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THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS

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C

It’s amusing, if somewhat unsettling, to hear the reaction of younger viewers, especially the adolescent males at which “The Fast and the Furious” is aimed, when the plot calls for the camera to linger long and lovingly over one of the souped-up engines or garishly outfitted chassis the characters in Rob Cohen’s frantically melodramatic new racing movie dote on. The in-unison “oohs” and “ahs” that greet the sight of the autos, photographed to look as lustrous and enticing as possible, are what one would ordinarily expect at a particularly revealing moment in a glossy porno picture. The kids are essentially ogling the vehicles; you can almost feel their lust to crawl in, stroke the leather seats and hand-crafted instrument panels, rev up the engine as high as it will go and screech down some city side-street in an illegal race. The effect is more than a little creepy.

Still, the reaction is a sign that the picture succeeds at what it’s trying to do–generate a simple, visceral response from people who like the idea of acting tough and zooming down roads at two-hundred miles an hour, even if they’ll never have the guts actually to try it (amusement park thrill rides or NASCAR shows will have to suffice instead). Essentially a flashy modern version of one of those tacky drag-racing movies made by the dozen by American-International in the 1950s and 1960s, the flick might be retitled “Rebel Without a Brain,” but although it’s transparent junk, it’s better junk than last summer’s “Gone in Sixty Seconds.”

In some ways “The Fast and the Furious” is also a sort of retread of 1987’s little-appreciated “No Man’s Land,” in which D.B. Sweeney played a rookie cop who goes undercover to catch a fellow who heads a car-theft ring; in course of his “investigation,” he grows to admire his quarry, whose sister he gets romantically involved with, and even starts to enjoy stealing Porsches. (He’s being seduced by the Dark Side, to use the “Star Wars” terminology so popular at the time.) Peter Werner’s picture was far less spectacular than Cohen’s in terms of its action sequences, and in Charlie Sheen it suffered from a stilted figure for Sweeney to play against, but it had a certain moody edge to it. In the present case, the stalwart young flatfoot is Brian (Paul Walker, whom you might recall as the rich college kid in Cohen’s “The Skulls”). In trying to ferret out the identity of a cadre of drivers who are using their cars and skills with almost military precision to highjack big rigs right off the highways, he infiltrates a bunch of thugs headed by surly Dominic (Vin Diesel–surely the perfect surname for an actor in a movie like this), an ex-con who’s also one of L.A.’s best illegal racers. Dom’s acceptance of Brian, a white-bread wannabe, antagonizes some of the other members of the gang, especially when Dom’s luscious sister Mia (Jordana Brewster) develops a thing for him. The narrative also involves a big desert race and a rival gang of Chinese youths who careen about on motorcycles and show a distinctly violent streak. As the plot proceeds, Brian predictably grows to admire Dominic; will he be able to turn him in if necessary?

All of this is the most simple-minded melodramatic nonsense, of course, and the scripters don’t help matters by padding it with lots of tough-cop dialogue involving Brian, his boss Tanner (Ted Levine) and a gruff FBI agent (Thom Barry), as well as a few heart-on-sleeve monologues that allow various characters an opportunity to make themselves sympathetic (in one case a likable grease monkey is allotted thirty seconds to tell us about his problems in a speech which immediately labels him as Eventual Dead Meat–the only question is how he’s going to get laid out). But “The Fast and the Furious” is at least an efficiently mounted specimen of its admittedly low-brow genre. Cohen knows how to score in the car-racing sequences (an extended episode involving an attempted truck highjicking in the third act is thoroughly absurd and overextended, but fairly exciting), and he squeezes a bit of tension out of some of the macho exhibitions that pop up periodically. The cast is attractive, too. Walker is way too bland to be convincing as a grubby street type, but he’s a reasonably engaging presence (if no great shakes in the thespian department), and Diesel certainly has both the physique and the intensity to make Dom an imposing character. Brewster is quite lovely as Dom’s sister, and Matt Schulze is appropriately menacing as his chief lieutenant who’s enraged at Brian’s presence. Unfortunately Michelle Rodriguez, who was so impressive in “Girlfight,” is wasted as the obligatory tomboy member of Dom’s gang. Ericson Core’s cinematography and Peter Honess’ editing keep things percolating way beyond what the material deserves.

“The Fast and the Furious” is little more than an old B-movie wreck spruced up and sent speeding onto the screen, and it can hardly be called a good movie: though it boasts a coat of new paint and has been thoroughly turbo-charged, underneath the gleaming exterior it’s the same broken-down jalopy. But even if it’s running on little more than the fumes of previous flicks, at least it makes it over the finish line without crashing and burning the way the far more ambitious and expensive “Gone in Sixty Seconds” did. That’s a modest accomplishment, but things could have been a lot worse.

THE ANIMAL

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The basis of the sort of gross-out screen comedy that’s proliferated over the last few years has always been one-upsmanship: to succeed, a picture has to top its predecessors in slime, goo, and wretched excess. But once Tom Green stunk up the screen with “Freddy Got Fingered” a few months ago, it became well-nigh impossible to imagine any of the other frat-boy stars to do anything that could match, let alone top, its unremitting vulgarity and scummy tastelessness. The bottom of the barrel was unquestionably reached, and everything to follow in the genre would necessarily come up short. So it’s a good thing that despite a title which promises something pretty gnarly, SNL’s Rob Schneider, in his second starring vehicle (following the sniggering “Deuce Bigelow, Male Gigolo”) actually tries for something sweeter and goofier instead; and at least in part, he succeeds. “The Animal” is no prime stallion, but it’s not a dog either.

The picture is about Marvin Mange, a sad-sack sort of guy–a probationary cop in a small-town department–whose behavior is altered in predictable ways when he’s the recipient of transplanted animal organs following a horrendous (and surprisingly funny) car crash. Plotwise it recalls last spring’s “Monkeybone,” in which Brendan Fraser played a dopey cartoonist whose body was taken over by his wacky alter-ego, a lascivious chimp. But while Henry Selick’s picture was, despite its slapstick trappings, a dark, brooding fable about id-versus-ego, this effort is much lighter, with little on its mind but collecting some giggles and an occasional guffaw. It’s much closer in tone to 1964’s “The Incredible Mr. Limpet,” in which Don Knotts played a milquetoast transformed–via animation–into a heroic fish. Of course, this is 2001, and comedy has gotten raunchier in the intervening thirty-seven years, so there’s much more reference to the hero’s sexual appetites than there was in “Limpet,” and many more jokes about urination and farting. But it’s all kept to a manageable level (nothing, thank heaven, to compare to Green’s hideous scenes with horse and elephant in “Freddy”), and kids will probably have a good time watching Schneider mimic the antics of various critters. They’ll also appreciate most of the “ickier” jokes, which are frankly pitched to a juvenile mentality.

Schneider, who did some good work on SNL and had a few amusing cameos in Adam Sandler vehicles, proves himself an adept physical comedian and an amiable screen presence here. He succeeds at what David Spade tried and failed to do in the recent “Joe Dirt”–be a sympathetic shmuck whom the audience can root for while enjoying his knockabout set-pieces. Maintaining a pleasantly deadpan demeanor as he careens through all the gyrations and contortions he has to endure while emulating dolphins, horses, and other assorted beasties, Schneider actually manages to overcome the stigma that followed him around after the smarmy “Deuce.”

Unhappily, he’s pretty much the whole show, and it’s not quite enough to keep “The Animal” afloat even over its modest 80-minute running-time, despite the sprightly pace maintained by neophyte director Luke Greenfield. With one exception, the human supporting cast is disappointing. Guy Torry is great as the hero’s buddy Miles, an agitated black dude who’s incensed that he’s the victim of reverse discrimination because white people treat him particularly well. (There are also a few animals who prove to be scene-stealers–an orangutan, a chimp and a goat in particular.) But though Colleen Haskell, from the original run of “Survivor,” has a pleasant smile as Mange’s love interest, she’s otherwise fairly nondescript, and Michael Caton is a trifle too arch as the doctor who literally puts Marvin back together. Marvin’s colleagues in the PD are an especially colorless lot. John C. McGinley is all chin and posturing as the poor boy’s chief tormentor on the force, veteran Edward Asner seems almost lost as the gruff chief, and Louis Lombardi proves surprisingly flat as Marvin’s closest cop friend.

Moreover, after an hour of fairly good fun the picture wanders off into a werewolf-inspired third act which doesn’t work at all. (It does allow for the obligatory chase sequence, but it’s not handled terribly well, and an attempt to generate suspense about the identity of the doctor’s second patient is a real mistake.) Cameos by Sandler (whose company produced the picture) and Norm MacDonald help to lift things at the very end, as does a hilarious last-minute intervention by Torry, but the damage has already been done. “The Animal” doesn’t go completely lame in the last lap, but it proves to be no thoroughbred. The bottom line is that you could do a lot worse (read “Pearl Harbor”), but also a good deal better (read “Shrek”).