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High-octane The Fast and the Furious is a joyride to nowhere

If internal combustion ever becomes obsolete -- that is, if the auto industry ever allows internal combustion to become obsolete -- whatever will the movies do? Hoofbeats are dramatic, the chug of a steam engine is suspenseful, and the roar of a gasoline-powered vehicle stirs the blood of the self-respecting moviegoer. So does the whooshing of a spaceship. But the step between those last two -- the ineffectual hum of an electric motor -- just doesn't cut the mustard.

The Fast and the Furious, Rob Cohen's fanciful action movie about the L.A. road-racing scene, has, if nothing else, plenty of roaring motors and hiccuping gear shifts. This is not, however, the most remarkable sound in the film. That honor belongs to Vin Diesel, who plays the romanticized speed racer at the center of the story.

Who, or what, does Diesel sound like? It can drive you nuts trying to figure out something to compare his voice to. He sounds like . . . sort of like George Segal, mixed with Tone Loc, slowed way down and played back through a speaker submerged in 30-weight oil. Oddly, this turns out to be quite pleasant to listen to. Diesel, bald and brawny, was the man-of-action antihero in the sci-fi yarn Pitch Black and the nice Italian soldier in Saving Private Ryan, but his most notable screen work may have been as the voice of the title character in the terrific kids' movie The Iron Giant. Even allowing for remixing enhancement, it's doubtful that another actor could have sounded so much like a metal robot with a heart should.

Diesel power: Dominic (Vin Diesel, left) and Brian (Paul Walker) are, you guessed it, The Fast and the Furious young men on the streets of L.A.
courtesy of Universal Pictures
Diesel power: Dominic (Vin Diesel, left) and Brian (Paul Walker) are, you guessed it, The Fast and the Furious young men on the streets of L.A.

Diesel has a similar quality -- imposingly strong, yet warm -- in The Fast and the Furious, where he plays Dominic, the paternal alpha male of a circle of gearheads who race souped-up cars in clandestine rallies on the streets of L.A. As hobbies go, this ain't cheap, so Dominic and his pals must occasionally subsidize their activities with daring truck robberies.

The newcomer to this circle is an eager-beaver young racer named Brian (Paul Walker), who ingratiates himself with Dominic over the suspicions and jealousies of the gang. What ensues is basically an uncredited remake of 1991's Point Break, with the surfboards replaced by high-performance cars.

Remember Point Break, that ludicrous but rather elegant piece of eye candy from Kathryn Bigelow? Keanu Reeves falls in with a group of surfers, led by Patrick Swayze, who finance their lifestyle by robbing banks in rubber president masks -- one of the great freestanding images in '90s film is of a man in a smiling Reagan mask brandishing a flaming gas pump nozzle.

If there's nothing quite that visually lyrical in The Fast and the Furious, director Cohen, most recently of The Skulls, gives us a pretty good, efficient ride all the same. The film, which was inspired by a Vibe magazine article, takes a while to get going -- early on, the sequences seem almost random, and it's hard to follow what's happening. But as the relationship between Dominic and Brian progresses, the charm of the actors takes hold, and the film calms down, at least as much as it can within the bounds of the genre. It's intellectually sophomoric, dramatically adolescent and morally vacuous, all of which is another way of saying that it's good fun.

Like Point Break, The Fast and the Furious is essentially a love affair, plentifully punctuated by action, between two men who inconveniently happen to be heterosexual. Not to worry -- Dominic has a sister (Jordana Brewster) to act as his surrogate in bed with Brian. There's also a girlfriend for Dominic, played by Michelle Rodriguez of Girlfight, striking in a fairly thankless role.

The plot's various convolutions come to a head in a lengthy and impressive chase scene on a desert highway, in which Diesel and crew attempt one more truck stickup. It's a fine piece of action filmmaking, reminiscent of, though far punier than, the finale of The Road Warrior. You may well find yourself rooting, however, for the poor beset truck driver, who, armed with a shotgun, defends his rig and his freight with uncommon valor. The sequel ought to be about this guy.

Pure leadfoot fantasy though it is, The Fast and the Furious does nonetheless have a sociological angle which may bear study. The cars here are foreign -- "rice rockets," in the subculture's parlance. To what can the relaxation of traditional motorhead xenophobia toward imports be attributed? Multiculturalism? The WTO? It would be interesting to see how this L.A. movie's Nissans and Mitsubishis play in Peoria.

 
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