Fast & Furious 6 is a machine running close to peak performance. The Fast & Furious franchise has been stripped down and rebuilt through six iterations. It’s gone from racing to revenge to a heist and now it’s forced to find its own identity. After finding a good group of characters and upping the stakes in the action scenes, there’s finally a level of confidence instead of simply watching fast cars drive around. The new movie struts into the room and proudly proclaims, “If we’re going to be goofy and loud, we’re going to be the goofiest, loudest movie we can be!” It’s almost admirable in its own twisted way. After four films, Justin Lin‘s direction has finally matched the ambition of his set pieces, and aside from indulging in the “family is everything” treacle, Fast & Furious 6 is easily the best film in the franchise yet.
After stealing a vault full of money in Fast Five, the gang is resting easy in non-extradition countries. They’re called out of early retirement when Agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and his partner Riley (Gina Carano) need help to bring down Owen Shaw (Luke Evans), a bad guy (I really don’t know if he’s a terrorist, a mercenary, or what) who is using his own team of car thieves to steal parts for a highly-dangerous and highly-lucrative WMD. Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel) agrees to help when he discovers Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), who supposedly died in the fourth movie, is alive and working with Shaw. Brian (Paul Walker), Ramon (Tyrese Gibson) Tej (Ludacris), Han (Sung Kang), and Gisele (Gal Gadot) all agree to pitch in for that “family” crap Dom is always spouting and to get full pardons.
With the penny-ante stakes and most of its dramatic pretensions stripped away, Fast & Furious 6 has a freedom its predecessors lacked. It happily dispenses with the laws of physics as long as it can get a cheer out of the audience, and with the way Lin paces his action scenes, the thrills don’t feel cheap. It wears away at your defenses by having the enjoyable dynamic between the supporting characters carry the movie through its weaker moment like a sleepwalking Vin Diesel trying to win back Michelle Rodriguez whose performance consists of looking conflicted and looking confused. The movies are starting to work because they’ve expanded their scope. There are more characters, so we don’t always have to focus on the dull Dom and Brian. The film’s two street races are dwarfed by what Tej appropriately calls “vehicular warfare”.
Fast & Furious 6 succeeds because the machine is running at near-optimum efficiency: most of the characters are likable, the jokes are funny, the set pieces are mostly well-structured (the big finale takes place at night, and Lin has trouble switching between the five or six different things that are happening at once), it has the illusion of an emotional heart, and mostly importantly, it pulls the audience into a big, dumb hug.
I’ve never been a believer in “turn your brain off” cinema. What makes Fast & Furious 6 acceptable is that it knows you have a functional brain and it doesn’t despise you for having it. The movie, for the most part, plays into the comedy of the overblown action. Lin has no problem with these characters performing superhuman feats. He knows that he can have a plane travel along an impossibly long runway because we’re going along for the ride. We’ve arrived at a mutual understanding, and the movie saves its aggression for the set pieces.
Going back to Lin’s first Fast & Furious movie, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, his talent for directing action has grown with each new installment. Tokyo Drift quickly devolves into a tedious bore of endless racing with the big climax being two cars driving down an empty mountain. Fast Five should have had an amazing fistfight between Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson, but it was nothing more than a series of punches and someone getting thrown through a wall. But with his latest outing, Lin has finally delivered. A fight against a rampaging tank is non-stop joy that ends with a flourishing finish, and a throw down between Letty and Riley will create a lot of new Gina Carano fans (now go watch Haywire!).
There are some trespasses that even the more good-natured aspects of the movie can’t save. The pervasive sexism continues onward, although the movie tries to do gender-math by saying “Well, we can have men treat most of the women like things as long as two tough chicks duke it out.” Furthermore, Letty’s motives are vague at best, a particular reveal is cool until you realize it makes no sense, and other assorted problems litter the picture. It’s just tougher to see them through the explosions.
As a brief aside, I know I’ll be asked, “Why does Fast & Furious 6 get a pass on being dumb and Star Trek Into Darkness doesn’t?” It’s because Fast & Furious 6 has no delusions about what it is. Mocking the shortcomings of one’s own script can be dangerous, but Fast & Furious 6 feels like it’s just having fun rather than throwing up a defense mechanism. Lin also knows how to keep the story breezy while Abrams gets bogged down in a convoluted conspiracy plot. Star Trek should definitely take itself seriously, but because it’s determined to steal from a better movie, it’s unaware of its inanity. Star Trek Into Darkness is the kid who tries to cheat off someone else’s test and still gets the answers wrong. Fast & Furious 6 is the kid who happily draws a kitty in the margins. It’s not the right answer, but at least it’s honest and endearing.
This is a series that has evolved in an unlikely fashion. As Shaw tells Dom at one point, “You’ve come a long way since boosting DVD players.” Over the distance of its journey, the Fast & Furious franchise crossed the line from “stupid” to “silly”. There’s some self-awareness, but only to the point where the movie is in on the joke rather than stressing to tell one. There’s a charming certainty that comes from finally recognizing the strengths and weaknesses of a Fast & Furious movie. It’s been a long road, but Fast & Furious 6 gleefully brings the series to an exciting destination.