”The Fast and the Furious” features what could be the first Iron John drag race. In Los Angeles, Brian (Paul Walker), an undercover cop who looks blond and boyish enough to be an understudy for Lance Bass of ‘N Sync, and Toretto (Vin Diesel), the hulky speed demon and thief he has been trying to get the goods on, are lined up at a stoplight, eyeing each other like buzzards. Spontaneously, they agree to race to the train tracks that lie a quarter of a mile ahead. As they launch into gone-in-20-seconds overdrive, a train approaches, and the question lingers: Who will be the one to chicken out, and who will be fearless enough to hit the red dashboard-computer button that triggers a nitrous oxide fuel injection, rocketing the car ahead with Batmobile fury? The two rivals glance at each other, and suddenly, with a slight nod of the head, they both agree to go for the fuel injection. They’re going to beat that train — or run smack into it — together.
There have been countless auto-racing movies, from ”Grand Prix” to ”Heart Like a Wheel” to ”Driven,” but ”The Fast and the Furious” is a movie about California Car Culture. Its characters are young and pretty and hip and anonymous enough to look like hangers-on at a velvet-rope party for the movie’s premiere, and the story is organized around racial-tribal patterns as regimented as anything in an early-’60s delinquent fable. The drag races here take place in the desert or along midnight L.A. boulevards, with baby-faced gangland studs speeding for the prize of cash, groupies, and their own manhood. ”I live my life a quarter of a mile at a time,” says Toretto, in the movie’s most irresistible bad line. ”For those 10 seconds, I’m free.” He’s enunciating the philosophy of the drag racer, though the trouble with drag-race movies is that those 10 seconds tend to flash by all too quickly, leaving us, in the case of ”The Fast and the Furious,” with a logy crime-bust melodrama — ”Point Break” on hot wheels.
Standing in contrast to all of the perfectly angled cheekbones is Vin Diesel, whose every aspect is thick and round: his muscles, his lips, his close-cropped cranium, his syrupy basso growl. Diesel can be a powerful actor (he ruled ”Boiler Room” like a pumped-up Miguel Ferrer), but ”The Fast and the Furious,” in trying to make him ”noble,” just ends up bleaching his surly charisma. As for Michelle Rodriguez, who appears here in her first major role after ”Girlfight,” I’m afraid that her snarl has been candified, her presence reduced to a mere tic of attitude. ”The Fast and the Furious” works hard to be exciting, but the movie scarcely lives up to its title. It could have used a bit of a fuel injection itself.