The engines no longer run on Diesel but the cars still blister the asphalt in “2 Fast 2 Furious,” an OK follow-up to the surprise hit of two summers ago. Returning star Paul Walker and singer Tyrese establish some peppery onscreen chemistry that injects good-humored rivalry into the narrative filler between high-speed set pieces. But while this John Singleton-directed sequel provides a breezy enough joyride, it lacks the unassuming freshness and appealing neighborhood feel of the economy-priced original, which grossed a powerhouse $145 million domestically but only $63 million internationally. New model looks to deliver somewhat lower B.O. mpg.
“The Fast and the Furious” bucked all expectations by customizing the hot rod exploitationers of the ’50s and the vehicular good ol’ boy pics of the ’70s with new automotive and ethnic contours. In addition to benefiting from the muscle and dramatic gravity of emerging star Vin Diesel, the characters and working-class milieu also felt unusually genuine for such a commercially-minded genre piece, resulting in an unpretentious, straight-ahead entertainment that excited young audiences and provided a guilty pleasure for many critics as well. New item provokes slightly more guilt with somewhat less pleasure.
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This time around, with the action shifted from L.A. to Miami, street life and illicit racing are still evident at the outset. But as the action increasingly comes to spin around such sights as smooth-as-silk crime lords, thuggy bodyguards, fancy ladies, police chicanery and other staples of the big and small screens, a veil of familiarity and connect-the-dots storytelling settles over the proceedings, just as the gritty Cormanesque style has been unnecessarily upgraded with an obviously bigger budget. If another sequel were to follow in this vein, it would end up closer to “Miami Vice” than to the series progenitor.
When last seen, Walker’s Brian O’Conner had thrown his law enforcement career away for the sake of personal honor. Now a layabout in Miami, Brian is paged by street entrepreneur Tej (rapper Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) as a last-minute entrant in a wild nighttime street race that demonstrates new pic’s intention to try to outdo the original in the speed and stunt departments. Opening action sequence also intros some characters who are thereafter almost entirely sidelined, most notably the intriguingly no-nonsense Suki played by offbeat model Devon Aoki.
Tapped by the Feds to help them nail elusive Argentine import/export money launderer Carter Verone (Cole Hauser), Brian welcomes the chance at professional rehabilitation but insists upon teaming with childhood pal and fellow speed-freak Roman Pearce (Tyrese), reduced to driving demolition derbies in Barstow while under house arrest. Although he still unjustly blames Brian for landing him in the pen for three years, Roman has nothing to lose and a cleared record to gain by going along with the plan, which hinges on the two becoming drivers for Verone.
Pair is introduced into the baddie’s circle by sleek Monica Fuentes (Eva Mendes), a U.S. customs agent whose undercover activities seem to include being Verone’s girlfriend. Rivalry for Monica’s attentions is just one of the many excuses for humorous macho posturing by Roman and low-key one-upsmanship by Brian, perhaps best exemplified by a delightful “stare-and-drive” sequence in which Brian zooms down the street while giving undivided ocular attention to Monica in the passenger seat.
Pic remains on sure footing during the “audition” sequence in which several driving teams compete for the Verone job by pulling off a task that involves racing to a distant location. So different in style but united by their lifelong love of car culture above all else, Brian and Roman make a good duo, as do the actors. Although still a bit bland in the blond Tab Hunter/Troy Donahue tradition, Walker has noticeably loosened up since the first outing while simultaneously projecting more authority, making him a more engaging presence than before. Tyrese, who previously starred for Singleton in “Baby Boy,” has a look, live-wire personality and self-amused undercurrent that the camera loves, which bodes well for his screen future.
But when the script by first-timers Michael Brandt and Derek Haas moves squarely into Verone’s world of Eurotrashy nightclubs, yachts, gratuitous torture, venal threats and shoot-outs, pic begins trading in too many timeworn crime pic conventions, the polish quickly dulling on the franchise veneer. Some narrative twists and complications keep matters lively enough, and the film is nothing if not professional, but there is a distinct feel toward the end of the creative tank running toward empty.
Dolled up and looking like a cross between Cindy Crawford and Raquel Welch, Mendes moves among all the macho men with smooth confidence. Driving, stunt and tech work is all pushed beyond the red line, while hip-hoppy soundtrack emphasizes the bass line.