I don’t ask for much from summer popcorn movies. Give me some car chases and explosions, some romance, and a nasty villain who meets a nastier end, and I’m happy. I had high hopes for “The Fast and the Furious” to be a classic of this genre, but it turned out to be a major disappointment, not a good bad movie-as-video-game but a bad bad movie-as-brain-numbing-waste-of-celluloid. In fact, it is a bad bad bad bad bad movie.
Paul Walker plays Brian O’Connor, a loner with a fancy racecar who wants to get into the hidden world of street racers, and if you don’t guess that his motivation is more than getting close to Mia, the pretty sister (Jordana Brewster) of the fastest driver of them all, then you have never seen “Point Break,” one of several much better movies that this movie steals from shamelessly. The street racers swoop down to take over a quarter mile stretch for races that last less than 10 seconds, then disperse before the police catch up with them.
Brian challenges Mia’s brother Dom (Vin Diesel) and loses both the race and his car to the jeers of the onlookers. But he rescues Dom from the police and sticks with him through an encounter with a rival gang. Soon, he is a member of Dom’s rag-tag “team,” a family of outcasts that includes brilliant but attention-defecit-mechanic Jesse (Chad Lindberg), brooding Vince (Matt Schulze), and tough girl Letty (Michelle Rodriguez of “Girlfight”). Races and chases in various locales and several product placement moments later, it turns out that neither Dom nor Brian has been telling the truth and that both will have to put what they care about most on the line before it is all over.
This is one of those movies that cannot even fake authenticity. It is not about what is cool or about what the people in the audience think is cool. It is about what people in Hollywood think that the people in the audience think is cool, and it is about as cool as the fake rock music they used to play in “Brady Bunch” episodes when Greg and Marcia went to school dances. There is a lot of posing and attitude, and people say fake-tough and fake-profound things like, “It’s not how you stand by your car — it’s how you race your car” and “It doesn’t matter whether you lose by an inch or a mile – winning’s winning.” Nearly every line is a cliché, spoken without any sense of irony, tribute, or transcendence. There is some flashy photography (but doesn’t it defeat the purpose to make a 10-second race last for a minute onscreen?) and a lot of blasting faux-hip rap music, very fine cars with a button on the dashboard like that thing in “Star Wars” that makes them go into hyperspeed, and sprays of automatic weapon bullets that manage to miss all the main characters. The last fifteen minutes is genuinely, deeply, infuriatingly stupid. Diesel and Rodriguez are talented and watchable, but this movie insists on interfering with our ability to enjoy them. There is more tension and excitement in the one 10-minute “chickie run” segment of “Rebel Without a Cause” than in any race in this movie.
Parents should know that the movie is as close to an R as it can be and remain a PG-13. It is very violent, with shoot-outs that leave one character dead and another seriously wounded. A character takes one risk that appears suicidal. Characters drink and smoke. Corona beer seems to be an especially obvious product placement, and giving someone a beer is a gesture of honor and acceptance. There is a same-sex kiss and some skanky behavior. A woman offers one of the racers a threesome if he wins, then insults him when he does not. A man tells his girlfriend, “You’re my trophy.” Women appear in scanty clothing, including a thong. There is a non-graphic but explicit sexual situation. Characters use very strong language, including the n-word and other racial slurs. We see some gross photographs of an injured man. Characters are in extreme peril, both in racing and in shoot-outs. Robbing and shooting are sympathetically portrayed, and Brian’s ultimate decision is a serious betrayal. And someone needs to get the message to Hollywood that making a couple of the female characters strong and smart does not mean that the rest of them can be sexist bimbos.
Families who see this movie should talk about the way that even outcasts create families, as where Dom presides over a barbecue dinner that is like a cover illustration from Tatooed Biker done by Norman Rockwell. They even say grace. They should also talk about the people who do not tell each other the truth, and those who make the decision to violate the law to make things easier for themselves.
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy “Gone in 60 Seconds” and “Point Break.”