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Speed demons 

by Ed Symkus

The only adjective missing from the title in this movie about illegal street racing in Los Angeles is the word "loud," and that's not only in reference to the myriad revving engines and screeching tires. It just so happens that those sounds mix quite well with blazing guitars, and the soundtrack is generously loaded with plenty of them.

But this isn't, as the ads make it appear, just about the well-built, good-looking guys and their tough, impossibly beautiful women who populate the strange netherworld where cool cars are everything and driving them hard provides kicks for all. There's a whole other story on top of that one concerning a hijacking ring -- big rigs are being commandeered out on the roads by armed masked men masterfully driving fast cars. And the cops are pretty sure these crimes and those street racers are connected.

Enter Brian (wavy-haired, big-eyed Paul Walker from Varsity Blues), who kind of happens into town driving one souped-up machine -- and driving it very well -- hoping to become part of the scene by challenging apparent leader Dom (amazingly deep-voiced Vin Diesel from Boiler Room) to a test of speed.

Well, the film's first showcase of insane driving happens about 30 seconds into it; the first fistfight is about eight minutes in; it's only a short while later that we discover Brian is an undercover cop, doing this particular job with high hopes of it earning him his detective's badge. Toss in some business about Brian getting involved with Dom's gorgeous sister Mia (Jordana Brewster, who wisely appears here without the ghastly glasses she wore in The Faculty), a rivalry between Brian and bad guy driver Vincent (Matt Schulze from Boys and Girls) and even an entire gang of territorial malevolent Asian drivers, and the film has the makings of falling into formula.

But that never happens. It's not because the dialogue is riveting (it's not) or the acting is all that outstanding (it's just OK). It's because the film simply delivers on what it promises -- it's an exercise in adrenaline, and the energy level hardly ever flags. It does fall short a couple of times while hinting for even bigger and better things, then holding back a little. For instance, there are a number of references to something called "Race Wars" that seemingly everyone in the film -- except the cops -- is looking forward to. But it turns out to be a sort of Burning Man festival for very focused drivers, set around an abandoned government base in the middle of the California desert, and other than a little drag racing and a small forward movement in the story, nothing much actually happens there.

And unlike in The Mummy Returns, where the frenetic energy was sustained throughout, this film takes a couple of breaths in order to start some character development, or at least provide a little back story, mostly for the character of Dom. Diesel is definitely up to that task. Although he plays most of this in a menacing manner, he quietly shows some acting muscle while revealing a story about a terrible accident his father was in and about the aftereffects on him and others. There's also a nice bit in which fear is at last spread all over the usually tough and steely Dom's face when he's a passenger in a car that Brian is driving fearlessly and foolishly.

It's these parts of the film -- when drivers are at one with their vehicles and are doing things that no one should do -- that are the best. A climactic stunt sequence with an 18-wheeler and two sleek cars going about as fast as they can is worthy of comparisons to scenes in The Road Warrior. And although some melodrama starts to get in the way near the end, pretty much all of the film's pieces fall into place so well, it's a weakness that's easily overlooked. Besides, there's so much action going on in the film's final race -- check that; it's a chase, not a race -- no one's going to notice that anything's amiss.

For those who like to get their money's worth of the movie-going experience, stay for the tail end of the credits. There's a little bit of a coda there involving Dom that gives the film a tad more of a satisfying ending than it already has before the credits.

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