David Cronenberg: Fast Company (1979)


It’s impossible to watch Fast Company and not ask how David Cronenberg, the master of venereal horror, could make this pulpy B-picture about drag racing? The simple answer is to say that David Cronenberg has always had a personal fascination with cars and leave it at that, but approaching Fast Company through the prism of Cronenberg’s entire career doesn’t allow such easy answers. Perhaps the more complicated and honest answer is that Fast Company doesn’t have much of a place in a thematic reading of Cronenberg’s career; it fits into his oeuvre only because he made it, not because of larger elements.

Aspects of Fast Company show evidence of Cronenbergian obsessions, but mostly, the film is an attempt for Cronenberg to go genuinely mainstream in content and form. If Shivers and Rabid represented Cronenberg melding his esoteric artistic impulses with mainstream genre pleasures, Fast Company shows Cronenberg almost entirely jettisoning his artistic obsessions in an attempt to deliver a satisfying, generic B-picture. Even if it confounds a clear-cut auteurist reading of his career, the resulting film shows that Cronenberg can succeed at conventional storytelling. Fast Company is an entertaining race movie, with a clear style and an enjoyable underdog narrative. It lacks the depth of Shivers or Rapid, but it’s more stylistically-confident than those two films and certainly more enjoyable than the experiments, Stereo and Crimes of the Future.

If you have any doubt about the film’s Cronenbergian bonafides before you start, the opening credits of Fast Company will disabuse you of any notion that this is a classic Cronenberg picture. We watch an 18-wheeler drive across an idyllic western landscape as the wannabe-Bruce Springsteen tune, “Fast Company” by Fred Mollin and Larry Mollin, and sung by Michael Stanley, plays overtop. A vintage seventies-logo splashes across the screen and you might shake your head at the “Directed by David Cronenberg” credit, wondering if there’s another director who shares the name. Once the film introduces us to the plot—which involves an aging drag racing star, Lonnie ‘Lucky Man” Johnson (William Smith), trying to stay in the business—we realize that this is no hidden Cronenberg fare disguised as a race picture. It’s an honest-to-God B-movie, and a decent one at that.

The meat of the film involves Lonnie, his girlfriend, Sammy (Claudia Jennings), and his protege, Billy “The Kid” Brooker (Nicholas Campbell), trying to beat their rival, Gary “The Blacksmith” Black (Cedric Smith), all the while resisting the control of their penny-pinching team boss, Phil Adamson (John Saxon). There are races at speedways across Western Canada and the Northern United States (all filmed at locations in Alberta, such as the Edmonton International Speedway) and confrontations between Lonnie and Gary. There are also scenes of the team struggling against Phil, who represents the sponsor, Fast Co., and is undermining his team in an effort to skim money off the top.

The cast is remarkably sturdy for a B-movie. Enter the Dragon-star John Saxon relishes every moment as the penny-pinching villain, while tough-guy William Smith provides a working-class charm in addition to his impressive physicality. A few years later, he’d star as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s father in Conan the Barbarian, which isn’t surprising when you see Smith in a beater throwing Saxon down the stairs; he’s got bulk to spare. There is nothing nuanced about the story of Fast Company, but there’s also nothing disingenuous about the picture. It represents Cronenberg at his least cerebral and most earnestly trying to entertain.

Much of the film’s approach predates Cronenberg’s involvement with the project. The film was developed prior to him coming on board and he only added to the script by Phil Savath and Courtney Smith. He doesn’t alter the film’s underdog storyline or broad tone, and does little to shift what kind of picture it’d be. However, he does lean into some of the script’s western elements (it’s unclear whether the film’s western generic references are a result of Cronenberg’s contributions to the script). Beyond the obvious allusions, like Billy going by the nickname “The Kid” and wearing a cowboy hat, Cronenberg presents Lonnie as an archetypal individual whose struggle against Phil Abrahamson and Fast Co. is another in a long line of western heroes struggling against the controlling influence of society and institutions in the remote culture of the frontier. 

The western genre also colours some particular moments of dialogue. For instance, Cronenberg depicts the Fast Co. funny car (which is a type of drag car) similar to how a western would depict a horse; when Phil requisitions the car and removes his sponsorship from Lonnie, he puts it up on display at a car show in an effort to sell Fast Co. merchandise and oil. After Billy and his girlfriend, Candy (Judy Foster), spot the car at the show, they return to Lonnie and mention to him that “It’ll make you sick to see it. All strung up and roped off,” as if the car is a horse that needs freeing.

Of course, Fast Company is made more for gearheads than cowboys, even if lots of racers fancy themselves cowboys. The picture is filled with shop talk about cars and supercharging engines and how nitro fuel works. Even the film’s humour is peppered with car references; early in the film when Gary Black arrives to taunt over a spare tire, one of Fast Co.’s mechanics tells him to “Give [himself] a valve job.” In other moments, characters speak about life as one long race. Early in the film, Lonnie gives the advice that “If you wanna win, you can’t stand still.” Clearly, Cronenberg shares the characters’ love for racing and doesn’t dilute any of the gearhead talk. He even dived head-first into the macho culture so that the film would seem authentic: “I was doing a bit of documentary film-making with that movie. I was reading those Hot Rod magazines and was ready to build myself a hot Camaro. So I wouldn’t disown one frame.”

If Fast Company doesn’t easily register as a Cronenberg film in terms of subject matter or themes, how does it into his filmography? “I was honing my style,” Cronenberg has said about his work on Fast Company, so the easiest way to read and explain the film is through a stylistic lens. Essentially, Fast Company offered a chance for Cronenberg to improve as a formal filmmaker and capture the beats of a conventional B-movie. If you simply put frames of dialogue scenes in Rabid or Shivers alongside similar scenes in Fast Company, it’s clear that Cronenberg is more confident with conventional style in the latter film than in the former ones. For instance, he doesn’t centre-frame every shot and his use of two-shots or shot reverse-shots lack the awkwardness of some early moments in Shivers,. Simple framing doesn’t seem trying for Cronenberg here; instead, it seems natural, allowing him to play with other aspects of conventional filmmaking.

The race scenes are Cronenberg’s main chance to do interesting things with the camera. He favours different perspectives for each race. During the earliest race in the film, the camera takes on the perspective of a spectator, watching through legs and over shoulders at the cars race down the track at blistering speeds. During the funny car eliminator midway through the film, he restricts the camera to the inside of the vehicle, giving you the driver’s view of the six seconds or so of the car racing down the track. Cronenberg even superimposes a timer into the right-hand corner of the frame so the viewer can get a real indication of how fast each race is. 

In a later race, Cronenberg plays into the nighttime setting, using spotlights and reflections off metal or oil slicks to supply all the light in the scene. And during the climax, Cronenberg places the camera at the far end of the track, playing on our awareness of a trap set by Lonnie’s rivals at the finish line to make us dread the end of the race. In all these scenes, Cronenberg is successfully embedding the viewer in the world of drag racing. Each new perspective lends new insight into drag racing and a new way to get excited about these short races.

During the non-racing scenes, Cronenberg’s style is more conventional and broad. In some moments, he’s playing on iconic images of heroism, such as when he pushes in and tilts up on Lonnie standing reluctantly in front of the funny car, getting ready for the race. Such a shot might be the only instance of uncomplicated masculine heroism in Cronenberg’s films. Other moments are shockingly broad. When Billy and Candy distract a guard so Lonnie can steal back the funny car from the car show, Cronenberg and composer Fred Mollin rely on a slapstick tune to amplify the comedy. Moments later, as Lonnie pulls up in the funny car beside two teenagers drinking beer in their old sedan, the camera lingers long enough to let us see the teenagers double-check and then shake their heads as Lonnie races off at blistering speeds, leaving them in the dust. If you’ve ever wanted to see Cronenberg play for broad laughs, Fast Company is your only to chance to satisfy that curiosity.

Of course, this being a Cronenberg film, there are hints of the deviant mind at work. For instance, early in the film, Billy picks up two attractive women hitchhikers and immediately has a threesome with them in the trailer. While the scene’s nudity points to the gratuitous nature of these B-movies, Cronenberg works in some of his own perversities as Billy pours Fast Co. oil over the breasts of one of the girls, “melding man and machine” in a way that would make Vaughan from Crash proud. Speaking of Crash, the speedway settings here would inspire the set-up of Vaughan’s car crash recreations there, with bleachers of fans watching the cars race down the track.

But beyond these symbolic hints at vehicular eroticism, Fast Company is largely lacking the body horror and Freudian psychology that you’d expect of a Cronenberg film. That’s not a bad thing. Fast Company is a clear display of Cronenberg’s impersonal interests and an entertaining look into the macho world of drag racing. If nothing else, it proves that had Cronenberg veered away from his career as a cerebral horror director and focused strictly on B-movie melodramas, he likely have had a lot of success. In terms of pure B-movie thrills, Fast Company gets the job done.

7 out of 10

Fast Company (1979, Canada)

Directed by David Cronenberg; written by Phil Savath, Courtney Smith, and David Cronenberg, based on a story by Alan Treen; starring William Smith, Claudia Jennings, John Saxon, Nicholas Campbell, Cedric Smith.