This latest installment in the L.A.-bred, Vibe article-based street racing franchise is a strange kind of sequel. After a thrilling (if horrendously written) first chapter (2001’s The Fast and the Furious) that confirmed Vin Diesel’s superstardom, two sequels featuring fewer and fewer original cast members took the series on disastrous road trips to Miami (2003’s 2 Fast 2 Furious) and Tokyo (2006’s The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift). Fast and Furious, as its title suggests, marks a much-needed return to origin myths. After a spectacular opening truck-robbery in Costa Rica that puts Duel’s big-rig carnage to shame, the action eventually returns to L.A.
Here, legendary driver Dominic Toretto (Diesel) rekindles his racing connections in order to join a drug ring that first installment foe Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker) has infiltrated as part of an undercover FBI operation. The series’ founding fathers take up their tense friendship: Dom a kind of street-savvy Morpheus brooding while plotting revenge; Brian the paternalistic jock willing to break rules occasionally if it’ll help save the day. Though they split screen time, Diesel’s outlaw hero is this film’s (and series’) gravitational center (a fact only accentuated by Walker’s total one-dimensionality), and director Justin Lin (who’s also responsible for the series’ nadir, Tokyo Drift) makes constant use of the star’s charisma. (In one of the best non-chase scenes, Diesel even develops Professor X-type psychic powers!) That’s not to say the chase sequences — the series’ bread and butter — are anything to sneer at.
Like its title — stripped of articles, numbers and subtitles — Fast and Furious is a leaner vehicle than its predecessors, delivering more elaborate and dangerous races in more rapid succession than ever before. From the crowded streets of L.A. to the desert flats of the Mexican-American border, the automotive stunts of previous installments are overshadowed time and time again. If there was ever a moment when More Fast, More Furious would have been an appropriate title, this is surely it.
Fast and Furious still has problems, though. Most notably the loss (spoiler alert) of its only promising female character Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), killed off to provide Dom his revenge plot. In a franchise and subculture that objectifies women almost as often as cars and treats them with nowhere near as much respect, Rodriguez was a much-needed symbol of female agency, and the pain of her absence only becomes more acute as Diesel and Walker’s lopsided bromance evolves. The script, handled here by Chris Morgan (another Tokyo Drift alum), is typically uninspired and rarely exceeds the utilitarian goal of setting up the next chase. Despite these plot and sexual politics shortcomings, Fast and Furious marks a high-point in this B-movie motorhead franchise. Don’t race to see it, but if you’re running low on high-octane chase extravaganzas look no further.