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The Cronenberg Chronicle-Phase Sixteen: Fast Company (1979)

“How the heck does this one fit?”, many will be inclined to asked. I’ve struggled with it for years myself, but I’ve come to terms with it most recently. By making a loose connection to the director’s 1996 “Crash”, “Fast Company” goes down a hell of a lot easier. You see, David Cronenberg loves cars. As proof, you have him directing and co-writing this loving meditation on the world of drag racing with just his third official feature. In “Crash” he brought us a story(based on J.G. Ballard’s novel of the same name)focusing on the fetishization of vehicles. And just last year, via 2012’s “Cosmopolis”, we watched as the main character of a Cronenberg film barely left his car(a limousine)for the entire running time of said film. This included for eating, having sex, working, doctor’s examinations and taking a piss. So, I guess the die was first cast with “Fast Company” way back in 1979. There’s definitely some fetishization going on in this one too. You’ll even witness a brief sexual scene involving a man pouring motor oil all over a hitchhiker’s bare breasts. In fact, the two other instances of implied coitus in the movie both occur inside the traveling tractor-trailer that William Smith’s character of Lonnie “Lucky Man” Johnson calls home. And when you get a nice gander at the face and body of the absolutely gorgeous love interest of Sammy, as played by “exploitation” movie goddess of the 1970’s Claudia Jennings, you’ll certainly agree that Smith’s Johnson is a very lucky man, indeed. In fact, ironically enough, Ms. Jennings, the star of other such car-centric films of that decade like “Moonshine County Express” and “The Great Texas Dynamite Chase”, never made it out of the 70’s. She shuffled off this mortal coil just months after the release of “Fast Company”, in October of 1979. She was only 29 years old, and Cronenberg’s third feature would be her last. Cause of death? A single car accident while driving along California’s Pacific Coast Highway. Apparently, Claudia had fallen asleep at the wheel. Goosebumps, anyone?

William Smith(no, not that Will Smith, but the one who’s been a prolific character actor for decades—probably hitting his recognizability peak as Falconetti in 1976’s “Rich Man, Poor Man” through 1980’s “Any Which Way You Can”, as Clint Eastwood’s bareknuckle-brawling nemesis, Jack Wilson)is Lonnie “Lucky Man” Johnson, a renowned, oil company-sponsored drag racer, nearing the end of his storied career. Johnson travels from city-to-city and town-to-town while living in the trailer portion of his race team’s 18-wheeler, which has been modified to include all the comforts of a more stationary home. And when they pull into a new location the mission is to race and advertise usage of FastCo Oil. But Lonnie “The Lucky Man” isn’t winning as much as he once was. So, while veteran Johnson mans the dragsters, his young protegé Billy(Nicholas Campbell, in his first of a quartet of DC appearances)drives the “Funny Car”(one of the specified racing classes in organized drag racing—be kind–this kind of stuff might as well be hieroglyphics to me). And Billy is so rapidly improving, that he could soon take over as the head racer of the FastCo Oil team. And it would be with Lonnie’s blessing as he thinks very highly of the young man. But there’s some conflict due to the corrupt presence of FastCo representative, and, therefore, sort of Lonnie’s ersatz “boss”, Phil Adamson(played with oily, ‘B’-movie sleaze, by the equally-to-Smith, prolific character actor, John Saxon). And that corruption may involve replacing Lonnie with his main rival, Gary “The Blacksmith” Black(a fine Cedric Smith, in a tricky to pull off role)as the new “face” of FastCo Oil. And some deadly devices may be enacted to get that transition done, while Lonnie is distracted by the return of his on-again, off-again romantic flame(the tragic and beautiful Ms. Jennings).

It’s really difficult for me to dislike “Fast Company”, but I’m having just as hard of a time labeling it a good film. Much of the acting, for instance, is either wooden, amateurish or over-the-top. But the film is never quite terrible, and it’s glaringly obvious that it was helmed by a person that is extremely fond of the world “Fast Company” represents. It also contains some impressive innovations like putting the film camera right inside the cars, and showing an interior vehicle clock for one of the seconds-long races. In fact, all of those shots that take place right inside the race cars are the most exciting and artistic of the 93-minute work. This film also marks the first time certain ‘S’-teamers jumped on board with DC, as Carol Spier designed the production and Ronald Sanders became Cronenberg’s long-time(and still going strong)editor. Unfortunately, the film also contains the scenery-chewing, embarrassment of a character called Meatball(big George Buza), as well as the non-acting of eye-candy performer Judy Foster(appropriately named…Candy). So, at times “Fast Company” is a bit of an eye-roller. On the other hand, it contains a rousingly successful, pop-music song score(nothing you’ve heard of, just catchy)and some of the landscape shots are absolutely gorgeous(terrific work from DC’s one-time go-to cinematographer, Mark Irwin). So, by this 3rd feature, the Cronenberg team of collaborators was really beginning to take shape. But still, “Fast Company” is mostly a ‘B’-movie throwaway. It’s the sort of thing folks used to watch at drive-ins. Its exuberance is its main attribute. Body-horror? Precious little. The danger of driving those fiery, little beasts is driven home, so we do see one character survive severe burns. Does the unwieldy, Cro-Magnon style hair of the Meatball and Stoner(David Graham)characters count? Hey, this was a labor-of-love for David the race enthusiast, so if it still seems out-of-place to you—you’ll just have to let it go. Besides, he followed “Fast Company” quite rapidly with “The Brood”(which many consider his first masterpiece), so I’m giving him a pass. Plus, the race scenes are really top-notch. And the precision shown involving the act of getting the cars ready to race is handled like an intricate surgery—it’s fascinating stuff. I also learned something about volatile fuel mixtures and properly lubricating tires before a race. Aww hell, just watch it because Claudia Jennings is knockout perfection. As Cronenberg was just arriving on the stage, she left it way too soon. So, “Fast Company” takes on a whole new meaning when viewed in that respect.     Grade:  C          

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