Has there ever been a franchise like the "Fast & Furious?" Begun over ten years ago with a film most notable for its '50s-style B-movie title, "The Fast & The Furious," it was a modest sleeper hit. Before long the series saw its biggest draw, the potato-headed growl-monster Vin Diesel, exit the series before it really got going, leading to the Paul Walker solo outing "2 Fast 2 Furious." Unsurprisingly, the box office for that one took a hit, a trend that continued with the Walker-free third outing "The Fast & The Furious: Tokyo Drift." But ever since the series has been on a constant upswing, with "Fast Five" making nearly half-a-billion dollars worldwide, and even winning some critical plaudits, at least for series veteran Justin Lin.
Now, Lin's back for his fourth and final entry in the franchise "Fast & Furious 6" ("Saw" helmer James Wan is taking over for the already-greenlit seventh installment, due next summer), and Universal have pinned real hopes on the picture with a plum Memorial Day release date. So does the movie deliver what one would expect of holiday weekend blockbuster? Well, while there's a lot of fun to be had, 'Furious 6' doesn't quite hit the insane heights of "Fast Five," but we're sure it'll delight franchise fans who mostly want to see bald people butt heads, and moving vehicles crash into other moving vehicles.
After the events of the last film, Dominic Toretto (Diesel), Brian O'Conner (Walker) and the rest of their crew (Sung Kang, Ludacris, Tyrese and Gal Gadot) are living in blissful retirement. But their old Interpol nemesis Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) comes knocking with a new partner (Gina Carano of "Haywire"), and an offer: full pardons if the team will help him bring down Owen Shaw (Luke Evans), a former British special ops soldier turned thief, who's travelling Europe pinching parts for some kind of super-weapon to sell to the highest bidder. And to make things personal, Shaw is working with Letty Ortiz (Michelle Rodriguez), Dominic's lost, believed-dead, now-amnesiac love.
If words like "amnesia" and "super-weapon" weren't enough of a clue, the film lets slip early that whatever loose connection it once had to reality is long since forgotten; the people and physics of "Fast & Furious 6" have more in common with "The Avengers" than they do with the first three films in the series. But, it helps that Lin is entirely conscious of this. There's a self-awareness of the rampant homoeroticism, the shaky dialogue and the general ridiculousness that keeps it fun and bouncy without disappearing entirely behind inverted commas. But it also means that the heroes can feel indestructible in a way that robs the movie of any tension, and the screenplay (again by Chris Morgan) largely forgets, at least until very late in the game, to really keep the stakes up.
It's partly because of this that the first hour or so is pretty dire. There's an awful-lot of getting-the-gang back together, and a lot of hand-wringing about the relationship between Dom and Letty (though curiously not from the former's current girlfriend, who sends him off to find his ex without complaint,) and not all that much of the fun stuff. Even the first big-action set-piece, a London-set chase sequence, is underwhelming, with Lin losing the solid sense of geography, and much of the flair that marked the action sequences in "Fast Five."
Some enjoyably crunchy hand-to-hand fights, enabled by the addition of Carano and "The Raid" actor Joe Taslim, are better, but the film still never quite gets into top gear while it's in the U.K., and even less so with a sub-plot trip back to the U.S. that reunites Walker with a couple of leftovers from the fourth movie, which demonstrates both how redundant the actor is to the franchise, and how overly-concerned the writers are with the continuity of their own series (we're always pleased to see Shea Whigham on screen, but we're not sure even the most hardcore fan of these movies would really register his reappearance). Furthermore, 'Furious 6' lacks in having a truly memorable bad guy. Evans has presence, but nothing to work with on the page, and while the idea of his team being evil mirrors of our heroes is so insane that it's kind of funny, none make much of an impression beyond Taslim (who's underused).
Fortunately, the film hits some form once the action moves to Spain in the second half, with two enjoyably bonkers, particularly well-crafted set pieces that show what Lin can do when he's firmly in control. Everyone gets something to do, there's some truly impressive stunt work (alongside some slightly ropey CGI) and even some emotional beats, including one genuinely surprising, well-handled twist. The result is a finale that comes close to matching "Fast Five" for thrills, and certainly sends the audience out on a high (to say nothing of a mid-credits tease for the next movie that blew the roof off of the theater in our screening).
Chances are that you already know if you're seeing "Fast & Furious 6." And in part, that's because there's a certain solid reliability to the series: it does what it's meant to do (smash cars, smash planes, smash tanks, butt Mr. Potato Heads together) well, and doesn't really pay much attention to the rest of it. The closing act of the sixth movie is propulsive and enjoyable enough to keep up the positive vibes towards the series for now, but "Fast Seven" will have to be more consistent to ensure that the series makes it into double digits. [C+]