The Chase That Changed Fast & Furious Forever
The notoriously bombastic action franchise has spent the last decade trying to outdo what it accomplished in 2011’s Fast Five.
“We don’t sneak,” mutters Dominic Toretto, in 2011’s Fast Five. And sneak, Dom’s crew do not. The Fast & Furious way of stealing a gangster’s fortune from a police vault isn’t hacking cameras and waltzing past security in stolen uniforms, but having Dwayne Johnson ram an armored SUV through the wall.
For the next 12 minutes of sustained tension, 2011’s Fast Five drifts into the annals of cinematic immortality all while dragging the unbearable weight of a franchise’s massive reputation into its future. From here, Fast & Furious changes gears to ceaselessly challenge itself, often multiplying the scope, scale, and spectacle of similar climaxes; three movies later, Dwayne Johnson hand-delivers a torpedo while skating on ice in the Arctic, and two movies later, they’re in space. But Fast & Furious has never quite matched the excitement and craftsmanship on display in the final minutes of Fast Five, which grazes the line separating fiction and genuine danger.
Since its release 12 years ago, Fast Five — the fifth in the series and the third directed by Justin Lin — remains renowned for its white-knuckle action and shift from crime and street racing (remember: DVD players!) to an authentic Hollywood heist movie. Like The Avengers a short year later, Fast Five also rounded up an ensemble of characters from past entries, organically creating a cinematic universe as Marvel was doing the same.
But for all the progressive innovations the filmmakers took to the ostensible end of a saga, an old school approach of practical movie magic was the NOS boost that took moviegoers by surprise one weekend in late April 2011. As if ripping off pages from Mission: Impossible’s playbook, Fast Five stuffs its functional, semi-sensical plot with undoubtedly thrilling set pieces where the big question is at all times both “How will the characters survive this?” and “How did they even make this?”
The climactic “Bank Vault Chase,” as it’s known, is a masterclass in popcorn cinema where action movie showmanship collides with physics in a demolition derby. The basic gist is that a cube-shaped vault containing $100 million is violently (and literally) dragged through Rio de Janeiro by the two main leads, Dom and Brian (Diesel and the late Paul Walker respectively), who are behind the wheels of blacked out, ultra-masculine Dodge Chargers. With the help of their friends — recruits from different Fast & Furious sequels — the two tear up Rio, with assistance by DSS Agent Luke Hobbs (Johnson) in a military Humvee.
There’s a lot of effects wizardry at work, including telephoto lenses to tighten the frame with perspective, air cannons giving cars the right momentum to spiral mid-air, and the vault itself modified with wheels (and a driver inside to steer it). But simple miracle is that so many of the scene’s stunts were physically accomplished on-camera. Metal and glass smash and roll on actual pavement, giving the sequence the gravity necessary to make it feel that much more dangerous — and that much more satisfying from the safety of your couch. This sense of reality is why the scene still feels visceral over ten years later. It ages like wine while sequels like F9 are already rancid like spoiled milk.
Fast Five is loaded with other immortal moments; over five years ago I wrote in praise of the 15-second free fall that opens the movie, which signals early on that Fast Five is on one, and that Fast & Furious has graduated to a new level. But the bank vault chase is an all-timer in the series, demonstrating the value of collaboration among experts: Justin Lin and his underrated style of adrenaline-fueled filmmaking; stunt coordinators like Jack Gill lending their expertise to do it practically and safely; and Walker, Diesel, and Johnson bringing their movie star bonafides. It’s little wonder why the imminent Fast X is revisiting this very scene, sneaking in Jason Momoa somewhere before he steps out as Dom’s next nemesis.
The climax still stands in stark contrast to so many other movie climaxes that are wholly reliant on green screen and visual effects to get the job done. It’s not that VFX isn’t hard work, but there’s a marked difference in how movies like Fast Five and Top Gun: Maverick look and feel versus other recent action movies you “watched” while doom scrolling on your phone.
The legacy of Fast Five is so insurmountable that Fast & Furious fell victim to its own success, forcing itself to strive for that same intensity in every sequel. Fast X is proof the increasingly unwieldy series has no choice but to return to this point, to find any more untapped magic in what it accomplished so long ago. Even now, Fast Five is responsible for inspiring its filmmakers to keep going bigger, even if it’s not necessarily better.