USA 2001 /// director : Rob Cohen /// script : Gary Scott Thompson, Erik Bergquist, David Ayer (story by Thompson) based on a magazine article by Ken Li /// cinematography : Ericson Core /// editing : Peter Honess /// music : BT /// lead actors : Paul Walker, Vin Diesel, Jordana Brewster, Ted Levine /// 107 minutes

The Fast and the Furious has been the surprise US box-office smash of the summer, with $140m so far: a stupendous figure for what was supposed to be just another teen-oriented action picture. In some quarters this out-of-the-blue success has been ascribed to the film being a refreshing return to an old style of no-nonsense B movie, the straight-ahead kickass fun-rides that Hollywood forgot how to make. Even the title is promisingly retro, nicked from a 1954 drag-racing cheapie that saw Roger Corman’s debut in the director’s chair – he shot second-unit footage, John Ireland handling the main chores.

And this new F&F‘s opening suggests these positive signals are going to be vindicated in style, as we build to a pulsating street-race in which hot-shot drag-car Dom Toretto (Diesel) inches out Brian Spilner (Walker), a brash newcomer to the forbidden urban subculture. As the ludicrously souped-up cars zoom along a quarter-mile of LA’s nocturnal boulevards, the time-space continuum seems to warp – the world beyond zips away in lightning horizontal streaks and the cars threaten to blast apart under the strain. Michael Mann-style aerial shots present the city as a vast playground, built for maximum speed and danger, a testosterone testing-ground for the brave and the foolish.

But this is as fast, as furious – and as good – as it gets. That 107-minute running time should have been enough warning: when did any of Corman’s breakneck quickies ever get close to two hours? While F&F‘s never actually a dull watch, there isn’t much to repay especially close attention, let alone a second view. It’s fashionable to elevate Fast and the Furious far above last year’s Gone In 60 Seconds, but in truth the two pictures are bumper-to-bumper by the time they cross their finish lines – both basically excuses for a string of incoherent action sequences, clunked arbitrarily together around a rickety old plot.

Here, it’s that old chestnut that stretches back – via Swordfish and Point Break – at least as far as White Heat. We discover Brian an undercover cop, infiltrating the drag-race underground to snare an audacious highway truck-hold-up operation. Various ethnic gangs of Japanese and Hispanic hoodlums seem to fit the bill, but the prime suspect is the formidable Toretto, whose confidence and friendship Brian must earn. And as if this ancient set-up wasn’t corny enough, the trio of scriptwriters actually stoop so far as to have our hero falling in love with Dom’s sultry kid sister Mia (Brewster), much to the chagrin of the head honcho’s glowering henchman Vince (Matt Schulze).

They might have gotten away with it, except for the film’s central problem: Walker. It’s not just that we’re expected to root for an essentially duplicitous rat – this goes with the territory. But the film only works if we regard Dom as a super-cool anti-hero, and how can we possibly have any respect for this bloke when a) we’re told he actually “likes” Brian (this while the dorky lad is seen sipping a bottle of Snapple), and b) he’s too stupid to realise Brian’s a cop? In fact, Dom and Vince do actually work this out, and confront Brian with their discovery – only for this critical development to get conveniently (and implausibly) forgotten about in the middle of some low-level gunplay shenanigans.

Worse, the film makes much of the multi-racial, tribal vibrancy of the drag-world, so it’s more than a little odd to have this extremely white-bread jock introduced as a supposed ‘undercover’ figure. With his baby-blue eyes, dopey-lion features and unfashionably cut blond mop of hair, he’s an insulting form of ‘audience surrogate’ – it’s as if “we” (i.e. middle America) couldn’t possibly get into this high-octane nightworld without a straight-arrow WASP as our guide. And if the cops really did want to infiltrate Toretto’s escapades, wouldn’t they send in somebody who looks more like the hulkingly beefy, bearded, tattooed greasemonkey Vince?

This ‘redneck jerk’ is basically just a mechanism to make Dom and Brian look suitably smart / honourable / heroic as the moment dictates, but while nobody has very much to do (not even Girlfight firecracker Rodriguez), Schulze at least manages to bring a convincingly street-tough presence to proceedings. He deserves credit as the only person on screen who manages to contribute any kind of a performance – as in one throwaway moment when Brian and a drunken Vince are feuding over Mia, and Schulze gives the lout’s eyes and demeanour a convincing air of beer-fuddled aggression. It’s probably more than the movie deserves – but his efforts aren’t wasted, as they go a fair way to make the whole thing watchable.

In interview, Schulze has said he had to build Vince from scratch – literally, as the previously scrawny music-teacher/model piled on a DeNiro-esque 3 stones – right down to his habit of wearing not one but two filthy vests, because “If you looked at the script, there was nothing there about my character.” It’s a fair bet the whole screenplay was similarly non-existent, from characterisation to structure to dialogue (“God damn street racers!” fumes a pizza delivery man at one point), and that the producers just cobbled the whole thing together, hoping the action sequences would be enough to paper over their wider failings. The box-office suggests their gamble paid off, but the whole enterprise gives off a distinct whiff of opportunism, typified by the frenetic, grab-bag rap-metal soundtrack: we get more of Limp Bizkit’s ‘Rollin’ in the trailer than we do in the finished feature. And we hardly end with much of a bang – the three ‘climaxes’could easily have come in any order, confirming The Fast and the Furious as a roadworthy but frustratingly ordinary drive.

Neil Young
16th September, 2001
(seen Sep-10-01, UCI MetroCentre, Gateshead)

now check these out (four wheels good?)
1 Hell Drivers
2 Dude, Where’s My Car?
3 Dogtown and Z-Boys