With the molded-rubber face of Telly Savalas, the basso profundo of Sylvester Stallone, and the name of an underdog gas alternative, Vin Diesel's already-dubious ripped-tough-guy star has dimmed enough to warrant a return to the car-chase series that made him — and money. In the latest, notably slack Fast & Furious (number four), incidental beatdowns are often more exciting than the flaunting of reinforced-steel nerves during cruddily shot speed-racing.
Diesel reprises the role of larcenist and muscle-car-enthusiast Dom Toretto and stars opposite Paul Walker — whose Timberlakean build could fit inside Diesel's bulk twice over — as the import-fancying undercover agent Brian O'Conner, our stand-in for Guy with Most Awesome Job Assignment in the World (with his pick of cars from the impound lot). The untimely death of Dom's partner-in-crime, Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), sends the rivals converging on thoroughly unremarkable drug-runner Campos (John Ortiz). They infiltrate his surefire business model of smuggling heroin across the border via inconspicuous hot rods.
The highlight remains the advertisement: The movie opens with the broad-daylight fuel-tanker hijacking from the no-introduction-needed trailer, but never recovers the hand-rubbing glee of that modular stunt. For a better sense of the movie's other road sequences, note that the press-kit blurb for Diesel, a World of Warcraft and Dungeons and Dragons maven, climaxes with his videogame production shingle. Pointing out Xbox aesthetics has become as familiar a move as bemoaning the continuing disappearance of the frame in mainstream cinema, but sequences in Fast & Furious are as up-front about imminent adaptation to videogame as some directors used to be about accounting for future TV broadcast.
The blindered, vectored-wall look of a tunnel dash to Mexico is straight-up first-person console — an unreal nowhere-space in a genre reliant on door-rattling thrills — while the Campos-sponsored recruitment race in Koreatown features constant GPS street mapping and a disembodied female voice giving updates with tranquillized urgency. Beer-ad nightclub ambience around a couple of race scenes, replete with ladies makin' out, might as well be cut-and-pasted from Grand Theft Auto. And the homogenized complexion, hair, and features of Jordana Brewster, as Dom's sister and hideout confidante, might as well be computer-generated. (Not that the stunts necessarily need the Tarantino Death Proof treatment: The feverish rainstorm pursuit in We Own the Night was famously software-augmented.)
All of which subverts the early praise for the series as journeyman genre work. Director Justin Lin, who also chaperoned the last installment, here probes the significant thrills of outrunning or outwitting a flying burning chassis (though a preview audience seemed just as excited by the reappearance of reggaetón stars Tego Calderón and Don Omar in subtitled bit parts). Unlike in Tokyo Drift, Lin doesn't dig into his locations enough (though, hooray, Bendix sign!), and seems to be at that awkward stage where he believes that what a Vin Diesel actioner needs is more lugubrious dialogue. Dom's regretful flirtation with Campos' assistant (he likes a lady who's “20 percent angel, 80 percent devil, down-to-earth”) and other interludes are DOA, and once O'Conner has actually broken the nose of his jerkwad FBI co-worker, scenes at the Union Station–size department are likewise deadweight.
A movie whose second spoken line of dialogue is, candidly, “Let's make some money” at least ends with a satisfyingly ludicrous desert pile-on, with (wholly unnecessary) provisions for a sequel. But whether you blame the Part Four blues, the Dom-O'Conner stalemate, or Diesel's distraction by the prospect of starring in and making a videogame of Carthaginian general Hannibal, Fast & Furious reconfirms that car-chase movies — good, bad, or mediocre — all assume the future employment of the quaint old fast-forward button.