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Spinning Wheels

2 Fast 2 Furious not 2 good.

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Paul Walker, apparently not getting any better script offers after 2001's race odyssey The Fast and the Furious, returns in this rehash, er sequel of the movie that made Vin Diesel into a star and into a wiser businessman than, say, Walker. He's back as Brian O'Conner, this time in Miami, having forsaken his police roots and now just having a grand time with high-dollar drag races.

2 Fast 2 Furious opens with the set-up for its first super-fast race, which takes our anti-hero and his comrades across a Miami bridge, down some streets, and then back. The surprise? Race maestro Tej (rap star Ludacris) has raised the drawbridge for their returning lap, providing one lean, mean jump as the grand finale. Anyway the party is crashed by a bunch of cops who stop the fleeing Brian with a cool gun that fires an electrically charged harpoon that shuts down a car's electrical system. He's screwed.

But wait! Seems the U.S. Customs department needs a few good men to drive like maniacs. There's a drug lord on the loose, and they need an undercover agent to infiltrate his evil den and run errands for him. Errands to the extreme! In exchange, they will drop all the many charges against him. They give him a green, idiot partner who doesn't know the difference between his car engine and a pizza restaurant, so Brian agrees to go back undercover on the condition that he pick his fellow driver. He chooses a childhood pal, Roman (rapper and Tommy Hilfiger model Tyrese, who provides the film's only watchable performance), who bears a massive grudge, blaming Brian for his three-year jail stint. Roman now resides in a trailer, monitored by an anklet that reports his location to his parole officer. After a brief tussle, Roman is convinced that he can choose pride or the possibility of freedom. What does he choose? Well, the movie isn't called 1 Fast 1 Furious, is it?

(This is fairly common practice, eh? Making these kinds of deals with rogue ex-cops and allowing them no better accompaniment than even rogue-er street criminals. I mean, when I got my last speeding ticket, I was offered a similar deal by the cop: infiltrate a drug kingpin's posh Hollywood mansion/fortress, pose as one of his thugs, and, later, apprehend him just as he's making his highest-stakes deal. But I declined, paid my ticket, and didn't think much about it at the time.)

There's a female involved. Brian always has trouble concentrating when a female is around. We are told that anyway, repeatedly, even though Brian seems to concentrate just fine throughout the film, even when vapid, cinematically dull beauty Monica (Eva Mendes) is haunting about. Also an undercover cop, she's even further on the inside, having spent a year at the side of the particular drug lord of 2 Fast, Carter Verone (Cole Hauser). Has she been sleeping with him? Is that in the line of duty? The movie doesn't say, but she has been sunning herself on his poolside veranda for a whole year now. What drug lord has the chaste patience to wait that long? (In my experience, drug lords are sexually immediate and require instant gratification usually in the form of a steamy lap dance or grungy sex behind a club or other places where dance music can be heard in the background.) This drug lord must be religious.

Regardless, Verone's assignment for the dynamic duo is to bust into a trailer park, knock $10 million out of a trailer's wall, and meet him at the getaway spot. Easy enough. There's a hitch. The Miami police are, independent of U.S. Customs, monitoring this event, and have their own plan for foiling the plot. It's one of those snafus that the Department of Homeland Security should be monitoring duplicate law-enforcement agencies not sharing information and plans and all. Anyway, nobody in the movie bothers to mention that or anything sensible in the pursuit of adrenaline-laced high-speed thrills.

Good director John Singleton, who impressed the world with his debut Boyz N the Hood when he was 21, hasn't learned much about narrative construction or dramatic tension, if you judge from this floppy, loud mess. The best chases and action sequences are early in the movie, and the climax is over and done with in a scene that would have been more at home in The Dukes of Hazzard if that show's budget could have afforded a big boat. Additionally, 2 Fast lacks Vin Diesel, whose mere presence in a movie signals the audience to check their brains at the door. Captain Whitebread (aka Paul Walker) is no substitute. My advice? Rent Rebel without a Cause. There's acting in that one.

Bo List

If you've ever seen the National Spelling Bee broadcast on ESPN (an annual television event, sort of like the USA Network's broadcast of the Westminster Dog Show), you know what an engrossing phenomenon it is. Every year, a new band of "twitchy little freaks" (as ESPN talking-head and newspaper columnist Tony Kornheiser affectionately refers to them) does battle with the alphabet and each other in a last-kid-standing competition as rife with drama as any sporting event.

The Oscar-winning documentary Spellbound takes the natural entertainment of the bee and improves on it, following eight middle-schoolers from a wide variety of regional, ethnic, and economic backgrounds on the journey from their local bees to the national competition. Spellbound spends its first hour getting to know its eight subjects, giving the viewer a feel for their family lives and modes of preparation. In the second half, the film brings everyone together for the national bee, where the eight kids we've gotten to know compete with 241 others from around the country. The great fun in watching Spellbound is in picking your faves and following them through the excruciating process. Different viewers are, of course, likely to respond to different kids.

Me? I had a hard time working up much of an interest in Emily Stagg, a three-time national bee participant preparing for her last go-round. A product of a privileged New Haven, Connecticut, family, Emily plays polo and urges her family to let "the au pair" come to the spelling bee this year. I also couldn't muster much enthusiasm for Neil Kadakia, a handsome young man from San Clemente, California, whose psycho dad has him spell 7,000 to 8,000 words a day, hires a spelling tutor to work with him five days a week, and brings in language instructors to help Neil with the foreign roots of different words. During the national bee itself, Neil's paternal grandfather back in India pays 1,000 people to chant and pray for him. But it's hard not to feel bad for the kid when he struggles over the word darjeeling early in the competition.

I tried to root for Ashley White, an African-American girl from a low-income, single-parent Washington, D.C., household, but then she started referring to herself as a "prayer warrior." Instead I doted on April DeGideo. April is a coffee-swilling vegetarian and the most pessimistic, fatalistic little thing you've ever seen. She lives in a modest, middle-class home in Ambler, Pennsylvania, a town whose primary employer seems to be an asbestos factory, and April's dad is the proprietor of Easy Street Pub, where he serves up drinks to the plant's workers. April is self-trained, obsessively studying the dictionary and another phone-book-size word tome not that she expects to get past the first round or anything. April's parents look on with pride but seem to be pretty hands-off. April says her parents remind her of Archie and Edith Bunker, and her mother indeed looks and sounds just like Jean Stapleton.

I also liked Ted Brigham, a lumbering, friendless Prince of Darkness type from Rolla, Missouri, who seems both exasperated and bemused by his schoolmates' inferior intellectual gifts, and Angela Arenivar, a sweet, braces-clad girl from Perrytown, Texas, whose parents are both Mexican immigrants who still haven't mastered English despite living in the States for more than 20 years. Angela chastises her dad, Ubaldo (who rivals glum little April as my favorite character in the film), for not being able to speak English. Ubaldo, a ranch worker, responds, through his son's translation, that he's been working with cows for those 20 years, and they can't speak English either.

Rounding out the group is Harry Altman of Glen Rock, New Jersey, the oddest bird of all, and Nupur Lala, of Tampa, Florida, who seems far too normal for this crowd. Little Harry is a total spazz, a Ritalin-desperate bundle of facial gymnastics and truly horrible jokes. He's a wonder to behold doing off-the-cuff little-boy vaudeville in his bedroom back home, but he nearly has a nervous breakdown at the national bee when confronted with a word he doesn't know. Nupur has to beat out "the trio," three brilliantly nerdy little boys who are interviewed together in front of a chain-link fence like something out of Say Anything, to get to Washington. Her local victory inspires a sign on the marquee at the neighborhood Hooter's restaurant: "Congrad lations Nupur."

And there's a stealth ninth subject too Georgie Thampy the highest returning finisher from the previous year, who is seen giving autographs to other kids. Georgie is a godlike presence who makes his appearance toward the end of the film, dispensing eerily homiletic wisdom in his own distinct vocal style "Twust in Jesus."

As a documentary, and one on a subject that perhaps not a lot of people can relate to, Spellbound is likely doomed to reach a pretty limited audience. But in form it's quite similar to those beloved Christopher Guest "mockumentaries" (especially Best in Show). The difference is that it may be even funnier, and it's certainly more exciting. It's also touching (just try not to tear up when Angela Arenivar finally wins her local bee in round 54 and the camera catches her immigrant mother crying in the audience). All that's missing is Fred Willard doing play-by-play. Chris Herrington

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