Thursday, April 9, 2009

Fast & Furious: Traffic stop

Fast & Furious (2009) • View trailer for Fast & Furious
Two stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, and rather generously, for profanity, drug references, sexual candor and plenty of violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.9.09
Buy DVD: Fast & Furious • Buy Blu-Ray: Fast & Furious (2-Disc Special Edition) [Blu-ray]

Some bad movies are grindingly boring: endurance tests that make one pray to be anywhere else ... even suffering through root canal surgery.

Other bad movies are what I'd call watchably awful: generally too stupid to be taken seriously, but at least graced with momentum and punctuated by dialogue so laughable  for all the wrong reasons  that viewers have a good time making fun of the entire endeavor. Think of the movies so wonderfully lampooned by the late and still lamented Mystery Science Theater 3000.
As Dominic (Vin Diesel) cautiously edges up to the rear of a huge tanker truck,
gal-pal Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) prepares to jump onto the back of the big
rig and then make her way to the couplings, whereupon Dominic's larcenous
buddies -- racing in tandem behind them -- can seize the shipment and drive
away. It's just another day on the job...

Fast & Furious is just such a film.

Although it's nice to see the entire cast from 2001's The Fast and the Furious back in their respective roles  something that wasn't true of the second and third films in this numb-nuts franchise  it would have been nicer if director Justin Lin's new movie were more worthy of their participation.

No doubt Lin got this assignment after having helmed 2006's The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, which begs an intriguing question: That was a lousy movie, as well, and since when does dreadful work encourage financial backers to hire a hack director again?

Only in Hollywood...

Still, as my Constant Companion quite accurately noted, it's good to see Vin Diesel again, particularly in the sort of role that best suits him: tough, brooding and monosyllabic. Diesel's been off the radar since 2005's woefully miscalculated family-friendly comedy, The Pacifier; the two movies he made since then scarcely made a ripple in the cinematic pond.

Diesel's definitely an actor of limited range, but he's reasonably entertaining within that range; he has the burly, teddy-bear magnetism that also worked for Arnold Schwarzenegger, early in his career. And while one cannot fault actors for trying to stretch their range, some simply haven't got the chops.

Sylvester Stallone eventually realized that he wasn't capable of much beyond his Rocky and Rambo films; Diesel is fortunate enough to also have two franchises going for him, these Fast & Furious flicks and his Chronicles of Riddick sci-fi action entries. Toss in an occasional XXX, and he should be good for a few years yet.

(Although one does wonder what happened to the promising young talent who was so memorable in his supporting role in Saving Private Ryan.)

Diesel returns here as street-racing champion Dominic Toretto, introduced in a slam-bang prologue as he and main squeeze Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) hijack a rapidly moving tanker-truck shipment of gasoline with the help of a motley, no-name crew of drivers. This sequence became the centerpiece of the film's trailer, and with good cause: It's a rip-snorter, despite its improbable staging.

Unfortunately, it's also this film's sole successful action/driving scene, because it's the only one that takes place by daylight, which gives us a chance to actually see what's happening. The rest of the car chases  and Chris Morgan's flimsy script finds plenty of excuses for them  take place at night, or in dark tunnels, and are cut so furiously by Lin and editors Fred Raskin and Christian Wagner that it's literally impossible to get a sense of where cars or going, or who's doing what to whom.

Ergo, it's impossible to care.


Dominic abandons Letty for no good reason  the script demands as much, so that's it  and then she's dumped from the film so abruptly that one can't help feeling Rodriguez walked off the set in a huff for some unknown reason. Truly, her character's exit is so jarring that it leaves viewers confused and frustrated.

Now in vengeance mode, Dominic returns to Los Angeles, checks in with his sister  Jordana Brewster, returning as Mia  long enough to exchange some bad dialogue, and vows to find and kill the dirty, drug-running dog who capped Letty.

Simultaneously, FBI agent Brian O'Conner (Paul Walker)  whom you'll recall concealed his Fed identity while infiltrating Dominic's racing gang and romancing Mia in the first film  is after the same drug kingpin, albeit for different reasons.

Dominic and Brian once again lock their swaggering horns, but both get hired on as drivers for the clandestine druglord, whose identity remains this film's Big Secret. (Ooooooooooo!)

Our heroes prove their stuff by dueling during a late-night downtown Los Angeles street race; that gets them hired to transport carloads of white powder across the Mexican/California border, also late at night, via a route that includes the most amazing tunnel system seen outside of a Disneyland ride. I mean, really; a guy who could orchestrate this sort of engineering feat doesn't need to waste his time schlepping blow, when he could be the darling of the architectural set.

You get the point: driving, driving and more driving.

It doesn't do to speculate on the wisdom of such an inefficient method of transport, or the druglord's drastic driver retirement plan, enforced after each run ... what, like word wouldn't get around? You gotta just go with the flow and embrace this film's inner silliness. Focus on Dominic's desire to eradicate the Big Bad, and try to overlook the rest.

Particularly the dialogue, and particularly early on ... because you haven't heard so many howling clunkers outside of an afternoon TV soap opera.

Morgan's script offers the sort of vicariously awful dialogue that invites  nay, demands  audience participation. One example: You just know, when Mia gravely intones to her brother, "You'd better leave, before it's too late" 

 that the next line, with scarcely a heartbeat in between, will be Dominic's response of "It's already too late."

Half the patrons at last week's preview screening recited that deathless phrase in unison with Diesel, and of course none of us had seen the film before!

And while we're on the subject of Mia, it sure is convenient, given all the effort expended by the FBI in its search for Dominic  he's a very-much-wanted good bad guy, remember  that they never stake out his sister's house, giving ol' Dom plenty of chances to visit, chat, brood, work on his prized car berthed in her garage, and engage in a pointless fist-fight with Brian.

One can only laugh. Frequently.

Lin obviously can't be bothered to make a real movie; he's interested only in appealing to a target demographic of arrested adolescent males who spend all their waking hours parked in front of a video game. Thus, we get comic book-style action scenes staged like computer simulations, scores of taut-butt close-ups of barely dressed cuties fawning over the various street-racers, and several gratuitous girl-kissing-girl scenes inserted solely because such Playboy-esque sexual contact apparently fits within the capricious PG-13 parameters observed by the wingnuts at the MPAA.

I'd call this flick an egregious insult to the entire female gender, but in fairness Brewster, Rodriguez (albeit briefly) and Gal Gadot  as the druglord's hotsy-totsy Gal Friday  are every bit as tough as the boys. For what that's worth.

All this said, Fast & Furious is an appropriately mindless way to spend 107 minutes. But it sure would be nice if the people who keep cranking out the entries in this franchise tried for a Ferrari, instead of repeatedly settling for a Gremlin.

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