By Dan Simolke | Shadow and Act May 24, 2013 at 10:32AM
"The Fast and the Furious" series is one of the few where I have little problem shutting my brain off for two hours. It’s at least based in some sort of reality, there are no superheroes, although Vin Diesel can certainly withstand a lot of pain, and the supernatural isn’t a possibility. At this point, it’s also probably the longest-running and most expensive soap opera ever released theatrically. I wonder if something like “Sons of Anarchy” (which is decidedly darker material) would exist on television without it. The interesting thing about the series is that no matter how outlandish it gets, it stays firmly rooted in its theme of family above all else. The movies aren’t brilliant from a narrative standpoint, but there’s something curiously endearing about them, and frankly, Vin Diesel will never get a character that suits him better. Imagine, for a second, what it might be like to hang out with Vin Diesel. Now imagine it at 150 miles an hour with guns.
“Furious 6” (as it’s called in the title credits) keeps the heist approach that invigorated the series’ fifth installment, “Fast Five,” and does what all sequels do: Makes everything bigger. Normally I don’t like this approach, but it was almost necessary for the series. As the characters became larger than life, the action almost had to, and after a while things need to take a turn in order to keep the franchise relevant. The focus on heists feels organic to the series, as it had been touched on before, and it inherently increases the scale of the action sequences.
There’s even more globetrotting and car smashing in this entry, and we’re introduced to an antagonistic heist crew headed by Owen Shaw (played by up and comer Luke Evans). Shaw is, naturally, a… yep, you guessed it: an ex-military badass who is now a badass working for what seems to be his own ego (I would imagine these types don’t tend to respond well to authority figures). He’s been stealing high level-equipment from all over the world in order to build a “Nightshade device” that knocks out an entire country’s power for a day, and plans to sell it to the worst person with the most money. No one really explains how they know this is what he’s planning to do, other than that must be what he’s doing. It would probably make more sense if they introduced characters that played potential bidders, but this never happens. Not that it really matters. Luke Hobbs (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, whose neck is so prominent here it should’ve received third-billing) tracks down Vin Diesel’s Dominic “Dom” Toretto, who has been hiding out somewhere exotic with no extradition after the events of the last film, and tells him he needs his crew to capture Shaw. Why would he even consider this risky proposal? Shaw is using Toretto’s believed-dead ex-girlfriend, Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), as part of his squad, of course. According to Dom, “you don’t turn your back on family… even when they turn their back on you.” Yet again, that emphasis on family gets everybody into a whole heap of trouble.
I’m pretty sure Toretto just uses that familial code to stir things up when he gets bored, but boy does he sell it like the entire world depends on it. From one perspective, Toretto’s leadership is almost cult-like. When he calls up his multi-ethnic crew to help in saving Letty and bringing down Shaw, they come at the drop of a hat. They’re all living the high life, but are more than willing to risk everything in order to come help get Letty out of trouble (I’m pretty sure some of the characters have never even met her going by where they’ve shown up in earlier entries). Hobbs eventually agrees to a deal that will see them receive pardons for their previous crimes if they help out, so ultimately there’s some incentive, but I’d be willing to bet they would have helped out anyway. Now, maybe that’s “just family,” but does one really turn down Dominic Torretto?
Justin Lin has been helming these movies since “Tokyo Drift” and he’s really figured out how to shoot vehicular action sequences. I’m not sure if there’s anything that tops the heart-in-your-chest free fall near the beginning of the fifth movie, but this is a well-oiled machine. The camerawork fares better in open spaces (a chase through the cramped London streets is a bit of a chore to keep up with compared to the later, major set pieces) but is consistently well above average, and usually far superior to other studio action movies of late.
Most of the hand-to-hand combat seems rigged for maximum crowd-pleasing, and it works, but the characters are still able to absorb an unrealistic number of punches. There’s a scene earlier in the film featuring Joe Taslim (of “The Raid: Redemption” fame) who plays one of Shaw’s henchmen, that is intercut with a fight between MMA fighter-turned-actress Gina Carano (last seen in Steven Soderbergh’s tight, minor genre classic, “Haywire”) that stands out because it operates in a more realistic fashion. Carano’s bit is more over-the-top with the amount of damage inflicted, but when Tyrese and Sung Kang attempt to incapacitate Taslim’s character after a foot chase, they become noticeably tired and sweaty. It seems like they’re really hurting as he physically dominates them, and it’s kind of fascinating to see in a movie like this. It almost felt like it might play out similarly in real life, and my friend was convinced that Taslim probably choreographed the scene himself because it plays so differently than the other fight scenes.
At this point, the players all have their characters down pat, and the script injects a certain level of self-awareness that makes the more implausible scenarios easier to take (Ludacris was probably the most entertaining character in the movie, and he has a funny back and forth with Tyrese). That said, you really don’t want to think too hard about this one, or even at all for that matter. Outside of the authenticity of some of the character relationships, and without writing 500 more words, there are a number of things here that don’t make much sense. This is also one of the only movies I’ve ever seen where a third-act twist comes off as “Scooby-Doo level” in its execution, and 15 or so minutes later has a pivotal character moment that nearly brought me to tears it was so dramatically effective. I don’t know if that will be the case for everyone. A good part of the enjoyment derived from the smaller moments in these films is how versed you are in the surprisingly detailed storyline (there are six movies after all, and the third one takes place several years after the fourth, fifth, and sixth). It’s not that complicated, there’s just a lot of it. The opening credits do their best to catch people up on some of the key plot points, but as far as being effectively entertained, I doubt an in-depth knowledge of the material is required. Again, I cannot stress enough how ridiculous some aspects of this movie are, but it’s still a rip-roaring good time, and we’ve been with these characters long enough to know the drill, and possibly even be invested in what happens to them.
Stick around after the end credits start. There’s a tease for the already green-lit seventh movie (to be directed by James Wan, the guy behind “Saw,” “Insidious,” and this summer’s “The Conjuring”), and if you haven’t already heard, it elicits quite a reaction from most audiences.