(1979) Directed by David Cronenberg; Written by David Cronenberg, Phil Savath and Courtney Smith; Starring: William Smith, Claudia Jennings, John Saxon, Nicholas Campbell, Don Francks, Cedric Smith and Judy Foster; Available on Blu-ray and DVD
“Fast Company to me is really business as usual. It is an expression of something that I was very passionate about and remain passionate about, even though it doesn’t seem to correlate easily or critically with my other movies.” – David Cronenberg (from DVD commentary)
Fast Company, set in the cutthroat world of auto racing, is one of the most un-Cronenbergian (Is that a word?) titles in David Cronenberg’s filmography, wedged between more typical fare, Rabid (1977) and The Brood (1979). Cronenberg’s tale of grit, business, sex and deceit on the funny car racing circuit was financed largely on Canadian tax shelter funds, and filmed in and around Edmonton, Alberta (which conveniently stands in for Montana and Washington State for a few scenes). Made by a self-described “car freak” who enjoys racing, it’s a facet of the director/co-writer that’s not often seen in his other work (perhaps with the exception of Crash) on such a grand scale. Partially because of the subject matter, and the fact that it received little distribution outside of Canada, Fast Company remains one of his more obscure movies.
In Cronenberg’s insightful DVD commentary, he explained how his movie fits in with his other films and inimitable style of filmmaking. The film may not be as anomalous as it may seem on the surface, capturing his lifelong fascination with cars and racing, as well as his clinical fascination with the mechanics of the sport. Fast Company, according to Cronenberg, was a B-movie with mythical themes, working with archetypes and classic motifs, featuring clearly delineated lines between good and evil. Instead of the Old West, the gunslingers compete on the funny car* racing circuit, which leads up to a western-style showdown. The good guys compete in a white car, while the bad guys appear in a black car (the antagonist is even named “Black.”).
* Fun(ny) Fact: So why are they called “funny” cars anyway, when there isn’t anything particularly humorous about them? One article shines some light on the subject: read it here.
William Smith, normally typecast in villain roles, stars as Lonnie “Lucky Man” Johnson, who’s been around the track quite a few times. A bit older and wiser than his peers, Lonnie inevitably ends up in some scrapes, but comes out on top. He serves as mentor to Billy “The Kid” Brooker, a young, impetuous, up-and-coming racer. The always reliable John Saxon plays Lonnie’s crooked boss Phil Adamson, the film’s true villain. As an executive for the racing team’s sponsor, Fast Company, Adamson values product placement over winning. We see his true character when he makes a play for the new spokeswoman, Candy (Judy Foster) and takes his cut from one of the track managers. In one scene, while flying his private plane, he comments about the racing team on the road below, “They crawl, we fly.” Despite his lofty ambitions, he’s not above playing one side against the other. The most complex character, however, is Lonnie’s archrival Gary “The Blacksmith” Black (Cedric Smith). Black wants to win at practically any cost, along with all the trappings that come with success (he’s especially envious of Lonnie’s fancy trailer). Despite his disdain for Lonnie, there’s a grudging respect for the elder racer. Unlike Adamson, he seems to possess a conscience and remorse about some of the underhanded tactics that are directed against his opponent.
It’s no surprise that the film works best when it’s on the racetrack. Cinematographer Mark Irwin* lends a gritty, documentary-style look to the racing scenes. We get down and dirty with the pit crew, as they attempt to tame a flame-belching race car. A car-mounted camera gives a first-person perspective of driving one of these high-powered, unstable 2,000-horsepower racing vehicles, blazing down the track at 200+ miles per hour. Cronenberg, working from a script by Phil Savath and Courtney Smith added his own touches, incorporating the lingo of real-life racers and insider details about auto racing. In one scene, Billy discusses the fuel mixture, the importance of getting the proper ratio of nitroglycerine to alcohol, and how each racing team has its own formula.
* Fun Fact: In addition to Irwin, Cronenberg noted that he met several crew members, with whom he’s enjoyed a long collaboration with: set designer Carol Spier, costume designer Delphine White, and Terry Burke (sound).
The world of Fast Company extends its black-and-white approach to its depiction of the sexes, with manly men and womanly women, and nothing in-between.* Claudia Jennings (in her final feature film before her untimely death) appears as Lonnie’s long-suffering girlfriend Sammy, who keeps waiting for him to settle down. Jennings lends a magnetic presence to an otherwise underwritten, thankless role. The rest of the women in the film are either ancillary characters or ornaments.**
* Another Fun Fact: Cronenberg originally intended the Adamson character to be played by a woman, which undoubtedly would have given the film a unique dynamic.
** Not So Fun Fact: In his commentary, Cronenberg stated that a wet T-shirt contest (apparently a racetrack staple) was filmed but (in what seems like a wise choice) not included in the final cut.
(SOME SPOILERS AHEAD!) The filmmakers initially planned a more prosaic (and cheaper) conclusion with a fistfight between Lonnie and Adamson, before opting for a more (literally) explosive ending. While not the most original ending, the fistfight probably would have made more sense. The film establishes that Adamson isn’t above getting his hands dirty to achieve his goals, and the improbable conclusion, as shot, brings Lonnie down to his level. I get that Lonnie’s a “hands on” kind of guy, but I don’t think his tactile approach would include murder.
Fast Company is as shallow as an oil slick on hot tarmac, but achieves what Cronenberg set out to do, reflecting a time and place as he saw it. There’s nothing subtle or subversive about this film, which shows his affection for the racing culture, and is probably as earnest and conventional as Cronenberg gets. It’s not likely to be dissected by cinephiles for hidden layers of subtext. Instead, it’s best enjoyed at the drive-in, preferably in the back of a pickup truck, tossing back a few cold ones (alcoholic or otherwise). If you can’t quite recreate the experience, a reasonable home-grown facsimile will suffice.