By Drew Taylor | The Playlist May 21, 2013 at 12:59PM
Picking up where "Fast Five" left off, "Furious Six" (and that is the intended title, as far as Justin Lin is concerned) is even more wildly over-the-top, yet still deeply concerned with the notions of family and togetherness reinforced by the last film. It's an interesting interplay that Lin has come up with – trying to deepen the emotional stakes while raising the bar on the action sequences – and "Furious Six" mostly purrs like a kitten (what? We're running low on car metaphors). Instead of Rio, the gang reassembles in London, in order to help Hobbs (Johnson) track down ruthless villain Shaw (Luke Evans), who uses street racing to pull elaborate, potentially dangerous jobs (he's assembling a bomb or something). One of the wheelmen assisting Shaw is actually Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), who seemingly died a couple of movies ago. (But not really!) While "Furious Six" doesn't quite leave the impression "Fast Five" did, it's still wonderfully entertaining and has a bittersweet edge, as well, since you can feel that Lin's trilogy is coming to a close (complete with montage-y title sequence -- the director's departing for greener pastures, with James Wan taking over next time). There are two action sequences that are probably better than anything in the entire franchise – one involves a tank and a chase on an elevated highway; the other (which Lin told us he had been planning since 2009) involves a plane. That's all we'll say. Walker continues to be a drab buzz-kill with his sub-plot, which sees a couple of "Fast & Furious" characters returning for no reason, and proves to be a low-point. But for the most part, "Furious Six" is a blast, with Lin ballooning the cast with actors from two of the best action movies in recent memory – "Haywire" (Gina Carano) and "The Raid" (Joe Taslim). It just would have been nice to find a place for Eva Mendes' character, who appeared in the post-credits bumper during "Fast Five" but sadly doesn't return. Maybe most impressive is the fact that "Furious Six" makes amends for the weird chronology of the series (Sung Kang, a character both introduced and killed in the third movie, has been alive and well in four on). Goodbye Justin Lin. Nobody revved our engines quite like you did.
"Fast & Furious" showed some signs of engine trouble, so director Justin Lin took it into the shop and dramatically retooled the entire franchise. "Fast Five" shifts into high gear and is wholly unlike any other entry in series – it picks up fifteen seconds after the last film ended, with Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) getting bussed to prison, and subsequently rescued by his partners-in-crime (which now include Paul Walker's former goodie two-shoes Brian O'Connor). The fact that the previous film ended on a cliffhanger tells you that at least Lin had confidence in his inner-series trilogy-building, and "Fast Five" takes things even further – instead of a cops-and-robbers story, it's an all-out heist film, with a number of satellite characters from earlier entries in the series (Ludacris, Tyrese, Matt Schulze, even Sung Kang from 'Tokyo Drift') and, most impressively, a new heavy in the form of Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson's Diplomatic Security Service agent Hobbs (because honestly there weren't enough ethnically nebulous beefcakes in this series already). Our characters, now fugitives from the law, are hiding out in Rio de Janeiro. Old habits die hard, of course, and after a botched job involving stealing cars from a moving train (one of the most breathless action sequences in a movie overstuffed with them), they're slowly pulled into a scheme to rob a bank from a corrupt businessman, which turns the movie into a kind of "Ocean's Eleven"-with-muscle cars. It was kind of a dodgy gamble, but one that is pulled off incredibly well, with virtuoso set piece after virtuoso set piece, culminating in a climax where they drag a bank vault down the crowded streets of Rio de Janeiro (just typing that sentence made me feel really awesome and manly). Thematically, "Fast Five" reinforces the notion that the series has always been about family and it's a testament to Lin's skill as a director (and Chris Morgan's nimble script) that he was able to pull together all of the threads from the franchise into one concise package, all while fundamentally altering the series' DNA.
After the tepid response to initial sequel "2 Fast 2 Furious," it looked like the franchise had all but been marked for the scrap heap, with a "spin-off" movie, divorced from the previous films' continuity and respective casts, and saddled with an unwieldy title, seemingly one step above direct-to-video sequels-in-name-only like "American Pie: Band Camp." In truth, 'Tokyo Drift,' freed from the cops-and-criminals conventions of the original two films and emboldened by a stylistic adventurousness, ended up the highlight of the entire franchise and maybe the only truly "great" movie in the series. One of the best decisions in a movie made almost exclusively of them was having the movie centered around high school kids instead of boring young adult types, which lends the whole thing an "American Graffiti"-with-yakuza-bosses vibe. The plot concerns a troubled high school kid (Lucas Black, continuing the series' tradition of bland-as-milk white guy leading men), who is prone to dangerous street racing and given a choice: he can either go to juvenile hall, or be shipped off to live with his absentee father in Japan. He chooses the latter. The audience, like the character, is introduced to the underground world of "drifting" – a Tokyo phenomenon where the cars are driven incredibly fast and then the emergency brake is pulled, causing the car to seize and "drift" around tight corners (unlike in America, there isn't a whole lot of room to race cars in Japan). Director Justin Lin, who had grown weary of the increasingly computer-generated nature of the previous films, decided to do as much of the movie with real cars as he possibly could, with only minor computer-generated embellishments (like the moment the camera gets behind the bumper of a car and the wall of a parking garage, to dramatize just how close they come). Lin had a clear vision for where the franchise would need to go and how it would get there, and he executes it brilliantly – everything from the choice of music (the theme song is done by Japanese art-rap stars Teriyaki Boyz), to the casting (Sonny Chiba shows up as a yakuza boss), to the races, which seem like something of an afterthought. That's not a knock – it's just that everything else about "Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift" is so vibrant and alive that even cars going 100 miles-per-hour down crowded Japanese streets can't quite compete. The fact that Diesel makes a cameo at the end proved that the franchise was, indeed, still very much viable – and what's more, it was about to hit its nitrous booster and really kick into high gear, at least as far as box office goes.
Thankfully just because Justin Lin (who is sort of like the David Yates of the "Fast and Furious" franchise) has left doesn't mean that the series is over – next summer will see the release of "Fast and Furious 7," this time helmed by "Saw" director James Wan (who we understand wants to bring a seventies chase movie vibe to the project). It's got a big-time action star as the villain (we can't reveal who, just yet – remember to stay through the credits to find out) and a series of international locales. Ladies and gentlemen… start your engines! The seventh installment vrooms into theaters July 11th, 2014.