FAST & FURIOUS 6 Movie Review: Superheroes With Stick Shifts

Devin reviews the latest in a franchise that's, more than anything, about family.

The Fast and Furious franchise is one of the strangest in history. It started out being barely serialized, with the third entry all but making it an anthology series, before bringing the divergent characters together in the fifth entry. In this way it’s like a self-contained Marvel Cinematic Universe; instead of there being a Captain America movie and a Thor movie there’s 2 Fast 2 Furious and The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift. It was that coming together of the characters, along with an expanded scope and a sense of fun, that made Fast Five an enormous success and easily the best movie in the series.

Now comes Fast & Furious 6 (or Furious 6, as the title card in the movie calls it), picking up post-team up. If FF6 comes up short from Fast Five it’s because of this; the thrill of bringing the disparate characters together can’t be matched here. We’ve done that. Getting everybody together again is nice, but it’ll never have the spark it had the first time (something Joss Whedon should be thinking about when writing The Avengers 2). But that’s ok, because Justin Lin’s last film in the franchise (with a script by Chris Morgan) is all about capturing that feeling of familiarity. This is a movie that, in the best Toretto tradition, is all about family and home.

This time around it’s Hobbs, Dwayne Johnson’s swole government agent, who comes to the Fast & Furious crew. A gang has been doing highly precise vehicular heists all over Europe, assembling parts for a MacGuffin device that can shut down power or military hardware or something. It’s bad, whatever it is. And since the villains are car based, Hobbs (and his new partner, played by Gina Carano) turns to the best.

Dom, the patriarch of the group (which has dispersed now that everybody is super rich after Fast Five) gets pulled into the case with a revelation: Letty is in the gang. Hardcore fans of the series (and at this point Fast & Furious 6 is essentially speaking only to us) will remember Letty as Dom’s girlfriend who died in Fast & Furious (aka part 4 - every one of these movies has a new naming convention) as part of an undercover sting on a drug lord. How could she be alive? And if she is alive, it’s Dom’s duty as her family to rescue her. And so he assembles the group... or at least the members of the group that the audience really likes (Elsa, Leo and Santo sit this one out) to go head to head with their bizarro counterparts.

That’s actually what the evil team is, as noted by Tyrese’s Roman. And it tips the movie’s hand as to what Fast & Furious 6 is: a superhero movie. This is The Avengers versus The Masters of Evil. While the film is full of spy movie trappings (moving most of the action to London is almost like a direct nod to the James Bond films), every bit of Furious 6 cries out superheroes, especially one of the climactic fights where our heroes must not only stop the bad guys from getting away with a crucial piece of technology, but also save innocent lives on a highway.

This is what I love about these films. They all feel very different, with each film carving out a unique identity. The first movie is a small film about a street racing/robbery crew, the second is a bigger Miami Vice-style tale, the third is a teenage coming of age story, the fourth is a drug war movie, the fifth is a big fun heist and this time Dom is doing stunts that, frankly, are absolutely impossible (but which brought rousing cheers and applause from the audience).

If you’re not a fan of these films it may not make much sense, and this movie’s escalation of wacky action could alienate. I’ve met many people who labor under the misconception that the FF films are self-serious, that they’re ‘kewl’ action movies that think they’re totally boss. The reality is that the series under Justin Lin (who has directed the last four) is completely aware of how silly it is. The series leans into the over the top action and the goofy soap opera elements in a way that’s not quite tongue-in-cheek - Lin is never making fun of the movies or the characters - but that is in a spirit of having an awful lot of fun with it.

A huge part of that comes from the characters. Six films in I find myself pretty invested in these weird, semi-archetypal characters, and Lin uses that to bring stakes to this entry. The action scenes are almost all emotionally based - there’s always a member of the family to be saved or helped at the other end of a race or a fight or a shootout. Those stakes are key, making what would otherwise be a fluffy action sequence have actual meaning within the narrative. It’s such a simple thing, but it’s what raises the FF franchise well above other action movie series - the films give you a reason to care about the characters in the action.

The large crew that was assembled in the last film gives Furious 6 lots of room to breathe. Each character gets to hold up a different aspect of the story. Dom (the ever lumpen Vin Diesel, an actor whose range is so small its measured in microns) is the noble Superman of the group, always standing tall for his code of ethics. Brian (Paul Walker) plays the Batman role this time, torn with guilt over what has happened to Letty and getting himself sent to prison to confront Fast & Furious’ drug lord Braga about it. Johnson’s Hobbs strides through the movie like a god from Olympus, making straight-faced tough guy pronouncements that are terrible on paper but magic coming from The Rock. These guys anchor the serious end of the movie, keeping all the plot stuff humming.

On the fun side is Tyrese’s Roman, once again the clown of the group. At this point it’s not really clear what function Roman serves in the larger group (they need to address this in Fast 7), but Tyrese is such a wonderful hammy presence that it’s hard to complain about him being around and being stupid. Ludacris is the Q of the team, tinkering with cars and inventing new gadgets to defeat the bad guys (although often going in reverse; I like that in this film the baddies have weapons that allow them to control the computer chips in modern cars, so Ludacris outfits everybody with souped up pre-computer muscle cars). Sung Kang and Gal Gadot are the Hawkeye and Scarlet Witch of the team, supercool utility players who are sort of the stars of their own side movie.

Each of these actors brings a certain level of charisma; walking in to the film I thought most of them were poor actors skating by on their personal charm, but that was before I saw them all in scenes with Gina Carano, who sucks the life out of every shot she’s in. I liked Carano in Haywire, but any thoughts of her as a movie star simply have to be put aside after Furious 6; she’s leaden, unable to even convincingly listen to someone else talk. That’s okay - not every martial artist has what it takes to be a movie star. Maybe she should have toiled in some direct to video stuff before making the leap to the big leagues, because she’s simply not ready to play at this level.

Going up against our heroes is Luke Evans, who is perfectly serviceable as a completely evil Euro creep. He’s Dom’s shadow figure, a guy with no loyalty to his crew and whose crimes are pulled off to hurt people (we’ve sort of whitewashed Dom’s criminal ways at this point in the series, but everybody loves an outlaw). Evans’ team is fine, with The Raid’s Joe Taslim as the standout. He has a great fight scene with Tyrese and Sung Kang where he just beats the shit out of both of them with very little effort. I would have liked to see more Taslim, but since the hero team has no comparable hand-to-hand fighter I understand why he’s kept out of sight.

Michelle Rodriguez returns to the franchise as an amnesiac Letty. Watching her and Vin Diesel share tender moments is uncomfortable at best; in a better world the two roles would be played by people who actually have chemistry with other actors ever. Still, the lunkheaded relationship between the two is endearing, and Rodriguez’ usual confused/angry face works perfectly in a role where she doesn’t remember who she is. I don’t know that anybody was really clamoring for Letty to come back, but Furious 6 makes her return work emotionally and in the service of the story.

That story works in service of some spectacular set pieces. The middle of the film sags a little bit, but that’s because Lin is holding his big guns for the third act. There’s a one-two punch of huge, thrilling action sequences that each could be the climax to a movie. One has the team trying to stop Luke Evans as he drives a tank through and over traffic on a mountainous Spanish highway and the other has the team trying to stop an enormous military cargo jet from taking off on a runway that must be at least 600 miles long. The physics of these action scenes are straight up cartoonish, but that only serves to make them all the more thrilling. Lin, whose Fast & Furious used an irritating number of CG cars, goes largely practical here, having a big tank running over cars, and it’s wonderful. The cargo plane scene has multiple action pieces - cars on a runway, fist fights and shoot-outs within the plane - that I think work together to make an exhausting but exceptionally satisfying piece.

Lin sets up the bad guy team just enough so that when the final battle happens each hero pairs off against their shadow figure and the confrontation feels earned and fun. There’s a huge muscle-man who has maybe two lines in the film, but Lin creates a sense of character around him anyway, and when he and Hobbs go at it in the finale you want to cheer. The last action scene keeps those emotional stakes raised, and isn’t afraid to actually get kind of grim.

There’s a positivity to the Fast & Furious films that I love, and Furious 6 continues that. These are characters who are working together for each other; there’s very little in-team friction, and the characters interact as family. Sometimes they get on each other’s nerves, sometimes they make fun of each other, but in the end they are always there for each other, they are always supportive of each other and they are always willing to forgive each other. A lesser series would have made Letty the bad guy of this film, but Lin and Morgan understand that the real Fast & Furious way is to forgive her and try to bring her back home. In an ugly world that’s quickly spiraling into a dystopia that family dynamic, that feeling that the characters actually care for each other, is completely refreshing.

At the same time the movie ends on a very bittersweet note. Credit again to Lin and Morgan for going there; while everything wraps up mostly happy, they address head on aspects of the ending that are less rosy. But they do it in a way that doesn’t bum you out. And while the film’s credit sequence has a stinger that sets up the next chapter, the finale of Furious 6 feels very much like a nice ending, with everybody together around a dinner table.

Furious 6 is full of fan service - there are a ton of callbacks to previous films, some so deep that my audience seemed to totally miss them - but that fan service always works in the context of the story being told. And Lin understands the one service fans of this franchise really want: these characters being themselves and bouncing around in crazy, over the top action sequences. And he gives the fans that and then some.