The best thing about Fast & Furious, the fourth sequel in the franchise about underground street-racing and the first to feature all the surviving stars of the original, may come before the movie even starts. I’m referring, of course, to the rip-roaring trailer for Michael Mann’s forthcoming gangster epic, Public Enemies, which stars Johnny Depp as notorious bank robber John Dillinger. In the middle of the trailer, he looks at a young lady and makes his pitch: “I like baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars, and you. What else you need to know?” It’s a take-it-or-leave-it proposition, bold, blustery, and coolly masculine. Fast & Furious isn’t as explicit in the way it sells itself, but it’s got a lot in common: Switch out baseball and movies for handguns and fancy GPS systems, and you’ll have a pretty good indication of what the movie’s all about.
You don’t need to know anything about the previous films to enjoy this one’s crude amusements, nor much about the plot. After a terse, pleasurably absurd highway-hijacking sequence — easily the film’s best — set in the Dominican Republic gets things going, the film returns to Los Angeles and settles down to tell its story. A high-level drug dealer is recruiting drivers through illegal street races involving modified cars. Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel), the street-racing star of the first film, wants to avenge a fallen friend killed by one of the dealer’s minions. FBI agent Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker) wants to take down the drug runner. Both see the race as a way to get closer to their target, and sign up. High-velocity hijinks ensue.
Like all the previous films in the series, Fast & Furious plays out as a crude parody of urban masculinity. It’s packed with violence, cars, buff bods, bravado, and babes, and, whenever possible, it tries to have all at once. The various permutations result in a film that essentially has only three types of scenes: car races and chases, macho one-upmanship between competing alpha males, and sultry flirtations with scantily clad young women. (Sample male-female exchange: “Something interesting about this car?” “Just examining the body work.”) All of this is cut to a thumping rock and hip-hop soundtrack, and interspersed with what seem to be more or less random shots of sub-Maxim model flesh (the film’s title actually blinks rapidly in and out of shots of gyrating female bodies). As gender roles go, the film’s not breaking any barriers: Women are almost exclusively treated as objects, and the only one with something like a real role is continually shown buying and preparing meals for the two male leads.
Why did a movie like this even need to occur? In part, because Vin Diesel’s career needed saving: He was poised to become the next big-time action star, but his role choices have made returning to the franchise that made him seem like an A-list contender look like the only option. For its part, the film does everything in its limited power to build up Diesel’s rugged persona, photographing him, for example, in front of towering oil-well pumps — which either suggests a sort of industrial-quality strength and power or reveals how the sound-production team dug out a space deep enough for the star’s gravelly, core-of-the-earth voice.
Try as the filmmakers might to play up Diesel’s macho cool, though, they can’t hide the signs of age: a bit of paunch, a visible double chin. But such are the perils of late-career comebacks: It’s tough to be a hero to the kids when you’re past 40.
Paul Walker, who’s always seemed to struggle to match Keanu Reeves’s expressiveness, fares even worse. No doubt he’s hoping to get a career boost from starring opposite Diesel once again. But when he confesses to Mia (the thoroughly unmemorable Jordana Brewster), his fling from the first movie, “I lied to you. I lied to everybody,” and she responds, “Maybe you’re lying to yourself,” it’s tough not to think that’s a lesson Walker ought to draw about his acting career.
Still, worrying about acting in a film like this is like worrying about fat in a double cheeseburger: It misses the whole point. As jocular jock-centric diversions go, Fast & Furious works well enough. It’s no meathead masterpiece, of course, failing to achieve the brutal B-movie elegance of its prime competitors, the Transporter films. But it’s got girls and guns and fast cars aplenty. As Depp’s John Dillinger might say, what else do you need to know?
– Peter Suderman blogs at The American Scene.