Fast & Furious

Cast:
Vin Diesel as Dominic Toretto
Paul Walker as Brian O’Conner
Jordana Brewster as Mia Toretto
Michelle Rodriguez as Letty
John Ortiz and Campos
Laz Alonso as Fenix Rise
Gal Gadot as Gisele Harabo
Jack Conley as Penning
Shea Whigham as Agent Ben Stasiak
Liza Lapira as Agent Sophie Trinh
Sung Kang as Han Lue
Mirtha Michelle as Cara
Greg Cipes as Dwight

Review:
It’s not a secret studios love franchises, and honestly they’d be foolish not to. In the high risk, high reward world of big budget filmmaking security of any sort is hard to come by and a franchise with a dedicated fan base is about as good as it’s going to get. Even better is a franchise based off a gimmick or brand instead of a particular story or actor, so that it can keep going on forever, impervious to originality or the whims of actors. Essentially, they all want James Bond, the golden grail. Of course, part of what makes a golden grail so valuable is that there’s only one, and very few studios have managed to get even close to that, probably because its hard to tell which type of franchises are which. Universal has been particularly good (or bad, depending on your point of view) at making that kind of mistake, especially with movies starring Vin Diesel.

2001′s “The Fast and the Furious” was the first of the trend, an unlikely blockbuster about street racing built largely on over-the-top, computer assisted car stunts. Over the next two sequels it shed its original director, all of its original cast and a lot of its popularity. Attempting to take some lessons from their diminishing return, the original cast has been brought back for what probably should have been the actual sequel, though I’m still not sure that’s a good thing.

After years of living on the run following the events of the first film, Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) finally returns to the racing scene of Los Angeles when an old friend is mysteriously murdered, the prime suspect of which is also wanted by his old antagonist, federal agent Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker).

The only founding member of the “Fast & Furious” family that hasn’t made it back is original director Rob Cohen, though after “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” that’s probably no loss. He’s been replaced by “Tokyo Drift” director Justin Lin and it’s unclear if that’s an improvement. So far, Lin has proved himself to be, at best, a journeyman director, still in search of an identity. He’s perfectly capable of shooting a presentable image, of putting a sequence together so that you can follow the narrative, but never any more than that. His films turn out to be just collections of scenes from various other movies, showing no imagination or authorial voice at all, though it does provide some unintentional irony to the Original Films logo in front of the film, right before it recreates the opening of the first “Fast and the Furious.”

He is here perfectly matched, and not in a good way, with screenwriter Chris Morgan (“Tokyo Drift,” “Wanted”) who seems more than perfectly content to recycle every piece of crap dialogue from every mediocre action film ever made with character development that could generously be called non-existent. His characters don’t speak in dialogue, they speak in cliché (which doesn’t differentiate him mightily fromm other successful event film writers – Hollywood generally loves movies that sound like other movies and are thus easy to understand), leaving it up to his director to add enough adrenaline and visual flair to cover up for the script’s deficiencies. The kind of script where everyone talks in exposition, the kind where the evil drug dealer feels compelled at the end to go to church for no reason at all, except maybe that’s from Mexico and that’s what people from Mexico do. He’s the poor man’s David Goyer, a hack’s hack. It kinda sorta works with Timur Bekmambetov, but Lin’s nowhere near that league, leaving every horrible word free to land with an unencumbered thud.

That leaves it pretty much up to the cast to make the film work. On the plus side, it’s the cast from the only film in the series that ever really worked. Or half of it anyway. Brewster and Rodriguez make what amount to glorified cameos. They have bearing on the plot, but don’t really take part in it. The only reason for their presence seems to be the fact that they were in the first one. “Fast & Furious” is essentially a buddy cop film as Brian and Dominic stalk the same prey, forced together by circumstances and neither entirely certain they can trust the other. Walker’s always been the type of actor who’s at his best when he’s not talking, but Diesel is capable of some good work when he puts his heart in it. Here though he seems to be just going through the motions, though a lot of that may have to do with the script. A really, really good actor couple probably make it work, but while Diesel has some real charisma, that sort of thing is probably beyond him.

Most of the rest of the cast was cast to type, from disbelieving FBI agent to evil drug dealer (a role John Ortiz seems unfortunately stuck with). It’s all about looks and style, with every big car scene also filled with lots of girls in short skirts, often making out with each other. Everyone knows these kinds of films are really made for teenagers and twenty-somethings, but honestly, scratch the surface of any man and you’ll find a teenage boy lurking underneath. It doesn’t make it any less cynical, but even cynical pleasures can be briefly satisfying, as long as you don’t think about them too much.

There are quite a few nods to the other films in the series–even “Tokyo Drift’s” Sung Kang makes a brief appearance–and it certainly feels like a “Fast & Furious” film. On the other hand, those tended to be empty-head style-over-all ‘thrill’ rides as well, so that might not be a positive. As hard as it is to believe, having the old gang back really does make a big difference, just not big enough. Lin isn’t the director, and Morgan really isn’t the screenwriter, to offer anything new enough to make “Fast & Furious” worth your time unless you’re a hardcore fan of the series. It’s actually quite a bit better than “Tokyo Drift” but that doesn’t exactly make it good. It’s all a bit too little, too late. Maybe Diesel will have better luck with another “XXX” film.

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