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The Fast and the Furious

"The Fast and the Furious" has nothing to do with the 1954 Roger Corman production of the same name, but it's a picture that would have done the B movie meister proud in any era.

Brian O'Conner - Paul Walker Dominic Toretto - Vin Diesel Letty - Michelle Rodriguez Mia Toretto - Jordana Brewster Johnny Tran - Rick Yune Jesse - Chad Lindberg Leon - Johnny Strong Vince - Matt Schulze Sgt. Tanner - Ted Levine Edwin - Ja Rule Agent Bilkins - Thom Barry Harry - Vyto Ruginis

The Fast and the Furious” has nothing to do with the 1954 Roger Corman production of the same name, but it’s a picture that would have done the B movie meister proud in any era. A gritty and gratifying cheap thrill, Rob Cohen’s high-octane hot-car meller is a true rarity these days, a really good exploitationer, the sort of thing that would rule at drive-ins if they still existed. As it is, young viewers and working class audiences should still pack in for this smartly made programmer-style Universal release, which promises to show renewed acceleration down the line as a home entertainment attraction.

Like solid, unpretentious Westerns did in a previous era, this story of speed-crazy grown-up kids trades shrewdly on many long-established movie conventions: Primal passions, elemental rivalries, testosterone-charged confrontations, youthful male preoccupation with top dog status, iconic posturing and behavior and the sheer excitement of action. Pared down to the basics, Cohen’s direction and script by Gary Scott Thompson, Erik Bergquist and David Ayer keep the picture speeding down the straightaway where it belongs, while an attractive cast led by an imposing Vin Diesel keeps the personal scenes quite watchable.

Many will consider the picture’s pedal-to-the-metal antics a guilty pleasure, but they should be persuaded to give up the guilt and enjoy the unostentatious nature of the sort of film that used to be a Hollywood staple but is now in short supply. Point of entry into the world of L.A. street racing is provided by Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker), the only blond, blue-eyed guy in sight amid the multi-ethnic stew of blue-collar Los Angeles. Attracted to lunch counter girl Mia Toretto (Jordana Brewster), Brian turns up with his computerized, fuel-injected Mitsubishi Eclipse at a nocturnal industrial area to take on Mia’s brother Dominic (Diesel), the undisputed local champ.

Tough and intimidating, Dominic is also willing to accord respect where it’s due, and after a blistering race in which Brian almost blows his car apart while giving Dominic a run for his money, Dominic welcomes the outsider into his circle, much to the consternation of redneck a-hole Vince (Matt Schulze), who also has the hots for Mia.

Bonding over their love of cars and both having done time in the joint, Dominic and Brian have to contend with one violent enemy, Chinese hoodlum Johnny Tran (Rick Yune), whose goons ride around on “crotch rockets,” or superpowered motorcycles, shooting up anything in sight. For Brian, however, Johnny holds a special interest: Brian’s actually an undercover cop on assignment to infiltrate the street-racing scene in order to nail the culprits responsible for a rash of big-money truck hijackings, daring and skilled jobs that would seem to bear Johnny’s fingerprints.

But as his superiors push Brian to quickly crack the criminal ring, the young man becomes more deeply enmeshed in the lives of his new friends. While working a day job at the neighborhood’s No. 1 auto supplies outlet, he starts fixing up an old junker at Dominic’s shop in order to repay a debt, and launches into a romance with Mia. Vince, Brian’s rival for the latter’s attention, suddenly suspects that Brian’s a cop; it’s something Dominic doesn’t want to believe, but the seed of doubt is planted nonetheless.

Once Brian’s cover is finally blown, tempers cross the red line, but even then the dramatic dynamics remain nicely conflicted, as Brian, stepping out of his cop’s role, takes an extreme risk to help Vince, of all people, escape certain death when the latter is plastered on the cab of a speeding big-rig while the driver is trying to aerate him with a shotgun. Reminiscent of “The Road Warrior” without feeling like a ripoff, this tense and roaring sequence reps the film’s action high point, although there’s even more to come after that as Brian and Dominic must try to settle their complex account.

Unlike last year’s arch, phony and sentimental “Gone in Sixty Seconds” remake, “Fast” gets down in an honest and direct manner and at least gives the feel of being rooted in a certain subculture’s genuine obsession for hot wheels, a preoccupation that defines the characters’ way of life. The ethnic diversity on view here is so thoroughly mixed as to render conventional labels all but meaningless, with the exception of the “white bread” represented by Brian. One-dimensional psychological profiles are provided — notably Dominic’s youthful trauma of having watched his father die in a racetrack crash — but nothing is permitted that slows down the forward momentum.

Having been noted on the fringes over the last few years — in “Saving Private Ryan,” “Boiler Room,” “Pitch Black” and his own indie drama “Strays” — Diesel herein emerges front and center as a strong but intriguingly ambiguous leading man. Shaven-headed and seriously pumped but readily expressing sensitivity and an emotional intuitiveness, Diesel conveys a suggestive good-guy/bad-guy combo that augers well for future action roles as well as for more complex parts. Although he’s playing the ostensible toughest guy on the block, it’s also amusing to see him express real fear when put in the powerless position of being Brian’s passenger during some particularly hair-raising driving moments.

As the “snowman” who must prove himself to the ‘hood-hardened local boys while keeping his true identity a secret, Walker simmers strongly in a low-keyed way. Brewster is looking good and doing a better job here than she did as a searching teen in the recent “The Invisible Circus,” but “Girlfight” sensation Michelle Rodriguez is wasted in the thoroughly undeveloped part of Dominic’s girlfriend; just a day or two of specific concentration on her part in the script stage might have given her something to do, but the character is utterly superfluous to the central action. Schulze is menacing as the civility-challenged Vince, while Chad Lindberg seems to be channeling Giovanni Ribisi in his role as a geeky mechanics whiz.

Cohen’s direction is all energetic, no-nonsense efficiency, backed up by rough-and-ready, determinedly unslick tech contributions. Score is composed of a combustible combination of techno and hip-hop sounds.

The Fast and the Furious

Production: A Universal release presented in association with Mediastream Film of a Neal H. Moritz production. Produced by Moritz. Executive producers, Doug Claybourne, John Pogue. Directed by Rob Cohen. Screenplay, Gary Scott Thompson, Erik Bergquist, David Ayer, screen story by Thompson.

Crew: Camera (Deluxe color, widescreen), Ericson Core; editor, Peter Honess; music, BT; music supervisors, Gary Jones, Happy Walters; production designer, Waldemar Kalinowski; art director, Kevin Kavanaugh; set designer, Maria Baker; set decorator, Florence Fellman; costume designer, Sanja Milkovic Hays; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS/SDDS), Felipe Borrero; sound designers/supervisors, Bruce Stambler, Jay Nierenberg; visual effects supervisor, Michael J. Wassel; special visual effects, Syd Dutton, Bill Taylor; associate producer, Creighton Bellinger; assistant director, George Parra; second unit director/stunt coordinator, Mic Rodgers; second unit camera, Jonathan Taylor; casting, Ronna Kress. Reviewed at the Universal Studios Cinema 18, Universal City, June 14, 2001. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 107 MIN.

With: Brian O'Conner - Paul Walker Dominic Toretto - Vin Diesel Letty - Michelle Rodriguez Mia Toretto - Jordana Brewster Johnny Tran - Rick Yune Jesse - Chad Lindberg Leon - Johnny Strong Vince - Matt Schulze Sgt. Tanner - Ted Levine Edwin - Ja Rule Agent Bilkins - Thom Barry Harry - Vyto Ruginis

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