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By Pete Vonder Haar | April 4, 2009

America is mired in uncertainty and doubt. What a nation as great as ours requires in these desperate times is not massive taxpayer-fueled bailouts or even a plan to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. No, what we need more than ever are characters – dare I say, heroes – who remind us of a better time. A time when the World Trade Center stood proud, when our budget was in the black, and we eagerly awaited the second “Star Wars” prequel. What America needs are men like Dom Toretto and Brian O’Conner.

When last we saw undercover cop O’Conner (Paul Walker), he had foiled Verone’s nefarious plot (“2 Fast 2 Furious”) and absconded with a few sacks of drug money to parts unknown. And aside from a cameo in “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift,” Toretto (Vin Diesel) has been AWOL since finding out O’Conner was actually the po-po and heading south of the border. As the fourth installment opens, Dom and company are back to their old tricks: hijacking trucks in the Dominican Republic with his crew, including girlfriend Letty (Michelle Rodriguez). After a particularly fiery job, Dom realizes the long arm of the law can still reach him in the Caribbean, and he ditches Letty to head further south.

This turns out to be a bad idea, as Dom gets a call several months later from his sister Mia (Jordana Brewster) informing him of Letty’s murder. While we’re left to ponder who Rodriguez pissed off to warrant an off-screen death, Dom vows revenge. Meanwhile, O’Conner has somehow, in spite of years of illegal activity and trafficking in stolen cash, become an FBI agent. He’s investigating a Mexican drug dealer with – surprise – ties to Letty’s death. Both Brian and Dom are renegades who Play By Their Own Sets of Rules, yet somehow, in a sort of 100 monkeys typing for 100 years coincidence, both men track down the same suspect and finagle invitations to a street race that will determine who will be the drug gang’s new driver.

Universal is billing “Fast & Furious” as “new model, original parts.” For everyone who’s been longing to watch Diesel and Walker do their scowling dance of man-love again, this is (I guess) a good thing. But aside from more explosions and the warm feeling of nostalgia that comes from seeing the original cast go through the motions for a paycheck, there’s not much to see here. As this latest movie, like the whole series, doesn’t even qualify as car porn, since we never really get any details about the various vehicle mods.

No, what “Fast & Furious” really accomplishes (aside from renewing our faith in America’s gas guzzling destiny) is restoring our love of Vin Diesel. Indeed, we learn several things during the film’s running time that will only usher in a new era of Vin-Mania. To wit:

1. Vin Diesel is bulletproof.
2. Vin Diesel doesn’t need sleep.
3. Vin Diesel can rock the long johns. Even in the desert.
4. Vin Diesel doesn’t even need to throw a girl a f**k for her to follow him around like a puppy dog.

This last factoid is personified by Gisele (Gal Gadot), the kingpin’s right-hand woman, who puts the moves on Dom to no avail. Truly, Letty was Valerian to his Conan, and no doe-eyed, Eurotrash nymphette will ever take the place of a fiery Latina.

Uniting Walker and Diesel again would appear to be a good idea, given the yawns that greeted the second and third movies, but there’s no chemistry to be found. Mt. Rushmore sports a more animated ensemble cast than on display here, each of who seems content to try and outglare the other. Ironically, Rodriguez is the only one who seems to be enjoying herself, so of course she has to die.

Maybe if there had been an attempt to spice things up, I’d feel comfortable recommending “Fast & Furious.” Maybe if we were treated to something more intense than PG-13 violence and MTV-level T&A Universal could lay claim to some sort of edgy re-purposing of the franchise. As it is, you’d get the same level of excitement watching “T.J. Hooker” reruns.

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