By the time of 2006's Tokyo Drift, the wheels had come off comprehensively: the stars had vanished, and the producers had clearly decided to go, hub cap-in-hand, after the growing Asian market; it was straight-to-DVD product in everything but its elevated place in the release schedule. Its director Justin Lin has been retained for this fourth instalment, for which - as the comical tagline "new model, original parts" (original prats, more like) flags - the first film's players have returned. This is nobody's idea of a coup: Paul Walker, Vin Diesel and Jordana Brewster have all seen their bids for the A-list come to naught - could it be that, when it comes to this franchise, the car's the star? - while Michelle Rodriguez, who's at least managed to keep her profile high through TV's Lost, clearly has a fair few DUI fines to pay.
Since the events of the second film, Walker's Brian O'Connor has, we're told, returned to (in every sense) pedestrian FBI duty; now, though, he's on the tail of a Colombian drug cartel running their product through Southern California's street racing gangs. His old adversary/partner-in-crime Dominic "Dom" Toretto (Vin Diesel), meanwhile, is after the rotters who drove his girlfriend (Rodriguez) off the road for good, in the process depriving the film of the one performer who might have given it some spark.
Back in 2001, Walker and Diesel were fresh faces, their careers an open highway stretching in front of them. Since then, they've become hardened Hollywood hitchhikers, and are now probably just glad to be picked up after years of rejection. Walker has grown handsomely dull; the none-more-lunkish Diesel - who here actually gets the yawn the line "we're all just along for the ride" - has been overtaken by the cannily self-aware Jason Statham in the action stakes. (Anyone with half a brain and a nose for popcorn fun will surely be saving themselves for next week's Crank II: High Voltage.)
Maybe this won't matter to an audience in a franchise where the guys are glorified Stigs or chauffeurs, the girls rarely more than passenger-side eye candy. Still, I had the sense that Cohen, and to a lesser degree Singleton, knew how to make this B-movie material appeal beyond adolescent petrolheads. Lin appears more interested in framing chase sequences so virtual, in the main, that they might as well be for the tie-in console game, punctuated by episodes of incidental Sapphism that suggest a director fueling his own personal spank tank.
The dialogue scenes are flat, and populated by the first actors that came through the door: Vin's flirtation with a lissom brunette speed racer (foreign model, gleaming bodywork) has all the levity and simmering sexual tension there is to be found in spending the weekend under the bonnet of an Austin Ambassador in the car park of Leicester Forest East services. It's certainly brazen - the third line of dialogue is "let's make some money!" - and, after the flat-tyre third entry, there may be some relief among devotees that the franchise still functions at all; that there's a film that turns over when the projectionist sticks their key in the ignition. It nonetheless feels faintly regrettable that, in 2009, a movie should devote itself this uncritically to the acquisition and burning of gas.
I promise to find a new opening, and to make fewer car-based puns, when Fast Five opens this weekend.