Loud, trashy, implausible and exciting, "The Fast and the Furious" may not have much of a brain, but it's definitely got a pulse. It's also got the sinister yet soulful Vin Diesel, my candidate for action hero of the new millennium. Amid a summer schedule crowded with bigger names and splashy high-concept productions, this old-fashioned tribute to octane, engines and hormones might just sneak in the pop-culture back door and become a surprise hit. Whether this film accurately depicts contemporary Southern California hot-rod culture is a matter for devotees to debate. But as a racing movie it blows the doors off tedious crap like "Driven," and as a showcase for muscular chests and tattooed biceps, long legs and tight skirts, double-overhead hemis and nitrous-oxide injectors, I dare say it can't be beat.
As true B-movie geeks will recognize, this movie's title is borrowed from an obscure 1954 Roger Corman production that's an early example of car-culture cinema. I've never seen the Corman film, but director Rob Cohen and his screenwriters (Gary Scott Thompson, Eric Bergquist and David Ayer) also seem to have inherited the master's unapologetic appreciation for fast cars, hot chicks and pointless thrills. Whatever has changed in Cohen's life or worldview since "The Skulls," his dismal Ivy League secret-society thriller from last summer, I'm profoundly grateful for it.
Even with the Joe Lieberman chilling effect that has descended on much of pop culture, "The Fast and the Furious" is a celebration of hedonism and youthful rebellion that never moralizes or condescends to its audience. Dominic Toretto (Diesel) lives by his own code, which dictates souping up Japanese sports cars and driving them three times the speed limit simply because he can. And if you don't think that makes him an American hero, Jack, then take your spindly ass and your minivan back to Communist Russia.
Based on a Vibe magazine article by Ken Li about the Los Angeles street-racing underground, "The Fast and the Furious" relies on the familiar stranger-in-town plot used in countless gangland thrillers and westerns (not to mention other car movies). Our hero is Brian Spindler (Paul Walker), a handsome, clean-cut kid with just a hint of Vanilla Ice or Billy Idol about him, who shows up in L.A. after escaping his checkered teen years in Arizona. He goes to work for Harry (Vyto Ruginis), the grizzled older guy who sells the sports-car maniacs all the after-market gizmos and gear they need to make a stock Nissan or Honda sports coupe go 170. (Every youth-culture movie needs one wisecracking adult who gets it.)
But Brian's efforts to hang with alpha-male Dominic's racing crew, and perhaps to engage in a little jiggitude with Dom's sister Mia (Jordana Brewster), only get him in fights with Vince (Matt Schulze), Dom's pit-bull lieutenant, who has his own eye on the lissome Mia. But it's really not necessary to follow the plot, since Cohen supplies ample eye candy throughout, as well as a nonstop soundtrack of hip-hop and churning industrial rock. A mysterious team of black Honda Civics, lit from beneath with green neon, is ripping off shipments of DVD players in a series of daredevil truck hijackings. Brian bets the pink slip on his Granny Smith-colored rod to get in on the Saturday-night drag -- blisteringly photographed by Ericson Core as a supernatural blur -- and loses it to the indomitable Dominic, of course.
Then Brian rescues Dom from the cops when they break up the street race, and for good measure the duo is briefly abducted and terrorized by Johnny Tran (Rick Yune), an Asian hoodlum who commands a motorcycle gang, and possibly a rival racing team as well. Somewhere amid all the hallucinatory chase scenes, rap posses in too-fly baggy jeans, surfer dudes in Hawaiian shirts and Japanese girls in Catholic-school microminis, I lost touch with that particular detail. The important point is that Brian is now accepted into Dom's inner circle and gets invited to a party where two chicks in black leather are sucking face (to the mingled horror and delight of the preview audience with whom I watched the film) and he can steal Mia from right under Vince's nose. "You can have any beer you want," Dom growls at him, "as long as it's Corona."
Like so many guys in movies of this kind, Brian is now caught between his new best buddy -- not to mention his new squeeze -- and his duty. (This doesn't really count as a spoiler, but if you don't want to know anything about this movie's surprisingly elegant plot twists, skip this paragraph.) See, Brian's a cop, sent undercover into the street-racing world to crack the truck hijackings, and his superiors suspect that Dom and his crew may be behind them. At first Brian thinks that friendly Hector, an East L.A. Chicano, may be the thief, and then he turns to Johnny. There's a totally irrelevant but awesome montage in which the SWAT team busts into Johnny's house and arrests him in front of his family, while Dom and his girlfriend Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), herself a badass driver, give each other a full-body lube and tuneup back in the garage.
With his massive physique, sad-dog expression and faintly ironic delivery, Diesel makes Dom the unquestioned center of this film's universe. Brian's position as protagonist, you might say, is purely formal. Unlike most action-movie stars, Diesel always seems to be thinking, even brooding, and he seems just as comfortable in repose as in motion (a quality no amount of acting lessons can lend to a meathead like Steven Seagal or Jean-Claude Van Damme). All Dom gets by way of back story is one formulaic speech about his dad's death and the crime he committed that got him banned from stock-car racing, but Diesel is a genuine actor who makes it pay off. He can read a line like "I live my life a quarter-mile at a time" as if he knows it's a ridiculous thing to say, but despite his better judgment believes it anyway.
From any rational perspective, "The Fast and the Furious" is a silly, messy movie about morons who drive cars too fast. I loved it anyway for its refusal to knuckle under to authoritarianism, for its purely American and undoubtedly juvenile view that freedom and friendship are more important than order. There's a hellacious freeway chase scene at the movie's climax, but solving the truck hijackings has become incidental to its real issues. These include whether Dom will ever take his dad's old Detroit roadster out of the garage (you know it), whether he and Brian will race to the railroad crossing at top speed even though a train is coming (ditto) and whether Americans really believe that driving a kickass machine down the open road, with your past receding in the rearview mirror, will make you live forever. You know you do.