If You Like ‘Ford v Ferrari,’ Check Out ‘Senna’

Senna movie poster

To call “Senna” a brilliant documentary is not enough. You will get sucked so deeply into the life of motor-racing champion Ayrton Senna to where you will not ever feel like you are watching his life from a distance. It also shows all sides of this man to where he is shown to be complex and unlike any other race car driver in Formula One. His death during a race in 1994 still saddens many after more than a decade, and after watching “Senna” you will clearly understand why.

Director Asif Kapadia really lucked out as he had access to so much footage from Senna’s life both in and out of cars. We have racing footage of course, but there is also home video footage showing him to be a sublime individual and a genuinely nice guy. Kapadia succeeds in making “Senna” feel like we are spending time with a friend and not just another racing superstar.

Compared to others in racing, Senna comes across as being surprisingly humble and shy. No matter how many championships he won, fame never seemed to go to his head, and this is saying a lot. His personality ends up getting contrasted sharply with his fellow racer Alain Prost, and their intense rivalry becomes a big focus here. Prost comes off at first as being very full of himself, particularly while he is being interviews by a female journalist, and we come to see how his biggest strength is also Senna’s chief weakness: mastering the politics of Formula One. It becomes hard not to be on Senna’s side as their rivalry becomes increasingly bitter. While Senna proves to be ruthless on the race track, he is deeply spiritual and not ignorant of the fact he is as mortal as anyone else.

The racing sequences are exhilarating as we watch Senna do things with a race car no one else could. His brilliance while driving in the rain made him especially unique in Formula One, and it is astonishing to learn he never got hurt while driving in this weather. His donations to improve the conditions in Brazil never feels like a publicity stunt, but instead proof of how fiercely loyal he was to his native country.

But the documentary’s most unnerving sequence occurs a day before Senna’s tragic death when fellow racer Roland Ratzenberger was killed on the exact same track at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. Senna becomes deeply upset at what has happened and vows to improve safety on all race courses, something he sadly never got to live to carry out. Watching it feels very eerie as we know the fate which awaits him, and even then, we find ourselves hoping and praying for a different outcome.

What makes “Senna” unlike your average documentary is while most are far removed from their main subject, Kapadia brings you up close and personal. Throughout its running time, Ayrton Senna is alive and not just another dead racer forever relegated to the past. It does not matter in the slightest if you are a fan of car racing or not. “Senna” is as enthralling as the best racing movies ever made as you experience it more than watch it, and it gives us a great respect for this racer even as it leaves us very sad that he left us at such a young age (he was only 34). But seeing him here alive once again gives us a great opportunity to know a man many of us never got the chance to in real life.

So, if you liked “Ford v Ferrari,” be sure to give this one a look. And if you did not like “Ford v Ferrari,” see “Senna” anyway.

* * * * out of * * * *

WRITER’S NOTE: Another great documentary by Asif Kapadia, and it is as great as this one, is “Amy” which serves as a much needed eulogy to the late singer Amy Winehouse.

‘Cars 2’ Outpaces its Predecessor

Cars 2 movie poster

I’m a little befuddled at the critical notices being hurled at “Cars 2.” It’s the first Pixar movie to ever get a rotten score on Rotten Tomatoes. Granted, neither this sequel nor its predecessor represent Pixar at its best or most adventurous, but even the least of their movies are infinitely better than most of what Hollywood puts out. “Cars” was essentially an animated “Doc Hollywood,” but as predictable as the story was, it was still wonderfully entertaining and had many memorable characters. Its being made was also worth it just to hear my niece say “ka-chow!” on a regular basis.

But “Cars 2” is easily more fun because the story is not as formulaic as its predecessor’s, and it takes the characters in a refreshingly different direction. This one has Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) going with his best friend Mater (Larry The Cable Guy) to the World Grand Prix to race against the arrogant Italian Formula One car named Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro). During this time, Mater is suspected of being a spy by British Intelligence officers Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) and Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer), the latter whom he takes a strong liking to. What starts off as another racing movie turns into an espionage adventure which circles the globe in an amazingly animated style.

Make no secret, “Cars 2” truly belongs to Mater more than anyone else. I’ve never been a huge fan of Larry The Cable Guy or his kind of humor, but he’s great fun here. Mater is not the brightest car in the world, but his heart shines through everything he does even as it continually gets the best of him. Most of the movie’s funniest scenes come from him dealing with customs unlike those in his home country, and his mistaking wasabi for ice cream is funnier than anything I saw in “Bad Teacher.”

Pixar continues to outdo itself in the field of animation, and the visuals they come up with are brilliant. I’ll go even further and say there were times I stared at the screen and wondered if certain things being shown were actually real instead of animated. Seriously, the resemblance between what’s real and what’s not disappeared for me at certain points,

Directing “Cars 2” is John Lassiter, and this marks the first full length Pixar film he’s directed since the original. His love of all things cars is as evident here as it was in the first film, and he also has race car drivers and announcers like Jeff Gordon, Lewis Hamilton, Darrell Waltrip, Brent Musburger, and David Hobbs voicing characters. You don’t even have to look at, or listen, hard to discover which characters they are voicing as character names are not particularly subtle. For example, we have Jeff Gorvette, Darrell Cartrip, Brent Mustangburger, David Hobbscap, and the subtlest of all, Lewis Hamilton.

I loved the addition of Michael Caine to this sequel as he makes Finn McMissile a cross between James Bond and the character he played in “Get Carter.” Years after playing Jack Carter in the 1971 classic, Caine remains as cool as ever, and not just because his car has an endless number of gadgets Bond could only wishes he had in the real world. His cockney accent is welcome in any movie he does, and this is certainly the case here.

Other additions in this automotive universe include Emily Mortimer who makes Holley Shiftwell tough and sensitive in believable fashion. Mortimer is such a sweet presence in movies like this and “Lars and the Real Girl,” and I always look forward to seeing and hearing her in any movie she does. It’s also great to have Cheech Marin, Jenifer Lewis, Tony Shalhoub, Joe Mantegna, and Bruce Campbell among others on board, and listening to them made me believe they had a blast working on “Cars 2.”

If I had any issues with “Cars 2,” it’s in regards to the character of Fillmore. This really has to do with the fact George Carlin voiced him in the original, and he has since passed on, and that Fillmore has little to do other than to say, “Wow man!” Out of respect for the late Carlin, who I still miss, I wished they had retired the character. This is nothing against Lloyd Sherr who has the unenviable task of replacing one of the great comedians ever as Fillmore, but this is one Pixar character which should have been put to rest. They retired Paul Newman’s character of Doc Hudson as he has also passed into the great beyond, and no one could have replaced him. I mean, I can understand why Pixar kept Slinky Dog on board for “Toy Story 3” even though Jim Varney died long before filming started, but Slinky had more to do in that sequel than Fillmore does here.

“Cars 2” does not equal Pixar’s artistic highs of “Up,” “Ratatouille,” or “Wall-E,” but so what? All that matters is it’s fun, and it easily outdoes the original. While its messages like the importance of being true to yourself may seem cheesy from a distance, they are handled here with a lot of heart and genuine emotion. Whatever you thought of the first one, you have to admit that you cared about the characters, and you will care for them even more in this sequel.

You can waste your money on “Green Lantern,” or you can take the family out to this one. The kids will be restless and noisy whether we like it or not, but I’m used to that by now. I saw “Cars” at the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood, and parents were incapable of shutting their children up there. That I did not make the same mistake with this sequel is largely why it’s getting a particularly high rating.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘The Fate of the Furious’ has the Franchise Running on Fumes

The Fate of the Furious poster

So here we are again in the land of fast cars and unabashedly mindless entertainment. We all know what to expect when we walk into a “Fast & Furious” movie, so we should only complain so much, right? “The Fate of the Furious” is the eighth film in this now 16-year-old franchise, and the filmmakers bring most of our favorites back including Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez, Dwayne Johnson, Tyrese Gibson, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges and Nathalie Emmanuel, and “Furious 7” co-stars Kurt Russell and Jason Statham are back to do more damage as well. And yes, there are fast cars aplenty on display here, and you can gleefully expect Gibson to pick the sexiest one even if it is not well-equipped for where he is taking it.

Still, I came out of “The Fate of the Furious” feeling surprisingly underwhelmed. What we have here is not a bad movie, but one which barely rises to the level of being okay. I didn’t get the same rush I typically get as this family of characters drive through one city after another at breakneck speeds while giving every insurance company a lot of grief. Part of me wants to blame the fact that the franchise’s last entry, “Furious 7,” was one of the best and most emotionally of the bunch, but perhaps these films are now drifting on fumes as it feels like we have finally gone too many laps around the same track.

Anyway, Dominic Toretto and Letty Ortiz are on their honeymoon in Havana, Cuba when Dom comes across the alluring Cipher (Charlize Theron), a criminal mastermind and cyberterrorist who makes him an offer he can’t refuse, and it involves betraying those closest to him. Why does Dom go out of his way to betray family? You have to watch the movie to find out, but it involves him stealing an EMP device and some nuclear codes which Cipher wants for her own nefarious purposes.

Having been betrayed by Dom, Luke Hobbs somehow ends up in prison despite all his years of service to law enforcement, and he ends up in a cell right across from his nemesis, Deckard Shaw. After an over the top prison fight which has them both escaping, they run into Frank Petty who informs him and the team they will be working together to bring Dom to justice. Yes, there is only so much plot to be found in “The Fate of the Furious,” but there is still much to take in here. In retrospect, maybe there’s too much.

When it comes to these “Fast & Furious” movies, you are obligated to suspend disbelief, and they usually move at a pace which keeps you from thinking too much about what’s going on. But with this one clocking in at over two hours, my brain was thinking a lot more about the crazy scenarios than usual to where I was taken out of the movie more than twice. For starters, having Statham become a good guy seems far-fetched considering how evil and dangerous he was in “Furious 7.” Granted, his scenes opposite Johnson make for the best moments in this entry as they bait and insult each other as they constantly threaten to beat one another to a bloody pulp. Still, the change in loyalties can only go so far even in this series.

Also, the majority of the car chases on display feel more like special effects than the real deal. There are some cool moments like when Cipher manages to hack into dozens of cars to where they rain on everything and everybody. Still, it felt more like I was watching a video game instead of a movie as the filmmakers stretch credibility beyond its limits from start to finish. In the end, they can only get away with so much.

Directing “The Fate of the Furious” is F. Gary Gray who gave us “Friday,” “The Negotiator,” “Set It Off” and one of the best biopics in recent memory, “Straight Outta Compton.” There’s only so much he can bring to the table as this franchise thrives on familiarity and cars to an infinite degree, but he lets certain scenes drag out when the pedal should be put to the metal. And when that submarine jumps out from under the ice, I couldn’t help but wonder if perhaps this franchise had finally jumped the shark as it tried to outdo itself in terms of stunts. For all I know, the next installment will have this family teaming up with aliens from Mars as they battle another nemesis who’s even worse than the previous one.

This sequel does have the invigorating appearance of Charlize Theron who portrays perhaps the coldest and cruelest villain Dom and company have ever faced. Theron gives us a deliciously evil antagonist in Cipher, and her strength comes from never having to overplay the character. She keeps a cool demeanor throughout as she makes us see Cipher is always one step ahead of her opponents without even having to show us why. Those beautiful eyes reveal to us a corrupted soul who has those in her command under in her complete control. Theron has always been great at playing a badass whether it’s in a movie like this, “Mad Max: Fury Road” or the upcoming “Atomic Blonde,” and she is a memorable addition to this franchise.

Aside from that, a lot of what I saw in “The Fate of the Furious” felt kind of worn out compared to what came before. Diesel delivers his usual stoic performance as Dom, but his veiled threats to Cipher could have felt more threatening. Even the banter between Gibson and Bridges, who can always be counted on to provide comic relief, feels tired as they constantly yell at one another as if they were in the latest Michael Bay movie. As for bad characters switching alliances, it’s a little difficult to believe Deckard Shaw would help Dom so easily after he killed off one of Dom’s best friends. People like these don’t just forgive each other easily.

Regardless, there will be a ninth “Fast & Furious” movie in the near future as this franchise shows no signs of slowing down. I just hope the filmmakers bring a fresh energy to the next installment as “The Fate of the Furious” lacks it more than I could have anticipated. Instead of trying to outdo the stunts which came before, maybe everyone can bring renewed focus to the characters and give us real stunts instead of ones generated by CGI. This isn’t a terrible movie, but it could have and should have been much better than it was.

For the record, there is no post-credits sequence, so feel free to take care of your urine ache sooner rather than later.

* * ½ out of * * * *

Fast & Furious 6

Fast & Furious 6 movie poster

After watching “Fast Five,” I kept wondering what the filmmakers would end up calling the sixth film in the franchise. One guy told me they should call it “Sexy Six” which I thought would be pretty cool, but the filmmakers decided not to be all that creative with the title this time and they just called it “Fast & Furious 6.” Then again, you will notice during the opening credits (yes, this one actually has opening credits) that the movie is called “Furious 6.” Why they decided not to put this title on the trailers, posters and TV commercials is beyond me because it sounds perfect.

Anyway, it doesn’t matter because “Fast & Furious 6” proves to be just as much fun as its predecessor, and it delivers the kind of crazy and illogical entertainment we have come to expect from these movies. You can bitch and moan about the plot holes and the absurdity of certain stunts, but this franchise is now over a decade old and we have long since given up trying to make sense of everything which goes on. I’m just astonished director Justin Lin and company still managed to make an incredibly entertaining movie while not introducing much of anything new to this series.

After pulling off the mother of all bank heists in “Fast Five,” the merry band of car racers have retired rich and are enjoying life. Brian O’Connor (Paul Walker) and Mia Toretto (Jordana Brewster) are now the parents of a baby boy, Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) has a ridiculously beautiful estate in which he lives with Elena (Elsa Pataky), Gisele (Gal Godot) and Han (Sung Kang) have moved to Hong Kong, and Roman (Tyrese Gibson) and Tej (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) flaunt their wealth in ways both loud and generous.

But with this being a “Fast & Furious” movie, there’s no way any of these people will stay retired. Into the picture comes Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) who meets up with Dom not to arrest him, but to ask for his help in bringing down a former British Special Forces soldier named Owen Shaw (Luke Evans) who has taken down various military convoys. Dom, of course, has no interest in working with Hobbs, that is until Hobbs shows Dom a picture of one of Shaw’s crew members: his ex-girlfriend Letty (Michele Rodriguez). From there, the whole crew reassembles to take Shaw down, rescue Letty, get full pardons, and drive some super-fast cars in the process.

It should be of no surprise to anyone that Letty is alive as this was confirmed during a post-credit sequence in “Fast Five,” and it’s good to see Rodriguez return to this franchise. While the explanation of how she survived doesn’t make much sense (these movies have never been high on logic), I’m glad to see her back. Letty looks to have turned bad and is suffering from amnesia, but you’ll have to see the movie for yourself to see how far from grace she has fallen.

It’s a shame this will be Justin Lin’s last film in this long running franchise (James Wan will be taking over for the next installment) as he continues to outdo himself in terms of the stunts he gets onscreen. Even when certain stunts stretch the boundaries of what’s even remotely possible, Lin still leaves us on the edge of our seats and begging for more. He also understands that while we love the action, it’s the characters which bring us back as well as we have come to deeply care about what they go through.

We could get into a long discussion about whether or not Vin Diesel and Paul Walker are really acting in these movies, but this issue has long since been rendered moot. They are these characters, and they are key part of this franchise’s success as we root for them to get away with everything and anything. This also goes for Jordana Brewster who, while a bit underused in this one, is still a kick to watch as Mia. Recent additions like Dwayne Johnson have also given the “Fast & Furious” movies a swift kick in the butt, and we leave this movie wondering if his muscles can get any bigger than they already are. It’s like what Danny DeVito said about Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Twins:”

“You’re all swelled up and you look like you’re ready to explode!”

Actually, the best thing about “Fast & Furious 6” is watching Tyrese Gibson and Ludacris play off of each other. These two are so damn funny as they try to one-up each other as to who’s the cooler dude, and I wonder if the filmmakers would ever consider doing a spin-off series with their characters.

As for the newest additions to the “Fast & Furious” family, Luke Evans gives us the strongest villain this series has seen in a long time with Owen Shaw. This is not to say the villains in the previous installments were weak (the actors playing them were quite good), but they proved to be generic in the large scheme of things. With Shaw, we get a character bound by a philosophy as strong as it is twisted, and Evans sees to it we do not forget about this particular nemesis once we leave the theater.

Gina Carano, whom Steven Soderbergh directed in “Haywire,” is another newbie here as Hobbs’ partner Riley, and you can sure bet she puts her mixed martial arts fighting skills to good use in this movie. Her fight scenes with Rodriguez are exhilarating to witness, and those looking for a good catfight will get more than what they expected here.

Some of the craziest stunts in “Fast & Furious 6” include a tank which mows down every car in its path, regardless if the cars are imports or American made, and a cargo plane which our heroes use everything in their power to bring down. One automobile which stands out in particular is “The Flipper” which Shaw drives, and it’s a car designed to flip over any car foolish enough to get close to it. Whether you’re driving head on at this thing or trying to ram it from behind, you’re in a no-win situation as you will find yourself unexpectedly flying through the air and crashing painfully. Just look at Walker’s face as he finds this out the hard way.

“Fast & Furious 6” does have its share of plot holes which are becoming harder to forgive, and the airplane runway featured in the movie’s climax is even longer than the one in “Die Hard 2,” but it’s still a slam-bang piece of entertainment to where you can only complain about its problems so much. It’s not better than “Fast Five” which was a wicked blast, but it’s still delivers the kind of fun we have come to expect from films like this. As always, be sure to stick around for a post-credit sequence which introduces us to the main villain of the next sequel. While the identity of the actor playing this villain has long since been spoiled, you’ll still get a kick out of seeing this guy appear on the big screen.

* * * out of * * * *

Fast Five

Fast Five movie poster

This review was written in 2011.

With “Fast Five,” the fifth movie in “The Fast & The Furious” franchise, the filmmakers have seemingly run out of ways to include both “fast” and “furious” together in the same movie title. Does this mean this sequel is less furious than others? Granted, this franchise started a decade ago, but you’d think they would still find a way to put those two words together in such a clever fashion. What, “2 Fast 2 Furious” wasn’t clever enough? How about these?

“Fast & Furious Times 5”

“Faster & Even More Furious”

“Fast & Furious to The Fifth Power”

“Infinitely Fast & Furious”

“Ocean’s Fourteen”

Well, while only “fast” made it onto the marquee this time, this movie is most definitely not lacking in any fury. “Fast Five” is gloriously mindless entertainment, filled with one preposterous action sequence after another. It won’t be mistaken for any cinematic classic and much of what’s on display is very improbable, but it’s so much fun so who cares? This was to the Summer 2011 movie season what “The A-Team” was to the Summer 2010 movie season; an over the top blockbuster unapologetic in its quest to entertain action movie fans. You can complain about its flaws, but that would just be taking all the fun out of the proceedings.

Now I did put “Ocean’s Fourteen” on the list for a good reason. Whereas the previous movies dealt with car racing, “Fast Five” is more of a heist film as Vin Diesel, Paul Walker and company work out a plan to steal $100 million from a corrupt businessman. If they succeed with their destructive cleverness, they will be able to buy the freedom they can no longer afford.

This one starts where “Fast & Furious” ended as Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) is being hauled off to prison in a bus to serve a 20 plus year sentence, but his sister Mia (Jordana Brewster) and Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker) end up breaking him out after making the bus he’s on crash in such spectacular fashion. Seriously, the bus crash here puts the one from “Another 48 Hours” to shame, and it’s designed to let audiences know just how bad the car crashes are gonna hurt this time around.

From there, the story moves to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil where Dom and company choose to hide out from the law. But since being on the run sucks your wallet dry, they take a job to steal three very valuable cars from a moving train. This heist, however, goes awry when it turns out the cars are the seized property of the DEA, one of which has important information regarding this sequel’s main bad guy, businessman Hernan Reyes (Joaquim de Almeida) and all the cash he has saved and probably doesn’t pay taxes on. From there, the heist is on even as a relentless DSS agent, Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson), arrives to take Dom and his elusive team down for good.

Justin Lin returns for his third movie as director in this series. I still haven’t gotten around to checking out “The Fast & The Furious: Tokyo Drift,” but I felt he did good work with the previous entry. But this time he really outdoes himself with stunts which, while highly improbable, have us feeling their dramatically LOUD impact to where we’re saying to ourselves:

“WHOA!”

“DAMN!”

“OUCH!”

“MAN!”

If Lin made any mistakes in the last two sequels, he has certainly learned his lessons from them. Even if its characters are stealing cars from a train which is moving as fast a bullet, he’s got the audience enthralled as he moves the story along at a rapid pace, preventing us from examining the logistics of what we’re seeing. Many will look at “Fast Five” as your basic guilty pleasure, but something this entertaining should not make you feel guilty about enjoying it at all. “Troll 2” on the other hand…

I’m also glad to see Brian Tyler back as “Fast Five’s” music composer. His combination of symphonic music and electronic elements matches the maximum propulsion of what’s speeding past us onscreen. However fast the cars are traveling, Tyler’s film score matches their velocity and gives those OUCH moments some extra oomph.

It’s great to see the gang back once again, especially Vin Diesel who made a welcome and much-needed return to this franchise in “Fast & Furious.” While his style of acting hasn’t changed much, he owns his role as Dom like no other can. Trying to substitute another actor in his place has already proven to be a mistake, and his presence alone infuses Dom with a “don’t mess with me” attitude which is irreplaceable.

Even Paul Walker is a welcome presence here, long after many called him bland and unconvincing as undercover cop Brian O’Conner. I don’t know, maybe it’s all the stubble on his chiseled face, but he has long since grown into the role whether critics like him or not. If his presence ever bothered me in previous installments, it didn’t this time around.

I was also glad to see Jordana Brewster get more to do this time around as Mia Toretto. While her character was underused the last time, she has a much more central part to this movie in ways I’d rather not get into, but which will become obvious to the audience in no time. She gets to drive a little more in this one, and she looks out for everyone whether or not they are behind the wheel.

“Fast Five” acts as a greatest hits collection as it brings together characters from the other films. Joining this crazy heist film are Roman Pearce (Tyrese Gibson) from “2 Fast 2 Furious,” Vince (Matt Schulze) from “The Fast & The Furious,” Han Lue (Sung Kang) from “Tokyo Drift,” Gisele Harabo (Gal Gadot) from “Fast & Furious,” and Tej Parker (Ludacris) from “2 Fast 2 Furious.” Seeing them interact with each other is a kick, especially when Gibson and Ludacris keep busting each other’s’ balls over who is better at what. With these two, it’s like they’re in one rap battle after another without the mics in their hands while the audience cheers them on.

But the big addition this time around is Dwayne Johnson as DSS agent Luke Hobbs. With his bulging muscles and pronounced tattoos, Johnson hasn’t looked this badass since “The Rundown.” Watching him drowning in all those dopey family movies like “The Tooth Fairy” got increasingly depressing over time. While he still ain’t no Laurence Olivier, his relentless presence in “Fast Five” gives Dom and company one of their toughest adversaries yet.

The series overall (specifically Parts 1, 4 and 5) has kept a solid longevity not just because of the spectacular action, but also with strong characters who, despite their law-breaking ways, make you want to root for them even after they pass the finish line. Even while we may not buy two muscle cars driving at high speed while towing an enormous metallic bank safe through the busy streets of Brazil, we care about them enough to see them get away with it.

Having watched “Fast Five,” it feels like it’s been forever since I have seen so many cars get gleefully destroyed. Is this the end of this franchise? Well, all I can tell you is to make sure you stay through the end credits as it should easily answer your question. Of course, they need to come up with yet another clever title. Somehow “6 Fast & 6 Furious” doesn’t make much sense, but how about these?

“Fast & Furious to the 6”

“6 Times as Fast, 6 Times as Furious”

“Still So Damn Fast & Furious”

“Beyond Fast & Furious”

“The Furious Six”

“Faster Than 6”

“Faster and More Furious Than 60”

“Sexy Six” (a guy sitting next to me in the movie theater suggested this one).

Or how about “The Toretto Brothers?” Jake and Elwood Blues may outdo these guys in the music business, but not in racing a quarter mile at a time!

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Fast & Furious

Fast & Furious movie poster

This review was written in 2009 when this movie was released.

I never bothered watching either of the sequels that came out after “The Fast & The Furious.” What was the point? You have Paul Walker headlining “2 Fast 2 Furious” (clever title) which did not inspire much confidence in me at the time. Then came “The Fast & The Furious: Tokyo Drift” which had none of the original characters in it (excluding cameos). For many, including myself, this second sequel seemed to be the last gasp of a franchise trying to get by on its name only. But now we have “Fast & Furious,” a movie every bit as tight as its title. With this one, we finally have the original cast back with the clever tagline of “new model, original parts.” With this in mind, I actually found myself excited at what looked to be the first true sequel to the 2001 original.

Okay, the original was by no means a great movie. Even Rob Cohen, who directed it, didn’t try to hide the fact the story was ripped off from “Point Break.” In essence, “The Fast & The Furious” was basically “Point Break” on wheels. At the same time, it was never less than entertaining and offered us a surprisingly authentic look into the world of street racing. What astonished me most was how it brought all kinds of ethnicities together who were all in pursuit of being the ultimate racing champion. In a way, it made you look at street racing as an equal opportunity killer. Car crashes of all kinds know no prejudice.

With “Fast & Furious,” the series comes back to what Cohen originally hoped it would be; the continuing soap opera of what’s happening with Dominic Toretto, his sister Mia, his girlfriend Letty, and his friend turned nemesis Brian O’Conner. Of course, this particular sequel would never have happened without the participant of one individual: Vin Diesel. Having opted out of the other sequels, Diesel returns to his star-making role as Dom, the character all the fans desperately wanted to catch up with.

“Fast & Furious” has been described as an intersequel, as opposed to just a prequel, in that it takes place between the events of “2 Fast 2 Furious” and “Tokyo Drift.” We catch up with Dom and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez, as luscious as ever) in the Dominican Republic as they are up to their usual game of hijacking trucks, in this case oil tankers. The movie gets off to a fast start indeed as the hijacking quickly develops some rather dangerous complications. From there, Dom comes back to Los Angeles to avenge the death of a very close friend.

When the movie heads to Los Angeles, we then catch up with Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker), who is now an FBI agent. Brian starts the movie on a chase which is indeed furious as he runs after a fugitive who has information on a major drug dealer he is pursuing. It is a wonderfully executed chase scene which gets us primed for what will happen next. Of course, the real man Brian is after is the same man Dom wants revenge on, so these are forced to work together again even though they couldn’t trust one another any less.

“Fast & Furious” allows us to also catch up with Dom’s sister, Mia (Jordana Brewster), who fell hard for O’Conner before realizing who he really was. She now looks at him with disdain as she feels completely betrayed by his lies. But come on, you know these two are still hot and heavy for each other. Of course, it takes them some more time to realize this.

Is it even worth it to be critical of a movie like this? The plot threatens to be paper thin throughout, and it is there of course to hang a lot of car chases and other action sequences on. There are clichéd characters aplenty, such as Brian’s superior officer who wants results or his ass is grass. There’s also that rival agent who doesn’t trust Brian one bit, and that’s even before Brian drives the guy’s head into the marble wall at the FBI office (ouch!). Then there is dialogue which sounds like it comes out of every other action movie you have seen, and some of it will have you rolling your eyes. But seriously, it’s not like the filmmakers are trying to make “Lawrence of Arabia” here. I mean, you could compare the two to determine which is the better movie, but this is more likely to make you look like a snob rather than an objective film critic.

Truth be told, I just went into “Fast & Furious” to have a fun time, and that’s exactly what I got. This is a well-maintained action picture which has much to appreciate. I especially liked the chase scenes which, while not necessarily the best ever, are heads above a lot of the recent action movies Hollywood has churned out. I especially dug the street racing scene where Dom and Brian race two other guys for the chance to become drivers for hire. The only catch is the streets are not closed off for this one. They are being led by GPS monitors showing them the direction they need to go, but they also have to keep their eyes open for oncoming traffic which is oblivious to the reckless endangerment about to be unleashed.

There is another cool sequence where cars race across the desert to get across the Mexican border. While the chase itself succeeds in defying the laws of logic in several ways, and it does have those CGI moments which takes away from it, it was still fun as Dom and company barrel through these secret caverns with their twists and turns. This leads to an all-out furious climax as the tunnel is utilized again for more deadly results.

There is also a high volume of scantily dressed women to be found just like in other movies in this endless franchise. Very appealing to the eye, I found it to be. Still, it continues to astound me just how lax the MPAA is with movies like these. There is a lot of skin left uncovered for a PG-13 movie and then some. Very stimulating it was! Sorry to sound like Yoda, but I am not going to lie about the eye candy on display.

As for the movie’s faults, the female characters keep getting short shrift compared to the men in this franchise. Seeing Michelle Rodriguez here made me forget about all her troubles which she got into during her time on “Lost” and of how the media paid way too much attention to. She is a hottie to put it mildly, and you totally believe she would actually go out of her way to do some of the dangerous shit herself. It doesn’t matter if a stunt double did most of her work because you come out of this movie believing she would have done some of this on her own. The fact she is underused here is painful.

The same goes for Jordana Brewster whose character of Mia is left around just hoping and worrying about Dom and Brian. She’s great to watch, and she doesn’t even try to hide her character’s anger and bitterness at Brian. Still, to have her just sit around worrying about the guys instead of doing more threatens to make this a waste of her talents. She gives the movie the heart it needs though, and she strengthens the connection between Dom and Brian. The end of the movie seems to imply that if there is another sequel, she will have a bigger part in it. It would have been great if this were the case here though.

It’s great to see Vin Diesel back in this franchise. Lord knows it wouldn’t be worth doing another one if he were not participating in it. Over the last few years, Diesel had become envisioned by the media as an actor with a very over inflated ego, and many of his movies released after “The Fast & The Furious” tanked at the box office. In retrospect, this seems largely unfair as studios were quick to blame him for trying to be the next big action star way too quickly. While Diesel is not a great actor (not yet anyway), there is no denying he has a charismatic presence onscreen. Some of his strongest moments come when he doesn’t say a word. After all these years, he still has the physical confidence which spells out to the audience, “Let’s not mess with me today.”

Paul Walker is, well, Paul Walker. Every performance I have seen him give is basically the same, so his rep in Hollywood as a nothing more than a pretty face feels pretty much justified. To be fair though, he is more believable as Brian O’Connor this time around than he was in the original. That rough facial hair he has helps illustrate the years he has been on the job and of a history he still has to absolve himself of.

John Ortiz is also on board as the nefarious Campos. It’s a role very similar to the one he played in Michael Mann’s movie version of “Miami Vice,” except he has a lot less hair this time around.

The director behind the wheel of “Fast & Furious” is Justin Lin who also helmed “Tokyo Drift.” Lin is best known, however, for his brilliant 2003 debut feature “Better Luck Tomorrow” which brilliantly transcended the stereotypes many people have of Asian Americans. Ever since then, however, he appears to have gone all Hollywood with wussy studio movies like “Annapolis” with James Franco. Many still want him to come back and make another movie like his first feature, but Lin does a good job here in delivering a good old fashioned B-movie which delivers the goods. His skills as a filmmaker are not in doubt, and I expect great things from him in the future.

Lin also brings along his “Tokyo Drift” composer Brian Tyler for the ride, and Tyler gives the movie the kick ass score it deserves. A combination of thunderous guitar riffs and orchestral movements, the propulsive score he comes up with more than matches the horsepower the cars have here.

“Fast & Furious” was a lot of fun and that’s all a movie like this needs to be. Whether or not it stands the test of time, it is great to see these characters back on the silver screen. It was worth it to see these characters live a quarter mile at a time once again.

I also want to add that the movie does have that disclaimer which says, “The car and motorcycle sequences depicted in this film are dangerous.” To this, I say, duh!

* * * out of * * * *