Every age gets the car-chase movie franchise it deserves. When I was a kid the paradigm was Smokey and the Bandit films, those good-natured Carter-era romps that combined the giggling of Burt Reynolds with the ineffectual flailing of police officials.
No one is giggling in Fast & Furious, the fourth installment in the series Vin Diesel kicked off eight years ago. The milieu is an underworld of casual murder, and it would be unsettling were this not the sort of goofy action movie in which a leering male character says, in an automotively themed pickup line, "I'm one of those boys who appreciate a fine body, regardless of the make."
Noël Coward it ain't, but trashy lines like that are part of the fun of this slickly made film, which brings back the stars of the first installment, The Fast and the Furious. Here once again is Diesel as Dominic Toretto, the thief who for some reason finds it easier to steal 18-wheelers when they're moving at high speeds. Here are his gal Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), who makes jumping around on moving vehicles look like a Broadway dance routine, and his sister Mia (Jordana Brewster), who sits around looking worried. And here is Paul Walker (Brian O'Connor), the FBI agent who wants to be a fast-driving outlaw, or is it the other way around?
After the very exciting, very improbable heist that begins the film, Fast & Furious settles into a tale of vengeance that has Toretto tracking down a gloriously mean guy called - gotta love action-movie names - Fenix Rise (a glowering Laz Alonso). Signifying Fenix's meanness, as well as his ideological tardiness, is the Soviet-style hammer and sickle tattooed on his neck. Like Sherlock Holmes identifying the source of the clay on someone's boots, Toretto tracks his man down by examining the residue his car leaves on the asphalt.
The plot is absurd, of course, but who cares? There are many gratifying moments. Stunningly beautiful cars are raced in frenetically edited sequences. At the U.S.-Mexico border, Homeland Security is bypassed thanks to a system of tunnels that reminds me of the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland. Somewhere in there, in one of the film's few relaxed moments, Diesel says a reluctant, awkward grace over a dinner of Chinese food.
It's barely April, but if Fast & Furious has anything to say about it, summer is already here.