It’s like riding a bike.
Let’s start with the title. You can’t come up with anything more original than your original name, reduced to ampersandness? Fast & Furious is everything it sounds like: crass, unoriginal, and mostly tiresome. It’s frequently silly and brutal too, with the cars flipping and crashing and gunning, boys growling and girls vavooming. And Vin Diesel’s not surprising anyone with, oh, suddenly developed chops. No. The point here is repetition and lots of it—loud and insistent.
Everyone seems in on this joke (expect, perhaps, Paul Walker, who comes again with that earnest flaccidity that made Brian so annoying in the first two films. Fast & Furious has been pitched as a reunion for the stars—but only because any of them who may have once imagined 2001’s The Fast and the Furious was a step toward an elsewhere have long since been disabused of that notion. They’re back because they have nowhere else to go: Michelle Rodriguez was voted off Lost after she made some mugshots and Diesel’s been spinning wheels in Riddick video games and The Pacifier. Back as the ur-macho-driver Dom, he’s joined by his best girl Letty (Rodriguez) and ostensibly smart sister Mia (the singularly uninspired Jordana Brewster).
But if this get-together looks easy on paper, the film itself grinds through some plotting to make it seem coincidental. A split plot at the beginning has Brian back with the feds, now an expert on street-racing cars and a righteous bully to his uptight associate, Agent Stasiak (Shea Whigham). In the Dominican Republic, Dom and Letty are still stunting, their sensational takedown of a fuel tanker overwhelming the film’s first few minutes. When this doesn’t go exactly as planned, Dom and his buddy Han (Sung Kang, always engaging and always playing someone named “Han” for director Justin Lin, who took over the FF franchise with Tokyo Drift ) must part ways. Dom’s decision to leave Letty behind sets in motion his own guilt-begets-revenge plot… all in the interest of re-pairing him with Brian.
The chemistry between these two is notably lacking, but it hardly matters. Their separately self-appointed missions have them both infiltrating a drug-running gang overseen by Campos (John Ortiz) and a scary-supermodel-looking secretary, Gisele (Gal Gadot). Campos sets up a race to test his new recruits in L.A.‘s Koreatown, a franchise-signature-style outing with loads of stick-shifting and teeth-gritting. Glancing over at Dom before they start, Brian smirks, “A lot has changed,” reinforcing the impression that he is indeed clueless, for nothing has changed, at all. The guys screech through streets, following GPS-downloaded directions (that is, they have no idea where they’re turning moment to moment, which is here less nerve-wracking that you’d think). The boys’ vigorous competition leads to in-jokey asides (“Do you two know each other?”), but they’re plainly in love.
Each sublimates in his own way. Brian reprises his brittle romance with Mia, an irrelevant plot point that takes up time but hardly distracts anyone from the business at hand. When he’s not turning down Gisele (who makes plain her immediate, inexplicable attraction to this burly bald-headed guy), Dom is chasing one of Campos’ flunkies, the heavily tattooed and spectacularly monikered Fenix Rise (Laz Alonso). This bit of metaphorical muscle flexion grants some more racing, most video-gameishly as they bump and careen through a tunnel designed to hide them from border-patrolling choppers and expensive-looking surveillance equipment. Speeding through the darkness, the guys’ fierceness, indicated as they mutter “Damn” or glower or smirk, again provides the film’s primal, utterly simplistic urgency.
A less urgent issue concerns Lin, now making these pictures, following his dramatic breakout with Better Luck Tomorrow (was it only 2002? it seems eons ago). His so-far-so-short career sounds like a textbook case of mainstream sellout, if you understand BLT or even the film before that, Shopping for Fangs as “independent” or “personal” projects. Really, though, profits aren’t bad by definition, and honesty can be vaguely charming. But when Letty asserts, in Fast & Furious‘s first two minutes, “Let’s make some money,” she’s naming the game in a way that seems redundant and unclever. No one expects creativity in a franchise. But still, isn’t it excellent when something like it sneaks through?