Shallow pap or subversive saga? The 'Furious' franchise continues forward with its clumsy but always entertaining deconstruction of modern Western male repression, all the while distracting him with the various trappings that good taste and a decent bank account can buy.
On the surface, this reunion of all the first film's cast delivers for its target audience who admittedly come for the simple thrills. There's fast-paced chasing that's often fun; cars even us non-gearheads know must be hot due to their bright primary colors and smooth bonnets; and a bevy of multi-ethnic babes in leather and heels who like to either talk shop, grope men way below their league, or just make out with similarly busty ladies in club hallways.
There's even a tad more story than expected with the main plot this time involving an all too easy undercover operation to expose the biggest drug smuggler since Pablo Escobar, and a subplot about revenge for the death of a key character's loved one. The film's opening tanker hijack sequence, though admittedly ending on a silly CG stunt, works superbly. So does a four-way drag race through downtown Los Angeles to become the dealer's next wheelman. Not one but two races through maze-like mineshaft under the US/Mexico border aren't as entirely fortunate as they look decidedly like animation tests for a new "Need for Speed" game sequel.
What's notable here though is the franchise's continued dalliance with subtext, or more specifically that fine line between macho posturing and gay enticement. Though only touched upon in the first and most coherent of the films, "2 Fast 2 Furious" brought the guys & gears genre out of the closet with Paul Walker and Tyrese Gibson as ripped, sweaty buddies so into each other that when separated, all they could think about is getting back into the saddle of their big throbbing machines... not to mention their cars. Its innocent overtness is both hilarious and sweet, making it a hard film to hate.
Aside from all the tire-sliding and Yakuza stand-ins, the subtext of the third film 'Tokyo Drift' attempted to explore both the Mid-Western cub mentor meets urban twink 'on the downlow' protege relationship while throwing in a side of vaguely racist Westerner 'rice queen' fetishism. Director Justin Lin's handling of it though proved notably clumsy even as he delivered what remains the franchise's best vehicular action to date.
With this fourth 'Furious', the filmmakers' seem to have finally achieved self-awareness of the inherent homoeroticism and tried to pander to it - with mixed results. Unlike say "Fight Club" or "American Psycho" which are beautifully constructed in their delicate satire of male sexual repression, this 'Furious' delivers clunky exchanges such as when the drug lord's engineer/concubine asks Vin Diesel's character if he's the kind of guy who is into girls or cars. He responds in his ever-present monotone that "I admire the body, regardless of the make".
Later on as Dominic (Diesel) and Brian (Walker) are getting a little too close over a car bonnet, Dom's sister walks in and they jump up like naughty school kids caught playing 'ookie cookie'. To prove he's still a breeder, Brian quickly takes her on the kitchen sink even though her brother/his mancrush is only yards away and can pretty much hear everything. Even an exchange in the desert near the end speaks volumes in its subtext of longing between this pair and their cars which themselves are obvious metaphors - Dom's is older, larger, meatier, more experienced and with more thrust, power and control than Brian's flashier, firmer, younger and more flexible model.
Better contoured rims however do not equal a more adept rimmer, leaving us with a film that ultimately feels more like a cobbled together rent-a-car than a sleek Euro-styled crotch magnet. The quality differences between the various mediocre but amenable entries in this franchise are negligible, each has their own strengths in their own areas. It's not that this one is unsatisfying, but if people had to pick a favorite it's likely this is the one that will come up the least. Personally though, I'd likely place it second after the first one.
The fault doesn't lie so much with the talent but with the series as a whole. Made obviously to lure in mostly men who like their cars hot, chicks wet and their buddies closer than even they themselves might want to admit, the films have never had much in the way of ambition beyond tying together a series of automotive set pieces. Thus we've been stuck with B-Grade crime pulp stories that retread various and better films, most notably "Point Break". This one is no different.
Diesel and Walker, both actors once pegged as the next big thing but who've both hit rough times in recent years, are physically more fascinating this time around as they've aged. Performance wise however they continue to stay stuck in their niches, Diesel's mannered zen-like appeal remains a draw unlike Walker's more aggressive and abrasive take on his relaxed surfer dude approach. Jordana Brewster's involvement is minimal and the various new stars are essentially blank, leaving Michelle Rodriguez's all too short stint early on as the only real sign of vibrant life (and the one woman of the film whom Diesel shares a decent chemistry with).
Lin's direction of the action is solid. Though the mine shaft drives are often a bevy of confusion, the quick cutting of the various other scenes work fine and are thrilling even when the geography of a scene is hopelessly lost. The initial globe-hopping from the Dominican Republic to Los Angeles to Panama and back to L.A. feels clumsily rushed. Yet at other times the film is nicely creative such as Dom's action replay of a fatal car accident/slaying, to the parkour-like re-introduction of Brian.
Ultimately it is exactly what you expect - those who liked the last few will certainly like this one. Those who don't, won't. Those who are new - well it is essentially a remake of the first in some ways, thus short of some of the characters knowing each other there is nothing from the previous films you desperately need to know to get caught up on the action. The film feels like an ending, though the door does remain ajar for a sequel if they choose to go ahead as they've already planned. Next time if they get a solid script in place, keep the homoeroticism at subliminal yet omnipresent levels, and add a more interesting locale like Europe as some have suggested - it might be worth a test drive.