Fast and Furious collided with critics and emerged without a scratch on its box-office fenders. As I predicted, the fourth chapter in a dying franchise got a fresh fuel injection thanks to the return of Vin Diesel to the role that made him a star and grossed a musclebound $72.5 million to become the biggest movie opening so far this year. My condolences to Vin D if his success traps him in a role that requires only that he stay in shape and show up. In a broken economy audiences are hungry for escapist fare that requires pure sensation with no strain on the brain. Fast and Furious more than fills the bill. All those wheelies and powerslides are designed to obliterate thought. Talk about a movie for its time. And talk about those cars! Despite the movie's failure as coherent drama or coherent anything, it delivers the goods once pedal hits the metal. Which makes me think of other car movies. Here are my best and worst. Feel free to add yours.
Bullit (1968): Did anyone look cooler behind the wheel than Steve McQueen, burning rubber all over San Francisco? McQueen, then thirty-eight, did as many of the driving stunts as the insurance company would allow. He would die at fifty, but Bullitt helped make his screen memory indelible. The car chase up and down those Frisco hills -- director Peter Yates used hand-held cameras -- started a movie tradition that has never been equaled, though I'll take arguments about The French Connection.
American Graffiti (1973): Before Star Wars infected him with event-movie disease, Lucas, then twenty-eight, came up with this memorably modest take on California hot-rodders facing their high school graduation over one defining night in 1962. Lucas loves those jalopies and his passion is infectious. And who can forget the girl in the white Thunderbrd, played by the then unknown Suzanne Somers, mouthing I love you" to a thrilled Richard Dreyfuss?
The Road Warrior (1981): Mel Gibson's sequel to Mad Max outdoes the original in kinetic, post-apocalyptic energy -- and those car stunts look like nothing you've ever seen.
Ronin (1998): The last truly great car chase movie, with Robert De Niro zipping through Paris tunnels and the narrow streets of Nice. Director John Frankenheimer's hit from the year 2000 did it for real, using stunt men not computers.
The Fast and the Furious (2001): The fast cars and faster women combo never seemed as hot as they did in the first of the F&F series. And engines drown out dialogue. Trust me, it helps. The cars look and sound sensational. And if you watch it on DVD, there's a wow bonus feature on how to trick out a car.
Gone in 60 Seconds (2000): My personal un-favorite car flick in which producer Jerry Bruckheimer paid large amounts of cash to Oscar winners Nicolas Cage, Angelina Jolie and Robert Duvall to play second fiddle to machinery. The cars can't be blamed, but the movie is so bad it takes all the pleasure out the engine roar.
Cannonball Run (1981): Burt Reynolds stars in a movie about a cross-country road race that seems to go on forever. That's not supposed to be how it works.
Redline (2000): A rock singer turned illegal drag racer, played by Nadia Bjorlin, drives cars owned by producer Daniel Sadek. Much, much worse than it sounds.
Herbie: Fully Loaded (2005): That demon-possessed Volkswagen Beetle, Herbie the Love Bug, meets Lindsay Lohan. It shouldn't happen to a dog, which this movie most assuredly is.
Speed Racer (2008): Budgeted at $120 million, what with the mix of live-action and computer effects, this Wachowski brothers flop is a relentlessly adrenalized take on the 1960s TV cartoon series about a racing family. The Wachowskis wanted to blend martial arts and Formula One racing into a contact sport they call "Car-Fu." But the contact never comes. As the cars whiz by in defiance of gravity and logic, nothing sticks.