Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Sat Apr 04, 2009 8:21 pm 
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VIN DIESEL WEARS MUSCLE SHIRTS. WHO KNOWS WHY?


More fun with horsepower

This fourth entry in the tough-guy, street-racer, busty-babe franchise is, and is not, worthy of the first. It's brought back the original actors, and they still look good. It's got at least one of the original street races. But now, as the opening sequence shows, it's joined the blockbuster rush and shifted over into a CGI-world of preposterously extravagant video-game car events. This intro is like the overkill prelude of Quantum of Solace. Both movies show a trend toward numbing their audiences out with speed and violence in the opening shots, instead of quietly warming them up. It's not a good strategy. Fast & Furious is replete with action that's neither credible nor as integral to the plot as it ought to be, or as the action was in the first in the series, Rob Cohen's The Fast and the Furious (2001), which itself was a glossier reimagining of the kind of cheapie Fifties and Sixties fast-car movies Tarantino plays with in Death Proof. But this one's still got tough guys and busty babes. It's got colorful muscle cars for hot-rodders to drool over. And it's got bright, clear images that are often beautiful. Though they don't quite offset the choppy editing, they punctuate it in an esthetically pleasing way.

In the first film Dom (Vin Diesel) disappeared into Mexico. Diesel missed the second episode, seemingly holding out for better career opportunities that didn't quite materialize. His big star vehicle, the 2002 xXx, was a bust, despite the presence of B-picture diva Asia Argento. He did star in Sidney Lumet's quirky trial drama, Find Me Guilty, if anybody remembers. Having reappeared in episode three, Tokyo Drift (like this directed by Justin Lin), Dom's now living in the Dominican Republic with his girlfriend Letty (Michelle Rodriguez). (Note for devotees: in time this new movie fits between episodes three and four.) It's Dom and Letty in the opening frames, stealing a multiple-unit truckload of oil. But their trickery defies the laws of physics and human dexterity too much to matter, even if it weren't too soon to get our adrenalin to pump that hard. Vin's still as muscled and macho; he was lumpen before; now he's just a little thicker. So is his delivery of dialogue, which now has an extra half-second delay. But there's something that makes it hard not to like Vin.

Paul Walker (as Brian O'Connor) is similarly likable, with a prettier face. He doesn't have the bottle-blond golden boy look of the original The Fast and the Furious, but he still has a square-jawed, sterling quality mingled with toughness that suits his role here as, now, a cop who turns rogue (or a rogue turned cop; he's not sure) aiming to serve higher ends--but unwilling to betray his old street-racing, law-breaking buddies. He aims to catch a drug kingpin his police boss seems content to let by, but he's forever loyal to Dom.

Walker, like Diesel, has star quality, though he too has not exactly had a blockbuster career. He did, however, star in the mind-bendingly over-the-top action flick Running Scared, and got to play the martyred Marine platoon leader in Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers. Though the plot of Fast & Furious may not always serve Walker and Diesel as well as it should, there's an authenticity about their line delivery still that puts across the myth of their camaraderie and loyalty to a code that Dom has, and Brian is still working on.

At least the movie has the sense to make the opening hijack attempt a failure. It leads Dom to go and hide out in L.A. with his sister Mia (Jordana Brewster), who used to be Brian's girlfriend. That flame, predictably, is easily reignited when the plot needs a romantic boost.

In the street race sequence, Dom has a GPS screen with a woman's soothing voice (that of Gal Gadot, an exotic new addition to the femmes list) to show the big boy and us where he is in his trajectory. This shows the influence of Paul WS Anderson's Death Race, which took the car race genre up a notch. Alas, though, the slick technology takes us further away from the personal, homemade quality of street racing, which in the first episode was about horsepower and garage work and macho taunts, not visual stunts and hi tech screens. Despite all the crashes (more often head-over-heels than in real life) these movies make racing on the roads look safer than it should, which is why this movie has a detailed "DON'T TRY THIS AT HOME" disclaimer at the end. (And there is stunt driving in this movie, even though it's undercut by the CGI tricks.)

You'd better believe that. Better not to drive at top speed into a half-shut Mexican mountain tunnel. And don't try catching a guy your pal has just dropped out a window, either.

It remains to be seen if this movie, which is still fun and fast, helps Diesel and Walker on to the star rules they may deserve, or, what seems equally possible, just sidetracks them further. Meanwhile, lovers of the franchise are not going to be howling with disappointment, but new converts at this stage seem unlikely.

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