What is it about watching car crashes on screen that endlessly fascinates moviegoers? They are the automechanical equivalent of slasher movies, and you'd think that there would only be so many ways to destroy a car. Yet we continue to flock to these movies, our appetite to see all makes and models of automobile crashed, smashed and blown to bits apparently insatiable.
Perhaps the best piece of car porn ever put on screen, the original 'Fast and the Furious' remains the best of the now three-picture franchise. The story is a fairly formulaic crime thriller, but who needs plot when you have lots of good-looking people driving fast cars and blowing things up? Paul Walker stars as undercover cop Brian O'Conner. He's assigned to infiltrate the underworld subculture of Los Angeles "street racing," where impossibly good-looking teenagers (who all apparently have unlimited financial resources) jack up hot cars and challenge each other to death-defying, late-night competitions. O'Conner befriends the king of the circuit, Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel), but will soon question that loyalty when Toretto and his posse become the prime suspects in a car hijacking ring. Eventually, O'Conner will have to put his newfound street racing skills to the test if he's going to bust the thugs, get the girl, and beat Toretto at his own game.
'The Fast and the Furious' is not a movie that appeals to the intellect. But what it does, it does fabulously. Action ubermeister Rob ('xXx,' 'Stealth') Cohen directs with the gas pedal pressed all the way to the floor. The lighting, the music, the editing and the action are all pumped to the max, so the film is pure audiovisual eye candy. Take the scene where a group of feds bust in on the lair of Johnny Tran (Rick Yune). Cohen stages the scene like a music video, with a blaring neo-industrial song on the soundtrack, lots of slo-mo, and not a single word of dialogue. No, this is not art on the level of European mise-en-scene, but I still have to hand it to Cohen. He revels in telling his stories as pure cinema (even if it is of the MTV variety), and so -- unlike most of his contemporaries -- he at least has a consistent stylistic aesthetic to critique.
Then there is the action. Though I found the early street racing scenes the least interesting and most far-fetched, 'The Fast and the Furious' really kicks into gear in the second half. There is one extended sequence involving a careening semi-truck that remains one of the most exciting action sequences I've seen. I also liked the climactic daytime street race between Diesel and Walker, which is truly white-knuckle viewing. There is something to be said for pure entertainment movies like 'The Fast and the Furious,' which elevate a threadbare plot and cliched characters through sheer force of their style, and turn out to be far better than they have any need to be. As far as car porn films go, this one is up there on my top five list with 'Bullitt,' 'The Road Warrior' and 'Speed,' regardless of how stupid it may be.
'The Fast and the Furious' has long been considered by many to be one of the reference discs on standard-def DVD. So expectations are high for the film's HD DVD debut, and despite my reservations about some of the filmmaker's stylistic choices, this disc yet again delivers a top-notch visual presentation.
Universal delivers a rather stunning 1080p/VC-1-encoded transfer, presented in the film's original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1. I don't know if this is the same five-year-old master used for the previous DVD, but it seems to matter little. The source material is pristine, with no blemishes, dirt or other anomalies present. Film grain is present if you look hard enough, though the source material appears to have been heavily processed during post-production (either that or the anti-film grain fairy was feeling particularly kind towards 'The Fast and the Furious').
Most other aspects of the visual presentation are quite good. Blacks and contrast are excellent, giving the transfer a great sense of depth and pop, but without overtweaked whites and annoying edge enhancements. Color reproduction is about as vivid as is imaginable -- I'd call it overbearing -- with very strong hues that look like they are about to explode. They are certainly even more bold than the standard DVD, especially the richer greens, purples and deep blues. Detail can at times be spectacular, with such subtleties as reflections on metallic surfaces and stubble on faces clearly visible. Indeed, during some sequences this was one of the most three-dimensional transfers I've ever seen in high-def.
However, some of the aesthetic choices made by director Rob Cohen and director of photography Ericson Core are not really to my taste. Most of the daylight scenes have obvious filter effects on them, such as those fake-looking color gradations in skies. Fleshtones are very orange to me throughout, as if they were overtweaked post-production. I wonder how much better detail might have been had the transfer been less processed -- as it stands, the transfer has an unreal gloss that, while striking, teeters on the brink of appearing soft. It's definitely in keeping with the MTV-aesthetic of the film, but such a processed sheen hardly looks natural. However, on a technical level, even such artificiality is handled well by this transfer, with no obvious posterization present. I was also impressed with how well encoded this disc is, with even the most fast-cut, high-motion scenes revealing no obvious pixelation or macroblocking.
As visually stunning a disc as 'The Fast and the Furious' can be, it also packs a sonic wallop. Universal unfortunately did not create a new Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix for the disc (a real headscratcher), but as far as Dolby Digital-Plus tracks go, it is hard to imagine one sounding better than this.
Crank this up loud and you'll be treated to a truly enveloping, fully 360-degree aural experience. I hate gushing about these things, but I thoroughly enjoyed listening to every second of 'The Fast and the Furious' on HD DVD. That the surrounds are fully engaged throughout is hardly a surprise, especially if you've heard the standard DVD. Discrete sound effects are some of the most realistic I've ever heard in a home theater environment, and pans between channels are seamless. Just check out the first street racing scene, where director Rob Cohen treats us to a first-person journey into and trough a car's engine and back out again. It is a ridiculous conceit, but sonically thrilling. The rears pulse with sound, and subtle shadings are also clearly discernible. Very cool stuff.
However, like all of the Dolby Digital-Plus tracks I've heard thus far, improvements are not as significant on the less bombastic aspects of the soundtrack. Dynamic range is a bit more impressive on the mid- and high-range, with a wider sense of depth and presence, but it is not a night and day difference. Atmosphere and ambiance also do not see gains as considerable as sound effects in action scenes. However, .1 LFE is clearly superior on the HD DVD. The near-constant rumblings of engines, etc., as well as the pop/rock songs on the soundtrack all benefit from heftier, punchier low bass. Explosions and other bombastic car crash effects also deliver s stronger vibrations, which can be truly exciting. All in all, I can't imagine anyone not being impressed with the 'The Fast and the Furious' sound-wise, though that may make it more of a shame that Universal didn't spring for a Dolby TrueHD track.
The history of 'The Fast and the Furious' on DVD is a bit confusing. Universal has released two versions on disc -- a feature-loaded single-disc set in 2001, then the follow-up "Tricked Out Edition." However, what was unusual is that the latter didn't just replicate the former and add a couple of new features. Instead, many of the extras on the first edition were repurposed for the "Tricked Out" disc, such as taking featurette material and reediting it into a "branching" video commentary. Thus, both versions were the same, yet not equal. Now, for the film's HD DVD debut, Universal has combined the two together, so I guess we can call this the... Sorta-Tricked Out Edition?
After a short pre-feature PSA from Paul Walker warning of the dangers of street racing (don't try this at home, kids!), the first extra is "The Making Of The Fast and the Furious." This 18-minute featurette is Universal's typical "Spotlight On Location" EPK. Snappy and sleek, we get 2001-era interviews with director Rob Cohen, stunt coordinators Mic Rodgers and Mike Justus, and cast including Walker, Vin Diesel and Jordana Brewster, plus the usual quick-cut behind-the-scenes production footage. Aside from a few laugh-out loud lines ("This is a cast of great depth!" proclaims Cohen), this is totally forgettable fluff.
Next up are four shorter featurettes. "Visual Effects Montage" is just that, a 4-minute reel mixing blue screen plates, storyboards, composites and CGI renderings, all to the tune of a grating techno beat. A bit more interactive are two multi-angle peeks at the film's stunts. "The Multiple Camera Angle Stunt Sequence" offers a view of the final stunt car flip (running just 20 seconds) from no less than eight different angles. "Movie Magic" offers various effects "plates" of three scenes, including the final composite. But best of all is the 5-minute featurette "Editing For The Motion Picture Association." Since the studio mandate was a PG-13 rating, some judicious editing was required to make the film kinetic and exciting while still not too graphic. Director Rob Cohen and editor Peter Honess take us through an editing session during the process, and this may be the first featurette of its kind I've seen on a DVD. I admired Cohen's straight-forward approach to something that is often considered a dirty little secret in the industry, and it is amazing how obtaining an MPAA rating can come down to a mere few frames -- or choosing between a line with the word "Fuck" in it and a shot of a guy covered in blood. Interesting stuff.
Eight Deleted Scenes comes next, and include an introduction and optional commentary by Cohen. Since the film now runs an appropriate 107 minutes (not too short, but not long enough to wear out its welcome) these scenes are fairly interesting if not essential. Some run just a few seconds, and brief original edits of the "Ferrari" and "Race Wars" sequences are also included. All the scenes are presented in 480i video and look fairly decent.
Rounding out the first part of the supplements are some promo material. We get the film's theatrical trailer in 2.35:1 widescreen and 480p video, plus no less than three music videos, for "Furious by Ja Rule, "Click Click Boom" by Saliva, and an "Edited for Language" version of "POV City Anthem" by Caddillac Tah. All are presented in pillarboxed, 480i video.
Now we come to some of the extras that were included on the "Tricked Out" DVD edition of 'The Fast and the Furious.' There was a screen-specific audio commentary on the original DVD release that you can listen to here as a standard audio-only track, or as the basis for "Enhanced Viewing Mode." Toggle this on, and while Cohen is commenting on the movie, a little icon will appear at various times that, if selected, will take you to a small segment of video footage. Throughout, Cohen is full of energy, as if he's trying to cram as much information as possible into 107 minutes. While the director may take the subject matter a bit too seriously (he actually compares 'The Fast and the Furious' to a "modern John Ford western"), he's is also refreshingly honest about the film's arguable failures, such as the lame undercover subplot. If it weren't for Cohen's attempts to be hip by throwing in cringe-inducing bits of street lingo (sorry, those over the age of 40 should not be allowed to say things like "dope ass"), I'd say I came away as a bit of fan.
Rounding out the package are two more featurettes. "Tricking Out a Hot Import Car" runs 19 minutes and is hosted by Playboy Playmate Dalene Kurtis. She is joined by stunt coordinator Craig Lieberman, who shows us how a "hot car" is pimped out. Kurtis is, like, really smart, and says she "loves hot guys with hot cars." Truth be told, though, this is actually kind of interesting stuff, despite the tasteless pandering to the T&A crowd. Last and least is the uninspired "Turbo-Charged Prelude to '2 Fast, 2 Furious.'" Shot exclusively for the "Tricked Out Edition" DVD, this "electrifying" short is supposed to bridge the original flick with the sequel. However, what is essentially a montage of Walker driving in a car feels more like a long outtake than a narrative short film. Pretty forgettable.
Note that missing from the HD DVD release are all the text-based extras on both previous DVD editions of 'The Fast and the Furious,' including the original "Racer X" magazine article that inspired the film, plus all of the DVD-ROM-based extras. Aside from the article, though, none of it is much of a loss.
Sure, the plot is beside the point, but with eye candy like this, who cares? Universal has produced a stunner of an HD DVD release for 'The Fast and the Furious.' High-quality video, a top-notch soundtrack and plenty of extras make this a clear winner for the format. If only there was a Dolby TrueHD track and better exclusive HD content, this would have been four stars across the board. As is, 'The Fast and the Furious' is great demo material, and a disc you have to watch at least once to see what your HD DVD home theater rig is truly capable of.