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Thursday, July 30, 2015

Undercover Audience

Last night I was feeling somewhat masochistic, so I watched Rob Cohen's 2001 action opus The Fast & The Furious. I expected the film to be pretty dire, and it was - and yet I found it perversely charming, too. It's a simple story of an undercover cop (Paul Walker) who infiltrates a gang of street racers/hijackers led by Vin Diesel. Walker's character finds himself developing considerable empathy for Diesel and his gang, particularly his sister, who becomes the film's romantic interest.

The plot, such as it is, exists only as an excuse to put gorgeous cars on display and race them in quarter-miles through the streets of Los Angeles or in the desert. It's an unapologetic advertisement for the American Dream, which is, apparently, to race fast cars, bed beautiful women, monkey around in the garage and carry around fat rolls of cash. It's one of the only films I can think of in which automobiles are objectified more than women.

The film wouldn't work were it not for Vin Diesel's considerable lunkheaded charisma. Even though he's a hood who robs 18 wheelers and sells their cargo on the black market, he doesn't seem like a bad guy; he makes his hoods say grace before dinner, he's overprotective of his sister, he's scrupulously fair and keeps his more combative henchmen in line.

In the end, Paul Walker's character gets too caught up in Diesel's world to bring him to justice, handing over the keys to his own souped-up car so that Diesel can escape his troubled past to a new life in Mexico.

I dreamed about the film early this morning, and in the dream I had to infiltrate the movie itself, much like Paul Walker's character infiltrated the gang. But instead of spying on the gang and collecting evidence for their eventual arrest, my task was to spy on the movie and evaluate it without being "caught" by the film. But like Paul Walker, I found myself growing too fond of the film to do my duty and trash it.

I woke up realizing why this film had such an impact on popular culture: it wears its purpose on its sleeve. It's an action bromance that celebrates masculine values and offers a compelling wish-fulfillment fantasy to many men. In a way, it's a lot like the escapist drive-in teenage rebellion films of the 1960s, only with the moral message reversed. Back then, the delinquents were punished or rehabilitated. In the 21st century, the cops switch sides and the hoodlums go free.

What does that say about modern civilization? And what does it say about the seductive power of movies so slickly produced and emotionally manipulative that they somehow overcome their own artlessness? How can I like and loathe a movie at the same time?

One quarter mile at a time, I guess.

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