Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Race Wars: My Review of "The Fast and the Furious"

It's a good thing I had two "car guys" to shepherd me through the first two films in the franchise, because, soon after starting the first movie, I had serious doubts about my ability to complete this project. My interest in car-centric entertainment ended in elementary school, around the time two of my favorite TV shows of childhood, The Dukes of Hazzard and Knight Rider, finished their original runs. Since then, I've associated the genre with juvenile, mindless fun, and those shows certainly did nothing to discourage that link.

I had some Knight Rider flashbacks during the opening scene as a team of black cars (If you came here for gearhead talk, you came to the wrong place.) gang up on a semi to steal its precious, unknown (to me, still) cargo. From the car in front of the semi, a guy shoots something like a harpoon gun through the semi's windshield and pulls the glass out. I forget why that was necessary, but, in hindsight, it was pretty cool, as was the car that slid under the semi trailer, and stayed there, as they sped down the highway.

At this point, I should probably let you know that my grasp of the plot was never more than tenuous. This is primarily a cultural study and frivolous diversion for me. I also think it's worth noting that those "cool" things from the opening scene seem much more entertaining now than they did at the time. The stunts sound better than they looked on a TV. Without the help of the big screen, the spectacle was severely diminished.

Our introduction to Paul Walker's character comes next when we see him practicing his racing in the early-morning parking lot of Dodger Stadium. Henceforth, I shall refer to him as "P-Dub." Surely, I'm not the first to think of that nickname. It seems like an affectionate, respectful nod to his memory. Having seen the first 2 Fast and Furious films, I could totally see him using that handle.

So P-Dub rolls up on the auto repair shop/diner that Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel) runs with his sister, Mia (Jordana Brewster). He sits down at the lunch counter and asks her how the tuna is, as he's done many times before. She assures him that the tuna is sub-par, per usual, but he orders it anyway. None of the characters seems aware of the rather distasteful sexual subtext of this conversation, which is disappointing.

With the help of some nifty time-lapse photography, we flash forward to the car club meeting that night. But this isn't the sort of car club the Beach Boys used to sing about. No, this is an illegal drag-racing syndicate that takes over whole commercial districts in the middle of the night to ply their nefarious trade. Of course, this was pre-9/11, the summer of 2001, to be exact. I doubt the authorities still allow these scofflaws to operate, even under the cover of night.

[Author's Note: It has occurred to me that an exhaustive (and exhausting) recap of the plot may not be the best way to review these films. I'll try to stick to the highlights from here on out.]

Ja Rule is one of the racers, and one of his songs is playing during the scene, although I had to check the credits to make sure the song wasn't DMX's. (In my defense, they sounded a LOT alike.) His (Latina?) girlfriend take his hands and uses it to massage her left breast, saying that she'll be his win or lose, but if he wins he'll get "Monica" too. (Trust me: That was a highlight.)

Sadly, Ja Rule loses and still "hollas at" Monica, who angrily rebuffs his advances, pointing out that "You didn't win, (n-word)!" Like Ja Rule's steady girlfriend, Monica appears to be Latina, which makes me wonder: Is it okay for a fellow person of color to call a black person the n-word, and, if so, what other conditions must obtain? I'm sure it helped that Monica was pretty hot. What standard of hotness must a Latina (or any non-black woman) meet to earn this dispensation?

The Fast and the Furious is awash in race and ethnicity. The car club is populated by cholo-ish Latinos, thuggish blacks and slick East Asians, including a girl in the stereotypically Japanese naughty schoolgirl outfit. P-Dub and Vin run afoul of some East Asians on motorcycles who herd them into a very small Chinatown that looks like where Chinese children might go to tell the Great Dragon what they want for Chinese New Year's. The East Asians also torture and humiliate the middle-aged white guy P-Dub works for at the auto parts store (undercover, of course). That struck me as the most racially loaded scene.

The climactic race is even called "Race Wars," for God's sake! It's a surprisingly organized event in the desert with actual security guards wearing actual shirts that actually say "Security." I was surprised they didn't ask the attendees to declare their race before letting them in. Honestly, I was mystified by the racial stuff, unsure of whether to laugh at the stereotypes or applaud the honest (?) depictions of those communities. This may be our first post-racial film franchise. Or it could be a stunningly offensive cash-in. As a middle-class suburban white guy approaching middle age, I truly have no idea.

Returning to the plot, such as it is, P-Dub is an undercover cop trying to infiltrate Vin's illicit business hijacking semis full of electronics. (I can't 100% promise that that's accurate.) But he's falling for Vin's sister and in danger of "going native," sucked in by the subculture's familial atmosphere. I could certainly see the appeal of the tight-knit community, exemplified by Vin making his ADD-addled, whiz-kid mechanic, Jesse, say grace before they tuck into a barbeque dinner in the Torettos' backyard.

But I failed to see the appeal of Jordana Brewster. She's certainly an attractive woman; she's just not my cup of tea. Nor is she much of an actor, although she is convincing as a drag racer when she briefly takes the wheel from P-Dub for a bracing U-turn in traffic. Michelle Rodriguez generally puts her to shame as Vin's main squeeze, dishing out heaping spoonfuls of 'tude with a withering, sunglass-shaded glance and a menacing, snarling sneer.

Vin Diesel does a lot of Vin Diesel stuff, but we do get a glimpse behind that tough-guy exterior when he recounts the tragic death of his father in a stock-car race. Of course, that scene is so thick with cliche that no honest emotion can penetrate the garage's slanting, filtered sunlight or the momentous dollying of the camera. In the end, though, it's still enough to convince P-Dub that his future lies with the car club/family instead of law enforcement.

I wasn't expecting much going in, based on the film's 53% Rotten Tomatoes rating and multiple personal testimonials, but I think seeing it in a theater would've been a far superior experience. It doesn't strike me as the foundation for a myth-making, generation-defying film franchise on the order of Star Wars. However, there were many attractive women in revealing outfits and a lot of fast cars, which other people seem to like. Speaking for myself, though, there isn't enough "noz" in the world to get me excited about this movie.

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