Fast Company

One of the most atypical entries on David Cronenberg’s resume, Fast Company is a surprisingly straight-forward drag racing flick tailor made for a balmy night under the stars down at the local drive-in. Taking a break from the venereal horror of his earlier work, this is Cronenberg’s crack at the great Canadian loser movie, a downbeat B-drama chock full of bright, splashy colours, and rubber-burning, nitro-fuelled action.

Fresh off the success of the drag queen comedy Outrageous!, producer Peter O’Brian brought grizzled  character actor William Smith to the Great White North to star as fading athlete Dandy Dan in director Peter Lynch’s small town wrasslin’ film Blood & Guts. Lensed the following year, Fast Company may substitute the squared circle for the speedway, but it’s virtually identical in every other way, as Smith reprises his role as a tired, past-his-prime competitor now being gently pushed aside to make way for a rising star. Once again, the melodrama is applied thickly, and fistfights sporadically break out to a soundtrack of twangy country rock (courtesy of Fred Mollin), but with Cronenberg behind the camera, the film is more self-assured than Lynch’s sophomore sports epic.

Smith stars as Lonnie “Lucky Man” Johnson, an ex-champion drag racer who survives a harrowing explosion while testing a newly-designed, supercharged engine. His racing team’s sponsor, the crooked FastCo Oil rep Phil Adamson (John Saxon), thinks this is the final nail in Lonnie’s long careerhe’s over the hill, and Adamson wants to throw the FastCo name behind up-and-coming funny car driver Gary Black (Cedric Smith). Ignoring the protests of his girlfriend Sammy (Claudia Jennings), Lonnie is determined to show up Black, and even takes a funny car out from under fellow team member Billy “The Kid” Brocker (Nicholas Campbell) to show Adamson he can still compete.

Shot between two of the Cronenberg’s more successful early horror films, Rabid and The Brood. Fast Company is a fun–if basically inconsequential–movie full of loving shots of roaring engines, popping pistons and oil-slicked roadways. Fast Company‘s obsession with cars and sex may anticipate the controversial 1996 hit Crash somewhat, but it’s a stretch to try and fit this particular effort within the director’s “new flesh” aesthetic. FastCo’s vise-like grip on Lonnie’s career and a scene of Campbell pouring motor oil on a pair of willing female hitchhikers are often pointed out as Cronenbergian touches, but the film is far more reminiscent of hoser classic Goin’ Down the Road, than Shivers, as Lonnie reluctantly discovers that he no longer fits in the modern world.

But where Pete and Joey’s worst enemy was ultimately their own skewed expectations, Lonnie is fighting a real flesh-and-blood villain, FastCo’s sleazy Phil Adamson. As with Blood & Guts‘ crooked ring promoter, Jake McCann (John McFadyen), Adamson will stop at nothing to undermine Lonnie’s career. In what could be construed as the evolution of the Canadian loser film, Fast Company becomes more about dignity and pride than many of the downbeat entries that appeared a decade earlier, offering at least a glimmer of hope for these washed-up Peter Pans of the tundra.

After working with cult names like Marilyn Chambers and Lynn Lowry, Cronenberg found himself directing an impressive cast of seasoned character actors including Smith, Saxon, and Playboy playmate Claudia Jennings–who appears in her final film role here before being killed in a car crash later that year. Each star puts in solid, believable performance, ably supported by an all-Canadian supporting cast, including Nicholas Campbell, Don Francks, George Buza, and Skip Tracer star David Petersen.

Despite being cloaked in red, white and blue imagery, Fast Company was shot in Alberta, mostly at the at the now defunct Edmonton International Speedway, which made it the first film Cronenberg made outside of Toronto or Montreal. What’s most identifiably Canadian about the film, however, is the documentary-style approach longtime automotive fan Cronenberg takes when filming the dragsters in the pits. The difference between the dramatic portions of the film and the candid shots of revving dragsters is striking, with unflinching close-ups firmly entrenched in the cinema-verit style of the NFB films of the 1960s. One inventive sequence puts the camera inside the car with Lonnie, while an inset box shows his car’s speedometre, putting the audience right in the heat of the action.

A unique film that has claimed its place in Canadian B-film history, Cronenberg’s Fast Company is not only a reliable piece of drive-in fare, but it also gives a rare glimpse at a very different side of the acclaimed horror director.