The Fast and the Furious, 2001’s little low-budget crowd-pleaser, was never intended to set up a saga. The eminently watchable street-racing Point Break knock-off was hailed by some critics—including yours truly—as the gayest summer smash since Top Gun, with Paul Walker’s corruptible FBI agent making goo-goo eyes at Vin Diesel’s undershirt-clad automobile samurai at a hundred miles per hour.
Stars come and go, then come back again in this franchise. The fickle vagaries of fame are what they are, so Diesel and Walker disappeared from the second and third films, respectively, before returning with their egos in check. Director Justin Lin, of the well-regarded indie Better Luck Tomorrow, was brought on board for the surprisingly successful threequel, Tokyo Drift, and with each successive entry, the budgets blossomed alongside the sprawling, soap-operatic narrative, piling more characters and more automotive mayhem on until 2011’s Fast Five became a full-on all-star heist picture, reaching glorious heights of absurdity.
Fast & Furious 6, which has the much cooler onscreen title Furious 6, begins with a quick-cut opening credits montage attempting to catch audiences up on the past 12 years of vehicular bedlam. A cute gesture, but it hardly matters. All you really need to know is that Diesel’s family-values criminal and Walker’s former fed have retired to countries lacking extradition with their hundred-million-dollar score from the previous picture. Until one day, Dwayne Johnson’s hilariously oversized law-enforcement official comes calling, with news that a skilled crew of custom-car fanatics is targeting a doomsday device, and their ranks include Diesel’s long lost lady love, Letty (Michelle Rodriguez).
But wait, didn’t Letty die in the fourth movie? Well, people don’t tend to stay dead for very long in this franchise (Sung Kang’s Han was killed in Tokyo Drift, but he became such a fan favorite, the events of that film are continually pushed forward into the future in an amusing act of chronological procrastination.) As it turns out, Letty is just suffering from a mean case of amnesia.
Amnesia? Yep. Lin (along with returning screenwriter Chris Morgan) whole-heartedly embraces the lunacy of this series, with its cockamamie shifting allegiances and maudlin histrionics. The obvious model for these Furious pictures are the Hong Kong Golden Harvest films I inhaled like crack in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s: grandiose melodramas in which cops and criminals constantly traded places, and the outsized emotion matched the lavishness of the action sequences. Fast Five was the best John Woo movie that John Woo never made, and Fast & Furious 6 aims to top it.
It’s spectacular. Stripped down to a knowingly comical bare-bones throughline—our team is chasing a MacGuffin in a briefcase called only “the component”—the film is a delivery system for high-octane chase scenes and bare-knuckle brawls. There’s much ado about Walker being a new dad, having knocked up Diesel’s sister (Jordana Brewster), but when The Rock offers amnesty for assistance with this case, suddenly the gang’s all here. Tyrese Gibson and Ludacris are trading quips again, alongside Kang’s Han and his hotcha ex-Mossad gal-pal (Gal Gadot). MMA star and Soderbergh muse Gina Carano joins the fray as Johnson’s new partner, which is great because that guarantees at least two breathless sequences in which Carano and Michelle Rodriguez beat the mortal shit out of one another.
Baddie Owen Shaw (Luke Evans) has a fleet of souped-up Formula One-looking cars in which the low-slung front ends function as ramps, slipping under the opposition and sending them hurtling through the air. Lin has claimed that he comes up with these chases by playing around in his office with Matchbox cars, and Fast & Furious 6 has the goofy feeling of a little kid gone crazy with the world’s most expensive toys. A tank chase on a winding Canary Islands highway sets the bar high, only to be topped a few minutes later by Lin trying to figure out how many cars with harpoons it will take to keep a jumbo jet from taking off on what is apparently the world’s longest runway.
What a silly picture, and yet so wonderfully enjoyable. Everybody here knows exactly what they are doing, playing up the overscaled badass iconography and cornpone dialogue with just the right measure of half-kidding wit. This is the fourth movie Johnson has appeared in this year and the first to properly use his gargantuan, ardent sincerity. (I love that Ludacris calls him “Samoan Thor.”)
It is also worth mentioning that these Fast & Furious movies boast the most offhandedly multi-cultural cast of any Hollywood blockbusters. Franchise films these days are typically white-guy only propositions, but these movies look more like my neighborhood. It’s a gas.