'Fast Five' rumbles, but hardly stumbles

"Fast Five" is a pedal-to-the-metal, rockin', high-octane, high-testosterone hottie of a film. Let's call this genre, offered up in its purest form in "Fast Five," postmodern if not, in some strange way, postindustrial. It uses state-of-the-art film technology to create an experience, a movie in which dialogue is reduced down to so much information, used in the main to explain and thus create the next punchy, intense scene.

This latest incarnation of the franchise, which began in 2001 with "The Fast and the Furious," is as good if not better than those that preceded it. And rather than focusing on the chronic gearheads who prowl the backstreets of, say, L.A., driving tricked out rides while setting up match races, "Fast Five" offers up a nice twist. It borrows heavily from "Ocean's Eleven," meaning this is flat-out, hold-your-breath heist movie. Yep, there's 10 million bucks stashed in a vault, money that belongs to a kingpin drug dealer, Reyes (Joaquim de Almeida). This ruthless honcho operates out of Rio de Janeiro with its magnificent statue of Christ, arms outstretched as if embracing Rio, with all of its affluence and precariously perched favelas.

Brian O'Conner (Paul Walker) and Mia Toretto (Jordana Brewster) are on the lam from the U.S. federales, hiding out in a favela, waiting for Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel) to arrive. Once he does, the action begins in earnest. Seriously. And just to make sure you're on board, the opening 20 minutes are a feast of spectacular special effects and very close calls. Oh, yeah.

Of course, you have to suspend your disbelief. The laws of physics play no part in this film. Nor does a tight plot. But no worries, this is pure dash and crash, fast cuts, destruction of tons of property, hand-held cameras capturing some nifty chase scenes, smokin' hot cars (there's not a Prius nor a hybrid to be found "… as if), intense pacing, with only a few moments when director Justin Lin turns down the heat to a simmer for some spare dialogue before stoking the flames once again. Films of this ilk, postmodern types, are not known as talkies.

"Fast Five" was billed as the first film of the summer, and undoubtedly the teen demographic (boys, mostly) will be back in the theaters ready to watch Vin and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, shaved heads gleaming, arms pumped, comparing their hardware, hard stares and their rides.

This franchise pays homage (genuflect if you must) to the growling, rumbling, throaty internal-combustion engine like no other. Dude, it's industrial strength all the way.

The Conspirator

Though Robert Redford's "The Conspirator" explores a footnote to history, one that is likely unfamiliar to most, it also is an allegory, which, perhaps not surprisingly, parallels recent post-9-11 events.

Briefly, after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated at Ford's Theater in Washington D.C., on the night of April 14, 1865, eight conspirators were eventually captured or killed, the most prominent being John Wilkes Booth, the actual assassin.

What is not well known is that one of the people charged as an accomplice was Mary Surratt, a woman who ran a boarding house in Washington in which those accused, including her son, often met. She was accused of being the "woman who built the nest that hatched the plot."

Her trial was not held in a court before a jury of her peers, but before a military tribunal where the rules of evidence were either truncated or discarded altogether.

The essence of the film is not the guilt or innocence of Surratt, which remains to this day in doubt, but the fact that the government, reeling from the trauma of having lost a beloved president, was prepared to sacrifice due process and the Constitution in the interest of handing down swift justice.

What makes this film compelling is the remarkable performance of Robin Wright's portrayal of Surratt. She is stoic and unyielding in her insistence that she is innocent, though she readily acknowledges that she is a Southerner who is anguished by the South's defeat. Wright also manages to create a sense of ambiguity (something Redford surely intended) regarding what she might have known, or even agreed with, as her son and his cohorts planned the assassination.

Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel captures the inevitability of Surratt's situation as dust moats float through the thin light, and cigar smoke rises toward the courtroom ceiling. Many of the images are artful and lovely.

From the outset, the belief of all in the courtroom — the prosecution, members of the tribunal, even her defense attorney, portrayed nicely by James McAvoy — believe that the woman who sits before them is guilty, no matter the very thin circumstantial evidence offered by the government.

But what the film also reveals is that most, such as Edwin Stanton, secretary of war, played convincingly by Kevin Kline, were willing to sacrifice the Constitution while occluding the presumption of innocence, to achieve an end that they judged was in the best interest of the nation though certainly not in the best interest of Surratt.

Of course, the parallels to America's incarceration of those in the prison at Guantanamo, many held without the right of habeas corpus, the use of military tribunals, even torture, mirror what Redford so carefully creates in "The Conspirator."

The Civil War was concluded 150 years ago, and there are aspects still debated and discussed — which this film does so very well. Cicero said, "In times of war, the law falls silent." It's a line quoted by the prosecution while the government prepares Surratt's final punishment.

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