Over the last eight years, I haven't showed much love for the "Fast/Furious" franchise. So please, when I write that "Fast & Furious" is the best film of the series, it's really not cause for a lynching. With an artistic recipe that calls for gaudy cars, awful actors, and frenzied visuals, I'll go as far as to consider "Fast & Furious" merely adequate, not appetizing. Still, after three previous films that delighted in kicking the art of cinema in the groin, I'll happily embrace the brooding, single-minded ride of cowboy vengeance the latest installment has to offer.
Living life as an international gasoline pirate with girlfriend Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), Dominic (Vin Diesel) is forced to return to America when tragedy strikes close to home. Vowing revenge on a drug lord who killed a loved one, Dominic finds his brutal investigation methods intersect with his old law enforcement pal Brian (Paul Walker), who's also hunting for the same villain. Reluctantly teaming up for a common cause, the boys head undercover as drivers for thug Campos (John Ortiz), crossing into Mexico to smuggle cases of drugs. Within striking distance of their ultimate prize, Brian and Dominic must summon the courage and the intelligence to not only find their man, but also thwart the clueless investigative practices of Brian's intrusive FBI colleagues.
Really, it's all about the stunts; these "Fast/Furious" pictures should always be about the action. Not the iffy special effects, the wiffle ball passes at characterization, or the fixation on lipstick lesbianism to titillate the target demo. The movies have always made a certain impact when drumming up unyielding adventure for the leads, blessedly taking them away from the burden of big screen emoting. The oddly titled "Fast & Furious" sort of computes this requirement, as director Justin Lin (returning from his dreadful "Tokyo Drift" duties) amps up the action to celebrate the long-awaited reunion of the primary cast members (Jordana Brewster also reappears) from the original film.
Opening with a marvelous, stunt-happy Dominican Republic assault on a tanker truck, "Fast & Furious" announces itself as a leaner, meaner creation, aimed more precisely than its rootless cousins. Revenge is the dish served cold here, instilling the faint air of focus to the events, as Dominic and Brian work diligently to bring the mystery bad guy to justice, leaving little room to pore over dramatic nonsense that, let's be honest here, nobody in this cast is capable of articulating. These heavily polished ladies and gentlemen are better seen than heard, and the less Lin gives them to do outside of frowning and grimacing, the better off the movie is.
Lest this review start sounding like a recommendation, I assure you all that "Fast & Furious" remains dumb as rocks, chases diluted trends in fashion and automobiles, and turns a crucial climactic chase sequence into an absurd cartoon aesthetic the rest of the film pleasantly avoids. Also, in the interest of full disclosure, watching Diesel and Walker trade one-liners remains a sadistic torture device, and Lin's unimaginative direction fails to bring the central conflict to a needed boil. There's a lot to loathe in "Fast & Furious," but the glimmer of filmmaking evolution shines brighter than ever before, leaving me more bored with the end product than rudely pantsed and assaulted. That's progress to me.
"Fast & Furious" is actually sort of a funny looking film, and the VC-1 encoded presentation (2.40:1 aspect ratio) makes the best use out of the trendy cinematographic choices. With the action either taking place outside under a blazing sun, or inside dark, forbidding spaces, the image quality is stable on this BD, but never quite outstanding. The disc handles black levels with authority, backing up the dramatics well. Skintones read a little too hot for comfort, though it appears to be a natural consequence of the heightened visual design. Colors pop throughout the presentation, with car paint jobs coming off wonderfully.
As to be expected with a feature film so fixated on the sensory experience, the DTS-MA sound mix is pleasingly berserk. Boasting terrific surround activity that renders chases and collisions with a sparkling you-are-there, bass-swirled punch, the mix takes great care of the intricate sound design and extravagant car stunt work (the opening sequence is a myriad of clanks, clinks, and revving). Dialogue is easily understood (Diesel's growl is well represented), though some of the looped passages come off particularly thin, to a point of distraction. Spanish and French 5.1 DTS tracks are also available.
English SDH, Spanish, and French subtitles are included.
A feature-length audio commentary with director Justin Lin is offered here, and for those with interest in the nuts and bolts of production, the track is highly informative, delivered with a generous enthusiasm. While keeping the praise flowing for his cast and crew, Lin is semi-honest about the challenges he faced while attempting to produce an inventive sequel. Dealing with cursed churches, actors who nearly white-lied their way out of a job, staging car gymnastics, and trying to maintain some sense of reality while trapped in a CG world, Lin covers the spectrum of production difficulties without too many extended pauses. It's a comfortable, easy listen.
"Gag Reel" (5:01) rolls out the mix-em-ups, only here the hilarity derives primarily from greenscreen shenanigans, where the rattling and swooping of the fake cars often cracks up the cast. Paul Walker seems to be the worst offender here, giggling constantly (and who could blame him) while trying to deliver his lines or, more often, his in-the-moment grunts.
"Los Bandoleros" (20:23) is a rambling "prequel" short film to "Fast & Furious," acting as a dramatic prelude to the Dominican Republic gas heist that opens the film. It's a long 20 minutes of extended takes, pointless dialogue, and dreamy holds on the locales. It also features Diesel and Rodriguez in extended make-out scenes, situated on beaches and moving cars. While watching the short, I kept wondering who on Earth was allowed to make such an inert, self-serving film that serves no actual purpose to the franchise or humanity at large. And then the end credits hit: "Written & Directed by Vin Diesel."
"Under the Hood: Muscle Cars" (6:55) and "Under the Hood: Imports" (4:59) cover the same informational ground, split up here to appeal to the differing tastes of the average car enthusiast. Discussing the various automobiles used in the film, the featurettes attempt to convey the bond between personality (or character) and car. Interviews with cast and crew (including Picture Car Coordinator, Dennis McCarthy) communicate the need for iconic automobiles to add another layer of identity to the film, and to engage the four-wheel fanatics, who only show up opening weekend to drool.
"Getting the Gang Back Together" (9:50) sits down with the actors, who display a peculiar coyness about their reasons to return to this franchise. Diesel leads the discussion, animatedly divulging his requirements for the script and its thematic spine. A simplistic gush-fest, the mini-doc doesn't probe too deeply into the muck of filmmaking, preferring to stay light and EPK airy.
"Driving School with Vin Diesel" (3:50) is my favorite featurette on the BD, offering the lead actor in the unguarded, submissive position of student, sent out with stuntmen to learns the skids and stops of car-fu. It's a fun look at a unique skill, and Diesel appears to be having the time of his life.
"Shooting the Big Rig Heist" (9:47) takes the viewer to the opening sequence of the film, breaking down the myriad of complications and working parts it takes to put together a massive stunt sequence. Cast and crew interviews try to convey the enormity of the situation, but the BTS footage does a much more concise job articulating the effort.
"Races and Chases" (11:01) and "High Octane Action: The Stunts" (11:22) discuss the major pursuit set-pieces of the film and how they were achieved through a mix of complicated street shooting, studio work, and CG application. A lot of labor goes into these meat-and-potato sequences, and the cast seems to love the challenge, just not always the hours.
"South of the Border: Filming in Mexico" (2:55) briefly visits the sweltering location to talk of local landmarks, a desired sense of authenticity, and to allow Diesel a chance to bask in the glow of his fame.
"Virtual Car Garage" is a U-Control feature that showcases 360-degree CG renderings of the automobiles used in the film. Flip 'em, turn 'em, and learn all about 'em.
"'Fast & Furious' Video Mash-Up" is a BD-Live function where you can share your favorite scenes from the film with friends and family.
"Blanco" (4:11) is a music video from rapper Pitbull, featuring Pharrell Williams. Personal taste will dictate a view here, but be warned: Universal has plastered this abomination all over the menus as well.
A Theatrical Trailers for all the "Fast and the Furious" films are included.
Disc Two is a Digital Copy of the film.
It's hard to believe we're now four movies into this franchise, with a fifth promised at the end of "Fast & Furious." As long as the shiny, goofy looking cars burn rubber and tanned, buxom ladies spend more time kissing each other than the allegedly heterosexual lead characters, there will be an audience ready to lap up the results. Hopefully for the next go-around, the franchise will plunge even further into the crash-em-ups and flip-e-doos that feel so organic to the attitude of the series, and less into that thing called "acting" I'm assuming the entire cast is trying to pull off.
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