Fast Company
Canada / 1979
Directed by David Cronenberg
William Smith
John Saxon

Claudia Jennings
Color / 93 Minutes / R
Format: DVD (R1 - NTSC / 2-disc set)
Blue Underground
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    10   10 = Highest Rating  
Guest Review by Rod Barnett
The David Cronenberg film that is both the rarest and the most atypical of his long career finally comes to DVD from Blue Underground. Fast Company has been almost impossible to see for years because of the financial failure of its distribution company soon after the movie's release. It's a shame, since even though far from the directors best it's a fun '70s B film that might well have been a hit if it had been properly handled in the United States.
    The film's story is set in the world of drag-strip racing and follows a racing team fronted by veteran driver Lonnie Johnson (William Smith), whose nickname "Lucky Man" is demonstrated in the first competition we see. Johnson and the other members of the team have developed a new supercharger for their dragster but the thrust ends up putting too much torque on the car's frame a fiery explosion is the unfortunate result. Lonnie survives without injury but this means that their corporate sponsor, oil business FastCo, will have to build them a new dragster. Company representative Phil Adamson (John Saxon) pledges his support but in the meantime the team's only competitive member is Billy "The Kid" Brocker (The Shape of Things To Come's Nicholas Campbell), who's also one of Lonnie's mechanics. Billy races a nitro burning Funny Car and is becoming very good on the circuit. Adamson convinces Lonnie that the crowds come to see him, that if the Funny Car is all they have at the moment then he has to drive it in the races until the new dragster is delivered. Lonnie doesn't want to take The Kid's car from him but feels obligated to go along with the sponsor's wishes.
    The team accepts the change with fairly good grace and gets back to racing, but when Lonnie discovers that Adamson has canceled the order for a new dragster he has a hard time being a good soldier. His increasingly insubordinate attitude sees Adamson maneuvering behind the scenes to replace the team with a rival group of racers. After Lonnie punches out the FastCo rep, Adamson fires the team and takes the Funny Car. Refusing to accept the loss of the car, the guys arrange to steal it with the intention of beating FastCo's new team at the next race. Adamson doesn't take this well, and with a shady mechanic's help arranges for an 'accident' on the track...

    It really is a joy to finally see this film. I'm a big Cronenberg fan and Fast Company has always been the missing piece in his filmography. As I said before, this isn't one of his best films and in a lot of ways it's almost indistinguishable from a half dozen or more of the same kind of films from the late 1970s. What makes it stand out and shine is a strong directorial hand, a great cast and a simply fascinating peek into the world of drag racing. By this time in his career Cronenberg had made two features and several short films; his steady handling of this material shows that he could have easily moved into any genre he wished and succeeded. There isn't a single misstep in the movie and he often stages sequences in an unexpected way that pay off near the end of a scene.
    The cast is a drive-in fan's dream come true for the time period. William Smith (Invasion of the Bee Girls) gets to play a leading 'good guy' role for only the second time in his life and does a very good job carrying himself with confidence. John Saxon is great as the oily villain, demonstrating his skill at playing these types of parts without resorting to over-the-top mugging. His Adamson is subtle, determined and quite deadly behind that snakelike smile. Also in the cast is Playboy Playmate Claudia Jennings as Johnson's longtime love Sammy, who joins the race team just as things start to go bad. Even the small roles are filled with good character actors who work together like old friends, with Don Francks (as head mechanic Elder) being a stand out. On the DVD's terrific commentary the director explains his love of this film and what drew him to it. It turns out he's a car enthusiast and loves all types of racing, so although it seems odd that horror maven Cronenberg would make this film, he sees it as a natural outgrowth of his interests. I just never pictured him as a Gear Head! In the audio track he points out that the story was envisioned as a modern western with the drag races as shoot-outs. This conceit is subtle in the film but plays out very well, even though I was wondering where the police were after the movie's fiery finale. Someone has to answer for those dead bodies!

It's becoming a cliché to say that Blue Underground did a great job but I have to say it again. The film's 1.85:1 letterboxed image looks fantastic and along with the original Mono soundtrack, they've included a 2.0 Surround track, a 5.1 Dolby and a 6.1 DTS track as well. I've only sampled the 2.0, which is very strong, but the 5.1 has been described to me as "devastating." Also on the first disc is a great new talk with stars William Smith and John Saxon, who are interviewed together remembering the film and the circumstances that lead them to it. Both men are showing their age but are still in fine form. I wish modern casting directors would remember these guys are around and put them in front of the camera again. (Saxon especially looks like he could take on anything.) Next up is a brief interview with Fast Company's director of photography Mark Irwin. He not only talks about working on this film but the subsequent movies he shot for the director, up through 1986's The Fly. It's a very interesting piece that made me want to ask Irwin more questions about those amazing films and their disturbing images. Additional goodies include the theatrical trailer, a still/poster gallery, and a text bio of the gorgeous Miss Jennings. But the best extra on disc one is the director's commentary track. Although he slows down near the end of the film and just gets caught up in watching, it's another in his long line of excellent tracks for DVD. I actually felt a chill as Cronenberg describes a scene that he remembers having to cut... right before it unspools in front of him. And believe me, it was the thrill of hearing him so surprised that caused the chill and not the fact that the scene in question involves naked women and a can of motor oil!
    This first disc is so good that it alone would be well worth the asking price of this set, but Blue Underground has truly gone the extra mile and given us a second disc showcasing two of the director's early short films. First there is the black & white Stereo, which plays as if it were silent footage of a lengthy experiment about stimulating latent telepathic abilities in humans. The only sound in the hour-long film is the occasional voice over that appears to be (often technically dense) readings from the report that came from this failed experiment. Stereo is interesting but not great. Its central idea is fascinating but the technique of clinically observing the event distances us from the story a bit too much. Made soon after Stereo was Crimes Of The Future, which tells much the same type of story. Shot in color this time, it follows a man as he wanders between various scientific institutions attempting to understand the grand beliefs of his unseen dermatologist mentor Anton Rouge. Once again the film is interesting but meanders a bit too much for my tastes. There are some fascinating ideas here but they're couched in such detached and obtuse ways that they make little impact. The ending is creepy though with a desperate feeling of succumbing to desires too horrible to speak about. Both films look very sharp and are presented letterboxed with their original Mono sound.
Disc 2 is capped with a small still gallery and a step-through text bio of Cronenberg. As with the enjoyable main feature of this two-disc set, I'm glad to finally see these short films the folks at Blue Underground are to be commended for their hard work in again going above and beyond to present this material in the best possible manner. 6/05/04