June 29, 2009

Fast Company (1979)
Blue Underground

93 mins. · R
16x9 · 1.85:1

Format
Blu-Ray

Audio
English - DTS 7.1
English - DD 7.1 True HD
English - DD 5.1 EX

Subtitles
English, French, Spanish

Extras
Commentary Track, Interviews, Bonus Films, Trailer

Starring
William Smith, John Saxon, Claudia Jennings

Review by
Felix Gonzalez, Jr.


Rating



(1979)

When the name David Cronenberg is mentioned, it usually conjures up memories of Jeff Goldblum metamorphosing into a giant insect, James Woods making love to a breathing, pulsating television set, or a man's head exploding. These and countless other gruesome images have brought Cronenberg a reputation as one of the most daring and visionary horror directors, a dedicated artist who is willing and eager to explore the lowest depths of humanity and the brutal violence that ensues. How surprising it is, then, to find mixed in with such twisted films as "Scanners" (1981), "Videodrome" (1983), and "The Fly" (1986) a rather conventional B movie about drag racing called "Fast Company." By far Cronenberg's most accessible film, "Fast Company" ironically became his most rarely seen movie after its American distributor went under in 1979 before the film's theatrical release.

"Fast Company" was Cronenberg's third feature film and the first he directed from someone else's screenplay (although he did receive a screenwriting credit). Wedged between his more characteristic "Rabid" (1977) and "The Brood" (1979), this film transports a traditional Western story to the drag racing track of the American South (filmed entirely on location in Canada). The plot concerns aging racecar driver Lonnie Johnson (William Smith) who rebels against the greedy Phil Adamson (John Saxon), his manager and marketer for the "FastCo" oil company that sponsors Johnson. The classic showdown is effectively set up when Johnson and his crew prepare to race against the new drag racer Adamson is sponsoring.

Unlike Cronenberg's most famous movies, which are characterized by an ambiguous sense of morality, "Fast Company" is blatantly divided into traditional black and white depictions of heroes and villains. The opposing drag racer (Cedric Smith), in fact, is named Gary Black and drives a black "funny car," while Johnson and company are proudly decked out in red, white, and blue. The characters themselves are little more than basic archetypes with little personality and no complexity. This simplicity gives the actors little to do, although veteran character actors William Smith and John Saxon get to flex their facial muscles during their frequent verbal square-offs.

In addition to the characters, this film bears no similarities to the rest of Cronenberg's work in any way. The mood is much lighter than the often distressing view of humanity evident in his films, and notably missing is the intimate attention to the human body and its altercation or destruction. In its place are a tighter focus on the colorful machinery on the racetrack (no hints of his 1996 film "Crash") and a kind of goofball sensibility that anchors the film firmly within the drive-in circuit status. It satisfies on that level, if only adequately so. There is nothing particularly memorable about "Fast Company," even at the most superficial level. It tells its story without complication and with some colorful visuals, and fans of drag racing may enjoy the decidedly authentic representation of the sport, but only Cronenberg completists will really be interested in this.

Blue Underground continues to impress with their Blu-ray output. Their 1080p transfer for "Fast Company" is gorgeous, especially considering the 30-year-old film's rough history. Some shots, including the opening credits, contain visible dirt and debris, but the majority of the film appears quite clean. Film grain is apparent throughout, and while it is particularly noticeable during some of the night scenes, it is never a major distraction. Colors are vibrant and richly saturated, while blacks are pitch. The overall image is crisp, though some haloing may be detectable to the sharp-eyed. I highly doubt that this B movie has ever looked this good.

Three audio options are offered on this release: a 7.1 DTS surround track, a 7.1 Dolby Digital TrueHD track, and a 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround EX track. It must be said that all of these tracks are overambitious and more than a little excessive for this movie in particular. Toggling back and forth, I noticed no real discernable difference between them. The good news is that they all sound terrific, conveying the dialogue clearly and providing some punch to the frequent sounds of car engines and the racetrack bluster. The audio is pretty centralized, however, and having the film's restored mono soundtrack probably would have sufficed.

The special features have all been ported over from Blue Underground's 2-disc DVD limited edition of "Fast Company" from 2004. These begin with a commentary track with David Cronenberg. The director clearly has a lot of affection for this movie even though it is so different from his usual fare. He discusses the historical significance of this film in his career and his little-known fondness for cars. He seems to run out of steam about midway through, but his low-key demeanor and candid stories are interesting to listen to.

Next is an 11-minute interview with actors John Saxon and William Smith, who discuss their careers as character actors and their work on "Fast Company." The two have apparently remained friends since working on the film, and they are great fun together. A 14-minute interview with director of photography Mark Irwin follows. "Fast Company" marked Irwin's first collaboration with Cronenberg, and the two would work on several more features together. Irwin mainly concentrates on the film at hand, but he briefly mentions the rest of his work with Cronenberg as well.

What really makes this an essential release for Cronenberg fans is the inclusion of two of the director's early films, "Stereo" and "Crimes of the Future." Made in 1969 and 1970, respectively, these films were made on shoestring budgets and feature several of the same actors. Both are ostensibly works of science fiction that hint at some of the themes that Cronenberg would later explore in his more famous works. They were filmed silently with sound effects and voice-over narration added later and are largely experimental in nature. The plots of these films are nearly incomprehensible, although their artful cinematography is beautiful. Lasting just a little more than an hour apiece, the films are somewhat trying but fascinating experiences. They may be highly intellectual or dreadfully pretentious, and it is a bit ironic that they accompany this most accessible of Cronenberg's work, but his fans will be pleased to have them.

A trailer rounds out the special features. All of the features are presented in 480i standard definition, a minus for "Stereo" and "Crimes of the Future," which seem to have come from excellent source prints.

"Fast Company" was probably the last Cronenberg film anyone expected to be released on Blu-ray this soon, especially since most of his greater works have yet to reach the format, but Blue Underground has presented it in fine form. As good as the movie looks in 1080p, I can't see owners of the DVD upgrading given the film's overall lackluster quality and the bonus features' standard definition presentation. For diehard Cronenberg fans without the DVD, this is an easy recommendation for both image quality and bonus content.

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