The Fast and the Furious is a supercharged street racing thriller straight out of the old Roger Corman playbook. (Indeed, one of Corman’s earliest features was an otherwise unrelated racing picture of the same title.) Ideally, it should be viewed not in an air-conditioned cineplex with stadium seating and THX sound, but at a hot, sticky drive-in with a case of cold beer on hand. The opening half hour offers up a bare-knuckle brawl, a drag race down a deserted city street, a high-speed police chase, a surprise attack by an Asian motorcycle gang, and finally a little down time at a house party where two gorgeous young women lock lips. It was at this point during a recent preview screening that an audience member shouted "I love this movie!" to uproarious laughter and applause. It’s that kind of picture.
In its execution, The Fast and the Furious resembles the customized "rice rockets" its protagonists live for – it’s tricked-out with high-tech gee-gaws and gimcracks, but there’s an efficient, muscular engine humming away beneath it all. Director Rob Cohen is a journeyman (some might prefer the term "hack") whose credits include standard-issue action fare like Daylight, Dragonheart and last year’s truly abysmal The Skulls. While his work here doesn’t exactly represent a great artistic leap forward, the refreshingly earthbound stunt sequences prove a perfect match for his B-movie talents.
Vin Diesel stars as Dominic, the ringleader of the L.A. hot rod crowd, who gradually warms to newcomer Brian O’ Conner (Paul Walker) after narrowly defeating him in the quarter-mile. Other members of the high-speed clique include Michelle Rodriguez as Dominic’s girl Letty, Jordana Brewster as his sister Mia, who catches Brian’s fancy, and Matt Schultz as hot-tempered sidekick Vincent. The razor-thin plot involves the efforts of one of the street racers, who is actually an undercover cop, to bust up a truck hijacking operation he suspects is being run out of Dominic’s garage. The climax coincides with Race Wars, a sort of cross between a NASCAR rally and the Burning Man festival staged at a deserted airport.
Needless to say, the cars are the real stars here. Run-of-the-mill stock imports – Nissans, Mitsubishis, Honda Civics – are loaded with 21st century extras like NOS injection systems that supply turbo boosts of nitrous oxide at the touch of a button. In the movie’s first drag race, director Cohen gets carried away with his new toys, too – the sequence is overpowered with CGI effects and Ginsu editing – and the immediate impression is that Furious is going to be a drag indeed. But once Cohen flushes the digital junk out of his system and gets down to some good old fashioned vehicular mayhem, his movie begins to live up to its title.
The brake lights flash whenever our heroes turn off the engines long enough to gab about their inner hurts. These touchy-feely dialogue scenes would have been the first pages torn out of the script in Corman’s heyday – they give us nothing but the bare bones motivation that can be just as easily discerned from the action. The cast is peppered with bland Dawson’s Creek types. Michelle Rodriguez, who made a splashy debut in last year’s Girlfight, is reduced to flavor-of-the-month status here; she’s little more than pouty lips and an attitude. Only Vin Diesel makes much of an impression; his name alone qualifies him as an astute casting decision, but his sleek chrome dome and rumbling voice seal the deal.
To be sure, these are some pretty major flaws, and no one’s ever going to confuse The Fast and the Furious with The Sorrow and the Pity (or even The Filth and the Fury), but in terms of cheap summer thrills, it delivers the goods. The final twenty minutes or so – consisting of a freeway battle between an eighteen-wheeler and three souped-up Hondas followed by a shoot-out and a final quarter-mile drag race into the path of an oncoming locomotive – is the most breathless, adrenaline-charged stretch of carnage you’re likely to see this summer. When The Fast and the Furious is firing on all cylinders (and here comes the fifteenth automotive pun in six paragraphs), it leaves all those computer-rendered mummies, aliens and tomb raiders in the dust.