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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan

"FAST & FURIOUS"

You've got to hand it to the geniuses at Universal Pictures' marketing department. Fast & Furious is the fourth entry in the popular car fetish series, but the first sequel to reunite all the cast members. The ads for the film trumpeted: "New Model, Original Parts." That's clever. What a damn shame that none of that cleverness went into the movie itself. It's not unusual for an ad campaign to be better than the actual product; when an ad campaign is substantially better than the product, though, it's disheartening.

Let's just go with the nutshell plot analysis. A ruthless drug kingpin is using souped-up race cars to move his wares across the border. One of those runners is our old friend Letty (Michelle Rodriguez). When she's murdered, boyfriend Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) vows to get revenge. He does so by entering an illegal street race, the winner of which gets the privilege of joining the kingpin's crew. Also joining the race is Dom's old nemesis Brian O'Conner (Paul Walker), an FBI agent trying to bring down the smuggling operation. The two tentatively agree to work together, although O'Conner wants to bust the kingpin, whereas Dom wants a much bloodier revenge. Dom's sister Mia (Jordana Brewster) is even less happy to have Brian back in the picture, as he broke her heart somewhere in the nebulous time span between the original film and now.

When it was released in 2001, The Fast and the Furious was a surprise hit and a solid piece of entertainment to boot. The next two entries - 2 Fast, 2 Furious and The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift - were not quite as good but still had enough positive qualities to be worth a look. Reassembling the original stars for this fourth go-round should have guaranteed success, yet Fast & Furious represents a drastic drop in quality. The reason is simple: it abandons the central premise of the franchise. These movies started off being about the underground culture of street racing - about how cool the cars look, and how fast they can go, and how totally awesome it would be to tear down a city street at 150 MPH. That's fascinating stuff, and if the other installments tended to indulge in "automobile porn," all the better.

This fourth entry is about shoot-outs and fistfights and explosions. Street racing figures into exactly one scene - the one in which Dom and O'Conner both compete to get inside the kingpin's operation. The rest of the time, we are treated to a dull, predictable, uninspired crime story where a drug dealer just happens to use fancy cars as his mules. Personally, I don't want to see these characters speeding their cars across a dusty plain trying to outrun DEA helicopters. I want to see them speeding through the streets of L.A. in the middle of the night, cop cars in hot pursuit. Way too much time in Fast & Furious is spent watching the characters throw punches or pull guns. It seems a betrayal of the very thing that made the other entries (particularly the original) so enjoyable.

Some other problems significantly make things even worse. The acting is wooden, with most cast members appearing to sleepwalk through the picture. The story is needlessly complicated and, when you can figure it out, not particularly worth following. The editing is so choppy that you can't always tell what's going on. There are plot holes so big, you could drive a Porsche 911 Turbo with 28 valves, 480-horse power, and a canister of nitrous oxide in the trunk through them.

It's clear that no one really knew where to go with this franchise. The last sequel moved the action to Japan and explored the increasingly popular sport of "drifting." It suffered at the box office because it had an all-new cast, save for a ten-second Diesel cameo at the end. But you know what? That was a better sequel than this one because it took what we care about - the art of street racing - and found a different angle on it. The movie was still about the racers, the cars, and the amazing things they can do together. Fast & Furious, on the other hand, is a lame, two-bit crime melodrama that has had some automobile stuff shoved awkwardly into it. Were it not for the clever advertising and the cast reunion, I doubt any fan of this series would give a flying stick shift about it.

( 1/2 out of four)


Fast & Furious is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some sexual content, language and drug references. The running time is 1 hour and 39 minutes.

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