The returning audience for the seemingly endless The Fast And The Furious franchise is a loud and emphatic bunch. Roars of applause and murmurs of “Oh, shit!” greet each car race and automotive chase scene. Those who know the lyrics to the reggaeton and hip-hop record that play throughout the franchise spit along with the soundtrack, while those who don’t simply nod their heads. Girls ignore the acting deficiencies of marquee players Vin Diesel and Paul Walker and swoon every time the former rocks a tank-top and the latter romances Jordana Brewster. As for the fellas, the cars are badass and the nameless and scantily-clad groupies flanking the rides welcome bonuses.

fast-five-review-insertSeeing a new Fast And Furious movie is an excuse to shut one’s brain off, sip on overpriced soda, and watch ridiculously unrealistic action unfold at the hands of underwritten and physically attractive actors. And no one knows this better than Justin Lin, the director of 2006’s The Fast And The Furious: Tokyo Drift, 2009’s Fast & Furious, and the latest entry into the consistently profitable series, Fast Five. After John Singleton’s amateurish 2 Fast 2 Furious, the direct sequel to the 2001 game-starter, The Fast And The Furious, the movies have advanced in both quality and ambition, a telltale sign that Lin is emerging as an action filmmaker to be reckoned with.

Fast Five, easily the best film of the entire series (original included), is Lin’s official coming-of-age work, a breathless concoction of top-of-the-line action sequences, vibrant energy, and forgivable absurdity. It’s the ultimate love letter to the franchise’s loyal fans, bringing back key players from all of the previous installments for a slick Ocean’s Eleven-styled reinvention. Car culture is an afterthought in Fast Five, a sleek heist movie that just so happens to feature some nice-looking wheels. The script, the third of the series written by Chris Morgan, is rather ludicrous and the line deliveries are undeniably stilted, but potential Writer’s Guild awards aren’t what Fast Five is about; it’s a glossy piece of crowd-pleasing escapism, and by that measure Lin’s popcorn treat delivers in spades.

To tweak the Fast And Furious model, Lin and Morgan wisely relocate the story to scenic Rio, where the stacked, hillside houses provide Diesel and company the proper setting for kinetic foot chases, of which there are many in Fast Five. Former lawman Brian O’Conner (Walker) and his now-pregnant chick, Mia Torreto (Brewster) are hiding out in Brazil after the prison-bus-break they’ve orchestrated frees Mia’s brother Dom (Diesel) and sends the trio to the top of the FBI’s Most Wanted list.

In Rio, they hatch an elaborate scheme to jack a drug lord’s earnings from a maxim security police headquarters. To complete the task, Dom and O’Conner assemble a team of familiar faces, including 2 Fast 2 Furious co-stars Tyrese Gibson and Ludacris and Fast & Furious cast members Tego Calderon and Don Omar. Ready to lock the crew up at the first chance he gets is a humorless federal agent, played by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, who drops a surplus of awful dialogue (“You know I like my dessert first,” in response to whether he wants good or bad news) with the unintentional comedic touch of the worst Clint Eastwood impersonator imaginable.

It’d be unfair to single out The Rock’s lukewarm performance in Fast Five, though; the cast’s turns vary from predictable cockiness (see: Tyrese) to near comatose emoting (see: Diesel). The good thing is that Lin seems to know this himself. More so than any of the other Fast And Furious pics, he packs Fast Five’s somewhat overlong two-hour running time to the brim with extended action set-pieces that leave acting demands on the sidelines.

Lin could use this flick as a director’s reel on future blockbuster pitch meetings. In one of the movie’s strongest moments, the director shamelessly pulls from Clear And Present Danger’s assassination-via-rocket-launchers scene to raucous effect. He frantically updates the western genre’s old “speeding train” set-up with muscle-cars instead of horses and a cliff jump that makes the famous one from Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid seem like a dive into a kiddie pool.

fast-five-chaseFast Five’s climax, however, is the undeniable main event: a high-speed, multiple car chase adrenaline rush in which a giant vault is tied to two of the vehicles. The vault whips from side to side with the cars’ every directional shift like a water-skier does behind a motorboat, smashing into buildings, bridge sidings, and other automobiles. Staged with fluidity and panache by Lin, it’s a jaw-dropper that sets the tone for every summer 2011 movie to come.

Like the rest of Fast Five, the totally unbelievable climax is the kind of mindless entertainment that snooty film purists will denounce as Joe Ticket-Buyer leaves the theater already scheduling his next viewing. That’s been the case for all of the franchise’s parts, yet Fast Five is the first one to legitimately convey a sense of blockbuster movie awe. It took them a decade, but the Fast And Furious team have finally made believers out of us.