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The Fast & the Furious" tries, but doesn't go fast or far enough.

Throttle Down

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ast cars, barely clad women and bare-knuckled brawls shoot "The Fast and the Furious" to the top of this summer's guilty pleasures list. The ultimate popcorn movie — with its bad, porno-flick-sounding title and equally mind-boggling quasi-script, even the cast and crew seem well aware that they're all supporting players. The real stars are the souped-up performance cars the filmmakers send screamin' through the concrete river bottoms of the L.A. Basin. And man, they are something to behold.

Despite having all the right stuff to singlehandedly revive the drive-in movie, "The Fast and the Furious" falls victim to the bottom line. Aiming for the ticket-buying hordes of kiddies, the studio execs have censored the movie in their quest for a PG-13. So while "The Fast and the Furious" tempts us with all its B-movie bad-ass delights, it's just a tease.

Now, if the summer heat doesn't lull you into a coma at the movie theater, "The Fast and the Furious" will describe how you'll feel if you approach this movie with any kind of highfalutin' expectations. Once the final credits roll, you'll be furious at just how fast this movie falls apart. You'd think a summer flick about life, love and the pursuit of performance vehicles among Los Angeles's illegal racing subculture would be akin to a cinematic slam-dunk. Well, you'd be wrong.

Meet Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel). By night, he's the dude to beat among L.A.'s illegal racing circuit. By day he runs a performance car tune-up shop, along with his colorful team of maniacs, misfits and mechanical geniuses. But is he also responsible for pulling off some recent hijackings of trucks bursting with high-tech electronics?

Enter undercover cop Brian Spindler (Paul Walker of "Varsity Blues" shame, er, fame), whose superiors want him to infiltrate Dominic's inner circle, find out who's behind the hijackings and slap some cuffs on 'em. For some reason, perhaps its his blond, blue-eyed good looks, but Dominic takes him under his wing. Soon, Brian's learning all the ins and outs of street racin'. While Dominic teaches his protege to avoid potholes, Walker, the actor, seems to instinctively overlook the script's gaping plot holes. Unfortunately, that's a knack most of us in the audience don't share.

Actions and emotions in this movie are transmitted in all caps and with several exclamations points. GASP as Brian leaps gracefully out of the way of ill-tempered Asian gangs with automatic weapons! SIGH as Brian falls in love with Dominic's sister Mia (Jordana Brewster). THRILL when Brian learns how to leave a Ferrari in the dust! CRY as Brian starts to question his loyalties!

Like so many other action flicks out this summer, the first 20 minutes of "The Fast and the Furious" are white-knuckled fun. But director Rob Cohen ("The Skulls," several "Miami Vice" episodes) seems to forget why he's there: To entertain! He certainly couldn't have thought he was filming "War & Peace," right?

Don't get me wrong, Cohen delivers when it comes to high-octane car chases. And his camera style is jittery, hyperactive and sometimes breathtaking.

With the need for that all-important PG-13 never far from his thoughts, Cohen keeps letting up on the gas. But he opts for that next paycheck instead of going all out. All he had to do was keep the action hot — more racecars roaring by, more clothes falling to the floor, more fists flying — and "The Fast and the Furious" would have been a real treat, a terrifically bad, summer-movie classic.

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