Fri, Apr 17, 2009 - Page 16 News List

FILM REVIEW: ‘Fast & Furious’ can’t get out of first gear

By Mick LaSalle  /  NY TIMES NEW SERVICE , SAN FRANCISCO

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If you’re an action director, and someone hands you Vin Diesel, that’s gold. Diesel is his own genre: hyper-real, fantastic, romantic. You can show him driving underneath a tumbling, exploding gasoline truck, and coming out the other side, and the audience will believe it. Or maybe they won’t, but at least they’ll think, “If anybody could survive, it would be that guy.”

Yet in the entire 107 minutes of Fast & Furious, Taiwan-born director Justin Lin (林詣彬) only once shows he has any conception of what to do with Diesel. It’s a single shot. Diesel is on a hill overlooking a cemetery, and Lin places him in the lower right side of the frame. Behind Diesel, an oil derrick goes up and down, and somehow this juxtaposition reinforces and helps define Diesel’s essence: muscular, steady, powerful and relentless.

The rest of the time Diesel is on his own, and he can handle himself, though he’d be better off in the hands of Rob Cohen, who directed him in his two breakthrough films, The Fast and the Furious and XXX. Fast & Furious, in fact, is a sequel to Cohen’s 2001 picture, the new title implying that everyone who was fast in the first film is now also furious, and everyone who was furious last time out is now also fast. It’s not true.

Brian (Paul Walker) is back at the FBI, and though Walker is a bona fide action star, it must be said: In a blue suit, he looks like he could be the third Darren on Bewitched. Meanwhile, Dominic (Diesel), king of the underground racing circuit, feels the law’s hot breath on his neck. He has spent the last seven years racing cars and pulling off epic crimes (that involve fast driving), but he’s beginning to worry that he might get caught.

This is a dull place at which to begin a story. It doesn’t matter that the movie itself begins with a spectacular chase, culminating in a massive gasoline explosion — that’s just to get the adrenaline pumping. The actual story begins with screenwriter Chris Morgan boxing himself in by shifting all the characters into neutral. Having done so, he needs something huge to break them out of their emotional lethargy. Unfortunately, he turns to the worst, most undramatic motivator there is — revenge.

There are two things wrong with revenge as a motivator. The first is that there’s no urgency about revenge. Revenge can be dished out now or later. It makes no difference if the worst has already happened. (“It’s already too late,” Dominic tells his sister, when she tries to get him to calm down. He’s right.) The second is that it usually places an action hero in a state of mourning. A revenge plot is a sure way to sap the energy out of any protagonist.

But here I am talking seriously about a screenplay that was probably written in crayon. The movie is ridiculous. The question is whether it’s ridiculous fun or not fun. In the Ridiculous Fun category: The FBI is after Dominic, but he keeps showing up at his sister’s house, and no one thinks to look there. And this one: Dominic is hiding out. He’s trying to be invisible. So does he drive a Ford Escort? No, he drives a jacked-up sports car that turns heads and that people can hear rumbling two blocks away.

In the Ridiculous Not Fun category: The action choreography is hyped up, fast-moving — and lousy. Aside from the opening sequence, there’s nothing imaginative about it, and the actual filming is routine shaky-quick-cut stuff. Diesel should be working with Cohen — or with Zack Snyder, who made Watchmen — and not with Lin, who made The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift He needs a setting that’s not only kinetic but inspired.

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