Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Fast Men, Faster Cars: The Fast and the Furious

The Fast and the Furious (2001, Rob Cohen)

Director Rob Cohen and actors Vin Diesel and Paul Walker. How many people get excited upon hearing those three names, or at the very least one of them? The question is unfair given that most people who come visit blogs such as this, people who, by the way, would for the most part emphatically answer 'Not me, so sir!' to the question posed above, have particular tastes and ways of appreciating the art of film. They are in the minority, however badly they may wish it were the other way around. The honest answer is 'An entire legion of movie goers', the same legion that made 2001's The Fast and the Furious a rousing box office success despite the film receiving, at best, a lukewarm critical reception. The same people, in fact, who made the second, third, fourth, and yes, last spring's fifth instalment equally if not even more successful, commercially speaking.

Officer Brian O'Conner (Paul Walker) is operating under cover in Miami, seeking out the gang responsible for the frequent nighttime highjacking of transport trucks. The clues point to several possible criminals, all of which are connected to the world of illegal street racing. Among the suspects is Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel), car repair owner by day but organizer of the drag races by night...among his other suspected activities. O'Conner, still unsure as to whether or not Toretto is actually the culprit , believes that by at least entering the man's circle of friends and contacts, the identity of the mastermind behind the thefts shall be unveiled. Said circle includes the tech wizard Jesse (Chad Lindberg), strong man Vince (Matt Schulze), Toretto's gal Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) and the woman who catches O'Conner's eye, Mia (Jordana Brewster), who happens to be Toretto's sister. As the investigation moves further, the protagonist's friendship with Dominic strengthens, as do his feelings for Mia. Sooner or later, he will be forced to reveal the actual purpose for his wanting to hang around, which may not go down so well with the gang.

Before venturing any further, readers should be aware that the author has, first and foremost, not seen all of the instalments in the franchise and, what's more, has not viewed them in chronological order. Truth be told, it is the second, third and fifth episodes with which the author was most familiar with prior to the recent viewing of The Fast and the Furious, even those parts of the original had been seen several years ago. This first film puts things somewhat into perspective, as it does not feel as grandiose or even as intensely axed on the racing aspect as the aforementioned sequels. The fifth aims for a sense of the epic whereas the second and third are only minimally concerned with any genuine story, preferring to show off tons and tons of racing and chases in Japan and Miami, resulting in scenes that stretch plausibility. The film under review today has an altogether different vibe about it. Insofar as the intensity of the action scenes and sort of plot the script produces are concerned, Cohen's picture is a wee bit more intimate than the others. More to the point, The Fast and the Furious feels as though it is actually concerned with its story, that of a cop who is diving far too deep into his undercover role, blurring the lines between his emotional allegiances and his duties as an enforcer of the law, as well as offering some sensible character development for the pseudo villains of the piece, that being Dominic's gang. Is the story all that memorable or emotionally gripping? No, not very, although the attempts at creating at least something of interest are noble. This sort of tale of troubled friendships, murky alliances and forbidden loves within the world of law enforcement has been told before. It has been the driving force behind superior scripts from more adept writers (having now at long last actually heard star Vin Diesel say the oft maligned 'I live my life a quarter of a mile at a time' line, it can now be confirmed that it's indeed pretty corny) and visualized better by more gifted directors. Nevertheless, as an admirer of story, it is a relief to know that The Fast and the Furious' purpose is not limited to showing off overly flashy cars and stunts. It makes serious attempts at telling a story, albeit a terribly familiar one. A script is one thing, but the cast is equally crucial in making a story worthwhile, and here as well The Fast and the Furious produces mixed results. Paul Walker as been mocked in the past for his lack of charisma range, and while one does not necessarily want to add more to already high mountain of criticisms, he does not do much other than merely read his lines. It is a case of producers wanting to cast a person they hope will be the next big star, making their move based solely on appearance. Walker is certainly a handsome man, but a actor he is not. There was a stretch, though admittedly not a very long one, when Walker appeared in a series of films as studios tried to capitalize on his popularity. People quickly came to their senses and it is therefore ironic that in the past three or four years, the only two films of any significance he has been involved were...Fast and Furious 4 and 5. Vin Diesel, in comparison, fares much better. He is rough around the edges, yet that rough exterior does not completely hide the fact that he does have a certain screen presence. His lines have delivered with more conviction, more verve. The two leading ladies, Rodriguez and Brewster unfortunately do not get much to work with Rodriguez in particular, honestly, does do much at all in this film. Brewster is serviceable as the strong willed sister and hopeful lover to Walker stoic (too stoic) cop. Good, but nothing to write home about.

The familiarity with the general story line (unless there are people out there who really have not seen films like this...) is juxtaposed with the presentation of a world unseen by viewers up until now in film, certainly not with the amount of detail and passion Rob Cohen brings forth. Of course, the world of street racing, as it lives and breathes in North America, what with its legions of flamboyant youth expressing unhinged hyper bravado as they sport their clothes, their jewels, their girls or their boys and of course their modified, practically science-fiction film worthy automobiles, may not be a world some people may care to discover in a movie. These teens and young adults are definitely cut from a different cloth. They are not mean in any sense, but their entire presentation is decidedly on the aggressive side of the spectrum. Loud and flashy as can be seems to be this culture's motto. Be that as it may, the filmmakers were privileged with the possibility of using people who really go and partake in street racing for many of the scenes in the film as opposed to filling the screen with actors filling in as extras. Arguably one of the more intriguing set pieces is that which occurs at what the characters refer to as Race Wars, where hoards of people arrive in their spiced up vehicles, line up and engage in a series of one on one races all day long, with plenty of money placed on the table for betting purposes. It speaks to the volume of individuals who are hooked on this sort of sport.

The mention of racing naturally brings the review to the topic of the action. Much like so much else in the film, the action itself is hit or miss. When the high-octane stunts are not being manipulated by cheap camera and computer generated effects, it should be written that Cohen and his crew capture the speed and sense of danger quite nicely. The finale, which has Toretto and O'Conner try to rescue Vince as the latter hangs from the side of a speeding transportation truck is pretty thrilling and looks great. There is a little chase between some cars and motor bikes just afterwards which also works well. Somehow, it is the actual street races which come across as lackluster . For whatever reason, director Cohen decides to 'heighten' the simulation of speed by muddying the picture with some terrible green screen effects in which everything around the cars looks stretched (since they're going so fast!!!). In fact, the only real street race the audience gets to see makes little sense at all. It lasts about three minutes yet the drivers, before and after the event, keep hampering on and on about quarter miles. If the viewer is to believe they ride so incredibly fast, how is it takes three minutes to arrive at the finish line?

The Fast and the Furious earned the admiration of young movie goers everywhere. Great cinematic art it is not. Serviceable fun and a decent enough way to kill a couple of hours it is, however. A better cast, more consistency in the action and little bit more audacity in the storytelling department would have been nice, but one doubts this is the sort of film from which too much should be asked.

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