[Deep Focus]
"Goddamned street racers!"

On the strength of The Fast and the Furious and last year's Pitch Black, Vin Diesel has pretty much proven himself the new king of the Hollywood B-movie. An intimidating physical presence with a bald head, a glare that can cut right though you and a voice that feels like skidding across asphalt, Diesel invests his dialogue with a balled-up authenticity that could make a comic book play like Shakespeare.

The Fast and the Furious has a sort of comic-book aesthetic. It fetishizes metal and speed, cooly displaying the casual hedonism of a car-racing subculture. Introducing conflict into that volatile mix, it pits a blonde comer with a smart mouth and lofty aspirations against Diesel's intimidating yet fundamentally good-natured street warlord. Brian, the new kid on the block, is played by Paul Walker, a Keanu Reeves soundalike with California hair. When he shows up at an illicit street race ready to wager away a car that looks like a green M&M, the verbal sparring between him and Diesel's Dominic is inarguably clichéd but still, on some level, galvanizing.

It doesn't hurt that, in my theater, the thrum of the super-tweaked engines roaring under the hoods of various hotrods on display made a little rattling noise in my chest. There's no denying the pleasurable sensations of a widescreen action movie played at high decibels, and the film canisters containing this one should bear one of those cheesy notices that you used to find on rock albums every once in a while: "This movie is meant to be played LOUD!!!"

Even at lower volumes, I'll bet the first street-racing scene would be an incredible spectacle. I've carefully avoided director Rob Cohen's previous films (they include The Skulls, Dragonheart and Daylight), but damned if he doesn't come up with entirely new ways to photograph a car race. As the drivers strap in, you see them check out the nitrous oxide canisters stashed in the back, or underneath the cushions of the passenger seat. After they take off, Cohen’s camera races right alongside the cars, peering in first one window and then another as the world whips by outside. And when somebody punches one of the little black buttons on their dashboards that ignite the NOS burners, well, the world outside goes a little woozy. (The split-second shot actually reminded me immediately of Stan Brakhage’s avant-garde classic short "Anticipation of the Night.") It all plays to terrific effect, and if the film stretches a race that should take maybe 10 seconds at most to a couple of minutes in length, chalk it up to poetic license. These scenes left me breathless.

The outrageous visual fireworks are so much fun, in fact, that they give the film a momentum that keeps it hurtling past the many familiar signposts at the side of its narrative road. The character types populating the clandestine street races may be derivative, but they're played with really entertaining brio by a mostly good-looking cast that includes the swaggering Michelle Rodriguez (Girlfight) as Vin's girl, Matt Schulze as the muscled lug who's ready to pound Brian into the pavement at every turn, Chad Lindberg as an ADD-afflicted computer whiz and rapper Ja Rule in a funny cameo that demonstrates winning really is all that matters.

Granted, much of what passes for character development is revealed as cheap formula by later plot twists, and the film winds up spinning its wheels so hard in the final few reels that the actions of the main characters become increasingly capricious. For instance, it's awfully hard to believe that Dominic's sister (Jordana Brewster) would react with anything but shock and unallayed anger at Brian's eventual admission that he's been lying to her and has betrayed her brother. (Sure, they’ve slept together, but it doesn’t wash that a short-term love affair would trump the bonds of family in this situation.) And the emotional climax, in which Brian has to choose where his loyalties really lie, is tossed off so that it doesn't really connect, even on its own B-movie terms -- unless you read the picture as a love story between Brian and Dominic. And, hell, maybe that’s what it is.

What really matters is that all of these plot machinations are good enough to get the movie where it needs to go -- in this case, it's a daring, high-speed highway robbery that goes awry in an incredible set piece that recalls Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Road Warrior. The last Hollywood film I can remember that had action sequences this thrilling was called Face/Off. I have no idea how much CGI assistance the filmmakers got, but it sure doesn't show. The stuntwork feels 100 percent real. Another last-minute car chase features the stunning special-effect of one car literally tumbling sideways over another one, and the image is photographed and edited in such a way that it's utterly credible and absolutely jaw-dropping. If it can ease its teat-suckling reliance on obviously computer-animated fare (like the climax of last year's incredibly stupid Gone in 60 Seconds) and get back to making movies that take place in what feels like real physical space, Hollywood may yet save the soul of the action movie.

Directed by Rob Cohen
Written by Gary Scott Thompson, Erik Bergquist, and David Ayer
Story by Thompson from a magazine article by Ken Li
Cinematography by Ericson Core
Edited by Peter Honess
Starring Vin Diesel and Paul Walker
USA, 2001

Theatrical aspect ratio: 2.35:1 (Super 35)
Screened at Loews Palisades Center, New York, NY

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