The way the Fast & Furious franchise started out kind of makes it impervious to sequelitis. The constant expectation that each installment be bigger and better than the last isn’t so relevant to the Vin Diesel street-racing saga, mostly because it wasn’t taken too seriously in the first place. Of course the prioritization of certain franchises over others has often baffled me. Nearly every superhero film is a carbon copy of the same structure and theme, with three separate Iron Man movies ultimately blurring together in their onslaught of clanging metal with zero stakes. That’s at least one thing you can say for the past couple Fast & Furious movies: They’ve worked very hard to change up the formula and give us something different.
The series has become more functional with every installment under Justin Lin’s direction, having entered the family in 2006 with Tokyo Drift. The most recent three films have brought in a continuity element that finally seems intentional with Furious 6, the title being aptly condensed without the marketing add-on Fast &. The title may seem like such an insignificant change, but it’s indicative of a director who has done every he can to make his films more compact popcorn attractions. If Fast 5 was a Rio de Janeiro heist film, Furious 6 is a full-throttle London crime thriller.
In case you have no prior knowledge the series, which I assume is the status of most intellectual viewers, it picks up where the predecessor left off, with notorious street racer Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and cop-turned-criminal Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker), sitting pretty with the millions they earned off their job in Rio. O’Conner fathered a child with Toretto’s sister Mia (Jordana Brewster), and there’s no certifiable reason for them to get into any trouble. Except there is, as government agent Luke Hobbs (An especially active Dwayne Johnson) recruits Toretto’s team to stop a group of skilled international criminals led by British Special Forces officer Owen Shaw (Immortals‘ Luke Evans). The bait? Dominic’s long-thought-dead girlfriend Letty (returning series veteran Michelle Rodriguez) is part of Shaw’s crew.
So the plot is loosely set up for them to string together another series of over-the-top car chases and street races. As tempting as it is to focus on the pure spectacle of the situation, Furious 6 doesn’t have the luxury of breeziness that Fast 5 could roll with. Even if the audience hasn’t formed palpable emotional attachments to the characters after all these years, Lin and screenwriter Chris Morgan rightly assume they need to wrap up the emotional arc of their characters in a meaningful way. It may make the film less easily exciting than its immediate predecessor, but the thrills it elicits are cathartic ones.
Letty has been a particularly difficult character to justify in the franchise’s history, so Furious 6 gives them something of an opportunity to redo the character and her relationship with Dom. Theirs is the main emotional arc of the film, and it comes off as surprisingly tender through Diesel’s grizzled monotone. Of all the film’s crazy action set pieces, the sexiest is a late-night London street race between the two of them, becoming the closest cinema has come to an onscreen vehicular ballet. Perhaps not the most exciting moment of the film, but possibly the most exhilarating.
Which isn’t to slight the action, which certain lives up to its titular fury. Our introduction to Shaw’s crew flaunts their most specialized weapon, a car customized to ramp oncoming vehicle into the air as projectile weapons. Immediately Shaw is shown to be a man going head first into opposing traffic, not caring who he demolishes in the process. This is taken to its violent extreme when he gets his hands on a battle tank. Precisely why the tank was there in the first place is irrelevant. A more apt question is why wouldn’t there be a tank there? If you try to logically answer that, this series probably isn’t for you.
For Luke Evans’ part, he continues to polish his charisma scene-chewing supporting roles, which is fine as he does it well. His one-on-one with Toretto says quite literally everything about what motivates these two characters, both in it for the thrill, but only with a conscience to boot. “At least you have a code,” Shaw says as a not-so-small token of respect. It’s the kind of verbal exchange that might have falled flat in some of the earlier films, but that screenwriter Chris Morgan has become rather adept with.
The dialogue in particular keeps up a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor that really embraces the broadness of Hollywood filmmaking, many of the best one-liners coming from Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges. When their situation suddenly flies off the wall, he rails off “Plan B? We need plans CDE! WE NEED MO’ ALPHABETS!” It’s nice to have have comic relief that doesn’t come at the expense of coherence, as opposed to Tyrese Gibson’s less on-point relief character Roman. The character itself isn’t so problematic as it is what Gibson fails to bring out in him.
Then again, you don’t really go into a Fast & Furious movie expecting great ensemble performances. The work of Paul Walker and Jordana Brewster is serviceable, but they’re not the main focus of this installment. For once Vin Diesel actually manages to be an action hero worth rooting for, showing the kind of determination that can only be built off of playing a character over several years. Dwayne Johnson continues his rock solid year of proving himself as a real-deal action star, practically fashioning a running joke from jumping out of moving vehicle.
It’s the cameo talent that happily rounds out the cast, with Haywire star Gina Carano mostly on hand for her impressive MMA skills. Meanwhile Silver Linings Playbook co-stars John Ortiz and Shea Whigham both reprise their roles from the 4th film with zeal for their bit parts. Also, I have no idea why Keep the Lights On‘s Thure Lindhardt is in this movie, but I’m glad he was.
Possibly most impressive for the testosterone-fueled feature is how it dodges overly masculine pitfalls often inherent with male-oriented actioners. While Iron Man 3 and Star Trek Into Darkness fail to have their female characters actually do anything, the women onscreen are made appealing by their own kick-ass initiative. The women are inevitably going to be sexualized, and that’s a given with the franchise at this point, but Lin and Morgan at least know the difference between women being compelled by the men in their lives and women being oppressively driven by them.
Furious 6 being Justin Lin’s last film with the franchise, you can tell he’s hungry to deliver both spectacle and closure on the saga he’s helped retrofit over four films. From the series recapping opening credits to the ridiculous, borderline breathtaking finale, everything seems poised to make this his grand finale. Nearly every scene given a sleek and sexy polish, due thanks to Stephen F. Windon’s efficient cinematography. Even plot threads left lingering since Tokyo Drift are given satisfying resolution, with a credits sequence cameo that both closes a saga and blows it wide open again. Saw and Insidious director James Wan is set to take the reins of the series from here. With luck (and hope) he’ll keep all the ridiculously entertaining attributes of Lin’s last two installments while still making it his own. He may not have big shoes to fill, but he’s better left fashioning his own model.
Bottom Line: While lacking its predecessor’s breeziness, Fast & Furious 6 makes up in deeper cathartic thrills and reliably berserk action for a suitably sexy popcorn thrill-ride.