For years, Hentoff was Sheriff Joe Arpaio's biggest pain in the ass, a crusading lawyer who made news back in the mid-'90s suing the sheriff and the county jail system for systematic civil rights abuse of inmates, injuries caused by jail guards, and even the right for prisoners to receive copies of Playboy in the slammer while they awaited trial. (He lost that one.)
After a three-year stint back East working for a couple of nonprofits, Hentoff returned last year to his Arizona practice and picked up where he left off -- making news for choosing unusual clients. "They're drawn to me because they're cases no one else wants. They're pain-in-the-ass cases," says the 42-year-old barrister.
Swingers' clubs, strip joints, head shops. They've all turned to Hentoff for help. He's also defending Bradley Kennedy, the Chandler dentist who was arrested in ASU's law library in January holding a small arsenal of weapons. It was a natural case for Hentoff, who, despite his compassion for jailbirds, also has a fondness for guns and gun rights. He's just a step away, he notes proudly, from becoming an NRA certified instructor.
Mr. Firearms is also happy about his new ride: a silver Camaro Z-28.
"Maybe I can pick up some driving tips," the lawyer muttered laconically as he stepped into the Arizona Center theater for a screening last week.
Expectations were low. This was Hollywood hell, after all, a sequel to a dim-bulb action blockbuster with nearly an entirely different cast from the original and a new director, John Singleton (Baby Boy, Boyz N the Hood). And right from the start, it wasn't hard to spot all the problems with movies that go boom. Silly plot. Hackneyed dialogue. A dull backstory that takes more than an hour to unfold. Bad guys that can't shoot straight. Cops who don't know when to fire their weapons.
But the hell of it was, none of it mattered.
"I was surprised that I liked it as much as I did," said Hentoff after the show, and he put the blame squarely on the substantial shoulders of actor Tyrese.
"He makes Vin Diesel look like a cement block," Hentoff said.
The one-named R&B singer stole the show as Roman Pearce, an outlaw racer given a chance to erase his criminal record by going undercover as a haul-ass money runner for a big-time drug lord. Plausible? Not really. But Hentoff didn't mind.
"Any movie like this you're not going to have much of a plot," he said. "But the whole thing was Tyrese. He has a charisma that makes the movie."
The singer shows up about 30 minutes into the film, after it's already established that a rainbow of ethnically diverse young people passes the time by racing souped-up import cars at insane speeds over Miami's city streets, which are conveniently closed off by a couple of "Road Closed" signs. King of the local speedos is Brian O'Connor (Paul Walker), an ex-Los Angeles cop and holdover from the first film.
O'Connor's street-racing days are ended by U.S. Customs officials who fire a giant Taser-like weapon into his fancy car. But it's just the Customs cops' way of asking O'Connor for his help. There's a drug lord Customs would like to nab, but their best chance to do that is to plant a couple of undercover fast-car drivers in the kingpin's employ.
O'Connor agrees to help, but only if he can pair up with Tyrese's Pearce, who is serving a criminal sentence in Barstow while driving cars in a demolition derby. (Somehow, this makes more sense on celluloid.)
The bickering duo must find a way to bluff their way into the employ of the drug jefe, an ethnically ambiguous-looking Argentinean (played by Cole Hauser) with the equally ambiguous name of Carter Verone.
We know Verone's the bad guy because he does the most sneering. But Hentoff was intrigued that Singleton avoided making Verone a stereotypical racial baddie -- aren't dark-skinned Colombians supposed to be drug lords? -- and made nearly all of the dumbass types (cops, henchmen, etc.) various flavors of white.
"The first film used a lot of racial stereotypes. There were different gangs for each racial type," Hentoff said, "and each one drove a different type of car. The Asians had their own kind of car, for example."
Hentoff liked Singleton's approach better: All of the ethnic types get along just fine, especially when drag-racing ringmaster Tej (played by rapper Ludacris) is running the party.
Hentoff also didn't object to the film's contention that Customs officials would, for the sake of nabbing a big fish, allow their undercover agents free rein to terrorize South Floridians with extreme driving tricks on busy highways.
"You'd be amazed what police let informants get away with. Especially the feds," said the cop-suing lawyer.
Time and again, however, it wasn't the high-speed action that made 2 Fast 2 Furious motor, but the subtle hilarity of Tyrese. "I think it all comes down to him," Hentoff said. "You could have another actor in there and the movie would have sucked." By the halfway point, it became clear that the Arizona Center audience was less interested in the endless gear-shifting and tire screeching than what Tyrese would utter next for a big laugh.
Which raised another point for the barrister. 2 Fast 2 Furious had almost seemed a light comedy, despite all of its aggression, and not a single character had gotten laid or bought the farm.
"Isn't that interesting? No sex. No violence. Nobody died," Hentoff said, as if it suddenly struck him as a revelation. When it was pointed out that there had, in fact, been plenty of violence, with bullets flying and punches thrown, the lawyer argued that much of it had been implied, not graphic. "The key beating was shot from the ground up, so you couldn't see the blows landing," he said.
"I can't remember the last time there was an action movie without a gratuitous sex scene. They must have wanted badly for this to be a PG-13 movie. Smart, too," Hentoff continued. "I mean, it was essentially a long video game. Didn't you get the idea that you had a toggle switch in your hand?"
Asked if the lack of a body count would only mask the pernicious effect the film might have on young viewers, Hentoff nodded.
"It'll encourage a lot of crazy driving, I'll tell you that," said the attorney. But youngsters who follow their 2 Fast 2 Furious viewing by turning the streets of Phoenix into a racetrack can't turn to him, the lawyer said. He doesn't handle DUI or other traffic-related cases. But he doubts that drag racers cause nearly the problems that other bad drivers do, he added.
"You never really read about drag races in Phoenix resulting in death. It always seems to be the drunk attorney or the rich guy," Hentoff mused.
Asked about his own driving habits, the lawyer admitted to being a cop magnet in his powerful Camaro. "Well, the speedometer goes up to 150. I try to be careful. I got too many tickets the last time I had a Z-28. So I take it easy."