Revved up

With the original cast, including Vin Diesel and Paul Walker, and adrenaline-filled chase scenes, 'Fast & Furious' shifts into high gear ** 1/2 (2 1/2 STARS)

April 03, 2009|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,michael.sragow@baltsun.com

With several high-speed chase scenes that outrank any outside The Transporter movies for visceral force and spectacle, Fast & Furious is a stripped-down version of The Fast and The Furious, the first movie in this demolition derby of a franchise.

All the characters return in this fourth entry. (Hence the clever tag line: "New Model. Original Parts.") Paul Walker again plays the pivotal role of Brian O'Conner. Then he was an undercover cop who was the key to a joint police-FBI investigation into a string of truck hijackings. Now he's a full-fledged FBI agent leading the charge against a Mexican drug cartel that's recruiting cutting-edge Los Angeles street racers as high-tech mules.

Vin Diesel comes back as Dominic Toretto, the charismatic muscleman and natural driver. Dom has taken his outlaw status and his fiery girlfriend, Letty (Michelle Rodriguez, of Girlfight and Lost fame), to the Dominican Republic, where his revamped gang hijacks gasoline from fuel trucks. Soon Dom is back in Los Angeles, joining forces with Brian, while his hot sister Mia (Jordana Brewster) re-enters the picture and reignites her passion with the lawman.

Series diehards may applaud the characters they knew and loved in 2001. The rest of us must tolerate them as the rickety human vehicles for some splendid action sequences. Once again, Brian is about as simple as a conflicted hero gets; you can work out his split allegiances on a tic-tac-toe board. He adores racing, respects Dom and loves Mia as much as he resents government bureaucracy and hates hard crime. As Dom, Diesel is still trying to revive the tormented machismo of movie heroes past, taking a brooding responsibility when bad things happen to good-bad people.

At least Walker's weathered desperation proves more intriguing and attractive than his previous callowness. Now Brian can be upfront about his own addiction to cars and hard-guy action; he even develops an amusing strong-arm relationship to a weaselly fellow agent named Stasiak (Shea Wigham). It's absurd but lowdown hilarious to see Brian stop a conversation by slamming Stasiak's head into an agency wall. (We're supposed to think Stasiak doesn't have a brain in there anyway.)

With his bulk and his baldness, it's easy to pick Diesel's Dom out of a crowd. Maybe that's why he's become a pop legend. But Diesel in Fast & Furious just makes me appreciate Jason Statham in the Transporter series all the more. Statham can do gravitas without losing his limberness and flexibility. Diesel weighs the movie down with self-importance.

Of course, Diesel has his own kind of brass-knuckle virtuosity. He's the Yo-Yo Ma of threats, never better than when dangling a thug like a yo-yo from an upper-story window or swiftly lowering a garage-line full of heavy parts to land just inches from the face of a crooked mechanic.

But Diesel gives all his lines the hard sell, and they're often so wrong-way laughable he must have written them himself. (He gets a producer credit on the movie.) When he tells a potential new love he admires a good body no matter what the make (I was laughing too hard to scribble down the exact words) or says his dream woman should be 20 percent angel, 80 percent devil, you wonder why she doesn't run off in the opposite direction. Diesel's cameo at the end of the best film in the series - No. 3, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift - brought down the house.

He's better the less he says and best when he says nothing at all. His most effective moment comes when he responds to John Ortiz, who gives the performance of the movie as the wily drug honcho known to our heroes as "Campos." When Dom says Brian used to date his sister, Campos tells Brian, "You're a lucky man. ... You're still breathing." The way Dom takes that as flattery is a hoot.

The director, Justin Lin, brings the same pinpoint reflexes to the action as he did in Tokyo Drift. He doesn't wring visual poetry from automotive excess the way Steven Spielberg did in The Sugarland Express or Sam Peckinpah did in Convoy, but he does put you in the driver's seat to give you a thrill-a-minute ride.

The opening hijack scene is like a vivid pulp reworking of the train robbery in The Wild Bunch, with the outlaws put on wheels; the climactic run from Mexico to the border, over desert and through a mountain tunnel, is like Stagecoach on steroids. The movie lacks the improbable lyricism of Tokyo Drift.

The combination of relentless fuel-injected stunts and the equally relentless Diesel turns pummeling. But I hope the producers bring Lin back for the fifth film and strip it down even more. They can lose all the human characters except Brian and Mia and simply call it F&F.

Fast & Furious

(Universal Pictures) Starring Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Michelle Rodriguez. Directed by Justin Lin. Rated PG-13 for violence, sexual content, language and drug references. Time 107 minutes.

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