The increasingly monstrous box office receipts tell a crystal clear story of commercial success, but when it comes to the Fast & Furious movies, the critical community has been slow to recognize something equally certain: That against all odds, this series has stealthily matured into one of the very best action blockbuster franchises out there. No joking. No irony. No exaggeration. When it comes to sheer entertainment – energetic, engaging, and filled with more adrenaline that the human body should be capable of processing – very few ongoing film series, if any, do it better, and the latest installment, Fast & Furious 6 – or just Furious 6, as it is actually written in the film and will henceforth be referred to – is a stunningly crafted, unexpectedly poignant, and above all else, ridiculously fun monument to this truth.
What surprises me most about this sixth entry is how effectively it is able to build upon everything that has come before, remaining perfectly open and welcome to newcomers while offering long-time fans of the franchise plenty of satisfying pay-offs and character resolutions that go well beyond mere ‘callbacks.’ This is not the final Fast & Furious film – a seventh is set to hit screens a little over a year from now – but apart from one intense, gauntlet-throwing mid-credits scene, it very well could be, and would be as grand and emotionally fulfilling a finale as fans could hope for. That speaks not only to everything director Justin Lin and company do right here, but to what a rich and solid foundation the films have built at this point. There have been qualitative ups and downs since the franchise’s inception back in 2001, no doubt about it, yet when I recently re-watched the films to prepare for this latest entry, I was struck not only by how consistently thrilling the action and effects have been, but what sharp and appealing characterization lies at the core of the series’ creative success.
That is the foundation for any great action film, after all, for without a solid story and memorable, developing characters, the set pieces themselves are meaningless. 2011’s Fast Five found the perfect balance between plot, ensemble, and action, and Furious 6 furthers that clear and invigorating grasp of genre fundamentals to tremendous effect. I understand the snobbish critical impulse to dismiss Furious 6 as ‘empty’ entertainment, tacitly acknowledging the film’s technical proficiency while ignoring or belittling its narrative and characters – believe me, there will hear plenty of critics saying just this – but what Furious 6 accomplishes is valuable, and the experience as a whole is anything but soulless. Even ignoring that producing truly satisfying and consistently astonishing cinematic thrills is no easy feat – just look at the number of flaccid Hollywood action films that come out dead on arrival every single year – Furious 6 has a strong beating heart beyond the realm of explosions and car crashes, boasting a clear and earnest love for its characters and a story tailor-made to organically challenge the film’s central figures.
No time is wasted getting the plot underway, as federal agent Luke Hobbes – Dwayne Johnson, a true fan favorite despite being introduced only one film prior – quickly reaches out to fugitive speed-guru Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) after a small terrorist organization of highly skilled drivers, using their talents to steal parts for a device capable of blacking out military intelligence services, pushes him to the point of desperation. The hook? Dom’s seemingly deceased girlfriend, Lettie (Michelle Rodriguez), has miraculously been seen riding with this crew. Now, Dom must call his own crew back together, not only so they may gain federal pardons for their services, but to bring Lettie back and put their eclectic, extended family back together once and for all.
This is not groundbreaking narrative territory, of course, but by focusing on issues important to the characters, the story hits all the right notes. ‘Family’ has always been a buzzword in these films, treated earnestly and explored honestly, and six films in, a family is exactly what this ensemble has become. Stars Vin Diesel and Paul Walker especially have their characters down pat, flawlessly embodying not only the physicality of their parts, but projecting a real, honest chemistry and interacting with meaningful pathos. They are giving damn good performances – and have been for quite some time, whether we care to admit it or not – as is Dwayne Johnson, who simply could not be having more fun as he relishes each opportunity for a brutal beat-down or a cheesy one-liner. The supporting players, too, are tremendous fun to watch; Tyrese Gibson, Chris Bridges, Sung Kang, and all the rest have developed into an unlikely but extremely charming group of rogues, and Furious 6 consistently capitalizes on everything its cast has to offer. Meanwhile, newcomers like Gina Carano or villain Luke Evans – the first effective baddie this series has ever had – fit the franchise like a glove, and it is a real joy to see the cast grow film by film.
Because we like and care for these characters, it is smart to build a narrative where the basics of the story come out of personal stakes for the main ensemble. Lettie has never been a highlight character for the series, and Michelle Rodriguez continues to give one of the weaker performances in the cast (though when opposite Vin Diesel, with whom she shares strong chemistry, she can be quite effective), but since we care about Dom and his crew, we are naturally invested in and understand their need to find and help her, leading to a remarkable number of truly effective emotional beats along the way. The larger threat posed by the villain is not relevant to these characters – apart from Hobbs, they are not counter-terrorist agents, and do not need to be – but in a time when so many blockbusters forget the importance of a personal connection between the characters and the story (and all the action that ensues), it is refreshing to see Furious 6 organically build stakes the way it does.
Only then, after all, can truly great action be created, because if we do not care about the characters or their goals, what reason is there to give a damn about the set pieces? Furious 6, like Fast Five before it, understands how awe-inspiring character-centric action can be, and if anything succeeds even more wildly than its predecessor. I quite frankly thought nothing could ever top Vin Diesel taking out an army of police officers with a massive, multi-ton safe chained to the back of his car, but Furious 6 matches or surpasses the sheer audacity and thrill-factor of that sequence several times over. Director Justin Lin may be better than anyone else right now at building vast, multifaceted set pieces, and with each film, he just grows more and more ambitious in the number of moving pieces and interconnected elements he wishes to string together. Logic dictates he must surely bite off more than he can chew one day, but Furious 6 seems to indicate that there is no action-based feat he cannot conquer, no matter how ridiculous the material becomes.
And make no mistake, Furious 6 is as over-the-top as it gets. The amount of on-screen property damage is a wonder to behold, and the climax, which takes place on the longest runway ever constructed, may break new ground in how much destruction action heroes can dish out without attaining superpowers. Yet it all works beautifully – especially that climax, which immediately enters the pantheon of all-time great set pieces – because Lin’s grasp on the basics of action direction is second to none. His mastery of time and spatial relations is flawless, his cinematography clear and fluid, and his editing, while fast, never comes across as unnecessarily choppy, but directly in tune with whatever speed and rhythm the set piece requires. Lin never loses track of what each character is doing, even when there are many important players doing many important things, and he tackles every fight sequence, car chase, or outbreak of “vehicular warfare” – as Bridges’ character puts it – with a positively blinding amount of energy and enthusiasm.
When a director this skilled crafts action this insane with actors this engaged, the results are simply magical. Every major set piece is bursting with applause-worthy moments of set-up and pay-off (see this film with a big, rowdy audience if you can), and each builds steadily in insanity, always one-upping itself and never coming up short. Most importantly, the action plays heavily off the characters, using them not just as bodies for mayhem, but taking care to build each beat around their unique skills and abilities, and more often than not helping to fulfill the direction of their individual arcs. This is why character matters so much to the series – if we do not care about the characters outside the car chases, we sure as hell cannot invest in them when they get behind the wheel. But if the groundwork has been laid effectively, and the action takes advantage of everything that has been put in place, the results are proportionally invigorating. Furious 6 understands this as well as any modern blockbuster – better, probably, than most – and in its own way, when it is at its most ludicrous and exhilarating, what it offers is nothing short of great filmmaking.
Heresy, you say? Maybe, but the value of experience a film provides – whether the ultimate goal is to make us look at the world in new and different ways or to simply have fun – stems directly from the quality of work being done in front of and behind the camera. And when all is said and done, what Furious 6 offers to those desiring a transcendently entertaining slice of blockbuster cinema is absolutely top notch. I remember walking out of Fast Five two years ago feeling utterly weightless, so giddy and drunk off the crazed, manic energy of the film and so utterly in love with every last action and character beat that I thought for sure the franchise had peaked. Yet I walked out of Furious 6 feeling the exact same way, giggling to myself like a lunatic as I processed the sheer insanity of what I just saw.
Cinema can fill us with nearly every emotion under the sun, but in my experience as a film critic, I have found that joy – true, simple, profound, unadulterated pleasure – can come in a variety of packages, but is inevitably one of the hardest to capture, and one of the most rewarding when it hits us at full force. This is what Fast & Furious 6 accomplishes, and this is what makes it and the series it belongs to a valuable part of the modern cinematic landscape. Is it high art? No. Does that make it critically worthless? Absolutely not. What this series offers is special. What this sequel achieves is rather remarkable. It masters the unmistakable speed and ferocity of an endlessly enjoyable action classic, and all the wildly fun and entertaining possibilities contained therein.