By Mariko McDonald | May 26, 2009

Director: David Cronenberg
Writers: Phil Savath, Courtney Smith & David Cronenberg
Starring: William Smith, John Saxon, Nicholas Campbell, Don Francks, Claudia Jennings, Cedric Smith, Judy Foster, Robert Haley, George Buza, David Graham

The argument could easily be made that David Cronenberg is the most successful director, both artistically and financially, to come of age during the Tax Shelter Era. His first film, “Shivers,” was made in 1975 on a modest budget of $185,000 (CDN), most of that coming from the Canadian government through the CFDC (the Canadian Film Development Corporation, now known as Telefilm). Despite public outrage that tax payers’ hard earned cash had gone to fund a sexually themed horror picture originally titled “Orgy of the Blood Parasites,” the film went on to gross over $5 million, making it the first bona fide hit for the fledgling CFDC.

The effect of the success of “Shivers” was twofold: a) government funding for so-called “genre pictures” was no longer seen as such a bad idea (for a while, anyways) and b) Cronenberg’s access to funding got a lot easier. Looking for a job to pay the bills while he finished the script for “The Brood,” Cronenberg agreed to direct a film for David Perlmutter’s Quadrant films. As was the case with many of the tax shelter movies, funding was in place before anything else, but shooting still had to be completed quickly to ensure that the investors would get their tax break at the end of the year.

The resulting picture, “Fast Company,” was the first film that Cronenberg directed not from an original script by him, but the director still felt an attachment to the material, being a longtime car and motorcycle enthusiast and sometimes racer (track racing). The film itself is a fairly corny morality tale set against the backdrop of the popular drag racing scene, but on the DVD commentary track, Cronenberg admits that the idea of making a straight forward B-movie greatly appealed to him. And despite being a gearhead, drag racing culture and mechanics were not something he had previously been exposed to. The material fascinated him to the point where he felt the need to rewrite the script while they were shooting to better reflect the culture in which he was now immersed.

Another thrill for Cronenberg was the opportunity to work with two genre superstars: William Smith and John Saxon. Smith was a former regular on “Hawaii Five-O” probably best known at the time for playing the heavy in influential biker flicks like “Run, Angel, Run” and “Angels Die Hard.” He also possessed an impressive physique, having been featured in an episode of the Adam West “Batman” TV show as “Adonis,” and much later as Arnold Schwazeneger’s father in John Milius’ “Conan the Barbarian.”

Saxon, on the other hand, was more like an international genre superstar, having starred in Mario Bava’s “The Girl Who Knew Too Much” and a host of films in Italy, Bruce Lee’s break-out film “Enter the Dragon,” and even the Canucksploitation classic “Black Christmas.” The rest of the cast was rounded out with 1970 Playboy Playmate of the year, Claudia Jennings, who was sadly killed in a car crash a few months after the film was released in the US; Canadian character actors like Don Francks, who ten year’s prior to shooting “Fast Company” had starred in the Francis Ford Coppola musical “Finian’s Rainbow”; and a very young Nicholas Campbell, who Cronenberg went on to cast in supporting parts in “The Brood,” “The Dead Zone,” and “Naked Lunch.”

In the film, Smith portrays Lonnie “Lucky Man” Johnson, a popular and successful drag racer known for driving top fuel dragsters (the fastest class of vehicle in drag racing). He travels from track to track along the West Coast and rural America in a converted flatbed truck that serves as his home. Along for the ride are the rest of the FastCo oil sponsored team: his mechanic, Elder (Francks); the mechanic’s assistant, PJ (Robert Haley); and protegé/funny car driver Billy “The Kid” Brocker (Campbell).

Too good for the road life, the team’s manager and sponsor liaison, Phil Adamson (Saxon), flies to races in his own small plane. We know that Adamson is a bad guy because he demands kickbacks from the race tracks and sexually harasses the new Miss FastCo, Candy (Judy Foster), before her first actual day on the job. When Lonnie’s dragster catches fire on the track, Adamson bullies him into racing in Billy’s funny car instead to save money. Obviously this doesn’t sit well with Billy who pouts his way through dinner, and even though Lonnie wins his first funny car race against Gary “The Blacksmith” Black (a surprisingly charismatic turn by Cedric Smith), his innate sense of justice just can’t stomach Adamson’s incessantly shady dealings and he rebels during an on-camera interview with a local sports show.

Needing a driver he can better control, Adamson arranges to fire Lonnie and his team and hire Gary and his crew/thugs, Stoner (David Graham) and Meatball (biker/weightlifter George Buza). They also steal Billy’s car, only to put it on a display at a car show a couple of days later, giving Lonnie and company a chance to steal it back in a slapstick sequence that involves driving the funny car down a city street. Seemingly undeterred by the theft of what is technically his property, Adamson instead gives Meatball free reign to sabotage Lonnie during the climatic race against Gary, who is now being sponsored by FastCo. Once again proving what an all-around good guy he is, Lonnie lets Billy drive in the race against Gary. And not to give anything away, but the film ends with not one, but two fiery explosions.

In the DVD commentary track for the film, Cronenberg explains that “Fast Company” was conceived of as a sort of modern Western, with the drag strip filling in for the classic shoot-out. And while the imagery is obvious enough (Billy’s nickname is “The Kid” and he wears a cowboy hat for much of the film; Gary and his cronies travel in a black van and wear predominantly black), these ideas really aren’t explored much deeper. Despite some interesting drag culture flourishes added by Cronenberg, the script is rather flat and the plot isn’t quite silly enough to live up to its B-movie roots. And while Smith does seem to be enjoying playing the hero for a change, he never really displays the charisma needed for the audience to truly identify with him.

Fans of Cronenberg will be hard pressed to figure out where “Fast Company” fits into the director’s filmography, being that his trademark metaphysical musings and psycho-sexual imagery are completely absent. The DVD release does contain a rather odd scene of Billy pouring motor oil over the naked chest of a groupie which was cut from the original theatrical release in order to guarantee a PG rating, but that’s about as close as we get. However, knowing of Cronenberg’s love of cars, his decision to take on the project seems less odd and the film seems to function best in the racing and pre-race sequences.

Cronenberg’s decision to include extensive documentary style footage of races and race-track goers gives the film an authenticity and flavor that nearly elevate it from it’s exploitation roots, if only the rest of the film had been allowed to be as gritty. It is also interested to compare “Fast Company” to Cronenberg’s early work with regards to the setting, as in general Cronenberg can been seen as an “urban” director, focusing more on cities and the way the buildings and concentrations of people interact with each other. “Fast Company,” on the other hand, is very clearly a “rural” film, with blue-collar heroes and long winding shots of the Canadian Rockies.

This film also marks the first occasion that Cronenberg worked with long time collaborators like cinematographer Mark Irwin, production designer Carol Spier, sound editor Bryan Day, and film editor Ronald Sanders. And while not a remarkable action/race film, “Fast Company” does boast some innovative and impressive footage captured from inside a dragster that would not have been the same directed by anyone else.

Next week, Teen Bitch Part I: The Original “Ginger Snaps”

In the 70’s and 80’s, the Canadian government introduced new tax laws in an effort to boost domestic film production, which at that point was virtually non existent. The results were, sadly, not exactly what the politicos had intended, but instead a steady stream of cheap and often tawdry exploitation pics came rushing forth from “Hollywood North.” Canadian Classicks is a look at some of the gems and turds from the so called “tax shelter period,” as well as a place to celebrate (or shame) contemporary contributors to the Canadian exploitation legacy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Join our Film Threat Newsletter

Newsletter Icon