Daniele Vicari moves confidently from documentaries to features with “Maximum Velocity (V-Max),” which represents a souped-up extension of the director’s 1999 exploration of Italy’s street racing and customized car scene, “Sex, Mufflers and Videogames.” Despite a certain predictability in the script, this well-paced, entertaining drama piloted by two likable characters investigates a relatively unchartered Roman subculture. While inevitable branding as a low-rent “The Fast and the Furious” may curb its offshore speed, theatrical outlook in Italy and some European territories appears solid.
An odd choice for the arthouse environment of the main Venice fest competition, where the film’s commercial nature and robust action may lead to critical dismissal, Vicari’s debut is one of few youth-oriented national productions aimed squarely at young male audiences.
Stepping in to alleviate friction between 17-year-old Claudio (Cristiano Morroni) and his father, easygoing mechanic Stefano (Valerio Mastandrea) offers the kid a job and a place to stay at his struggling auto workshop in Ostia on the outskirts of Rome. Stefano hangs out at night with a group of street-racing enthusiasts, taking Claudio along to witness his latest defeat at the hands of arrogant opponent Fischio (Ivan De Matteo), who has the financial means to maintain a high-powered, seemingly unbeatable car.
Claudio’s talent with engines is quickly revealed when he hauls a beat-up Ford out of the garage and quickly gets the motor purring. Attempting to win the sullen kid’s trust, Stefano offers him a partnership in the business and ownership of the Ford on his 18th birthday in exchange for a deferred salary.
They overhaul the engine, install computerized equipment and spruce up the exterior, pushing Stefano into serious bank overdraught as they prepare for a big race with a cash prize to cover the debt.
But both their working relationship and friendship are compromised by Claudio’s romance with Giovanna (Alessia Barela). A restless former flame of Fischio’s hungry for a more fulfilling existence, she also contributes to crank up friction at the race meet. A few too many digressions precede the climactic showdown, but resolutions are well-handled, giving way to a satisfying bittersweet conclusion.
Around core elements of cars, women and trouble, Vicari and co-scripters Maura Nuccetelli and Laura Paolucci touch on themes of longing, ambition, individual achievement and the urge to escape a restrictive environment, in addition to more standard issues of friendship, loyalty and betrayal. While the plot holds few surprises, the drama’s concerns are smoothly elaborated in an involving story, with amusing moments coming from Stefano’s perception of himself as wise and worldly, especially on the subject of women.
Much of the humor is linked to Stefano’s Roman dialect, which defies easy translation, but Mastandrea’s relaxed, rough charm serves the film well, his slight goofiness and unprepossessing physical presence providing a refreshing departure from the pumped-up swagger common to a role of this nature. Newcomer Morroni creates a brooding character that’s sympathetic and strong-willed, while Barela brings warmth and naturalness to a character with lots of hard edges.
While handheld cameras are perhaps slightly overused, the film is shot in a suitably muscular style, with some sharp, fast cutting of race sequences, backed by a lean techno score.