Monday, April 25, 2011

Speed Bumps

I believe that the ultimate purpose of film is to take the viewer to places they've never seen and give them experiences they've never had before. Even if the situations presented are familiar, the movie must put forth little-known ideas to entertain its audience. After all, how interested would we be in the films we watched if they were to present to us things we already knew firsthand? It has to shock us or make us laugh, and no matter what city, country or planet you set your tale on, a film needs to have that element of the unknown to really resonate. When The Fast and the Furious debuted in theaters way back in 2001, it brought to the table the intrigue of illegal street racing to the forefront. Featuring a bevy of big names sure to appeal to the younger set, the film went from unknown quantity to megastar, raking in the dough and becoming a true international phenomena. For stars Vin Diesel and Paul Walker, the film helped catapult them to super-stardom. Diesel landed the legendary role of golden-hearted crook Dominic Toretto, sandwiching it between infamous characters Richard B. Riddick (Pitch Black) and Xander Cage (xXx), proving his draw with audiences. Walker also benefited greatly from the film, taking the popularity he earned on it for all it was worth. Two sequels to the film followed. Walker returning to star in 2 Fast 2 Furious, a movie equally panned and successful. Though it no longer had Diesel on board, the franchise had legs (or wheels, in this case) and took off, spawning yet another sequel in the process. Having little to do with the previous films (and taking place in Japan, as well), The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift was financially disappointing, even considering that it starred Lucas Black and Bow Wow, relative nobodies by Hollywood standards, in leading roles. It did well enough to conceive yet another addition to the family, however. Fast & Furious was most notable not only for being the most successful film in the series, but the first sequel to reunite the stars of the original film; Diesel, Walker, Michelle Rodriguez and Jordanna Brewster returned in grand fashion, leaving no theater carrying excess tickets. And so they did it again. This time Diesel, Walker, Brewster and a mishmash of characters from all four previous films reunite in Fast Five, a sure assault on the senses that screens this coming weekend. Of course, since it hasn't come out I have yet to see that film. And so I decided to perform something of a pregame ritual this past week, using my Netflix resources to see the original deal, celebrating its tenth anniversary this year.

You just don't mess with a man wearing a cross around his neck
Having next to nothing to do with the 1955 Roger Corman original, the film stars Paul Walker as Brian O'Conner, an undercover police officer attempting to gain acceptance in the world of Los Angeles's illegal street racing scene. A group of racers are hijacking semi-trailer trucks, and Brian has been sent in by the FBI to determine which of the crews is responsible. To that end, he attempts to get close to the crew run by Dominic Toretto (Diesel), facing adversity at his newcomer status. Still, he manages to gain Toretto's trust, along with that of Dom's sister Mia (Brewster) and several of Dom's followers. After fruitless investigations into rival groups, Brian eventually concedes that the Toretto clan (with all of whom he as practically become friends) are the culprits, and must decide whether his loyalties fall on the side of the law or friendship.

Sunglasses; making people look like asses since 1929
Wow, when I go back and re-read that, it seems even more implausible than I THOUGHT. The Fast and the Furious is so dependent on cheap thrills that its easy to imagine how horrible the film would have been without gratuitous car races, chases and overall vehicle exploitation. The cars are even more sexualized than the underdressed young women who attend these events, making for an interesting reversal, but it all just detracts from the fact that there's very little actual story going on. Of course, story is far from the main reason people like these movies (and you pretty much have to know what you're getting into with ANY Vin Diesel film) and as long as you can take in the adrenaline rush the movie throws at you, it can be enjoyed on a more primative level.

Unseen off-screen: the rampage of teen girls storming the set
In fact, it's these race scenes in which the film shines. Director Rob Conlon, who for much of his career has thrived on action titles, shows a good eye for angles and conveying just how fast these care are going, a visual difficulty to which anyone remotely familiar with NASCAR events can attest. Conlon succeeds in letting the viewer in on just how exciting and dangerous it can be in one of these heavily-modified vehicles, and it makes the film all the more enjoyable to have the audience brought in on the action. It's an obstacle not too many directors can overcome.

Ooh, that's gonna hurt
Acting in action films, however, is one that is really never attempted. Part of the reason for this is the genre's focus on explosions and excitement over plot and character development. You typically won't see a top-caliber actor stoop to doing action films (unless its Will Smith), and by the same degree you'll almost never see a performer in an action role nominated for a major award. Action movies tend to be the harbor for lesser performers to catch an audience, and FatF is the perfect example of such a device. Diesel is of course little more than a gigantic meat-bag, flexing muscles upon muscles and backing that up with his usual gravelly bass vocals. Showing only occasional glimpses of emotion (and the actor he COULD be if he tried), Diesel simply settles. While Toretta is definitely one of his signature roles, it's not really all that different from most of his others, with the notable exception of Riddick. Walker looks too young to be either a real undercover cop or legitimate street racer, and has the acting talents only slightly above. His good looks might make the ladies swoon, but they can only carry him so far and is role is such a poor melange of cliches that it's almost a shock that he became the face of this franchise. Rodriguez does little more than smack talk and drive the occasional car, and any depth to her character must have been left on the cutting room floor. Brewster is only slightly better, and her romance with Walker's character is shoved to the side at the first sign of real excitement. There are some good supporting characters, but even they are limited by the shallowness of the film's script. Rick Yune, Chad Lindberg and Matt Schultze do their best in underrated performances, but ultimately are only minor distractions from the real stars.

The only things pimped here are on the street
While the upcoming Fast Five might have cracked my most anticipated films list for this month, I'm certain I could have passed on seeing this original, as I'm sure the sequel's story will not depend on me knowing what happened in the previous films. Still, for entertainment on its most basic level, you could do a lot worse than The Fast and the Furious in picking rentals. Sure it's lacking in plot, character and sensibility, but when you have so many visuals going on at once, those missing things can be forgiven and forgotten. The true secret to its success, however, was the ability it had to introduce us to a real-world event that most of us may never see first-hand.

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