So far it's been a scholarly summer. X2 unfolded like an encyclopedia of geek powers, and The Matrix Reloaded lectured us on free will, but with the arrival of 2 Fast 2 Furious (Universal) it's safe to say that the party has started. The booming bass line begins before the opening credits—actually, there are no opening credits, as this movie doesn't presume to tax our reading abilities—and the cars are revving and racing through the streets before anyone has a chance to say: Where's Vin Diesel?
Mr. Diesel emerged as the star of the original film, The Fast and the Furious, which became a sleeper hit in the summer of 2001. He declined to return for a second spin at the wheel, and, believe it or not, I took this as a bad sign. His leader-of-the-pack charisma is what held together the first movie, which, despite its blunt edges, deserves credit for presenting a few bona fide elements of Los Angeles street-racing culture. (For example, the drivers monitor police scanners and wait for a diversionary crime before they race.) This time around the action has been moved to Miami, stripped of any semblance of authenticity, and turned into another exercise in cool.
The new star of the show is Paul Walker, a returning cast member, whose main attribute seems to be his resemblance to a J.Crew model, complete with weathered blond hair. He's been paired with an actual model, Tyrese, who takes over the shirt-taking-off duties abdicated by Diesel. And in the grand tradition of politically correct summer "event" movies, the two actors (one plays an ex-cop, the other an ex-con) are accessorized with an Asian driver, a Latino driver, and so on, as well as the requisite rapper, Ludacris. The M.C. of this party is John Singleton, the noted director of Boyz N the Hood (1991), but more recently the man who botched the remake of the blaxploitation classic Shaft (2000). This time around, he's not taking any chances. In what may be charitably called an homage, Singleton begins this movie in the exact same way as the first, with a four-car illegal street race, frequently matching it shot for shot.
This beginning, of course, is what we all came to the theatre for: a healthy dose of artery-clearing car racing, with a few curvaceous actors on the side. But the movie doesn't deliver on either promise. All that we require of the cast is that they move us from car chase to car chase without unnecessary embarrassment. Instead, there is shameless product placement ("This the best garage around. They have Snap-On tools"), sub-Maxim double entendres ("When you gonna pop my clutch?"), and extras who just keep touching their hair like they're in a shampoo advertisement. At one point, the villain (Cole Hauser) says: "Women are a very powerful force." But the joke's on him: 2 Fast is about as sexless as a Saturday morning cartoon. GQ covergirl Eva Mendes is the film's designated hottie, but she's not asked to do anything remotely tempting. As in a lot of testosterone-soaked movies, the men seem more interested in staring at each other.
And stare they do. By the evidence of the determined grimaces on their faces, the actors drive their cars furiously, but that's all we get: stern looks and sweaty palms. There's never a clear, uncut driving sequence that doesn't feel like it was filmed on a set or trumped up with digital effects. It's not as if Singleton and his crew needed to reinvent the wheel—a Dukes of Hazzard skid out and a no-cheating ramp-to-ramp jump would have been enough. The first movie had an innovative maneuver where a Honda Civic changed lanes by going underneath a tractor trailer. In the sequel, the best they can do is show Paul Walker hitting the Nitrous Oxide button on his steering wheel—a trick street-racers use to give their cars an extra speed boost—after which the passing landscape gets really, really blurry. Forget real cars chasing other real cars; it's the old digital-effect cop out. John Candy pulled off better stunts in Speed Zone! (1989).
The clunkiness of 2 Fast 2 Furious would have easily been forgiven if Singleton presented the chase scenes with a modicum of realism. Most of us drive cars, and we have a basic sense of their physics. We know the prickly feeling of a close shave or a truck that looms too close. We've also gaped at the ingenious stunt work of drivers in The Road Warrior (1981) and Ronin (1998). In those films, velocity wasn't abstract, it was visceral; the chases were stories in miniature, with dueling vehicles manipulated by talented visual storytellers. Singleton would rather have us admire how good Tyrese looks behind the wheel of his Mitsubishi Eclipse Spyder while humming along at warp speed. 2 Fast 2 Furious is just 2 lame, 2 tame, and 2 much like a video game.