The first moments in Fastlane tell you exactly where it’s coming from: longhaired pretty boy Van Ray (Peter Facinelli) drives a racecar on a speedway, while a striking blond starts unzipping his jeans. Within seconds, you learn that this speed racer is an undercover cop, she’s his connection for a stolen-car buy, checking him for a wire (“Are you a cop?”), and his partner, the redoubtable Dre (Vondie Curtis-Hall), waits on the track, armed and ready for action. The shots are close (is that her hand in his pants?), the cutting is speedy, the soundtrack is kicking: just above the din of the engine, the Vines wail: “She never loved me, she never loved me! / Why should anyone?”
Fine, you think, it’s a buddy cop show, fashionably jazzed with setting and style by way of The Fast and the Furious. In a matter of seconds, you learn in a mini-flashback that Van has stolen $100,000 from the evidence room for this deal (because he’s supposed to be a “high-end, hooked-up buyer”). The partners look familiar, the black one older and wiser, the white one younger and wilder. Dre offers prudent advice, and Van comes back accordingly: “If you wanna play Mystical Negro,” says Van, “I’ll buy you the robe.” Good sign: the show is unafraid to acknowledge the race stereotypes it’s treading near. Neither is it afraid of to highlight the boy-bonding biz: Dre sticks a microphone up his partner’s ass, urging, “Spread your cheeks wider.”
And then, back in present time, Fastlane takes a little turn. First, there’s the expected tension between Van and the girl, named Cassidy (Jennifer Sky): she distrusts his fancy driving move, that kept her from feeling his wire, slickly snarling, “If I was here to bend over and doggy, wouldn’t I be barking?” Second, the sting goes all wrong, when the back-up uniforms miss a sniper in the speedway stands, and he shoots Dre.
This violence comes suddenly and with trendy touches — slow motion leaps turn to zap-whoosh zooms on gunfire and then back to slow motion tragedy. (Creator/co-writer/director McG, who also directed Charlie’s Angels, observes, “The goal of the show is to make it feel like an hour of film on television every week.”) After Van does a little stuntwork, flying headfirst under a car as Dre shoots two-fisted to cover his ass, he realizes Dre is down. He rushes — in slow motion — to his buddy and cradles his limp body. Cassidy drives off with the case full of cash and Van is upset. You can tell because the camera pulls out and up over the bloody, smoky, generally calamitous scene.
After the first commercial break, Van lands in an alarmingly white-on-white interrogation space with his grumpy superiors, Detective Lannigan (Paul Gleason, playing a sterner version of Duane T. Robinson, the wrongheaded LA cop on the ground in Die Hard) and Detective Marcus (Isaac Hayes, who only has to show up to fill the damn room). Van stands before a mirror, his white wifebeater still bearing the bright red palm print of his dead buddy. The detectives warn him that he’d better recover that missing money, or else, Marcus intones, “Guess whose ass they’re gonna go buckwild on?”
This recovery will involve re-hooking up with Cassidy, not to mention hunting down the slimyscum who killed Dre. Van has two new partners on this mission. One is Billie Chambers (Tiffani Thiessen), an LAPD lieutenant in charge of a deep-deep undercover unit (“This is a life of crime, 24/7,” she “explains”), with access to a warehouse called “the Candy Store,” full of much confiscated stuff (cars, drugs, money, bikes). Not only is Billie splendidly vampy (she first appears whipping a hairpin out of her head, her tresses tumbling as she offers the pin to Van, who’s maladroitly locked himself out of his car), she’s also a tough cop who knows what she wants. “I’ve had my eye on your for a while,” she tells her new recruit Van. He can’t say no.
Van’s second new partner is Dre’s brother, Deaqon (Bill Bellamy). An NYPD undercover narcotics cop who sports huge ice in his ear, he’s introduced shirtless on a basketball court, under the Wutang Clan’s “Uzi Pinky Ring.” His cell rings, and he learns his big brother’s been “killed in the line of duty.” And you know he’s upset because the camera spins around him, dodging in and out: very subjective trauma. Deaq’s on the first jet plane outta there, and his first stop in L.A. is an old street acquaintance, Aquarius (played with verve by L.A. radio personality Big Boy, a.k.a. Kurt Alexander, also visible in 3 Strikes and Master P’s Foolish), who welcomes him heartily: “You’re not here for no funeral, but you gonna be good for the funeral business.”
Both Deaq and Van are bent on revenge, but when the former overhears the latter dissing his brother (in order to re-impress Cassidy that he’s a hardcore player), they meet hating on each other, as all good buddy duos must. Also like their many precursors, they soon come to terms: holding guns on one another John-Woo-style in swank icy-blue-lit Van’s hotel room, they agree to drop their weapons, then wrestle and kick below frame (so you can imagine what’s going on). Their mutual introductions end as they throw themselves — together — out the window into the pool, all slow motion and glass flying and orgasmic.
While the actual (as opposed to metaphorical) sex in this episode goes to the white partner (rolling around on money, during Depeche Mode’s “Dream On,” not exactly a subtle, or proud, moment), it’s plain that ultraplayer Bellamy will get his before the season is out. For the purposes of the pilot, however, Deaq mostly plays protector and advisor for Van (who’s sharp enough to know what’s going on, noting that Deaq, like Dre, might be his Mystical Negro). They agree to work up a scheme against the sniper, who turns out to be a gone-bad DEA agent, Kane (Craig Scheffer).
The characters evolve Mod Squad-style, that is, according to what undercover assignment they’re on. Not only do Van and Deaq get to run all over town in assorted very-fast cars and live in “conspicuous” high-rent splendor, they also run through an impressive variety of soundtrack selections on their way, all suggesting just how self-conscious this show is. Some of these are obvious: driving in a convertible, accompanied by Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” is plainly too Crockett-and-Tubbs; and Van literally running into Fred Durst on the sidewalk while “Rollin'” rocks the background track is probably a little too name-droppy.
Another instance is at once obvious and edgy enough that you wonder if the network censor dozed off: when Van chats up Cassidy in a strip bar (her friend displaying her crotch in a pole maneuver, behind them), the music is N.E.R.D.’s “Lapdance,” or at least its beats. At the very end of the scene, just when Cassidy implies that he’s a cop, Pharell’s vocals kick in abruptly: “I’m just straight ill! Ridin my motorcycle down the streets, / While the government is soundin’ like strippers to me.” While this particular cut-in leaves out the provocative immediately previous line — “Cause this society, that makes a nigga wanna kill!” — it grants the sentiment by cutting to the abovementioned scene where the angry Deaq ambushes Van in his room. Moral: don’t trust the government, especially if you are the government. That goes double for any character played by Bill Bellamy.
And as for Mr. Bellamy: those doubters who remember his MTV VJ background and a couple of unfortunate film choices (How to Be a Player, Love Stinks) might forget that he did fine in The Brothers. Here he combines dramatic excess (hey: flipping camera angles and slo-mo, open-shirted sprints made Will Smith a superstar) and dry comedy with some panache. When Deaq and Van have to make nice with a crook (John Doe) who has recently been robbed by Kane’s DEA team, they head to a bar where the primary décor is a gigantic confederate flag. Before you can say 48 Hours, Deaq has conscripted a cowboy hat and two-stepped his way into the racists’ hard hearts, to the tune of “Cat Scratch Fever.”
Corny and broadly conceived, the scene does make its point, that for the Fast and the Furious crowd, old-fashioned racism is grist for the satirical-spectacularizing mill, easily targeted. In doing so, it noisily clears some initial space for Deaq in the overwhelmingly white-on-white world of La-La-Land’s detective shows. Whether or not he will play Mystical Negro for Van or push on to be a character in his own right, remains to be seen. Giddy, speedy, and plainly in love with its hyper-choreographed commotion, Fastlane looks like it just might be able to imagine enough space.