Fast & Furious

The films in the “Fast and the Furious” series have gotten progressively dumber since the harmlessly energetic 2001 original, and the latest, reductively called “Fast & Furious,” takes it a step lower. Not only is the story silly, but there’s not even much car-racing in it — and why would anyone want to watch this movie if it doesn’t have a lot of car-racing in it?

Like the rest of us, “Fast & Furious” has nothing to say about the last film, “Tokyo Drift.” Instead, it picks up a few years after “2 Fast 2 Furious” left off. Thick-necked carjacker Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and surfer-voiced FBI agent Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker) are reunited when both have cause to infiltrate a Mexico-based drug cartel operating in Los Angeles. Dominic’s reasons are personal and revenge-based, while Brian has the law on his side.

As luck would have it, the mysterious drug kingpin Arturo Braga is looking for expert drivers, which Dom and Brian both happen to be. If they can prove themselves worthy in a street race (who would have guessed?) they’re hired, giving them access to the inner workings of the cartel. I guess this is more effective for Braga than conducting traditional job interviews.

It all amounts to far more espionage and intrigue than a movie that’s ostensibly about fast cars ought to have. I would like to have witnessed the pitch meeting where the screenwriter, Chris Morgan (“Tokyo Drift”), convinced the producers that an emphasis on Dom and Brian’s personal lives would be of much greater interest than car racing. They must be kicking themselves now for believing him, because here’s the finished product — with lots of dumb storytelling and only a couple auto-racing sequences — and it’s worse. It turns out minimizing the one entertaining element of a franchise was a BAD idea!

Morgan’s screenplay has the occasional witty line, but not enough to make up for idiotic plot devices like a miles-long secret tunnel between Mexico and the U.S. and a car’s cigarette lighter that apparently emits an open flame, the better to cause explosions with. It’s simple-minded, too, clearly written with teenage boys in mind — hence the arbitrary and immature anti-authority streak in Brian’s personality. (His boss tells him to slow down; he speeds up, just to be contrary.) I don’t buy this guy finishing high school with his attitude, let alone becoming an FBI agent.

A lot of beautiful cars of various makes and vintages comprise the supporting cast. In the background, there are also some human women. Michelle Rodriguez is back again as Dom’s girlfriend, Letty, and Jordana Brewster returns as Dom’s sister (and Brian’s love interest), Mia. A new addition is the Israeli model Gal Gadot (great name) as one of the Mexican women in Arturo Braga’s crew. It is she who asks Dom, “Are you one of those boys who prefer cars to women?” The fact that he has to think about for a few seconds made me wonder if he was going to be honest and say yes.

Justin Lin, back for a second time as director, demonstrates again how unfortunate it is that he’s stuck making these films when he clearly has the talent to do something better. (Many of us still fondly remember his breakout hit, “Better Luck Tomorrow,” from Sundance 2002.) “Fast & Furious” has some well-made sequences and artful shot compositions; Lin probably made it as good as a movie so light on action and heavy on dull plot machinations could be.

D+ (1 hr., 47 min.; PG-13, a little profanity, moderate violence, a little mild sexuality.)