Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Fast and the Furious — Retrospective Review

(In preparation for the release of Fast Five, I'm going to be rewatching and reviewing the two movies in the franchise that are on Netflix Watch Instantly, The Fast and the Furious and 2 Fast 2 Furious. Since these are the entries I remember next to nothing about, this works out perfectly.)

The Fast and the Furious is actually, in many respects, a worse film than I remember, or at least a dumber one. Having just rewatched it for the first time since its theatrical release ten years ago, I'm struck anew by both how structureless and awkwardly-paced it is and how the act of racing cars in quarter mile straight lines may in fact be the most boring "sport" on the planet. Now I feel almost obligated to rewatch 2009's Fast & Furious and see if my recollection of it being a little worse than the original is accurate. I mean, it's obvious that neither is as good as the awesome The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, but Tokyo Drift and Fast & Furious share director Justin Lin, who in Better Luck Tomorrow and the first season of Community proved his brilliance. This first installment is from Rob Cohen, who since 2001 has directed xXx, Stealth, and The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, proving that he wouldn't know a good movie if it came up and shat on his face.

The most concise way to describe The Fast and the Furious is that it's bro as hell. Full of laughable macho posturing, an aggressively unyielding hip hop soundtrack, "yo check this out" and "aw hell yeah man" dialogue, and of course lovingly-photographed muscle cars as far as the eye can see. It's the sort of movie where, upon Vin Diesel and Paul Walker pulling up beside a ferrari at a stoplight, the ferrari driver starts insulting them, Diesel turns to Walker and says "smoke him," and they engage in an impromptu hip hop-scored drag race for absolutely no reason whatsoever. The closest thing to an emotional beat is Diesel monologuing about how he confronted the driver who killed his father in a racing accident and nearly beat him to death with a wrench (a monologue which contains the immortal and hilarious line "I live my life a quarter mile at a time," the one part of the film I remembered clearly ten years later).

For those who don't know or don't remember, the plot is basically Leonardo DiCaprio's half of The Departed, except set in the Los Angeles street racing scene and with the equivalent of Jack Nicholson's character being guilty not of mass murder but of being a comical tough guy stereotype. Paul Walker plays Brian O'Conner, an LAPD cop going undercover as a gearhead street racer in order to infiltrate Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel)'s crew and find out who in the underground street racing scene has been hijacking trucks and stealing electronics. Brian also inadvertently falls for Dom's sister Mia (Jordana Brewster) and clashes with Dom's right hand man Vince (Matt Schulze). There's some other characters in the crew, who, while being just differentiated enough not to be interchangeable, are fairly irrelevant.

There's an antagonist too, an Asian gangster / street racer named Johnny Tran (Rick Yune, more familiar to me as Zao from Die Another Day), but to call him a one-dimensional villain is an insult to one-dimensional villains. He has about ten minutes of screentime and no real traits except being tough and smug and a good driver. He kills one guy, blows up Paul Walker's car, and tortures a mechanic into giving him parts by pouring gasoline down his throat, but by action movie standards Johnny Tran is about as intimidating as a relatively large and angry moth, failing to really even serve an antagonist's defined purpose of driving the action until the final ten minutes or so.

Which brings us to the movie's strange pacing. The first two acts are mostly fine, consisting of Brian integrating himself into Dom's crew and occasionally checking in with the cops, mixing in a car-centric action scene here and there (although the movie plays its cards too quickly, having Dom and Vince come to suspect Brian is a cop only about 45 minutes in and then awkwardly sweeping that large narrative dust bunny under the rug until the climax). But everything seems to be building towards the horrifically-named "Race Wars" — don't worry, you haven't stumbled into an American History X review, it's just a drag race tournament — which we then see less than five minutes of, without Brian or Dom participating in a single race.

The film accelerates from that point into a fairly impressive truck heist sequence which could have served as a final action set piece if only it were narratively climactic. But it doesn't really resolve anything, and the movie's actual climax, barring a final racing rematch between Brian and Dom (which I count more as part of the denouement), is a rather boring and lazy chase scene with two guys in cars pursuing two guys on motorcycles. It's a scene that wouldn't have impressed anywhere in the movie, but especially not at the end when you're hoping the the story will go out with a spectacular bang. Instead, it runs out of gas.

All the performances, including Michelle Rodriguez, pulsate with fratty energy. I'd always thought of Paul Walker as the prototypical bland, vanilla movie star, but time had washed away the memory of how genuinely awful he is in this film. His attempts at looking and sounding tough elicit sputtering laughter, his amateurish line readings often coming across like they forgot to tell him that this was an actual take and not rehearsal. Matt Schulze is way more entertaining as Dom's lieutenant and Brian's rival; he too feels a couple years removed from the frat house, but a rougher frat house where he at least got in a brawl or two.

I'd also forgotten how young Jordana Brewster is in this first film. Well, maybe "forgotten" isn't the right word — she was a few years older than me when I first saw The Fast and the Furious during the summer between freshman and sophomore year of high school, so it probably didn't occur to me back then. But my memories had mentally replaced her with the contemporary Jordana Brewster of Chuck and Fast & Furious, so it was startling to rewatch and see that she's basically a girl in it, younger than the vast majority of actors and actresses who play high school students. On the performance level, she's fine. Cute enough, unremarkable. Better than Paul Walker, anyway.

But it's Vin Diesel who walks away with the thing. I'd spent these last ten years thinking of him as the main character and was a little surprised to go back and see that Brian O'Conner is clearly the protagonist, with way more screentime. But Diesel's screen presence overwhelms Walker completely. Vin Diesel, like Arnold before him, really encapsulates the difference between an actor and a movie star. However flat his line readings, however much his depiction of emotion looks like he's trying to take a dump, there's just something inherently magnetic and watchable about him. He couldn't come anywhere close to saving Babylon A.D., the sixth worst movie of the last ten years, but he does come close to saving this one.

The other sincere compliment I can give The Fast and the Furious is one that's only become more relevant since 2001: the near-complete lack of CGI. Now, having seen Rob Cohen's The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, I can tell you that this was a decision born of financial limitations, not artistic integrity, but in this case the former begat the latter. Here are real stunts, real stunt drivers, real cars getting smashed and flipped and blown up, and you can see it; you can instantly tell the difference. This is by no means the best action movie of recent years this applies to (part of Casino Royale's greatness is that the crane chase, car crash, Vienna building collapse and so on are done sans computer graphics), but it's something I really appreciated.

Doesn't make it a good movie, though.

2 Stars out of 5

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