Fast Company (1979)
By: Mr Intolerance on February 7, 2010  | 
Blue Underground (USA). All Regions, NTSC. 1.85:1 (16:9 enhanced). English DD 1.0, English DD 2.0, English DD 5.1 EX, English DTS-ES 6.1. 93 minutes
The Movie
Cover Art
Director: David Cronenberg
Starring: William Smith, Claudia Jennings, John Saxon, Nicholas Campbell, Cedric Smith, Judy Foster, Don Francis
Screenplay: Canada
Country: 1979
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I'll be up front and admit this right away – until quite recently I'd never even heard of Fast Company, let alone seen it, which for a David Cronenberg fan, is pretty embarrassing. Maybe I'd seen the name of this drag-racing flick sandwiched in between Rabid and The Brood on some text filmography, but if so, it didn't register. I felt a little better about my ignorance after I found out that the film had a very limited US cinematic release back in 1979 – barely any, in fact – had enjoyed even less of an overseas release, had never surfaced in any major way on video, and certainly not in this complete version, and is being presented here by Blue Underground for the first time on DVD alongside two of Cronenberg's early, unavailable and rare pre-Shivers features, Stereo and Crimes of the Future.

Right from the get-go with its Springsteen-lite theme music, this really doesn't feel like a David Cronenberg film, and quite honestly, if I'd been in the bathroom or buying my popcorn during the credits, I'd swear I was watching an Arkoff or a Corman-produced AIP exploitationer – not that that's necessarily a bad thing. That feeling is definitely enhanced by the cast – William Smith (Blood and Guts, Red Dawn) stars as drag-racer Lonnie "Lucky Man" Johnson, a champ with a pretty neat lifestyle funded by his sponsorship deal with Fast Co oil. His girlfriend Sammy (gorgeous Playmate of the Year Claudia Jennings, Unholy Rollers, 'Gator Bait) wants Lonnie to quit the highly dangerous sport, while sleazy sponsorship agent Phil Adamson (John "God among mortal men" Saxon, a character actor par excellence – if I need to point out highlights of his career, you don't watch enough movies and I hate you) is simply out to get every dollar he can through exploiting the drivers, even at the cost of losing the races.

Y'see Lonnie has a habit of bending his cars a little, and in one of the opening races, he tries out a new blower on his car "Top Fuel" to increase the horsepower of his already impressive 2000hp engine resulting in an explosion which proves why he gets called "Lucky Man". Phil is not a happy camper, as this is taking him over his budget and eating into his profits – to him, losing is preferable in some cases because it costs less. Phil's also concerned that his second string driver Billy "The Kid" is totally dazzled by Lonnie's reputation (a reputation artificially enhanced by Phil's shady business dealings), and that his loyalty might make him make some further expensive decisions with "Funny Car", The Kid's ride of choice. He's further annoyed when Candy, the Fast Co gal, takes a shine to The Kid after he'd unsuccessfully tried busting moves on her himself. So what would any self-respecting spiteful, sleazy authority figure do when motivated by greed and jealousy? Abuse that power! Phil tells Lonnie that until Top Fuel is repaired, he's going to be driving Funny Car, as the folks turn up to see Lonnie Johnson drive, not The Kid. Lonnie is not happy, but can't do anything else about it, and it's left for him to tell the young fella.

Lonnie's timing sucks, and for two reasons. Firstly, The Kid just got through telling Candy what a great guy Lonnie is, and second, The Kid was just about to race Funny Car to show off to his gal. Bummer, huh? And guess who Lonnie's racing against? Gary "The Blacksmith" Black, nominally the bad guy of the flick who's got a real grudge against Lonnie's celebrity and success. He's not a bad driver, and certainly we've seen him best The Kid, but he's still the villain, maybe not cut from a Dick Dastardly mould like Phil, but he does have his very own Muttley, his no-temper mechanic, Meatball. Lonnie wins the race, adding more fuel to Gary's fire.

But that doesn't mean everything's Jim Dandy in Lonnie's world – he finds out that Phil's lied to him, is understandably pissed off, and immediately sets about sabotaging a pre-recorded interview promoting the next race and Fast Co. Phil ups the ante by trying to get Candy to screw the interviewer in order to re-do the interview, slanders Lonnie to Fast Co bosses and tries to convince them to back Gary instead. Candy, who's overheard the conversation, refuses to play ball, and when Phil gives her an ultimatum, she quits. He immediately starts courting the jealous Gary as Fast Co's new poster boy, bribing him with Lonnie's trailer. Mind you, evicting an enraged drag-racer is not as easy a task as Phil seems to think (one of the better and more satisfying punches in exploitation film history ensues) – and stopping one from racing is even less easy. Without resorting to something underhanded, that is. Something like sabotage…

Funny Car is repossessed by Phil and Fast Co, but do you think that Lonnie is going to let a little thing like that stop him from reclaiming his ride? Hell, no! They even soup their ride up some more, having worked on Lonnie's blower to bring it up to speed (no pun intended). And so we've got one more race to go with our gang before the big rock finish of the film. Sit back, relax and have a B-movie blast!

In some regards Fast Company is a Western recontextualised to the drag-strip: Phil's the crooked businessman (Once Upon A Time In The West), Lonnie's the grizzled sheriff whose gal wants him to quit (High Noon), The Kid's the eager new fella with something to prove (Rio Bravo), particularly against his rival The Blacksmith, the ornery gunslinger (just about every Western ever). The metaphor works even down to the colours of their cars – Lonnie and The Kid's rides are red, white and blue (truth, justice and the American way, folks), The Blacksmith's is obviously black – just like in 50s Westerns with white hats for good guys and black for the bad guys. It's certainly no stretch to say that the races are a modern day showdown, but one thing stays the same – the quickest is still the winner. Drag-racing, like the traditional Western, is about as masculine a thing as you'll find outside of testosterone, and it's similarly all about being the Alpha male – and if you look not even all that closely, you'll notice that beside all the palaver with jolly little nicknames that gunfighters/drag-racers have (I mean "Billy The Kid" is hardly subtle, now, is it?), the costuming in some sequences is very Western here, aside from the symbolism I mentioned before – Candy's rather abbreviated cow-girl outfit, Billy's Stetson hat, lots of check shirts with mother-of-pearl press studs for buttons, and certain parts of the soundtrack have a yee-hah/shit-kicker element to them as well. And if I have to even mention the disempowerment of the female characters (nags, cooks, sex-toys or trophies – Claudia Jennings fared much better with characterisation in the 1972 Corman-funded Roller Derby classic Unholy Rollers), you obviously weren't watching the same film I was. Cronenberg discusses the idea of this "Western mythology" at some length in the commentary track.

So why haven't you seen Fast Company? Basically, the distribution company in the US went bankrupt, and the release was thence delayed, being seen as an asset of said company. According to Cronenberg, the film had little US distribution, slightly more in his native Canada, but other than that, it's a rare film, and one that gets seen mainly at retrospectives of the director's work – until now, of course. Cronenberg sees the film as an important one for him, one reason being that it marked the beginning of his relationship with a number of regular collaborators, and it was also the first time he shot on set for a feature, previous films having been filmed solely on location. Also, it was the first time he'd directed a film that he hadn't written himself.

As an action/drag-strip exploitation flick, Fast Company is pretty neat. It's pacey, pushes all the right buttons – fast cars, loud noises, boobs, some bare-knuckle fighting, loads of machismo, explosions and fire, some pretty broad attempts at comedy that wouldn't be out of place in any run-of-the-mill AIP 70s film of the same type, and has a ring of authenticity born of some documentary style footage (as with John Frankenheimer's Grand Prix, the drag-strip footage is genuine, with the movie crew slotting their race footage in to that of the actual meet), the participation of a number of real-life drag racing crews and the director's love of the subject matter – and yet at the same time it's almost totally devoid of any of Cronenberg's trademark directorial flourishes. Honestly, if his name wasn't on the credits, like I said before, it could have been any number of mid-to-late 70s exploitation directors. The performances were good (if the characters were a little underwritten), the driving scenes are top shelf with good camerawork and the whole story hangs together very well (despite one hole in the plot in the latter third of the film), and the film itself never outstays its welcome. But something seems to be missing. I don't know if I'm just saying that as more of a fan of Cronenberg flicks like Videodrome and The Brood, and wanting more of the horror vibe – I guess it's the unusual nature of the film given the director's other work from the same period. That all said, it's a fun flick showing a totally different side to one of the most important directors of modern times. And it works.
Fast Company looks the business in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio with 16x9 enhancement. As the new transfer was supervised by the original DP, a lot of care was obviously taken with it, and the image is about as close to flawless as you could ask for. A picture of pristine clarity, let me tell you.
You've got four options for your soundtrack here, and it's basically a question as to your manliness and how confident you are of your house's structural integrity as to which one you want to use. Grandmas, sissies and those living in tarpaper shacks should probably stick to the original mono or the 2.0 surround track. Real men or those living in some kind of bank vault will probably benefit from the 5.1 EX. People with no respect for their neighbours or the foundations of their house would probably enjoy the teeth-rattling 6.1 DTS ES track. I was wondering why Blue Underground gave so many choices of playback here – the answer? Because they can. It's a drag-racing film, goddammit! It needs to be loud. 
Extra Features
Blue Underground almost always do a good job with their Extras packages, presenting the most complete one they can where possible, but on some occasions, they really out-do themselves – this is one such occasion. On disc one you get a feature-length commentary track with David Cronenberg, one of cinema's most articulate, honest and up-front directors – of course you should listen to it. It's interesting and quite a detailed examination of the process of making the film, and other situations around it; Cronenberg's love of road racing cars was certainly a surprise to me; I thought he was more into motorbikes, from the commentary track on Rabid (mind you, it might to help to explain Crash…). One thing that's revealed in the commentary is that the version you're reading about actually reincorporates some scenes deleted from the original theatrical cut to gain a PG rating. Cronenberg sounds honestly surprised to see it, having previously stated he thought the excised footage no longer existed. He doesn't mind the odd extended pause here and there on the commentary track, though… But then again, he states that he himself hasn't seen the film for twenty-five years, so I guess that's fair enough.

There are two featurettes, neither of which should be watched before the film as they contain spoilers: Inside the Character Actor's Studio (an interesting and amusing 12 minute interview with William Smith and John Saxon discussing acting and their approaches to it, the film, and working with Cronenberg) and Shooting Cronenberg (a very interesting interview with DP Mark Irwin, who also supervised the remastering of the print of Fast Company – he discusses his nearly ten years' collaboration with Cronenberg as his DP, the making of Fast Company, a little about the restoration of the print, and tells some pretty neat anecdotes – there's one about Oliver Reed and the climactic scene of The Brood which was particularly entertaining), and the usual slew of poster and stills galleries and the original theatrical trailer (which doesn't even mention Cronenberg's name, despite the success of his previous two films!). There's also a text bio for Claudia Jennings, who sadly passed away in a car accident soon after the film had finished shooting.

The second disc is where the Cronenberg fan starts to get really excited, however, with the inclusion of the director's underground feature films, Stereo and Crimes of the Future. These I'd been curious about for quite some time – here are some capsule reviews, as brief as I can make 'em:

Stereo (1967)
After having made a couple of short films he's since tried to suppress (Transfer and From the Drain), this 63 minute black and white feature was Cronenberg's first attempt at moving from what he referred to as "films to movies". It still seems to suffer from the pretention inherent to many short films that rely on symbolism and imagery over narrative. The basic plot is to do with certain types of patients – Category A – who are undergoing mental and emotional research into telepathy and psychic dominance in a nameless institute. Identity, sexuality and individuality are familiar tropes in Cronenberg's later works, and the nature of medical science as a bogeyman should be a familiar one, too. The film is silent apart from sporadic droning, deliberate narration over-laden with medical/scientific mumbo-jumbo jargon which borders on psycho-babble (some of which but not all sounds very like Cronenberg's dulcet tones), and this does tend to make it a little difficult to maintain interest. I like silent films, but they use music, this does not. The picture quality is of a surprisingly high standard – I wasn't expecting such a clean, clear image. I was however expecting to be entertained, and Stereo didn't achieve this simple objective on any level. The themes covered here are ones Cronenberg re-trod with much greater success in his later, superior works.

Crimes of the Future (1969)
Again, its 63 minutes long, again, it has no dialogue but relies on a dispassionate series of monologues by an equally dispassionate and disturbingly effeminate narrator (the hilariously named Adrian Tripod), head doctor in the House of Skin, an institute set up to cure dermatological allergies caused by modern cosmetics. The picture isn't quite as good as that of Stereo, looking a little washed out colour-wise as aged Eastmancolour can (albeit free of glitches), and with a picture that sometimes jumps, and again, the notion of the medical science bogeyman as presented is hardly unique in Cronenberg's oeuvre. I'd have to say that his fascination and horror at what the body can produce more than likely begins most explicitly here. Tripod soon goes to work at the Institute for Venereal Disease (personally, I'd pass), engaging another familiar theme from Cronenberg's body of work – sexual body horror. The trademark Cronenberg black humour is present here at least – watch for the scene once Tripod moves on to work at Metaphysical Import/Export when another dude tries to physically convince Tripod to turn his feet back into the primordial lobed fins our ancestors would have had – his attempts to do the same to others don't really work so well either...

And on and on it goes, with some kind of drug metaphor to do with bags full of dirty socks that would've better suited a John Waters film. As with Stereo, this is a limp attempt to shock or surprise the audience (couldn't quite see the relevance of most of the men wearing nail polish on their fingers and toes – beat David Bowie by a few years, I guess…) with little real substance, just a melange of disjointed images and a storyline that seems to have been thought up on the spot, with a number of the cast and crew from the previous film. By the time Tripod's expounding on the conspiracy of heterosexual paedophiles he's been invited along to rap with, I really had started to watch the DVD display for the "time remaining" to read 00:00. The harking back to the aquatic was a nice Lovecraftian touch, but nothing much was really made of it, sadly. Personally, I'm glad that after these films were made, Cronenberg bummed around Europe for a while, went to Cannes and suddenly realised he needed to make better movies. Shivers justifies that decision completely. These early films really do make it easy to understand why Cronenberg made The Naked Lunch, as the spirit of William Burroughs hangs heavily over them, particularly Crimes of the Future – if you read something like Burroughs' Cities of the Red Night, or his treatment for Blade Runner, you'll see what I'm talking about. 

Also on the second disc is another poster and still gallery (this one specifically for these two early films – minimal, but I'm assuming complete), and quite a long text bio for the director, the latter of which would be a good place to start if you're unfamiliar with his work and would like an introduction – film-wise, I'd probably recommend starting with Rabid, or maybe a more commercial flick like The Fly. Can't say the same for Fast Company, however, as it really does stand alone in Cronenberg's canon.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
Definitely David Cronenberg's least "Cronenberg-esque" film, Fast Company is more than just a film that slipped through the distribution cracks into an undeserved obscurity. It's by no means a "lost classic" either, but certainly deserves your attention, especially if you're a fan of the director, even if only to see how he directs a non-horror exploitation B-movie. This release is a must-watch for Cronenberg fans, in that it presents the fan with three feature length films that it has not been easy to previously obtain. That said, personally, the early features were a real disappointment to me. Cronenberg is my favourite director by a country mile, even ahead of Verhoeven, Romero and Carpenter, and I was hoping for something so much more than what I got here - a little seen early classic, perhaps. But all I got from those two early art-house flicks was a steaming hot plate of disappointment. As for how those films will entertain a casual Cronenberg fan, I cannot say (although I'm assuming "not much" would be the answer), but as a keen fan of his work myself from all points of his career, I found the whole package Blue Underground have presented here interesting but ultimately not essential. I guess what I'm saying here is that Fast Company is some good B-grade fun, and unless you're a Cronenberg completist, a one disc version of the film, if such a thing is available, would be more than enough.

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