Sometimes you’re better able to diagnose a director’s preoccupations when you look at work of theirs that seems completely against type. For David Cronenberg, that film is Fast Company. Sure, we knew the man loved automobiles from the motorbike prologue in Rabid or the naming of Videodrome’s Max Renn after a Rennmax bike he used to own himself, but enough to make an entire picture about it? It happened in 1979, right before Cronenberg hit his biggest audience yet with The Brood. Without any psychoplasmic horror, though, this straightforward racing picture stalled at the checkered line at the box office. Even if nobody’s seen it, though, it still remains a fascinating artifact for Cronenberg fanatics, and Blue Underground has done the good deed of upgrading their already stellar 2-disc DVD to the Blu. Life may be fast at 240 miles per hour, but how is Fast at 1080 lines of resolution?
Fast Company begins with a montage of panoramic shots of the breathtaking Canadian Rocky Mountains, which quickly contrast the confining interior of the racecar. Covered in protective gear and saddled into the driver's seat, the expanse of the environment is limited to a prison of locomotive technology. Forced to rely entirely on the safety and accuracy of the tools on the dashboard, the driver very much becomes an amalgam of flesh and machine. Such is the life of the racecar driver, and Lonnie 'Lucky Man' Johnson (William Smith) is the best in the business. Johnson is a skilled veteran with a reckless personality, forced by corporate advertisers to be more a spokesman rather than a sportsman. Phil Anderson (John Saxon) is his manager and Johnson's connection to his Fast-Co sponsorship label. Together the two have succeeded in making Johnson a household name, but trouble is on the horizon.
Fast-Co teammate, Billy 'The Kid' Brocker (Nicholas Campbell) is young and full of ambition, poised to dethrone Johnson as the label's big star. The tension between young and old is brought out between the two as both hunger for success. Also adding to the tension is the rival team, The Blacksmiths, lead by founder Gary Black (Cedric Smith). Sick of always being number two, Black also waits for his shot at the top. Disillusioned with all the business and corrupt politics involved in the sport, Johnson contemplates the retired life with a past beau, Sammy (Claudia Jennings).
Retirement becomes more of an immediate reality when Johnson punches out Anderson, leaving him and Billy the Kid without a company. With Lonnie and Billy out, Fast-Co brings Gary Black in, infuriating the two heroes. In a bout between the free spirit and big business, Lonnie Johnson is determined to take down his former sponsor in one last triumphant run.
Fast Company is an affectionate, if standard, tribute to the western tradition of car racing, and the people who compose the sub-culture. In his commentary on this disc, Cronenberg is upfront in saying that this is a B-movie through and through, citing his intent to merely reproduce the conventions of western films past. It's an accurate statement, since the genre clichés are all there: the strong and silent protagonist in white, the dirty rivals in black, the ambitious wildcard kid and the women who try to tame the reckless male machismo. Cronenberg even named one of the characters "Billy the Kid" to allude to western tradition, although it seems more derivative of Easy Rider, given that Peter Fonda's character is also a driving enthusiast draped in the red, white and blue named "Billy the Kid". The plot is just as derivative, but it is the little Cronenbergian touches that elevate the film slightly above mediocrity.
Many would dismiss the film as the black sheep in Cronenberg's canon, but it isn't without some of his signature preoccupations. Cronenberg explores the relationship between car and driver, man and machine, and how the two are very much intertwined. Strapped within its confines, man is a slave to the buttons and gauges within the machine, and Cronenberg emphasizes this overwhelming dependence on technology with a number of inserts. The car is a collage of contraptions, and by emphasizing each part in close-up, Cronenberg demonstrates the intricacy of technology. Rather than showing the beauty of cars zipping across the strip, Cronenberg stages many of his shots in the interior of the vehicle to stress how confining and constricting it can be. There is even a shot within that masks out the landscape with an optical overlay of a timer to demonstrate how dependent man has become on the printouts of technology. The man is forced to be one with the car, and this kind of fusion is one that Cronenberg would develop in later works.
In Videodrome the protagonist begins to incorporate the technologies in which he is engulfed by forming a VCR-like slit in his stomach. Crash also details the connection of man with technology, using the car as a form of sensual gratification. Fast Company would be the first of his films to outline Cronenberg's fixation on technological amalgamation. No scene in the film is more distinctly Cronenbergian than the scene with Billy the Kid and two hitchhiker groupies he picks up. Reinforcing the man-as-machine metaphor, Billy pours motor oil on one of his naked lovers, telling her to use it to take care of her "engine". It is a far less grave fusion of flesh and technology than in Cronenberg's Naked Lunch or The Fly, but in its sheer audacity remains the best moment in the film.
Experimentation, the prime cause of chaos in Cronenberg's two previous pictures, Shivers and Rabid, is also the cause for destruction in Fast Company. When Johnson tries out a new fuel mixture, his car explodes into flame, which is the catalyst to the remaining problems that plague the "Lucky Man" throughout the rest of the film. Like the surgeon in Rabid or the psychiatrist in The Brood, Johnson shares a dangerous obsession with experimenting with revolutionary techniques over the standard. So while the film may be lighter in tone than the rest of his works, Fast Company nevertheless addresses some of Cronenberg's principal concerns, namely man/machine fusion and experimental disaster.
Just because the film fits within the themes of his body of work does not necessarily make it a great picture. The film is far less daring than the rest of his oeuvre, and aside from the oil bath scene, remains pleasantly standard. Good cinematography by early-Cronenberg stalwart, Mark Irwin, and solid performances by a solid B-movie cast, namely Smith, Saxon, Jennings and the beautiful Judy Foster, help elevate the film slightly above its rudimentary plotting. Ultimately though, the film is content with being little more than a standard sports drama. The film is about as slight as its cars are fast, and for many that is just fine. It remains, however, one of Cronenberg's lesser forays behind the movie wheel.
The Stendhal Syndrome aside, Blue Underground has been very consistent in their quality HD upgrades of catalog product, and Fast Company here is no exception. There is grain to be seen, sure, but it’s of the natural, filmic type, not the noise we saw in The Stendhal Syndrome. The film was shot mostly outside during the day and on 35mm, so naturally it has the capability of stunning when Cinematographer Mark Irwin utilized the slower film stocks. There are several beautiful vistas of the Southern Alberta countryside I call home, with the Rocky Mountains providing a nice contrast for all that insular confined racing. The colors are just as vibrant as they were on DVD, although honestly, they still could be a little more saturated. The transfer house definitely could have brought out the colors a bit more on this Blu-ray upgrade – but if you liked the DVD, then this won’t give you any surprises. The added resolution makes things all that much clearer, so if you were an extra in all those stadium shots, or a tree in all those highway shots, then rejoice, since you’ll definitely be able to pick yourself out of the crowd. It’s a beautiful, naturalistic looking film, where the multitude of colors replace the usual shadows we find in the horror genre, and Blue Underground has again done it justice with this handsome HD upgrade.
Blue Undergound’s DTS track for the DVD of Fast Company was one of their best surround upgrades, effectively utilizing all that rousing, bass heavy engine sounds to really put the viewer in the seat of the driver’s seat, so to speak. They do it again here with an even better DTS-HD 7.1 track, as well as Dolby TrueHD 7.1 and the previously included Dolby Digital EX 5.1. All three sound fantastic. The original sound effects design had forceful use of car engines and screeching tires, and the tracks here make for an even more engulfing experience. Driving sound effects always translate well to directional sound movement, and throughout the film the rears get a workout with cars whizzing to and fro. There is a surprising amount of bass during the racing scenes, as each rev of the engine rattles through the speakers. Even Fred Mollin's (Friday the 13th, Part VIII) hokey music comes through pristine. If ever there was a film to benefit from a surround remix, Fast Company is it, and audio-wise, again, it is one of the Blue's best mixes.
Initially, Blue Underground released Fast Company on DVD in both a regular single disc and a 2-disc limited edition. The 2-disc had two of Cronenberg’s sought after student films, Stereo and Crimes of the Future as a bonus, and thankfully Blue Underground has included those and everything else on the 2-disc in this new single disc Blu-ray. Unlike with the feature, though, what Blue Underground didn’t do was upgrade the films to HD. Granted, both films are more of a standard aspect ratio, but still, the added resolution and lack of interlacing could have really helped his two obtuse works. They are more novelties then essential viewing, anyway, so it’s no huge loss. It should also be noted that the galleries and biographies, as per usual with Blue Underground Blu-rays, are no longer included. With that said, here’s the rundown of all the extras culled from my original review:
The major extra is an audio commentary with Cronenberg, and it is for the most part engaging. He speaks fondly of his love for racing, and explains how the film represents a major part of his artistic interest. He talks plenty about the production, and is very articulate and well spoken. When Cronenberg is actually talking it is a good listen, but unfortunately there are a bit too many quiet spells throughout the commentary. Had those gaps been filled in with more anecdotes on the production the track would have been much better.
Next up are a pair of featurettes. Both running just shy of 15-minutes a piece, they offer some honest and entertaining recollections on Cronenberg by some of Fast Company's principal participants. The first featurette, "Inside the Character Actor's Studio", includes William Smith and John Saxon, who share stories on their career, Cronenberg, Fast Company, and their own interests in automobiles. William Smith wins the Al Pacino award for most raspy lung deterioration. The next piece is "Shooting Cronenberg", in which cinematographer Mark Irwin details his experience on Fast Company, how he came to know Cronenberg, and quick little tidbits on all the Cronenberg films in which he was involved (from Fast Company to The Fly). The funniest moment is his recollection of Oliver Reed's drunken behavior on The Brood, and how the kids playing the broodlings were so afraid of him that they had to be thrown on him unwillingly by eager parents.
As good as the supplements are on the film, the true gold for Cronenberg fans are restored copies of Cronenberg's two early shorts, Stereo and Crimes of the Future. Stereo takes place at a parapsychological research center, where eight patients undergo a surgery that heightens their telepathic powers and accelerates their sex drive. Shot entirely in black and white, and presented almost entirely in narration, it is a stark and eerie document of the perils of experimentation. The film is rather pretentious, with all its idiosyncratic scientific jargon and avant garde ambitions, and is more of interest to those seeking to understand Cronenberg's later films. The telepathic abilities and methods (right down to drilling a hole in the forehead) would later make their way into Scanners, while the heightened sexual impulses of the patients is echoed in both Shivers and Rabid.
Crimes of the Future, which Cronenberg made two years later in '69, is very similar in presentation. Although this time in color, it too is told through stark narration. The story again takes place in an institutional setting, where this time the patients are victims of Rouge's disease. Rouge's Malady is a disease brought out by cosmetics, and has affected millions of people, most of which are women. A five-year old girl is kidnapped within the institution, and Adrian Tripod contemplates whether or not to impregnate her. These are the crimes of the future. Although much more meandering than even Stereo, Crimes shows off a more polished technique, as Cronenberg utilizes some very effective experimental sound effects to punctuate the on-screen malady. The final scene with the girl is the best moment of both films, as the main character senses with regret the loss of innocence and understanding.
Both films are fairly inaccessible and are much longer and unpolished than one would expect. Still however, they remain fascinating glimpses into the mind of David Cronenberg before he was guided by the conventions of genre. Blue Underground has done a commendable job restoring both films to nice anamorphic widescreen. Both have minimal print damage, and because they were both shot in 35mm (a rarity for such independent productions) the grain is not overly obtrusive. Being able to view an acclaimed director's early work is always interesting, and given that Cult Epics released The Driller Killer with many of Abel Ferrara's shorts only a few weeks apart from Fast Company when it first hit DVD, hopefully this is a trend that will continue.
Lastly, there's the shoddy little trailer included for good measure.
Perhaps I’m partial to the film since it was filmed on my doorstep, but Fast Company has an old-fashioned hero and villain charm that sort of died out when drive-in movies were replaced with direct to video fare. The performances by Smith and Saxon are wonderful, the cinematography lush, and some of those weird Cronenbergian touches, like the ol’ motor oil on the breasts scene, still stand out. This Blu-ray upgrade amps up the sound and video over the already solid DVD release. All the extras from the 2-disc are also included, although the lack of a high definition upgrade for Cronenberg’s shorts is a disappointment. Otherwise, for Cronenberg fans looking to lighten up with a little sun and the outdoors this summer, there’s no company better than Fast Company.
*Because of the quality of the HD format, the clarity, resolution and color depth are inherently a major leap over DVD. Since any Blu-ray will naturally have better characteristics than DVDs, the rating is therefore only in comparison with other Blu-ray titles, rather than home video in general. So while a Blu-ray film may only get a C, it will likely be much better than a DVD with an A.
Another great review, Thanks.
I recently bought the Blu-ray and it's a pleasure seeing the film in HD. It's grown to be one of favorite Cronenberg films in fact. I also love the fact that they've now included optional English subtitles.
The two early Cronenberg films honestly never did much for me. They're interesting to see, but I can't really see myself revisiting them much in the future. It certainly would have been nice to see them in HD of course, but it's no huge disappointment there.
Why BU always always leaves off the stills galleries on their Blu-ray releases is anyone's guess...
Now, review "Circle of Iron" on Blu-ray rhett!
hmm, while the package itself is quite nice, this was the only Cronenberg movie that i had a hard time sitting thru, because frankly, at times this one is just... boring
it only lives up a little in the finale, but it seems to me that this one is indistinguisable from other 'car movies' (of which i must be honest, it's a genre that i can't warm up to)
still, it's proof that even Cronenberg can make a 'generic' movie
Excellent review. I'll probably just stick with my 2-disc DVD of this one, but I appreciate the comparisons of the oiled breasts shot.
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