April 3, 2009 / 5:38 AM / 9 years ago

"Furious" auto race franchise gets its mojo back

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - It’s kinda like those ads for automotive additives: Just put Brand X into your motor oil and look at that car spark back to life! In the case of “Fast & Furious,” Brand X is Vin Diesel and Paul Walker.

Actors Paul Walker (L) and Jordana Brewster pose during a photocall to promote "Fast & Furious" in Madrid March 25, 2009. REUTERS/Susana Vera

In 2001, “The Fast and the Furious” launched a franchise about illegal street racing that now encompasses four films. Yet “Fast & Furious” is the first true sequel of the bunch. By reuniting the two male stars from the original and — smartly ignoring the intervening films — continuing the story from the first film, this new film should re-ignite the franchise.

As with the entire series, the stories serve as an excuse to downshift quickly to chases. But the new film, which opens Friday (April 3), does allow time for the characters to interact and develop so that audience concerns extend beyond who’ll win the next race. Box office should be strong for the Universal release, especially among young males — and their dates might not mind checking out the body work on a buff male cast.

The story by Chris Morgan relies heavily enough on relationships established in the original film that you may want to look at the DVD before taking in the new movie. If not, you’ll catch up soon enough. In the earlier film’s wild finish, Walker’s undercover cop Brian O’Conner, a racer himself suffering from divided loyalties, allowed Diesel’s outlaw racer Dominic Toretto to slip across the Mexican border to escape authorities even as he let down Dom’s sister, Mia (Jordana Brewster), who had fallen for Brian.

“Fast & Furious” starts off with an action sequence worthy of James Bond’s signature openings. Dom and his old L.A. girlfriend Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) lead a gang of road warriors trying to hijack oil tanks hauled by a big rig on a Dominican Republic highway. As the crews race alongside the truck, the women board them like pirates and uncouple the huge tanks one by one. But the hijacking goes serious awry, ending in a fireball on a mountain road that the heroes escape only by the miracle of top-notch second-unit work, CGI effects and tight editing.

The rest of the story takes place back in Southern California, where Dom returns seeking vengeance after Letty is murdered, having gotten caught up with a vicious drug cartel. Naturally, Brian is also on the case, so the two rivals find themselves reluctantly working together while Brian and Mia discover that the romantic sparks are still there.

Anything is an excuse for a chase. Just to infiltrate the drug gang as drivers, Dom and Brian must participate in a no-rules illegal street race in and around Echo Park, Silver Lake and downtown Los Angeles that destroys half the streets. Just to get a name from an informant, Brian chases the snitch across rooftops, blows through a glass window and crashes two stories onto a car roof. Whatever happened to messages being left in phone booths?

The two major car stunts involve a tunnel beneath the U.S./Mexican border that adds a juicy claustrophobic element to the death-defying maneuvers and crashes. Justin Lin, the returning director from “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift,” performs a neat balancing act between nonsensical story points and serious dramatic moments, making story and character flow smoothly into hyper action.

All four films feature terrific stunts. But “Fast & Furious” is the first film since the original to be smart about how far to stretch logic without sacrificing the desired macho swagger and revved-up emotions.

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