Film Review: Fast & Furious

Rival street racers battle a Mexican heroin ring. Hard-hitting, satisfying action fare, with Vin Diesel returning to help restore an ailing franchise.

The fourth entry in a series that started with The Fast and the Furious, Fast & Furious focuses the Universal action franchise squarely on what its fans want: tough guys, boss cars and daredevil races. Vin Diesel and Paul Walker are back as well in the roles that helped make them stars. Showing up just in time after some profitable but dramatically iffy sequels, this loud, angry and fast-paced episode sets a high bar for this year's crop of action films.

An explosive, seven-minute pre-credit sequence finds Dominic Toretto (Diesel) hijacking a gasoline shipment in transit with his girlfriend Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) and Han (Sung Kang, a holdover from The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift). Staged on a vertiginous mountain road, the stunts are as thrilling as they are implausible. Meanwhile, erstwhile juvenile delinquent and street racer Brian O'Conner (Walker), now an FBI agent, chases a suspect through a market, into a building, and right off a balcony in an effort to shut down a Mexican heroin ring.

Entry to that ring is the reward for winning a race through the nighttime streets of Los Angeles, proof that you are a good enough driver to transport contraband into the country. The race pits O'Conner, who has four days to catch the drug kingpin before his unit is shut down, against Toretto, back in the States to avenge a murder. They form an uneasy alliance, each aware that betrayal means death. Also in the mix: Toretto's sister Mia (Jordana Brewster), dumped by O'Conner five years earlier; Campos (John Ortiz), a smiling but unscrupulous lieutenant in the drug ring; and Giselle (Gal Gadot), a willowy brunette who helps direct the drivers.

The plot leads Toretto and O'Conner to Mexico, where abandoned mine shafts become secret tunnels under the border. A botched sting and gang rivalries add to the tension, making this one of the more tightly plotted films in the series. Party scenes and a pounding score prove that the filmmakers haven't forgotten their target audience. But screenwriter Chris Morgan also adds noir-ish layers, darkening the mood and limiting his characters' options.

Justin Lin, who also directed Tokyo Drift, handles the cast and stunts efficiently, blending a half-dozen storylines into the action scenes. The plot's buildup is better than its payoff, which is geared a bit too obviously to computer-gaming fans. Some may feel shortchanged by the paucity of hand-to-hand fighting, especially given the persuasive villainy of Ortiz and his henchman Laz Alonso. Diesel, one of the film's producers, is a massive, hulking presence throughout, but a largely immobile one. Perhaps tellingly, Walker gets considerably more physical business than his co-star.

Fast & Furious delivers what it promises with an old-fashioned attention to craft and professionalism. In a way a throwback to an earlier age of exploitation films, it proves that the old formulas still make sense. Solid and satisfying, it should win over mainstream viewers as well as gearheads.