Wednesday 20 April 2011

From the archive: "The Fast and the Furious"

Though it arrives too late to rev up a stalled summer blockbuster season, The Fast and the Furious, Rob Cohen's tale of souped-up street car racing among underground L.A. gangs, is dutifully loud and fast - should the script call from a cut from day to night, Cohen'll just speed up the sunset - but with the faintest hint it has something extra under its bonnet. The title, of course, tells you what to expect, owing as it does more to 1950s B-pictures (The Cool and the Crazy, et al.) than to the recent trend for movies greenlit only when they have a number after the title of a box-office hit. It would be easy to write off something like this - a 21st century studio flick in thrall to the cheapjack supporting pictures of the past - even backhandedly, as nothing more than an entertainingly stupid gas, but The Fast and the Furious is an astute proposition, hiding itself modestly beneath a layer of Limp Bizkit on the soundtrack.

On most levels, the film is deceptive: it's a B-movie posing as a blockbuster, just as the film's lead (Paul Walker), an undercover cop, will pose as an ace driver to infiltrate the gang led by Toretto (Vin Diesel) suspected of knocking off trucks. There are no stars listed above the title, as if to suggest that the cars - their stunts, and their anonymous stunt drivers - will be the main attractions here. But we get actors of a sort, too: in a film borrowing heavily from both Point Break and Speed, the handsome Walker is a brilliantly blank hero, as nasal as Keanu, yet with the sunkissed hair and blue eyes that would lead nobody to suspect this boy racer is really a cop. From the darkness of the mining planet charted in Pitch Black, Vin Diesel has emerged as a major screen presence, and he dominates the screen here: imagine Al Pacino if Pacino were thirty years younger, built like the proverbial, and coming at you in a really fast car, and you have some sense of the man.

If the perennially orange Jordana Brewster can't do a great deal more with her love interest role than look pretty in the passenger seat, she is going up against Lori Petty's interpretation of a similar role in the Kathryn Bigelow film, and besides, this is mostly a film about men and their motors - although Michelle Rodriguez is a knockout as Diesel's permanently pissed-off girlfriend, peeved, perhaps, at the skanks and petrolheads preventing her from spending more time with her man; suffice to say that all the supporting players, many of whom were recruited from real-life street gangs, look the part to a tee. The undercover cop hero is here infiltrating a multicultural urban environment much more complex (and tetchier) than Point Break's surf-dude communities - and more relevant to today's youthful cinema audiences, one suspects.

While none of Cohen's racial ties are as spectacular in their complexity as the driving sequences - though we might ask why, for example, the black, white and Latino racers have teamed up against the Chinese - the relationships are stronger in their allegiances and betrayals than one finds in the average teen-oriented film. The recent Save the Last Dance, throwing a white spanner into the works of a mostly ethnic environment, tried similar hip-to-the-beat moves, with limited success; The Fast and the Furious, conversely, moves so fast that it's tough to make out too much emphasis on colour. Sure, once the smoke clears, you can make out the holes in the film's bodywork. And yes, it has car chases - truck hijacks, and nitrous oxide explosions, too - but also an understanding of what adolescents of all ages want from a good night at the movies, and more of a clue than almost any other Hollywood film released in the three months preceding it.

(September 2001)

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