July 03, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

Our critic defends ”The Fast and the Furious”

The folks at Universal who made ”The Fast and the Furious” don’t care about my demographic. I’m not male, I’m not a teenager. More useless yet, I’m a critic, and ”Fast” is critical antimatter, a movie with no aspirations to artfulness, or hope of a high EW grade.

Yet I like the movie, and appreciate it for staying true to its school, and well understand the roaring box office business receipts when it opened last week. So this is in praise of genial junk, fast vehicles, terrible dialogue, and the mutant swagger of the felicitously named, bullet-headed actor Vin Diesel. This is a salute to movies that look rough and rusty, to young thespians who can’t really act (but who are gung-ho to try), and to the throwaway charm of the dumb, the earnest, the suntanned, and the un-camp.

This is a paean to fuel-injected race car movies, where the rubbish meets the road. I love the scenes when the boys eye each other’s hot rods while the girls eye the boys. I dig the fetishizing of car engines and the ritualized prerace preening. This movie is burnt and cloddish, yet its chassis is sound: No gimmicks, no ”We will rock you” overlay of attitude. Just…stuff that’s fast, and furious!

I ought to clarify: I’m not talking about indulging in guilty pleasure here, which is a very self-conscious, wink-wink sort of appreciation. ”Fast” is built for ease of acceleration, and has no time for sarcastic comments about the clunkiness of the dialogue or the clichés of the conflicts. There’s nothing for cultists and connoisseurs of ”fingers in the air” quotes to scavenge here.

”I smell skanks,” a dragster’s girlfriend drawls about other predatory females in the vicinity, curling her lip like a prizefighter — and that’s about the extent of the script worth mining by late-night talk show ironists. (The tough chick is played by Michelle Rodriguez, who did indeed play a prizefighter in the indie boxing flick ”Girlfight.” Rodriguez might want to consider a non- sneering role next, to beef up her résumé.) Meanwhile, no one credits the skank characters themselves for remaining unimpressed by their own down-market manginess.

See, what’s refreshingly un-winky about ”Fast/Furious” is that guys snarl and bark at one another, chicks circle the wagons, and sleek, souped-up cars zoom down L.A. boulevards risking death to the stuntdrivers behind the wheels. Nothing else matters, not even good camera work or a decent soundtrack. What you see is what you get, and what you get goes by real fast. Then it’s time for a burger and a shake. Other summer movies should be so modest.

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