Fast & Furious

(2009) ** Pg-13
107 min. Universal Pictures. Director: Justin Lin. Cast: Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Michelle Rodriguez, Jordana Brewster, Sung Kang, John Ortiz.

/content/films/3376/1.jpgLet’s face it: no one goes to an entry in the Fast and the Furious franchise expecting Ibsen. Action junkies—primarily males—know the deal: in place of thoughtful dialogue, they get hot rods in hot colors, curvy women busting out all over them, and a handful of high-octane car chase sequences in thunderous surround sound. And the women get Vin Diesel, he of the bulging biceps. (“Don’t forget the shoulders,” one woman admonished me, and indeed how could I?)

Casual observers will have lost count, but the new film Fast & Furious is the fourth in a still-lucrative franchise for Universal Studios (for those counting, the latest is a sequel to the first two films--The Fast and the Furious and 2 Fast 2 Furious--and a prequel to the third film, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift). Helming his second entry, director Justin Lin has rounded up the principal players from the first film: thief-racer Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel); Mia Toretto (Jordana Brewster), his sister; FBI agent Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker), Mia’s ex-boyfriend; and Dom’s lover and partner in crime Letty (Michelle Rodriguez).

It’s all downhill from the snazzy opening sequence: literally, in that it involves the speedy anti-heroic thieves chasing a runaway oil tanker down the sharp grade of a Dominican Republic highway (also allegorical: Letty kicking off the oil heist with an enthusiastic “Let’s make some money!”). The proper plot moves into gear as Dom learns the authorities are catching up to him, giving him cause to disappear for a while. In Dom’s absence, one of his crew is abruptly murdered by Mexican heroin trafficker Arturo Braga (John Ortiz). “I’m going to kill this Braga and anyone else who gets in my way,” Dom says. As it happens, the FBI also badly wants Braga, causing O’Conner and Toretto to cross paths once more.

That the oft-criminal O’Conner has been reinstated as an FBI agent is but one of many incredible ideas in the latest film, but then gaping plot holes have been a longstanding tradition of the franchise. Screenwriter Chris Morgan’s attempt and fails to re-tie knots that long ago came undone. “Maybe you’re not the good guy pretending to be the bad guy,” Mia tells Brian. “Maybe you’re the bad guy pretending to be the good guy. You ever think about that?” Oh, snap!

Walker’s blank presence--most distinguished by a career-afflicting Valley accent--contributes to the film’s tone of unaware self-parody (he actually says, “Sorry, car” before one of the film’s many driving stunts). As for Diesel’s “car whisperer,” his big-cat purr and muscular imperviousness to pain can be amusing but more often ridiculous (and is his penchant for making his 1970 Dodge Charger rear up like a bucking bronco some sort of visual pun for horsepower?).

Lin’s film has the strange distinction of doing just about everything right to please fans while also showing a near-total lack of creativity. For some, this empty-calorie junk-food cinema will be just the comfort food to hit the spot: Furious entertainment for a moment of “populist rage.” But it’s hard to escape the feeling that Fast & Furious is more than a little…mechanical.

[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]

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Aspect ratios: 2.40:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Street date: 7/28/2009

Distributor: Universal Studios Home Entertainment

As befits a brand-new film, Fast & Furious gets a clean hi-def transfer for Universal's Blu-ray edition. The pictorial results are still somewhat middling, with vibrant color and generally strong detail but a lack of dimensional "pop." The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is designed to rattle your nerves. It may take more discerning ears than mine to itemize the film's discrete effects amongst all the metal-crunching, but you'll definitely be "playing with power" with this one.

Universal serves up a sizeable array of bonus features, beginning with a feature commentary with director Justin Lin. Most viewers will probably cruise first to the U-Control section, this time featuring Take Control, a special viewing mode hosted by Paul Walker and Lin. This feature is very much like the "Maximum Movie Mode" with director Zack Snyder on the Watchmen: Director's Cut Blu-ray: Lin and Walker step onto the screen and share the frame with panels displaying the film. They can pause, rewind, go into slo-mo, etc. as they point out features of the film and discuss how scenes were achieved.

Another U-Control options, Virtual Car Garage and Tech Specs pops up with info about the vehicles seen on screen and gives access to the Virtual Garage for 360° views; there, "Build a Car" Mode allows you to customize your very own Dodge Charger.

Next up is a bland "Gag Reel" (5:00, HD). More important to fans will be the original short film "Los Bandoleros" (20:23, HD), written and directed by Vin Diesel. It's a prequel to Fast & Furious set in the Dominican Republic and featuring the characters of Toretto (Diesel), Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), and Han (Sung Kang).

"Under the Hood - Muscle Cars" (6:55, HD) discusses the film's hot-rod stars. Diesel, Walker, picture car coordinator Dennis McCarthy, Laz Alonso, and Lin participate.

"Under the Hood - Imports" (4:59, HD) continues the theme with Alonso, Rodriguez, Lin, producer Neal H. Moritz, Walker, and McCarthy.

"Getting the Gang Back Together" (9:50, HD) focuses on the sequel's role in the greater franchise. Interviewed are Diesel, writer Chris Morgan, Walker, Lin, Moritz, Jordana Brewster, Rodriguez, John Ortiz, Alonso, and Gal Gadot.

"Driving School with Vin Diesel" (3:50, HD) depicts Rick Seaman of Rick Seaman Driving School refreshing Diesel on his stunt-driving skills.

"Shooting the Big Rig Heist" (9:47, HD) is self-explanatory, a detailed behind-the-scenes look with Moritz, stunt coordinator Mike Gunther, Morgan, Diesel, Sung Kang, Lin, Rodriguez, McCarthy, stunt coordinator Freddie Hice, Don Omar, Tego Calderon, set foreman Bill Schermer, 2nd unit director of photography Paul Hughen, special effects supervisor Matt Sweeney, and 2nd unit director Terry Leonard.

Two more featurettes detail stunts. "Races and Chases" (11:01, HD) gathers Lin, Moritz, Morgan, producer Michael Fottrell, stuntman Oakley Lehman, Walker, McCarthy, 2nd unit 1st assistant director Albert Cho, and VFX supervisor Thaddeus Beier, while "High Octane Action: The Stunts" (11:22, HD) includes interview clips with Moritz, Gunther, Leonard, Hice, stuntman Bill Lucas, Alonso, Lin, Sweeney, and Schermer.

"South of the Border: Filming in Mexico" (2:55, HD) is a nifty little featurette about shooting on location and public relations with the locals. Fottrell, Ortiz, Lin, and Vin Diesel add their comments.

But wait, there's more...The Fast & Furious Video Mash Up Application (make your own music video, then share it on BD-Live!), the "'Blanco' Music Video by Pitbull featuring Pharrell" (4:11, SD), and Trailers for all four films in the franchise, including Fast & Furious (2:13, HD).

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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