I was surprised as heck when Ja Rule showed up in an early scene in The Fast and the Furious. The ads I’ve seen don’t mention him and I haven’t seen him promoting the film anywhere. But I was glad to see him, given that the first several minutes of the movie before he arrived at a nighttime drag race somewhere in an eerily deserted section of Los Angeles were looking very familiar. The plot involves some bad street racers, led by Dom (Vin Diesel, who most definitely is living up to his turbocharged name), who steal truckloads of DVD players (they’re reeeally bad!), and a good young cop, Brian (Paul Walker), assigned to Donnie Brasco his way inside their organization in order to send them to the slammer.
Ja Rule has nothing to do with any of this. As far as I could tell, he’s a local racer with a fast car, a smart mouth, and too much free time at night. In another movie, Ja Rule (according to the credits, his character’s name is Edwin !!) would have been somehow implicated in the crimes or brought on board by the undercover cop or died a flamboyant fiery-car-crash death. If you’re going to cast someone as charismatic as this currently hot R&B/hip-hop crossover star, you should make use of him, you know, integrate him into the plot. But in The Fast and the Furious (apparently based on “a magazine article by Ken Li”), Ja Rule provides a minute of “diversity” at the car race, the Latinos, the Asians, the black guys, and the white guys all hang with their own like-raced crews (excuse me: they call them “teams” in this movie). For Ja Rule’s part, it appears he’s making a career move, maybe following the usual hiphop-star-to-movie-star trajectory, from posse-member to music videos to supporting roles to Will Smithdom.
In this film, though, the career looks stalled. Ja Rule does nothing but lose a car race and then get dissed by a girl. He doesn’t go to the after-race party at Dom’s. He doesn’t get chased by the cops like Brian and Dom. He doesn’t even have to tangle with the motorcycle-riding, seriously grudge-holding Chinese guys, Johnny Tran (Rick Yune) and Lance (you heard me, Lance, played by Reggie Lee), also like Brian and Dom. No, he’s just gone from the movie. And he should thank his lucky stars.
That’s not say The Fast and the Furious is only terrible or ignorant, though it mostly is. It’s also vroom-vroomy, delivering many pay-off shots of cars flipping, burning, and spinning, the usual. But in part, because the driving scenes are so cool, it’s one of those movies where you’re waiting impatiently for the tedious expository scenes to get over with so you can see more driving, more screeching and crashing. Everyone in this movie is a driver, everyone is jonesing for the best “ten second car” (this means something specific, I think it has to do with what you can do with a Honda Civic to make it raceworthy).So, when Brian falls for Dom’s “kid sister” Mia (Jordana Brewster), you could care less if they go to bed after their nice restaurant scene what you really want to know is, how does she drive? (Answer: all right for a girl, though her giggly careening around corners looks more show-offy than skillful, whereas when the boys drive, it’s serious business.) Dom has a solid driver for a girlfriend, Letty (Michelle Rodriguez, of Girlfight breakout fame and she should be doing something better with her time), and she does get to race (and defeat) a presumptuous dread-headed guy. But her primary function is to look fine in a grease-stained wife-beater t-shirt.
Which leaves us with the primary drama between Dom and Brian. Director Rob Cohen (whose last film was The Skulls) appears to have an interest in guy-bonding by rituals, but he and screenwriters Gary Scott Thompson, Erik Berquist, and David Ayer haven’t quite figured out how to make these rituals relevant to the rest of the planet’s population. The “undercover cop being seduced by the lifestyle he’s investigating” is a potentially compelling, if well-worn idea, but The Fast and the Furious isn’t even as engaging as the movie that it most resembles, Kathryn Bigelow’s Point Break (a movie whose investigation of anxieties shaping homosocial community and competition is actually quite shrewd, if you can get past Keanu Reeves’ “Hey dude” affect and Patrick Swayze’s hair).
In The Fast and the Furious, questions about competition and brotherhood are given short shrift, and the lack is disguised by some corny faux-bonding scenes, in which Dom and Brian exchange glances and share heartfelt backstories. Or rather, since Brian is lying during most of their relationship, it’s Dom who spills his guts about his dad’s race-car death and his own vicious-and-perversely-self-righteous assault on the driver who caused the accident sheesh, Brian almost gets teary over this tale, told in a garage where the light filters in through the window just so, and Dom’s silhouette looks haunted and fragile. (Briefly we are talking about Vin Diesel here.) Then Brian realizes that, despite appearances and the fact that Dom beat that dad-killer driver almost to death, Dom is an upstanding citizen. And then, Brian realizes that his daddy-cop-superiors, specifically the tough but also tender Sergeant Tanner (Ted Levine), can be wrong they had him convinced that Dom is a psycho-loser. Fortunately, Brian sees the light, and comes to understand, as he puts it hisownself, that Dom is a “complicated guy,” as well as a visionary and a pillar of morality (and compared to the cops and feds in this movie, he probably is).
The authorities and their concerns with law, property, and so-called justice aren’t really the focus here—they’re just pretext for Brian’s personal dilemmas (Should he sleep with Mia? Should he tell off the creepy guy who’s nosing around her? And gee, do you think she’ll be upset when she finds out he’s been lying to her?). These dilemmas all come down to the inevitable moment that he must confess his deception and beg for forgiveness. (And in case you didn’t quite get which relationship is primary, the long and drawn out horrified-reaction-to-this-news scene is not Mia’s but Dom’s.) That Brian’s betrayal gets twisted around into a positive thing is only one of several narrative miracles of this movie. Others involve cars outrunning trains, characters popping in and out, Brian’s ability to maintain any deception for any length of time, Mia’s inexplicable affection for Brian, and the stunning refurbishment of a beater car that Brian brings over to the garage, so he and Dom can work on it together!
And this is the point, this shared love of doodling around in an engine with their arms filthy with oil, their faces smeared with sweat and anti-freeze. There’s a lot of metal and rubber and sparks and blood flying around here (eventually, one of these truck drivers gets tired of being ripped off, so he hauls out a shotgun to protect the DVD players . . . I guess anyone who drives anything in this film comes equipped with a testosterone issue). But the movie isn’t really about breaking laws, being punished, lamenting Ja Rule’s teeny part, or even learning how to be a man. It’s really about cars. If that sounds like a metaphor, well, okay.