At this point it's hard to say whether early April is still comfortably in spring dumping ground season or if the studios are actually trying to push the summer blockbusters up by a full month. Given the ridiculous sum of money that Fast & Furious made in its opening weekend, I suspect the latter, probably by accident more than intent, but it's not a very happy thought either way. If this sort of thing keeps up, I anticipate that within four or five years, the movie year will be reduced to just Blockbuster Season and December.

So anyway, Fast & Furious, the first movie of Summer '09, maybe, sort of. The fourth in the unnecessarily durable franchise stretching back eight years now, following The Fast and the Furious, 2 Fast 2 Furious (the finest sequel title in sequel history) and The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, to which it is in fact a prequel. Do you ever sit back and wonder if a franchise's titles were designed specifically to piss off archivists and video store clerks? I must confess that I have only seen the first film in the series, and that was many long years ago, so I'm essentially coming to F&F (As distinct from 'TFatF'. Man, whose idea was that goddamn title?) blind, and I find that it doesn't really matter a whole lot. Perhaps I am missing some bevy of marvelous in-jokes, and perhaps if I were able to identify those jokes I would have a somewhat more positive opinion about the film; or indeed, any positive opinion at all. I don't think I'd put a whole lot of money on that proposition, though.

Our heroes are Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel, returning from the first movie), a sort of international thief running various car-based heists out of Latin America - in the film's opening sequence, he leads a team to steal several gasoline tanks hooked to a semi with the aid of some super-nifty driving tricks and a pair of pick-up trucks - and Brian O'Conner (Paul Walker), an FBI agent on a task force aiming to take down a heroin cartel. Their paths cross when said cartel kills Letty Ortiz (Michelle Rodriguez), the Feds' woman on the inside, as well as Dom's former squeeze and business partner. Brian is trying to bring the cartel's head (a shadowy figure known as Arturo Braga), Dom just wants his head. They take the same path to infiltrate the organisation: apparently, Braga like to hire the best of the best street racers to run his drugs through his super-secret underground tunnel from Mexico into the U.S., and as we know from the previous films and the basic concept of the series, Dom and Brian are two of the best damn street racers who ever raced on a street.

Talking shit about the story in a film like this is an idiot's task, sort of like blaming ice for being cold. Though to be fair, I don't remember the story in the first film (no particular masterpiece) being quite this perfunctory and laden with messily-patched holes. For F&F to succeed on the level it was made at requires these few things: that Vin Diesel be given a fair number of chances to sparkle with that "I'm a charming asshole" grin that is his best weapon as an actor, that the car-oriented action sequences be given disproportionate screentime to the actual matter of the narrative, and that the car-oriented action sequences should totally fuckin' rawk. The film lands the first of these requirements without breaking a sweat, but the other two...

It is not correct to say that the action scenes in Fast & Furious are "bad". For a start, they are mostly made up of actual cars furiously moving at fast speeds, and for that reason alone they have weight and intensity that a CGI version would lack. Sorry, but it's just the way of it: even very good CGI still has a distinctive sheen to it, and a palpable lack of physicality. Moreover, the car choreography - careography? - is pretty good for the most part, especially in the opening sequence and later in the cross-Los Angeles race where Dom and Brian have to prove their mettle against one another and many hundreds of innocents.

Insofar, that is, as you can make out what the choreography is. Like so many action movies in the last several years, F&F suffers from excessive cutting (though at least the editing remains mostly coherent in this film, as opposed to something like the nightmarish opening car chase in Quantum of Solace) and inopportune camera angles that certainly do call attention to the shininess of the cars involved, but only rarely clearly indicate what the hell is going on in the broader sense; the first sequence is the only one that uses wide shots in any real way, and thus is the only one that really allows us to see what the cars are doing relative to their environment. About the film's smattering of non-car setpieces, including a footrace through an L.A. apartment building, I can only mumble irritably and wave them out of mind.

Even allowing that the action scenes are probably better-done than they usually are in movies like this nowadays, there still simply aren't enough of them. If the first FatF got this bogged-down in the minutiae of its own uninvolving plot, I certainly don't remember it; F&F, however, assumes we're very interested in its prepackaged narrative, musty with the scent of '80s anti-drug cop movies. Because man, do we ever get plenty of scenes watching Brian haggling with the other agents on his team, and scenes of Dom mulling over his feelings about the departed Letty while his sister Mia (Jordana Brewster, also of the first film - and I'll bet you haven't heard her name in a whole lot of years) chides him gently. There are also a healthy number of scenes in the middle involving Dom and Brian trying to worm their way into Braga's confidence, while Dom is rather arbitrarily seduced by a femme fatale named Gisele (Gal Gadot).

This superfluous, wandering plot ultimately keeps F&F from attaining the heights of a modestly diverting action thingy, dooming it instead to the pits of a modestly disappointing action thingy. Either way, there's not much "there" to the film: a self-styled retread of a movie that wasn't all that great to start with, useful only because the action is no worse than it ought to be. A few years ago, "no worse than it ought to be" would be enough by itself to recommend the film, but we've been blessed with some really great action movies lately, and so I find myself with absolutely no use for Fast & Furious whatsoever.

Reviews in this series
Fast & Furious (Lin, 2009)
Fast Five (Lin, 2011)
Fast & Furious 6 (Lin, 2013)
Furious 7 (Wan, 2015)
The Fate of the Furious (Gray, 2017)

Not yet reviewed
The Fast and the Furious (Cohen, 2001)
2 Fast 2 Furious (Singleton, 2003)
The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (Lin, 2006)