2 stars (out of 4)
There was something endearing about how dumb "The Fast and the Furious" was. It wasn't dumb in a cynical, manufactured way. It was dumb in an old-fashioned, exploitation-film, no-brain-cells-necessary kind of way.
It didn't pretend to be anything more than it was: a big, silly movie about street racing that delivered its thrills with gusto even as it delivered its dialogue with marbles in its mouth.
The empty-headedness of the sequel, "2 Fast 2 Furious," isn't as easy to appreciate. For one, this isn't another movie about an underground culture. It's about two buddies going undercover to catch a sneering villain, and they get involved in multiple car chases on the way.
That's a different genre. It's called a buddy movie, a cop movie, a buddy-cop movie or, you know, a generic action flick. There are lots of those.
The still hunky and somewhat less lunky Paul Walker returns as undercover cop-gone-somewhat-wrong Brian O'Conner, who has moved to Miami after losing his badge in Los Angeles for letting a street-gang leader (Vin Diesel's Dominic from the 2001 original) fishtail away. Now Brian is racing for cash on long stretches of Miami streets that the races' organizers somehow have cleared of any vehicles or living creatures.
No sooner is Brian nabbed by the cops - one of the movie's few cool new gadgets is the electrically charged spear-gun thingy they shoot into a speeding car to disable it - than he's ludicrously being trusted to help bring down some sort of kingpin named Carter Verone (Cole Hauser). Carter, see, is hiring new drivers to pick up a big package of laundered money, so Brian can gain redemption and professional reinstatement by taking the job and helping the feds make their bust.
Of course, Brian needs a partner, so he calls on his childhood pal Roman Pearce (model/R&B singer Tyrese), an ex-con who still blames Brian for his arrest. In other words, they have to smack each other around a bit before they can resume their old bonding ways.
While the first movie was about outcasts and loyalty - Brian romances Dominic's sister, becomes even more attached to Dominic and feels bad about ratting him out - this one just saddles buddies with one of those jobs involving snarling henchmen and a coolly sadistic villain. Carter, who could have been computer generated, gets his obligatory scene of demonstrating a creatively cruel way to torture someone. (It involves a rat on a bare belly, a bucket and a blowtorch.)
There's also the sultry undercover woman, Monica Fuentes (Eva Mendes), who has been sleeping with the enemy for almost a year but makes goo-goo eyes at Brian. "2 Fast 2 Furious," though, is thoroughly sexless; Brian shows more spark with Roman and even more with his stick shift, which director John Singleton ("Boyz N the Hood," "Shaft") shows being yanked from gear to gear about every two seconds during the chases.
I never thought I'd write these words, but here goes: I miss Vin Diesel. Walker was the ostensible star of the original, but Diesel was its operatic soul, playing a street-racer demigod who dispensed such philosophy as: "I live my life a quarter mile at a time. For those 10 seconds or less, I'm free."
OK, we're not talking Camus here, but you appreciated that the guy bothered to have a credo at all and that Diesel, putting his innate sense of self-importance to its best use yet, could intone it repeatedly with a straight face.
Diesel supposedly wanted 2 much money for a return trip, and director Rob Cohen and just about all of the first film's cast (Jordana Brewster, Michelle Rodriguez, Rick Yune) also found the franchise ejection seat. Now, Singleton and a new writing team (Michael Brandt and Derek Haas) have given the sequel a generic professional sheen.
But who needs professional? There's a reason these movies are about street racers and not well-funded NASCAR drivers.
"2 Fast 2 Furious" looks sleek and moves efficiently, but there's nothing too distinctive under the hood. Walker, appreciably looser than last time out, and the marginally expressive Tyrese utter lots of triumphant hoots and cackles, but nary a memorable line - and certainly no personal credos.
The chases have their moments, like Brian speeding in reverse or leapfrogging over another car during a bridge jump, but they don't rival the high-speed truck heists of the first movie. One of the biggest "oooh" moments here is when a racer's car gets crushed under the rear wheels of a truck. Yummy fatality!
Also, the first movie's races were lightning-quick jaunts. The opening showdown here goes on for minutes and miles, bringing new meaning to the phrase "drag race."
Singleton knows how to make the cars look good, but he doesn't have Cohen's fetishist eye for detail; the cars aren't characters in their own rights, with their drivers trying to engineer every last bit of speed out of them. Instead of again being immersed in another world with its own jargon ("NOS! Woo!"), you find yourself in the familiar world of GPS tracking devices and cop cars crunching into each other.
Look, "The Fast and the Furious" was no classic, but it got you where it was going. "2 Fast 2 Furious" shows some speed as well, but it's traveling down the road already taken.
"2 Fast 2 Furious"
Directed by John Singleton; written by Michael Brandt, Derek Haas; photographed by Matthew F. Leonetti; edited by Bruce Cannon, Dallas Puett; production designed by Keith Brian Burns; music by David Arnold; produced by Neal H. Moritz. A Universal Pictures release; opens Friday, June 6. Running time: 1:54. MPAA rating: PG-13 (street racing, violence, language, some sensuality).
Brian O'Conner - Paul Walker
Roman Pearce - Tyrese
Monica Fuentes - Eva Mendes
Carter Verone - Cole Hauser
Agent Bilkins - Thom Barry
Tej - Chris "Ludacris" Bridges