The funny thing about the renewed interest in this car-porn franchise (the new fourth film out-grossed even the first and second installments at the box office last weekend) is that it’s seemingly spurred by the return of the series’ least essential elements — Paul Walker and Vin Diesel.
The film begins with Dominic Toretto (Diesel) and his gang — still free after undercover cop Brian O’Connor (Walker) watched them peel away in the first Fast —pulling off a high-speed highway gasoline heist the risk-reward ratio of which would only add up in Road Warrior’s fuel-barren wasteland (but it’s super fast and loud and some shit blows up for serious, so who cares?).
Next up: shamefully pedestrian (which here means only “on foot”; criticizing the acting in a Fast & Furious movie is like correcting the spelling in a suicide note) Agent O’Conner in a rehash of the perp-chasing scene from Casino Royale, which concludes with Walker bludgeoning the runner and screaming in his best rogue-cop-on-the edge-voice, “Gimme a name!” Don’t worry, you won’t need to remember any of this later.
If you sit through the following 10 minutes or so — a bunch of mopey dreck about Dom, who’s now an internationally hunted car pirate or whatever the fuck, breaking up the gang and abandoning his girlfriend Letty (Rodriguez) for their own good and Brian trying out his best Dirty Harry vs. the system, even though he looks and talks like a marketing executive — the film politely hurries back to the road.
While Dom’s on the run, tragedy strikes (spoiler alert): the kitten with which he’d bonded is hit by a car, and Dom communicates with his handler that this makes him feel “cry, sad, frown.”
Wait. Sorry. I’ve confused Vin Diesel with Koko, the sign-language-using gorilla.
Dom’s girlfriend gets hit by a car, and Dom indicates to his handlers that this makes him want to go undercover to compete in an illegal street race so that he can qualify to deliver some unspecified product for a shadowy smuggler in the hope of avenging Letty’s death. Obviously Dom isn’t the only one who’s come up with that idea; Brian’s busy doing exactly the same thing.
Since Brian’s previously betrayed, but also saved, Dom and his gang, the two men have a complicated, conflicted relationship that might threaten to give the game away if it weren’t communicated almost exclusively via brooding bumper scrapes and passive-aggressive nitrous-oxide turbo boosts. But meaningful dialogue would only make sense if this were a film about people and how they relate to one another and not a movie about cars and how they’re all shiny and go vroom vroom. Minutes at a time go by without a single human being onscreen, and those are the film’s best scenes. Director Justin Lin’s willingness to not even pretend that anyone gives a shit about the story or the people in it is actually the movie’s best feature.
If the wreckage-humping fetish in David Cronenberg’s Crash were more widespread, Fast & Furious is the kind of movie they’d show on Cinemax at one o’clock in the morning, and any attempts at story arcs or character building would just be more stuff we had to sit through between the piston penetration and slow-motion, tire-squealing money shots we paid to see. Which brings us to the triumphant return of Walker and Diesel, stars who’ve now apparently fallen far enough to reappear in the seedy franchise that launched their careers. Because as much as it seems like they don’t matter, the monster opening weekend indicates otherwise. The American people, apparently, demand their CGI-enhanced race cars be piloted by B-list-or-better celebrities. Since Walker clearly doesn’t get that he’s not acting in a real movie, and he also starred in lesser-grossing 2 Fast 2 Furious, I’m giving the title of America’s favorite pretend driver to Diesel. Like everything else in the movie, his appeal is all visceral. The man’s a 6-foot, semi-sentient, Buick-bench-pressing penis (if those rumored genius-level IQ scores are more than PR fabrications, he’s clearly the son of the Hebrew god), so imagining him piloting a 400-horsepower cock rocket across the Mexican-American border is more than enjoyable. It’s practically patriotic. •