Dir: Rob Cohen. US. 2001. 108 mins.

From the first frame to the last, Rob Cohen's The Fast And The Furious is a B- movie, elevated by A-level stunt work and roaring cars that test the limit, but dragged down to C-level characterisation with a formulaic plot and schematic hero, anti-hero and villain. Superficially inspired by Rebel Without A Cause's mixed-up youth melodrama, but closer in spirit to Gone In 60 Seconds (the 1974 version, not last year's remake), the film features bland teen heartthrob Paul Walker as an undercover cop investigating a drag-racing street posse that zooms through the streets of L.A. at a simulated speed of 170 mph. Producer Neal H. Moritz's previous efforts (Cruel Intentions, I Know What You Did Last Summer) have been reliable barometers for what interests young audiences, and his latest yarn, fake as it is as a romantic morality tale, may also prove to be a date picture for undiscriminating viewers.

Among many other effects, the immensely successful James Dean-starring vehicle Rebel Without A Cause bred two sub-genres, both cashing in on the rapidly emerging American youth subculture: the wild youth film and the mixed-up youth film. The former cycle produced such schlock movies as Crime In The Streets, Untamed Youth and Juvenile Jungle, whereas the latter led to a dozen car pictures, including Hot Red Girl, Dragstrip Girl, Hot Car Girl and Dragstrip Riot, all made between 1956 and 1958.

Fast And Furious is very much an attempt to revive these films, ignoring the fact that they were quickies made on minuscule budgets. Made on a much bigger scale - and almost deafening sound level - the new feature flaunts spectacular chase scenes and special effects, orchestrated by the best pros in the business. Craig Lieberman, head of the National Import Racing Association (NIRA) and RJ De Vera, a legendary street racer, served as on-set car consultants.

The plot, such as it is, is immediately forgettable, although in the long run Fast And Furious may register as a curiosity item in two ways. It is reportedly the first picture to present the adrenaline-charged world of import street racing, a subculture with its own rituals, values, dress code and lingo. Second, the film tries to boost the careers of Jordana Brewster and Michelle Rodriguez, in her first appearance after her stunning debut in last year's highly acclaimed indie film, Girlfight.

Based on Ken Li's article for Vibe magazine, Fast And Furious, written by Gary Scott Thompson, Erik Bergquist and David Ayer, is basically a modern Western. Replacing horses with cars (or rather horsepower), the script takes the genre's classic elements and conflicts - male camaraderie, loyalty, betrayal, freedom - and recreates them in a contemporary urban milieu, LA., the heart of street racing and American car culture in general.

Vin Diesel shows again, after his turn in Pitch Black, that he's cut to be an action hero; his name almost calls for it. As Dominic Toretto, the charismatic anti-hero, he drives the streets of LA. as if he owns them. Dom spends his days putting wrench time into high-performance racing cars: the specific model and year are far less important than the computer controlled fuel injection that makes them fly. On a good night, when a rival has the nerve to challenge him, Dom can pocket up to $10,000 a ride. He struts through the outlaw scene like a rock star presiding over a hungry roar of fans.

Dom is contrasted with a blandly named hero, Brian Spindler (Walker), who prides himself on being street smart, but is perceived by everyone else as white bread. He seeks Dom's approval behind the wheels of his own NOS-injected muscle machine. Hooked, and easily excitable, Brian is ready to test his limits. No one knows that Brian is an undercover cop investigating a series of big-rig hijackings, which the police and FBI need to stop or else the truckers will take matters into their own hands.

After an encounter with ruthless Johnny Tran (Rick Yune), Dom decides Brian is "all right," although despite his protests, sister Mia (Brewster) falls for Brian; neither is aware of his double identity. The cops know that the cash flowing freely through the street-racing scene is "dirty," which soon makes both Dom and Johnny suspect. The rivalry between Dom's and Johnny's crews escalates to a dangerous level, forcing Brian to make decisions about his very loyalty.

The big races are shot by cinematographer Ericson Core as street theatre, tribal gatherings or even battlefields fuelled by adrenaline, out-of-control speed and tension that's both racial and sexual. The nocturnal street competitions are outside the boundaries of the law, which of course makes them more seductive for the young. In its few convincing moments, Fast And Furious does give a glimpse of the alluring power of a unique multi-racial subculture, manifest in late-night races on the industrial outskirts of LA., and spreading via magazines and websites all over the world. Functioning as both hobby and a lifestyle, this world has invented its own parlance. The cars are known as "rice rockets", alluding to their Asian roots (mostly from Japan. They are reassembled and souped up with mechanical precision by devoted owners, who spend a lot of money customising their engines and detailing their bodies.

But more than anything else, director Cohen (who directed The Skulls) shows determination to push the limits of technology; hence, for the racing scenes, he has fashioned a rig that allows the actors to sit in the speeding car (rather than just be towed by the crew). Some of the visceral excitement derives from the illusory trick of putting the viewers in the drivers' seats of cars that look both familiar and extraordinary.

The acting is second-rate, although it would be unfair to put the blame on the cast, which has to compete with sexy, high-speed cars and also overcome the deficiencies of dialogue that's all cliches. Hopefully, the Hollywood fate of talented Rodriguez will not be determined by this picture, which gives her nothing interesting to say or to do.

Ultimately, Fast And Furious mythologises the role of cars in American culture not so much as symbols of status or conspicuous consumption but as symbols of freedom, mobility and the kind of virile energy cherished nowadays by both male and female teenagers.

Prod co Universal Pictures, Mediastream Film

US dist Universal

Int'l dist Universal/UIP

Exec prods Doug Claybourne, John Pogue

Prod Neal H Moritz

Scr Gary Scott Thompson, Erik Bergquist, David Ayer

Cinematography Ericson Core

Prod desWaldemar Kalinowski

Ed Peter Honess

Mus BT, Brian Tyler

Main cast Paul Walker, Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez, Jordana Brewster, Rick Yune