Faster than Gone in Sixty Seconds and more furious than Driven, The Fast and the Furious is a racing film aimed at a younger audience more concerned with tricked-out cars than stories of old-man redemption. Based in the world of illegal street racing, it tells the story of an undercover agent (Paul Walker) who must infiltrate this hip underworld of fast wheels and fast women in order to bust a hijacking ring. To these ends, he befriends a gang led by Vin Diesel and eventually earns their respect as a smart and savvy racer.
Of course, this setup leads to the typical "honor among thieves" story you'd expect: Walker gets too personally attached to the gang he will eventually have to betray, his chief busts his balls over it, and he falls in love with Diesel's sister (played by Jordana Brewster). By the end of the whole sordid affair, he will have to choose between duty and loyalty--and you can probably guess how he reconciles everything. This builds up to a rather boring ending, and the climax of the movie is an idiotic game of chicken between Diesel and Walker, who gun their cars and head for an oncoming train. It doesn't make much sense and comes out of the blue, making one wonder what is worse: the random acts of machismo, or the sappy soap opera garbage that develops between Walker and Brewster (when she finds out he's really a cop, he naturally gives her the "Yes, it was all a lie, but my feelings for you were real" speech).
Meanwhile, some of the action sequences are anticlimactic. For example, when a rival gang kills one of Diesel's friends, he goes on a vigilante spree of vengeance by chasing them in his car. But when he finally catches them, what does he do? He simply knocks them off their motorcycles, then considers his work done. Somehow I expected more from a character who is an ex-con and enraged at the death of a close friend. The Crow would have been disappointed. Also serving as a buzzkill is the formula some of the races fall into: two cars are going neck and neck, someone pushes a nitro button, and BAM--they suddenly pull ahead and win.
These faults aside, there's a lot that makes The Fast and the Furious an engaging movie that can be enjoyed on a pure adrenaline level. The racing lives up to the film's title despite the cheesiness of the nitro scenes, and when the cars come to life, special effects let us follow the camera's rollercoaster perspective at it surfs through the internal mechanics of the vehicles. The sheer speed depicted is enough to get audiences going, and a well-matched soundtrack and slinking women on the sidelines add to the overall atmosphere. The scenes in which modified Hondas are used to hijack big rigs are particularly good, with the cars swerving beneath the trucks at insane speeds.
While the characters are mostly one-dimensional, the actors are adequate. Michelle Rodriguez (Girlfight) has a modest role as Diesel's girlfriend, but she brings a lot of cool attitude to the group as the gang's most showoff driver. She talks smack to all the guys, and when she thinks another woman is putting the moves on her man, she goes the catfight route, sniffing near the other girl and asking, "Is that skank I smell?"
Vin Diesel gives the only other noteworthy performance. This is an actor who can make just about any character interesting, no matter how formulaic they may seem on paper. In Pitch Black, he played convicted killer Riddick with a compelling mix of cruelty and compassion--twisted, but not full blown insane. In Boiler Room, his tough guy attitude contrasted nicely with the prissy richboys of Wall Street. And now, in this movie, he is engaging as the criminal who doesn't want to be a criminal, despite the fact that this character has been done so many times before.
The Fast and the Furious is chock full of stereotypes--from the cop who follows his heart to the spazzy electronics geek who is a genius in his own right. There's not much worth checking out in this regard, but the movie is worth seeing for the racing alone (provided, of course, you are entertained by such things). At the very least, it's a far cry better than the sterilized action we were handed in the glossy, clean-cut Driven.
Rating: 6 out of 10 (0=Abysmal, 5=Average, 10=Excellent)