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FAST COMPANY (1979).

On the surface, this unassuming, Canadian-lensed flick about race cars and their drivers smacks of macho dreck, with a plot we've seen a dozen times. The cast is littered with exploitation superstars, including William Smith, John Saxon and the always-radiant Claudia Jennings (on the other hand, nowadays she's probably not so radiant after all). So what makes it different? It's directed by everyone's favorite flesh-revisionist, David Cronenberg, who snuck this pic in between RABID and THE BROOD, and equipped with his first million-dollar-plus budget, brought his love for auto racing to the screen. Just don't expect any visceral revelations (giant slugs do not leap out of Claudia's mouth), because Cronenberg trades cheap thrills a for a solid character-driven melodrama, capturing the day-to-day lifestyle of a small-time racing team (while keeping the macho bullshit to a minimum). Smith stars as the charismatic Lonnie "Lucky Man" Johnson, the king of the local drag racers. Saxon is the sleazy head of FastCo, Lucky's oil company sponsor. And although Jennings doesn't show up 'til the second half (playing Sammy, Smith's long-suffering "old lady"), it's an honest-to-goodness character instead of her usual, cardboard T&A roles. In between the non-stop footage of real-life drag races, funny cars and revving engines, the plot has Saxon (always top notch as a scumbag) putting the thumbscrews to Smith to make more cash for him. But when Smith proves he's got a few scruples left, double-dealing Saxon takes back Smith's car, replaces him on the circuit and even resorts to murder. After sitting through today's avalanche of cheap, no-talent throwaway pics, it's refreshing to watch a drive-in movie that has some talent behind it, particularly the fluid photography courtesy of Mark Irwin (who would continue working with Cronenberg in VIDEODROME and THE DEAD ZONE), while cramming his camera inside the cars, to capture driver's P.O.V. Though this aberration is usually ignored when people discuss Cronenberg's career, it proves that he puts as much care into this outwardly generic tale as he does with his most deeply personal work.

© 1992 by Steven Puchalski.