Fast Company: Blu-ray
William Smith, Claudia Jennings, John Saxon, Nicholas Campbell
(Danton Films; US DVD: 19 May 2009; UK DVD: 19 May 2009)
Until recently, David Cronenberg was known only as the king of biological horror. His brutal looks at life and the physiological foundations of fear made uncomfortable classics like Rabid, The Brood, Scanners, and Videodrome fright film masterworks. Today, he dabbles in all manner of contemporary drama, cruelty tingeing works as diverse as A History of Violence, eXistenZ, and his brilliant Russian mob movie Eastern Promises. As with any auteur, it’s interesting to look back on their entire career and trace the steps that brought their visionary style to the fore. And while many may laugh at the suggestion, the drag racing morality tale Fast Company is completely within his surreal sphere of aesthetic influence. Made in 1979, this fascinating film proves that Cronenberg could fetishize anything - from a deformed corpse to a shiny chrome engine.
When his prized dragster goes up in flames, renowned driver Lonnie “Lucky Man” Johnson appears down for the count. FastCo corporate rep Phil Adamson doesn’t want to spring for another vehicle, and besides, there’s a perfectly good automobile waiting for someone capable to pilot it to victory. Of course, this leaves funny car trainee Billy “The Kid” Brocker feeling a little unappreciated. Things get worse when Adamson demands Johnson take over the driving of the fabled asphalt fastback. Tempers flare both on and off the track, with reigning champion Gary “The Blacksmith” Black doing most of the jawing. Eventually, Adamson grows tired of Johnson’s prima donna ways, and plans of replacing him with the entire Blacksmith crew. When he discovers this, Johnson makes off with his machine, preps it for the upcoming Race of Champions, and hopes to put Adamson, Black and FastCo in their place once and for all.
Like an old school exploitation flick aimed directly at the seedy passion pits of the Deep South, David Cronenberg’s Fast Company (rereleased on Blu-ray by Blue Underground) is part melodrama, part detailed how to, part low budget romp, and 100% Canadian craftsmanship. Call him whatever you want - the master of clinical macabre, the professor of physical fear - but this amazing filmmaker is clearly gifted in the unquestionable basics of moviemaking. Treating his story as the nexus for an examination of all things mechanical, this is a gearhead’s dream deconstructed and fused with a perfectionist’s purposed vision. Cronenberg takes his camera in, around, and through his vehicles, offering shots unheard of by late ‘70s standards. As tires burn down the quarter mile strip, smoke and heat radiating off of fiberglass and metal, his lens measures every RPM, his mise-en-scene making the horsepower scream with piston pumping adrenalin.
Cronenberg clearly loves the sport, never talking down to or ridiculing its ‘need for speed’ allure. Similarly, his characters are carefully considered, motivation and meaning being derived from both conversations and the 200mph contests. Old school faces like William Smith and John Saxon do a great job with their slightly subdued parts, while newcomers Nicholas Campbell, Cedric Smith, and beauties Claudia Jennings and Judy Foster add to the overall authenticity of the experience. Cronenberg hired actual pit crews from the Northern drag circuit to handle his action and the scenes of quarter mile competition are realistic to a fault. Whenever something goes wrong, we instantly cringe, remembering how little of said accident was actually faked. Indeed, you can practically smell the burned rubber coming off the tarmac during many of these ‘make or break’ sequences.
This will all come as quite a shock to fans familiar with his Grand Guignol gross out gems like The Fly. In fact, outside of the intricate detailing over every aspect of the vehicles, it’s often tough to find Cronenberg here. His usual operatic style is stymied, the material not lending itself to the fascinating flourishes he utilizes to bring his ‘cruelty as beauty’ brilliance to life. Most of his movies center solidly on people, yet the players in Fast Company take second stage to the smell of grease and the roar of engines.
In fact, you have to go back further to find real links to his future filmmaking acumen. Luckily, Blue Underground provides them on this latest Blu-ray release. As usual, the format update makes the movie’s 1080p transfer look stunning. There is nary a flaw in this occasionally grain filled 35mm image. Mimicking the original DVD title, we are treated to two ancient Cronenberg artifacts - 1969’s future shock statement Stereo, and another speculative jewel, 1970’s Crimes of the Future. Both of these hour long experiments in cinema explain that the fledgling visionary was constantly tweaking his talents. He would indulge in David Lynch like monochrome shockers one moment, only to turn around and manage a tempting mainstream entertainment like Fast Company.
Indeed, when you take all the added content offered here - the interviews with Smith and Saxon, the creative tell-all with longtime cinematographer Mark Irwin, you start to understand how Cronenberg came to this project. The corporate greed manifest in the evil efforts of Adamson. The skilled individual fighting to keep his head above such shark-infested waters. The competitive push from a formidable, if friendly, foe. The last act revelation and redemption. These are all elements that would make appearances throughout the filmmaker’s venereal atrocities. You can see glimpses of Seth Brundle in Lonnie Johnson, wisps of Frank Carveth in Billy’s ‘desperate to make sense of things’ novice. Cronenberg himself offers up a wonderful explanation of this film’s place in his pantheon. You will find it on the commentary track, along with insights into his fascination with cars, his love of all things motor, and the reason why he never returned to the genre again.
It’s interesting to note that, as he enters his fifth decade as a director, Cronenberg remains the most elusive of single category myths. Even with unsual attempts at breaking out of his macabre mode, movies with names like M. Butterfly, Spider, and Crash, he remains one of the true masters of intellectualized corpse grinding. Like Wes Craven or Sam Raimi, he just seems more comfortable among the bile and entrails than he does the typical cinematic song and dance. Of course, those of us who love fright wouldn’t have it any other way. But it’s important to remember that some of our favorite fear mongers actually dabbled in diversions outside the standard scary movie mix. Among his many sidetracks, Fast Company is clearly one of his more unique - and engaging - and fun.