My hand trembles slightly as I type these words, but the truth is that while watching "2 Fast 2 Furious," the follow-up to the pleasurably cheap-thrills sleeper "The Fast and the Furious," I realized just how much I miss Vin Diesel.
The colossus whose Hemi-engine voice roared through the "The Fast and the Furious" like a 1969 Charger and whose absence hangs over its sequel like stale exhaust, the aptly named Diesel was the first film's Neanderthal Hamlet, a tire-iron giant gently soiled by axle grease and filial anguish. The new movie arrives without its original star, director and writers, a triple whammy that is, loosely speaking, akin to a second "Godfather" movie minus Al Pacino, Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo, never mind Robert De Niro. In place of Diesel, who had been flanked by pouty tomboy Michelle Rodriguez, doe-eyed Jordana Brewster and steely Rick Yune, the sequel offers up just two familiar faces, character actor Thom Barry as an FBI agent and, pale, pretty Paul Walker as former Los Angeles cop Brian O'Conner.
An actor for whom the word "whaddup" will never be first, second or even third nature, Walker had been designated the first movie's star and indeed received top billing, but ended up choking on his co-star's churning dust, playing Ice Man to Diesel's Top Gun. The Ice Man cometh once again, roaring into "2 Fast 2 Furious" in a silvery Nissan Skyline GTR that spits fire like a baby dragon and has a spoiler large enough to hang the wash. Now kicking it in Miami, the ex-cop earns his keep hot-wheeling against locals such as Suki (fashion model Devon Aoki), an anime cartoon come barely to life whose Pepto-Bismol-hue S2000 Honda and poignantly awkward line readings vividly bring to mind the intestinal pink of this city's most famous Corvette and its driver, Angelyne.
O'Conner may be the kind of guy who unabashedly wears shirts embroidered with his name, and he may sport black Converse sneakers when he puts the pedal to the metal, but he knows how to soul-shake the hand of Miami's No. 1 street-car impresario, Tej (musician Chris "Ludacris" Bridges). In other words, he may be white, but he's also down -- or as down as a blond, blue-eyed dude from California without visible tattoos, a guitar or a contract with an East Coast publisher can be. Despite getting the LAPD boot, the onetime undercover brother also retains enough credibility with the FBI to get pulled into yet another high-stakes covert operation, this time involving big-time money launderer Carter Verone (Cole Hauser).
As written by Michael Brandt and Derek Haas, and as directed with characteristic crudeness by John Singleton (the recent "Shaft"), the story tracks how O'Conner infiltrates Verone's lair along the usual script lines, with the help of the usual action-movie suspects. Riding shotgun with O'Conner is the righteously angry yet lionhearted former convict Roman "Rom" Pearce (singer Tyrese); riding his tail are the hostile and inevitably inept FBI agents (led by James Remar). Then there's the requisite hot government babe, Monica Fuentes (Eva Mendes), who's sleeping with the enemy for duty and designer threads but is mostly on hand to resolve which way the blandly asexual O'Conner likes to downshift.
An ode to Los Angeles street-car racing and the beautiful kids who race, "The Fast and the Furious" became an easy guilty pleasure with little more than fast cars, young flesh and lean-to-the-bone storytelling, a formula that Roger Corman has banked on for half a century. Punctuated by the sort of throbbing beats that suggest all the carnal interplay that can never occur when a movie earns a PG-13 rating, the original was feverishly serious and hopelessly goofy, as well as B-movie modest from start to finish. At center was the relationship between the Diesel and Walker characters and the ways in which men bond, although more critical to the film's success was the multiracial, multicultural utopia represented by Diesel's crew, as gorgeously hued as all those candy-colored cars.
Diesel's appeal, which becomes less evident with each new endeavor, was in the brutal poetry of that gravel-pit voice wedded to a presence whose mysteries -- is he black, white, Latino, Samoan or some fusion of all of the above? -- pointed to a new model of post-Schwarzenegger masculinity. But that's so two years ago, and "2 Fast 2 Furious" is nothing if not representative of a new, distinctly less hopeful world. Instead of the multi-everything family that races, parties and thieves together, Singleton unleashes spasms of sadism and innumerable leering shots of girls gone wild, albeit -- alas -- not behind the wheel. (The races, meanwhile, have all the zip of the Orange crush.) More tellingly, in place of Diesel, Singleton offers up the wan visage of Walker, who, having again received top billing, again barely registers, despite his best attempts to walk the walk and talk the talk.
It probably wasn't lost on everyone involved with the new movie that only one star emerged from "The Fast and the Furious," and his name wasn't Paul Walker. That may have been tough on the young actor, a nice enough addition to movies like "Pleasantville," but it seems to have produced a mildly fascinating effect on the makers of "2 Fast 2 Furious," specifically in the effort to turn Walker into the least-white white guy around. It isn't just the sight of Walker trying to chill alongside the no-sweat cool of Tyrese or the sound of his newly deepened voice, once a sturdy alto next to Diesel's basso profundo, that betrays the film's racial anxiety. No, it's all the times the poor guy is forced to say "bro" as if it were a magical initiation into the hip-hop brotherhood. The moviemakers wanted diesel, but this star runs strictly on unleaded.
'2 Fast 2 Furious'
MPAA rating: PG-13, for street racing, violence, language and some sensuality
Times guidelines: The rat-torture scene is gross and the depiction of women often tawdry.
Paul Walker ... Brian O'Conner
Tyrese ... Roman Pearce
Eva Mendes ... Monica Fuentes
Cole Hauser ... Carter Verone
Chris "Ludacris" Bridges ... Tej
Universal Pictures presents a Neal H. Moritz Production, released by Universal Pictures. Director John Singleton. Writers Michael Brandt, Derek Haas. Story Michael Brandt, Derek Haas, Gary Scott Thompson. Producer Neal H. Moritz. Director of photography Matthew F. Leonetti. Production designer Keith Brian Burns. Editors Bruce Cannon, Dallas Puett. Costume designer Sanja Milkovic Hays. Music David Arnold. Running time 1 hour, 47 minutes.
In general release.