In Hollywood, career desperation can take on many forms. There’s the comedian who tries for drama, the failed thesp who hopes to find solace in a shift behind the lens. There’s the aging star who tries to go younger (or older), as well as the former frontliner who delves into the realm of solid supporting “character” work. Perhaps the most notorious example of fading celebrity anxiety, however, is the return to franchise form. Just ask Harrison Ford. While a mainstay of ‘80s/‘90s blockbusters, his draining fame and fortune saw him reprise his most iconic role - Indiana Jones - for a less than successful fourth installment. Oddly enough, the same thing has happened to La-La land novices Vin Diesel and Paul Walker.
Remember when this duo was supposed to set the Tinseltown action empire on fire? How Diesel was pitched as the thinking man’s Neanderthal and when Walker embodied leading man qualities in a stuntman’s form? Amazing what a series of less than successful starring roles will garner. Eight years after the first Fast and Furious film made both men car geek gods, the duo have returned - along with most of the original cast - to flesh out their failing finances. Avoiding the auto erotica tenets of the previous titles, part three participants Justin Lin (director) and Chris Morgan (screenplay) have decided to forgo all vehicular fetish to go moody and revenge-oriented - and it almost works. Almost.
When the heat gets too hot on his highway bandit enterprise, Dom Toretto breaks up his gang and heads undercover. Tragedy brings him back to LA. There, he learns that a drug dealer named Braga is responsible for his current pain. Without provocation, he decides to join the criminal’s gang of drivers and get some payback. Standing in his way, however, is old pal/nemesis Brian O’Connor. Now working for the FBI, he wants Braga as well. Reluctantly, they form a partnership which one again takes them into the street racing scene. As Dom’s sister Mia frets over the fate of both men, the bureau wants answers and they want them fast. Discovering who Braga really is, however, may be more difficult than maneuvering the back roads between the US and Mexico.
As long as you know what you’re getting into, Fast & Furious will end up fun and effective. This isn’t Shakespeare. No one will be looking at the expanded Oscar list come awards season for this film’s name to turn up. But when all you really want is a few high-powered action sequences, a simplified narrative that doesn’t play too dumb, and some solid work from an already comfortable cast, this most recent deposit in the fuel-injected franchise’s bank does deliver. Sure, Lin and Morgan want to make this all seem like the greatest tragedy known to man, to show Dom and Brian mulling over their fate in slo-mo statements of import. But this is one movie that doesn’t forget the flash - or put another way, the CGI aided automotive mayhem. Indeed, those looking for old school chrome on concrete chaos may come away disappointed.
This is nu-era F/X, green-screened heroics where our well-washed cast can sit idly back in the safety of the soundstage’s driver seat and look like they are facing almost certain death. An opening bit of mountain road piracy has a wonderful sense of authenticity - that is, until the computer-enhanced cliffs indicate a set of logistical impossibilities. In Los Angeles, Dom and Brian race two others through real traffic strewn streets. Yet every near miss or eventual collision comes straight out of a video game version of life. Nowhere is this more true, however, than in the two main “trips” across the border. Using a tunnel forged under a mountain, our highly modified cars careen back and forth between precarious rock walls. While it strives to be breathtaking, however, we suddenly start flashing back to the “realism” of the mining cart chase from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
Granted, there is nothing wrong with these motherboard managed sequences. Modern audiences need much more bang for their buck less their already addled attention spans sputter and spin out. And the new DVD from Universal offers an entire second disc loaded with Behind the Scenes how-to. But when Quentin Tarantino put Zoe Bell on the top of a car and ran her around the California countryside in Death Proof, we could sense inherently how scary the cinematic stakes really were. Indeed, Fast & Furious could be called Grand Theft Autopilot. Lin knows that his demographic doesn’t care about truth. They want to see stuff smash up - and in as outlandish and outrageous a way possible.
And as for those actors returning to pick up a much needed bit of commercial clout? Fast & Furious proves why they were so highly touted in the first place - sort of. Walker gets the less flamboyant of the two roles. He gets to play rebel cop badass without having to damage either side of the badge. He also knows that co-star Diesel has more to lose than he, and skillfully lets most of their moments fall on those Riddick-riddled shoulders. As for the former bald beefcake, Dom remains a defining role. It allows Diesel to seem substantial without doing much more than holding a steering wheel and the sequences where he sits and broods bring a small amount of gravitas to the otherwise superficial proceedings. With Jordana Brewster back as Mia, and a few more familiar faces thrown in for continuity, this is a literal crowd pleaser - it knows who it’s playing to and exactly how to entertain them.
You too might find some minor amusement buried in all the gearhead rhetoric and mechanized machismo. The film looks good, offering a broader scope than most post-post modern action films, and Lin’s love of all things hip-hop transforms more than one scene into the latest “hos and bros” rap video. But it’s impossible to shake the air of business model dread here. Had Fast & Furious failed at the box office, it would have meant the end for Walker and Diesel. The former would have to find work in the background of otherwise high profile showcases, while the latter would be forced back to flesh out the possibilities within the Pacifier series. Thanks to some impressive ticket returns and a fanbase that clearly wants more of these motor sports, however, Dom and Brian will be back. So you see, sometimes, career desperation pays off. Like Fast & Furious itself, it’s almost never easy, but it can be satisfying in its own way.