Vin Diesel and Paul Walker in The Fast & the FuriousTHE FAST & THE FURIOUS

In The Fast & The Furious, that stolid, basso profundo actor Vin Diesel is forced into a close friendship with the blond, pretty, incredibly bland Paul Walker, so you know immediately that you're in make-believe territory once again.

Yet the movie, despite being as formulaic and ridiculous as most summertime escapism, kinda works. As the title and trailers indicate, it's all about cars (and people) moving really fast, and the action scenes, staged by director Rob Cohen, have a visceral excitement that you don't get from CGI-heavy works like The Mummy Returns or Tomb Raider. It's quickly paced, filled with just enough intriguing performers to keep you alert during the film's few down sequences, and absolutely up-front about what it wants to accomplish: It hopes to send you out into the cool summer night with an insatiable urge to drag race. It's crap, of course, but surprisingly enjoyable crap.

Walker's character, Brian O'Connor, is an L.A. race-car enthusiast who meets up with Diesel's Dominic and his gang of fellow racing aficionados, and he's so astonishingly out-of-place amongst this crew - perfect teeth, perfectly coiffed hair, perfect white-boy demeanor - that you know he's gonna turn out to be an undercover cop. He does. Brian is infiltrating Dominic's gang to find the man behind a series of highway hijackings, and soon enough, his cover, and his life, are threatened by the gang's dangerous racing stunts, his growing attraction to Dominic's sister (a nicely natural Jordanna Brewster), and Dominic's gnawing suspicions about who Brian really is.

So The Fast & The Furious, simply summarized, is Gone in 60 Seconds meets Donnie Brasco for the MTV set, and it's about as graceless as that description implies. There's not a lot of dialogue in the movie, thank the gods, but what there is comes from the macho-blowhard school of screenwriting, in which every line is designed to showcase the tough-but-tender nature of our heroes; Vin Diesel can get away with this speechifying because he's already a very particular action cartoon, but these lines sound ludicrous coming from anyone else. And the plotting, to no one's surprise, is a joke. The only way the story works is to accept the fact that Brian O'Connor is the world's stupidest undercover cop, and I have a feeling that the filmmakers intended exactly the opposite.

But no one is going to see The Fast & The Furious for the dialogue or the plotting; seen strictly as an action spectacle, the movie scores all its points. The highway chases are loud and briskly edited, and those with a jones for dragsters will be in paradise; director Cohen photographs souped-up engines and squealing tires with a brazen, fetishistic delight. Even snobby cineastes might find something worth watching in the film: It marks the first post-Girlfight appearance of last year's find Michelle Rodriguez, playing Dominic's tough, pouty girlfriend, and her simple, non-actressy performance gives the movie a little texture. I doubt that many will mistake The Fast & The Furious for a good movie - David Manning probably would - but so far, it's the closest we've come to turn-your-brain-off-and-enjoy summertime entertainment.

(A brief sidebar: At the screening of The Fast & The Furious I attended, the movie was preceded by four trailers. The audience seemed to get some pleasure from the first two, for Rush Hour 2 and Scary Movie 2, but appeared to sense a trend with the next one, for American Pie 2, and actually got pretty hostile by the time the Jurassic Park 3 preview hit. The theatre was filled with groans and sentiments of "Oh, please." Everyone knows that Hollywood has all but run out of fresh ideas, but running four trailers for sequels back-to-back exposes the inherent emptiness and sameness of the Hollywood money-making machine, and the audience was right to be annoyed. I'd be more cheered by their derision if I didn't know in my gut that the same people who hooted at this unending parade of sequels would be first in line when the movies actually get released.)


Eddie Murphy in Dr. Dolittle 2DR. DOLITTLE 2

Speaking of sequels, I never thought I'd see a children's movie in which the plot hinged on whether two bears would fornicate, but Dr. Dolittle 2 isn't your standard children's movie. True, it's intrinsically designed for the 10-and-under set, loaded as it is with simple messages about respecting nature and communicating with your parents, and the talking-animals shtick is sure to keep youngsters amused. What bothered me about seeing the movie, though, was the raucous laughter from those in the audience way past puberty. We can all pretty much agree that scatological humor is omnipresent in current film comedy, particularly if Eddie Murphy is participating. But are filmmakers now so afraid of non-animated "family" material that even a children's movie won't be greenlit unless it's filled with enough sex jokes, farting noises, and bodily fluids to make Tom Green blush? I'm not just playing prude here; I'm all for funny grossness, and pushing the taste envelope can be enormously liberating for both moviemakers and audiences. (Works like Monty Python's The Meaning of Life and South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut are phenomenally entertaining and rather nauseating.) The gross gags in Dr. Dolittle 2, however, not only aren't funny, they don't serve any purpose other than keeping the audience's grown-ups fitfully amused while they sit through a movie that's not only for children, it appears to have been made by children. Dr. Dolittle 2 uses sexual innuendo and "Does a bear crap in the woods?" humor as anesthesia to dull the pain of the movie's presentation.

In the Dr. Dolittle movies, Eddie Murphy is a supporting character in his own star vehicles. He gets as much mileage out of his limited material as anyone could, but it's a mistake having him, yet again, be the only remotely funny human being on display; despite a spate of box-office hits, Murphy's only memorable co-stars of the past five years have been animals, animated, or himself. Far too much screen time is devoted to the voiced-over antics of Norm MacDonald, even less amusing here than when shilling as Hardee's Star, and fine character actors like Jeffrey Jones and Kevin Pollak give performances that are grotesquely over-the-top, portrayals that an uninformed director might assume are perfectly acceptable for a family film. The director in question is Steve Carr, who, with his dawdling scenes and listless pacing, has made an 80-minute movie that feels about an hour too long. At its best, Dr. Dolittle 2 produces an occasional smile; at its worst, which is often, its obviousness, complete with the requisite digestive and reproductive humor, makes you want to hide under your theatre seat. Kids deserve better summertime babysitters than this.

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