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High-octane 'Fast & Furious 6' is quality escapism

"Fast & Furious 6" opens Friday.
"Fast & Furious 6" opens Friday.

When it comes to the “Fast & Furious” series, the Borg had it right: “Resistance is futile.”

These high-octane action movies featuring tough guys and super-stocked cars have been dumb from the start. But as director Justin Lin, who came aboard with the third entry, has made every successive movie bigger and more ridiculous, the franchise has come precipitously close to quality escapism.

Grudgingly or otherwise, you have to hand it to the team behind the “F&F” franchise. While most blockbuster series sputter out after the third film, this one had its biggest box-office success with its fifth, called “Fast Five.” Its follow-up, “Fast & Furious 6” (an uncharacteristically straightforward sequel title for this series) probably won’t hit that height again, but it ends exhibiting full confidence for a seventh installment. Director James Wan (“Saw”) already has it in preproduction.

How has this scrappy series hung in with such tenacity? Unlike many other blockbuster franchises, its characters have become more likeable with every entry instead of more annoying, and the chase scenes have been well-staged and excitingly edited, not just a jumble of violent images (although one sequence in the new film breaks that rule).

Mostly, this series keeps chugging away on a sly attitude. Although the cast plays every scene with straight faces, it becomes increasingly obvious the actors know these films are a load of malarkey. They’re in on the joke.

To recap things quickly, way back in the first film, Brian O’Connor (Paul Walker) was an FBI agent assigned to infiltrate a gang of street-racing criminals led by Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel). Somewhere along the way, Brian switched sides and now he and Dom are like brothers, living in luxury abroad after stealing $100 million from a Rio drug kingpin in the last movie. They had some help from U.S. operative Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson).
“F&F 6” begins by repeating the cliffhanger from “Fast Five’s” credits, the revelation that Dom’s girlfriend Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) survived her presumed death in the fourth film and is now a member of a highway hijacking gang operating in Europe.

Hobbs wants to bring down this European gang because apparently he is the top operative of a U.S. law-enforcement agency tasked with stopping highway hijacking gangs worldwide. This must be a bigger problem than the media is letting on. Hobbs wants Dom and Brian to reassemble the team of “F&F” all-stars from the fifth movie to bust this new gang, saying, “You want to catch wolves, you need wolves.” Funny, I thought you would need Purina Wolf Chow.

Lupine reasoning aside, Tyrese Gibson, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Sun Kang and a few others join the team in London, where Hobbs explains their objective. Letty’s new gang is led by former British special forces soldier Owen Shaw (Luke Evans) whose crew is hitting military convoys and stealing components necessary to construct the Nightshade device, which can shut off the power to an entire country. Or something like that. Chris Morgan’s script doesn’t bother with details.

With a British setting and a super weapon at stake, “F&F 6” hints at becoming a James Bond movie with muscle cars the same way “Fast Five” was “Ocean’s 11” with muscle cars. But aside from a 007 joke delivered by comic relief Bridges and an Aston Martin DB5 glimpsed at an auto auction, the Bond angle fizzles out and Lin rehashes “F&F” beats, thinking up ways to stage vehicular mayhem in the streets of London. This turns out to be easy because, according to this movie, only two police cars patrol the entire metropolitan area at any given time.

Morgan wrote the script for fans who have purchased box sets of the previous movies and watched them over and over. After six films, the character histories and interactions have achieved a Tolkien level of complexity. Halfway into the story, Brian realizes Shaw is in league with the villain from the fourth movie, so he goes on a side mission to sneak back into the United States and infiltrate a maximum security prison to question Bad Guy No. 4 about Bad Guy No. 6.

The significant new face in “F&F 6” belongs to Gina Carano, who plays Hobbs’ partner. Carano is the mixed martial arts champion who made a sensational film debut in Steven Soderbergh’s “Haywire.” Once Carano appears, one or two knock-down, drag-out brawls with Rodriguez are inevitable. In reality, Rodriguez wouldn’t last three seconds against Carano, but I think we’ve established the “F&F” series has little connection with reality.

That can be fun in the action sequences, once you relinquish any hope that the laws of physics – or of physiology – will be obeyed. The “F&F” films have mastered the outlandish, and it is a kick to see a squadron of American muscle cars confronting a tank on a multilane Spanish highway. Lin attempts to top this with a climactic game of chicken on a military base where Dom’s crew of car warriors weaves around, and inside, a jumbo-sized Russian cargo plane attempting takeoff.

The chase lasts about 10 minutes, and yet the runway just goes on and on. Ignoring the runway’s incredible length, the main problem with this sequence is that it takes place at night and the little cars zipping around the giant plane all look the same in the dark. You lose track of whose car is in peril at the moment.

These films require an Olympian suspension of disbelief, and it would be so much easier to roll with the saga’s absurdities if Morgan could reveal exposition without the characters stating it and restating it. During the first 20 minutes, everyone is reminding each other what the stakes are. “We’re not dealing with cops and we’re not dealing with drug dealers,” Brian says. “It’s a whole different level.” Thereafter, every scene begins with someone saying what happened in the previous scene. Picture books are written with a higher regard for their audience’s attention span.

Still, when “Fast & Furious 6” delivers, it delivers. It has become customary for a franchise film to drop a scene into the credits that whips up excitement for the next installment, usually with a shock to make fans gasp. The bombshell dropped at the end of this movie is the best teaser ever, better even than Samuel L. Jackson’s “Iron Man” cameo. So help me, I’m actually looking forward to “Fast & Furious 7.”


“Fast & Furious 6”

2 1/2 stars

Starring: Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Dwayne Johnson, Michelle Rodriguez

Summary: A federal agent (Johnson) recruits the hard-driving crew led by Diesel and Walker to take on a gang of high-tech hot-rodders stealing military equipment across Europe. The catch is that Diesel’s dead girlfriend (Rodriguez) is actually alive part of the new gang.

Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action and mayhem throughout, and for some sexuality and language

Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes

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