That increasingly rare Hollywood franchise in which the heroes sport street clothes instead of spandex, Universal’s “Fast and Furious” shifts into sixth gear with few evident signs of engine wear. Mounted on an even larger scale than 2011’s epic (and massively profitable) “Fast Five,” this series swan song for helmer Justin Lin (on board since 2006’s “Tokyo Drift”) ups its own ante on balletic vehicular mayhem and international intrigue, while mending some loose narrative ends and unfurling others. Faithful fans and passersby alike should be more than pleased by this superior piece of classical action craftsmanship, which looks to meet or exceed its predecessor’s nitrous-boosted $626 million global take.
Arriving three months after the misbegotten “A Good Day to Die Hard,” “Fast & Furious 6” (or merely “Furious 6,” as its official title card reads) offers an object lesson in how to keep a leggy saga alive and relevant without losing sight of the elemental strengths that made it popular in the first place. Though high-octane stunts have always been the primary selling point here, Lin and veteran “Fast” screenwriter Chris Morgan have labored to add depth, dimensionality and inner conflict to the now-sprawling cast of recurring characters — so much so that, at times, “Furious 6” plays like a glossy gearhead melodrama.
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The actors have grown nicely into their roles over the years, evolving into one of the most diverse ensembles ever assembled for this kind of production. Women and men kick ass in equal measure in the “Fast” movies, and the good guys/girls come in all shapes, sizes and colors. There’s even a romance between a Korean (Sung Kang’s Han) and an Israeli (Gal Gadot’s ex-Mossad agent, Gisele) — which, by major studio standards, is more exotic than Captain Kirk bedding down with an alien. No matter who you are, there’s someone here to identify with.
“Furious 6” opens amid the scenic vistas of Spain’s Canary Islands, where FBI agent-turned-fugitive Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker) and his former nemesis-turned-BFF, Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel), were seen hanging up their car keys at the end of “Fast Five,” along with Dom’s pregnant sister, Mia (Jordana Brewster), aka the future Mrs. O’Conner, and their respective shares of $100 million in pilfered Brazilian drug money.
Following a brief prologue in which Mia gives birth, the pic hopscotches to Moscow, where federal agent Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson, reprising his “Fast Five” character) surveys the damage from a violent attack on a Russian military convoy. The culprit, Hobbs explains to his new partner (“Haywire” star and real-life MMA champion Gina Carano), is Owen Shaw (the snarling Luke Evans), an international man of mystery seeking to build a dirty bomb capable of knocking out an entire country’s military defense systems. Shaw doesn’t intend to use the bomb himself, for which he needs only one more component part, but rather to sell it to the highest bidder. In a departure from the latest vogue in movie villains, this one isn’t an ideological, bin Laden-esque terrorist, but rather a stone-cold capitalist — though, admittedly, it can be hard to tell the difference these days.
Shaw runs with his own gang of grease-monkey mischief makers who, as one character deftly observes, suggest the evil twins of Toretto’s crew (right down to a bald, Cockney Diesel doppelganger). He also tools about in a custom-built “flip” car (so named for the damage it inflicts on anything it comes into contact with) that resembles the love child of a Dune Buggy and a Formula One car. Resolving that “you need wolves to catch wolves,” Hobbs hightails it to the Canaries to enlist Dom’s help — a negotiation expedited by Hobbs’ revelation that one of Shaw’s associates is a dead ringer for Dom’s erstwhile soulmate, Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), who appeared to meet up with the wrong end of a gun in 2009’s “Fast and Furious.” Rodriguez’s return to the franchise, teased at the end of “Fast Five,” isn’t the first time these movies have brought a beloved character back from the grave, having previously resurrected Han, who appeared to die in “Tokyo Drift,” by explaining that the events of that film took place chronologically after the events of the fourth, fifth and sixth films.
Soon, Dom has most of the old band back together, along with a promise from Hobbs of immunity for all if they succeed in stopping Shaw in his tracks. (Sitting this one out: fast-talking Puerto Rican hustlers Leo and Santos, last seen gambling away their “Fast Five” winnings somewhere on the French Riviera.) And if teamwork has always been the principal subtext of the “Fast” movies, “Furious 6” is the most overtly Hawksian of the lot, pitting Dom’s belief in family and trust against the mercenary Shaw, who treats his people as expendably as spark plugs. A mid-film pit stop in Los Angeles further ties these new events to those of the 2009 pic, while a juicy post-credits tag both closes the “Tokyo Drift” time loop and sets up the already announced “Fast & Furious 7” (to be directed by “Saw” helmer James Wan).
It’s a perfectly adequate plot for a movie that’s really about finding new ways of making cars do things cars aren’t supposed to do, like tumbling end over end through the lobby of a London office building or, in the movie’s most spectacular image, dangling from the wings of a mighty Russian cargo plane. Lin has spoken of using toy cars as a reference when plotting out each film’s exuberantly destructive action setpieces, and the end results often retain the feel of a child happily smashing his own toys to pieces. That was especially true of “Fast Five’s” spectacular finish, in which two Dodge Chargers plowed through the streets of downtown Rio de Janeiro towing an enormous steel bank vault behind them. A hard act to follow, for sure, but “Furious 6” manages to come awfully close in an exhilarating pursuit along a winding Canaries highway with Shaw at the wheel of a Chieftain army tank, crushing full-sized cars as if they were made of candy glass.
All of it is staged by Lin, alongside returning cameraman Stephen F. Windon and an expert team of stunt coordinators and second unit directors, with a keen attention to spatial geography and a preference for capturing complicated pieces of action in single, continuous shots. Their work here stands shoulder to shoulder with the best of the Bond and “Mission: Impossible” films, as does the vivid soundwork by mixer John Casali, designer Peter Brown and re-recording mixers Frank A. Montano and Jon Taylor, who create a 3D environment one needs no special glasses to appreciate.