in sensation, it has no time or space left for thought. I take the instance of Brian De Palma’s glorious heist movie because Fast Five, in theory, aspires to be one. But it’s really just a big caveman-gladiator spectacle. The director Justin Lin attacks his problem (a safe filled with $100 million in cash) with a battering ram – not for him the nail-biting tension of careful plans nearly thwarted, or the drama arising from double-crosses. All he wants to do is service this film’s built-in audience, and this he does by staging pileup after pileup until the screen begins to look like a scrap yard. The stunt choreographers, as always, do exemplary work (I thought I’d seen every type of action that could be staged with a runaway train, and then they come up with this), but in the meandering middle section resounds with the screech of brakes. This is a film that needed to be faster and more furious.

An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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Posted in: Cinema: English