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Fast and Furious’ Diesel roars while movie sputters

What to say of “The Fast and the Furious?” That it’s a car movie? That it’s a racing movie? That it’s a car and racing movie, not unlike its recent crummy predecessors, “Gone in 60 Seconds” and “Driven?”

How about this: whereas you can see a beaten-down, leather-faced Sly Stallone continue to limp his career across the finish line in “Driven,” his successor, in both looks (not much) muscles (copious) and tone of voice (a thick, jumbled syrup), Vin Diesel, is promptly on display in “The Fast and the Furious.” He’s dabbled around in more serious fare (“Saving Private Ryan” and “Boiler Room”) before playing the dangerous-yet-loyal LA street racer Vic Toretto, but he need only say “Buster!” a few times to recognize his genuine calling.

A Sly 2, of sorts, is a good thing; there had been a void there. Diesel is ostensibly cool for now – Sly was once, too – and his act in “The Fast and the Furious” will propel the image. That he is also the only thing worth watching in the movie doesn’t hurt.

There’s a lot of bad here. Worse, it took four screenwriters to pull it off, and they had a magazine article to pull from. The central story is the LA street drag racing scene, which, if the film is to be believed, is inhabited by persons all under 27 and generally hailing from the modeling industry, or at least the nice part of Westwood. Car people have not generally been kubuki waifs that wear designer clothes and slacker-class mopheads held over from the skater half-pipe, but such is the lapse of reality portrayed here.

Diesel is Vic, the bigwig racer of sorts, and a mildly believable gearhead, with his own shop and posse and ragged girlfriend (Michelle Rodriguez); a man who rolls his custom jacked-up cars to 140 miles per hour and lives, by his own admission, “one-quarter mile at a time.” You know, for those 10 seconds, he’s free. Really.

Now there’s a nasty LA rumor going around that high-speed thrill chasers are hijacking trucks with custom-made Honda Civics. Vic is so big, and so mysterioso, that he becomes the target of the criminal investigation taken on by young cop Brian (Paul Walker), who, of course, must be young, and inexperienced, and a virgin at this kind of thing, because he’s the only one in his clan under 27. There’s a lot riding on Brian’s efforts to snake out the culprits, because, as an FBI agent ominously warns, “the truckers are ready to start taking things in their own hands.”

“The Fast and the Furious” follows a typical pattern – it wouldn’t surprise you to find that Brian starts to like Vic, not to mention Vic’s rough-trade sister Mia (Jordana Brewster), would it? Or that a groups of Japanese toughs, led by Rick Yune, are really the dark side? Or that director Rob Cohen seems more preoccupied with extended shots of lesbian models kissing than, say, acting chops?

Walker is an interesting choice for Brian, considering he looks like a holdover from the college debate club. How’d this guy – and his contemporary, Freddie Prinze, Jr., for that matter – ever land a major film role? His physique is dweebish. His voice sounds clogged with pool water. The majority of the racing cast exists for looks alone, and the money sequences – the racing scenes – are merely competent, and held too far and few in between the massive lulls this movie has in ample number.

But something about Diesel’s performance is redeemable. He raises his voice well. He chucks an uppercut with surprising authenticity. And just like Sly, he can, occasionally, arrive at a dramatic moment. The irony of the “quarter-mile” speech is that Diesel darn near gives it some dignity. It’s winning work in the midst of high-gloss dreck. Yo.

“The Fast and the Furious” Starring Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Jordana Brewster and Michelle Rodriguez. Directed by Rob Cohen. Rated PG-13 for car crashes and some language. Playing at the Plaza 4.

Copyright Daily Nebraskan Online