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'Fast & Furious'

MOVIE REVIEW

If high-speed vehicles are your thing, this fourth edition of the vrooming-and-screeching film series may be for you.

April 03, 2009|BETSY SHARKEY | FILM CRITIC

If you're a lover of stomach-clenching speed that turns the world into a neon blur; if you thrill to the sight of high-gloss chassis screeching, spinning and slow-rolling into explosive fires and flying debris; if your eyes go soft in the presence of a gleaming motor; if a pounding bass is the bump-and-grind background music of your dreams -- or put more simply, if you're in the mood for a lot of vroom, vroom, thump, thump, then "Fast & Furious," the fourth edition of that metal-twisting series, should leave you exhausted and satiated for a very long time.

The pit crew from "The Fast and the Furious," or most of it, is back, led by Vin Diesel's Dom -- all ripped muscles, fast cars and evil deeds -- as enigmatic as ever, and still with girlfriend Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), the only one who's ever been able to push past Dom's "auto" erotic zone to touch that slow beating heart of his. It takes a tragedy to pull rogue FBI agent Brian O'Conner (Paul Walker) back into Dom's life, and Brian realizes he still has a real soft spot for Dom's sister Mia (Jordana Brewster, looking more than ever like a young Demi Moore).

It is no small irony that this righteous ode to muscle cars -- and a bygone era when all America wanted from its wheels was speed, power and pumped-up style -- comes to theaters just as the U.S. auto industry is imploding, in part because it too was clinging to the memory of what was. All of which turns "Fast & Furious" into a strange piece of nostalgia, where, without apology, fast cars still rule and fuel is burned with abandon.

Director Justin Lin is behind the wheel again -- he of the beautiful moving metal of "Tokyo Drift," the one redeeming aspect of No. 3 in the franchise, except for the wry Vin cameo at the end. Lin brought a tight new torque to the series even though he didn't have the best story line and characters to work with (not that there's much story to be found in any of these vehicles).

Lin infuses the necessary full-throttle bits with a dynamic lyricism, choreographing the chaos like a whipped-up jazz-fusion set -- trusting absolutely in the hypnotic power and beauty of strength and movement. Which is why "Fast & Furious" is, in a very bizarre way, a thing of gasp-inducing artistry to watch, even if you're not a member of the NASCAR, gear-head, street-racing crowd.

Even with all the movie's speed, at the deep center of its adrenaline-charged heart "Fast & Furious" is a love story of boys and their cars, with all of the longing looks sweeping right past the barely clad bones of girls who gather like flies to honey, draping themselves over the cars and the guys, anything to get close to the power that rumbles to furious life within.

Looking back to 2001, it is remarkable that the original brought on such fever dreams, with its relative restraint and its far more tentative soul. The new movie's energy field is vibrating on high from the beginning. "Fast & Furious" picks up Dom's story in the Dominican Republic, where he's apparently been sitting out the series since the first one ended with him heading for the Mexico border.

Dom, Letty and a new crew are boosting oil tanks, taking them right off the back of truck cabs as they're heading to market at 100-plus mph on pockmarked roads perched on the edge of deadly drop-offs high above the blue Caribbean. It's been a good run for Dom, but one that is about to end with law enforcement hot on his heels.

A quick plot twist and a few fast cuts and we're back in L.A. where it all began. Suddenly, there are major scores to settle. At the center of the action is a ruthless Mexican drug lord who is running a high-stakes operation that has the fastest drivers he can find moving product across the border, caravan style, at 200 mph.

Dom and the FBI, with Brian driving their fleet, want to bring him down, but for different reasons. What happens next isn't really important as long as you know there are a series of extreme and extended demolition derbies -- needless to say countless cars gave their lives to make this movie possible.

As much as metal rules in "Fast & Furious," it would be nothing (well, almost) without Diesel, as Universal found out when the studio tried to re-create the magic in No. 2 and No. 3 without him and box-office numbers began a downward slide. When Diesel's characters work, they are compelling in the most counterintuitive of ways.

Dom never stops being the outsider, even with his own crew, always existing on the edges of any given moment or situation, without the slightest trace of emotion. Facing off against a psychopath with endless depths of fury, Diesel is always implacable, unreadable. He just . . . is. Yet somehow his apparent absence of malice is reassuring, because you just know, no matter what, he will punch the clock, he will get the job done.

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betsy.sharkey@latimes.com

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'Fast & Furious'

MPAA rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some sexual content, language and drug references

Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes

Playing: In wide release

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