Recession has hit the world of B movies: There's no longer a budget for definite articles in titles. Fast & Furious, about dirtied-up car racing and badass drivers, arrives eight years after The Fast and the Furious revealed the unlikely charms of the sewer-throated, shovel-headed Vin Diesel. Back then, as Diesel's Dominic Toretto burned through L.A. streets, we gasped, Who is that walking Popeye, and why does he sound like he's in a Sylvester Stallone tribute band? Back then we also met Dom's nemesis, Brian O'Conner (Paul Walker), an equally feisty driver (and, as it happened, an undercover cop) as blond and blue-eyed as Toretto was bald and swarthy. We met Dom's cute sister, Mia (Jordana Brewster), who loved Brian, and the tough-babe driver Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), who loved Dom. Mostly we met hot rods driven by hot dogs and although the movie was no Point Break, it was great to rocket along for the nitrous-injected ride. The Fast and the Furious celebrated great music, cars, and minimally clothed chicks cast as extras.
Later on, Dom became a fugitive in Mexico, Brian went to Miami (in 2003's 2 Fast 2 Furious), and the F&F franchise took an invigorating global detour to Japan (2006's The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift), where Diesel's Dom showed up for a cameo. Now the original gang is reunited in L.A. for a victory lap, and they're looking pretty fly for old-timers. The music, strong on reggaeton, still pulses. The chick extras still favor bikini tops. The stars' jawlines are slightly softened, and the lived-in look suits them. (The plot, for what it's worth, is about chasing down a nefarious drug lord who happens to be hiring guys who can drive real fast.)
Fast & Furious is still no Point Break. But it's perfectly aware of its limited dramatic mission, and sturdily directed by Tokyo Drift's Justin Lin with space for a global audience to talk back to the screen. And in the jammed landscape of mass-market new releases, it offers an attractive getaway route from self-importance, snark, and chatty comedies about male bonding. Here, stick shifts do the talking. B+