You might not be aware of it, but the car movie is one of the oldest genres in the history of filmmaking, dating all the way back to the genesis of the medium.
In fact, stories that focus on cars actually pre-date cinema itself. A Magic Lantern show (a technology whereby a narrative was told through sequential projected still pictures) with the rather unusual title of Mister Spurt and His Auto was first put on display for the public in 1906.
Seven years later, the first auto racing movie, an 8-minute-long comedy starring Fatty Arbuckle called The Speed Kings, mesmerized early movie goers, much in the same manner that spectators were enthralled by actual live racing events.
As film technology became ever more advanced throughout the decades, so too did racing movies become more realistic, and by virtue of new cameras, mounting systems, and special effects techniques, all the more able to capture the speed, danger, and thrills of a motor racing event.
As a result of this, some of the finest and most groundbreaking car movies have been set within the racing milieu. There’s John Frankenheimer’s melodramatic but intense look at Formula 1 in 1966’s Grand Prix, Steve McQueen’s labor of love, Le Mans in 1971, and modern-day classics like 2013’s Rush and 2019’s Ford v Ferrari.
A rabid motorsports fan myself, I’m always on the lookout for films that depict the sport, for my own personal enjoyment and as subjects for this and my other monthly, cinema-based column, Rob’s Movie Muscle.
Just recently, I struck paydirt and stumbled upon a title that I never knew existed. In doing some research about the movie, I realized that it would be perfect for a review in these pages. The film is entitled Fast Company, and in this month’s incarnation of Rob’s Car Movie Review, I’m gonna tell you all about it.
Fast Company was distributed to cinemas in 1979 by Topar Films, and was a joint production of the Canadian Film Development Corporation and Quadrant Films.
I was surprised to discover that David Cronenberg (Scanners, Videodrome, The Dead Zone, The Fly), a director whose body of work I thought I was acutely familiar with, helmed the picture based on a script he wrote in conjunction with Phil Savath and Courtney Smith. Starring in the movie is William Smith, Nicholas Campbell, John Saxon, Cedric Smith, Claudia Jennings, and Judy Foster.
The film covers the on- and off-track exploits of a Funny Car and Top Fuel dragster racing team in the late 1970s. The outfit is sponsored by a large international oil and petroleum products company, Fast Company, known colloquially as FastCo.
Aging star driver Lonnie “Lucky Man” Johnson (William Smith) is the Top Fuel man, while his young protégé, Billy “The Kid” Brooker (Campbell) is the Funny Car pilot. Running the team is Phil Adamson (Saxon), a corporate bigwig who cares more about product sales and his bottom line than he does winning on the track.
Lonnie experiences a blown engine in the first race of the season, rendering the team’s Top Fuel car out of action until it can be repaired. Fearing that the crowds won’t come to see the lesser-known Billy run in the Funny Car class, Adamson orders Lonnie to drive his protégé’s car, causing friction between the two drivers and the rest of the team.
Lonnie nonetheless capitulates to Adamson’s demands and in his first Funny Car race ever, beats Fast Co’s main competitor in the class, Gary “The Blacksmith” Black (Cedric Smith).
After the race, Lonnie learns that Adamson has put a stop on the repair of his Top Fuel car in an attempt to cut costs within the team. Lonnie realizes that this means Billy will be let go, in favor of Lonnie running the Funny Var in perpetuity.
In retaliation for what he sees as a betrayal of himself and Billy, Lonnie makes a mockery of Fast Company products on a live television spot, incensing Adamson.
With a grudge match now established between top driver and team principal, a fistfight between the two breaks out, resulting in Adamson firing the entire team, pilfering Billy’s Funny Car, and enlisting the talents of Black as the new FastCo driver.
Not at all content to let Adamson prevail, Lonnie, Billy, and their two girlfriends, Sammy (Jennings) and Candy (Foster), concoct a plan to steal back the FastCo Funny Car, which has been retired to promotional events, and run it at the next meet in Edmonton. Their plan goes off without a hitch, and Lonnie, Billy, Sammy, Candy and the FastCo mechanics get the car in shape for the race.
The next evening at the drag strip, Adamson is shocked to learn that Black’s car will line up next to a car from an independent team entered by Lonnie. He quickly orders some of Black’s mechanics to sabotage Lonnie’s car by pouring flammable liquid downrange on the right lane of the track where Lonnie will be running.
Meanwhile, making reparations for how he was made to replace Billy in the FastCo Funny Car, Lonnie lets Billy drive the car for this ultimate showdown against Black and Adamson.
Fast Company is the quintessential 1970s B-movie genre picture. There are explosions, hijinks aplenty, wide collars, feathered hair, the prerequisite topless girls, and plenty of automotive action.
While the dialogue is corny at times, the acting consistently wooden, the story nothing to write home about, and the soundtrack full of songs with awful lyrics written for the movie (racing both the man and the clock/you’re living your life on fire/burning out in Fast Company!), there are flashes of Cronenberg genius throughout.
The composition of the shots and lens selection are often brilliant, and he repeatedly and lovingly gets the camera under the cars’ bodywork to let us ogle the machinery underneath. Especially exciting are the in-car shots during the racing. You can almost smell the nitro fumes and taste the burned rubber.
The editing is more than competent, the sound work excellent, and most of all, the immersion of the viewer into the world of drag racing is top notch.
And what a collection of street and racing cars Fast Company presents.
On the racing side, there’s the FastCo Top Fuel dragster and Funny Car. Both are draped in a patriotic red, white, and blue livery, and spit holy fire from their side pipes. The Funny Car is especially cool with its stylized Pontiac Firebird fiberglass bodywork.
Black’s funny car is a sinister-looking machine with its Chevy Vega-esque bodywork draped in ebony paint.
There are quite a few lesser bracket cars racing in the film too. There’s an awesome ’70 Cuda, complete with shaker hood running on drag radials, a ’72 Challenger that is similarly set up, and a cherry red ’73 Plymouth Duster with a mammoth ram-air hood scoop.
Amateur-run race cars feature in the film as well. There’s a black ’69 Pontiac GTO, and in one scene, played for laughs, a fellow races a rented 1977 Plymouth Fury sedan.
As far as street cars are concerned, there is a trio of Camaros – a ‘67’, a ’75, and a ’78 – the latter a Z/28 owned by Lonnie’s girlfriend, Sammy, as well as a rare 1975 Bricklin SV-1 and a 1969 Olds 442.
Fast Company is a very un-David Cronenberg film. Here, he eschews the body horror that is a hallmark of all his movies to take on a passion project, as he was and still is an auto enthusiast. While he deftly handled the subject matter in terms of the technical aspects and flavor of drag racing, the movie falls slightly short of some other drag racing classics such as Two-Lane Blacktop, owing to the aforementioned flaws.
If you go into Fast Company knowing that it will not be Citizen Kane though, then you’ll have no problem enjoying this movie as I did, especially if you’re a serious fan of drag racing.
I give Fast Company six-and-a-half out of ten pistons. Give it a watch.